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  • Operatic times

    It's been an operatic sort of month. First a highly ritzy and very gay take on Mozart's Don Giovanni at the nightclub Heaven and then the pick of the crop at Garsington Opera's pre-opening show. And sandwiched in between, my own moment under the lights, lip-syncing incompetently along to scenes from pieces including the Marriage of Figaro for a very brief video insert into be show during the Garsington production.

    To begin, the Don's trip to Heaven. First performed in 1787 with the subtitle 'the rake punished' Don Giovanni is ranked the seventh most popular opera in the world, with any number of productions running concurrently, each with their own light to shed on this sleazy tale of a sexually rapcious man-about-town.

    A little gender-bending did the Don no harm at all. At Heaven all his conquests were male, and the set-piece catalogue aria chronicled his victories not around Europe but in the gay cruising grounds of London of the 1980s.

    The lyrics by Ranjit Bolt were scatalogically hilarious, and economical too, what with the cuts that pared the opera down from almost 3 hours to 90 minutes:

    Listen Eddie, I have drawn up this list here -
    And I’m not talking merely the gist here -
    Not a shag he has had has been missed here –

    ...Bankers, beggars, losers, winnners
    All supply this prince of sinners
    He has no time for the ladies
    Takes the back door into Hades
    Any size or shape of sha-ade
    Indiscriminately laid!

    He needs a lock
    Put on his cock!

    ...People fall for this seducer
    Just like fruit into a juicer
    Those who call upon this lecher
    Will be brought out on a stretcher 


    As the lead, the improbably named Australian Duncan Rock held the show together, with a powerful baritone voice shaped by his experience at ENO and Glyndebourne. His enviable physique was more than enough distraction for at least half of the grinning audience of around 400, which had to cope with poor acoustics and a slightly disorganised promenade performance. Also outstanding was Mark Dugdale as 'Zac'.

    The orchestra of 10 were crisp and elegantly communicative. Even the Village People and Maggie herself put in a (distinctly dubious) appearance.

    What then would all this have in common with a top flight production at Garsington Opera, in its second year at the Getty's Wormsley Park, just off the M40 near Watlington and what was your correspondent doing making a video for the show?


    The trite answer is cocaine, since both shows featured enthusiastic use of the drug. With its achingly trendy set and snappy modern dress, Garsington's production is almost as far from 'straight' as was the Stephen Fry and Paul Gambaccini sponsored production at Heaven. Both feature imaginative takes on the catalogue aria, with a printer at Garsington spewing out an improbable 50' of conquests' names.


    The auditorium at Wormsley is a wonderfully contemporary-looking semi-permanent structure by Snell Associates with completely clear sides and a back wall of exposed timber. It is set at the foot of the estate's home farm, close to a lake, and reached by a two and a half mile drive through private parkland.

    The singing in this wonderfully upbeat and elegant show never wavered, with some magnificent performances in a room with a terrific acoustic (even if at this final rehearsal it occasionally got ahead of the energetic orchestra). Grant Doyle was a convincing and wittily engaging Don, with particularly noteworthy singing by Callum Thorpe as Masetto and Sophie Bevan as Donna Elvira.
    The murdered Commendatore is usually depicted as a menacing statue that returns from the dead to drag Don Giovanni down to hell. In this show he is a corpse that walks from a hospital mortuary, with the same marble white skin and ice cold touch. He also appeared from a hospital bed positioned in a niche set high in the back wall, which had a bizzarely misbehaving sliding door the night we saw the show.
    The final moments of the opera became a grimly menacing scene from Bedlam, with the wicked Don injected into a comatose state by some of his gloating victims, dressed as masked-up nurses. A terrific show, enthusiastically appreciated by a foot-stamping audience of 600.

    So just what were a bunch of amateurs doing contributing to this glittering evening? Thankfully little more than a couple of minutes of footage was shown on of us on a TV screen, as Don Givanni channel-hopped by iPad through opera videos, whilst waiting for his dinner.

    The joke in the opera is that a snatch of Mozart's own Marriage of Figaro is played by the orchestra. The joke in the filming is that he catches glimpses of a series of extremely varied takes on opera production, from a creaky Dröttnignholm style full-wig 'Cosa Rara', to a completely deconstructed and very grimy 'regietheater' modern dress interpretation of the Marriage of Figaro, complete with vodka bottle, pills and porn magazine.

    2012-04-29 18.48.19.jpg

    We got to work for a whole day with the full show's director, Daniel Slater and its designer, Leslie Travers, and they proved to be models of patience in spite of being confronted with complete amateurs. Several of my fellow cast members shone, and I lost count of the number of times I slid my hand up the thigh of my unfortunate victim, and had a gun thrust into my mouth by her jealous boyfriend. That particular moment thankfully ended up on the cutting room floor.

    All three experiences proved the ability of outstanding art to withstand almost any treatment, and taken together they have made for a particularly memorable month.

  • Endangered species thriving in the crash

    5144_21102008.gifSpin-offs from the financial crisis proliferate. On Radio 4 Phill Jupitus' Strips provided the creators of the Telegraph's Alex cartoon with a platform. There were some interesting insights into the creative process and a side-swipe at the dearth of young people who can actually draw.

    Artist Charles Peattie and journalist Russell Taylor are both in their forties. They met at a party in 1986. Charles had a commission for a strip for the financial pages of the London Daily News and the result was Alex.

    The strip is a wicked send-up of nasty City types with such a huge following it has now turned into a stage show, with a film promised. The strip's creators are such experienced collaborators they develop the cartoon by email. Scans of roughs are swapped and layers of stuck-on emendations are built up.

    Peattie and Taylor mockingly described themselves as the 'Ant & Dec' of the UK cartooning world, since they are often the youngest attendees at cartooning conferences.

    Now that graphic designers draw with mice, what's the future for brilliantly-crafted satirical cartoons like Alex? Not good according to Peattie and Taylor: 'people don't learn to draw so much... cartoons depend on a fairly academic way of drawing... more [cartoonists] have died in the last decade than have come up'.

  • South sea magic at the Barbican

    New Zealand company The Conch's 'Vula' was simply one of the most magical evenings I've ever experienced in the theatre. Four women brought the South Seas to sparkling life in the subterranean darkness of the Barbican's Pit Theatre. They performed on a beautifully lit flooded stage - singing, dancing and acting out stories of the sea and everyday life beside it.

    Passionate, funny and totally involving tales of church-going, washing clothes, goddesses and fishes, told by four strong, proud and beautiful women. A Fijian audience member wearing a hibiscus flower dress was so moved she couldn't help singing along with the songs and whooping with joy as each new scene unfolded. In the finale a tiny outrigger boat is sung to safe harbour. In any other show it might be a cliché but in Vula it was completely bewitching.

  • Bach tells 'the greatest story ever told'

    JS Bach is often cited as the greatest ever composer and the St Matthew Passion as his greatest work. Setting the text of Chapters 24-27 of St Matthew's Gospel, it tells the story of Christ's last days up to the crucifixion. First performed on Good Friday in 1727 in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach was Kapellmeister, it was not revived until around a century later, when the poet Goethe identified something of 'elemental significance' in the music. Both Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams championed the Passion, the latter so fiercely that he would leave the platform glaring if anyone dared break his rule of absolutely no applause during or after the performance. This was three hours of music beyond all other music.

    Tonight Reading Bach Choir and the City of London Chamber Players performed the work with such intensity that, between their arias, even the soloists seemed lost in its sublimity. Reading Town Hall, with its crisp acoustic and split choir seating, was perfect for the work's two orchestras and choirs. Taplow Boys' Choir sang beautifully from the balcony.

    Three hours passed so easily. The St Matthew Passion is powerful musical drama, built around a framework of spare recitative narration by the tenor Evangelist (Christopher Watson). Choir soloists and six professionals took the principal roles and the choruses sing everyman. Picander's libretto bears fervent witness to the Passion story. With such poignant music, recent attempts at staging the work seem entirely superfluous.

    The London Chamber Players played period instruments, achieving a highly articulate and refined performance that never overwhelmed the singers. Soprano Esther Levin and Counter-tenor Christopher Warwick sang with beautiful, relaxed simplicity the famously difficult duet with choral interventions 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' - 'moon and light are extinguished by sorrow because my Jesus is captured'. This is followed by the challenging and dramatic chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner', so popular in the 19th century that performances were frequently stopped by audiences demanding a reprise.

    Against a single, shockingly dissonant diminished chord, the choir made an electrifying call for Barabbas and not Christ to be saved.  Counter-tenor Warwick again showed his quality in the difficult 'Ach Golgotha'. In a number of arias bass Robert MacDonald was gorgeously partnered by the agile musicianship of Viola da Gambist Charles Medlam.

    The St Matthew Passion ends in sublime acceptance of the redemption offered by Christ's sacrifice. Caroline Trevor was mesmerising in No. 60 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' (see Jesus, has his hand stretched out to grasp us). David Stuart sang Jesus with elegance and authority. He was almost transfigured as the dying Christ, in the moments when he lost his musical 'halo' - the glowing strings that accompany him in all other arias.

    The choir sing 'When my heart is most full of fear, then snatch me from my fears by the power of your anguish and pain' and soon a final triumphant chorus celebrates Christ's victory 'Your grave... shall be...for the soul a resting place. In utmost bliss my eyes close in slumber there'.

    Led by JanJoost van Elburg, Reading Bach Choir is achieving the highest musical standards. The fine English tradition of choral music-making is alive and well in the county town.

  • Reni's St Sebastians at Dulwich

    5668a38b4891e71cabdcd55c0cb9c5a8.jpgSeven paintings, all of the same subject: a beautiful, almost naked youth, tied to a tree, in the throes of martyrdom. Five are almost identical versions of the same composition, from galleries as far away as Puerto Rico and New Zealand. All are uncompromising in their directness. The painting from Genoa inspired Wilde, Mishima and Pierre & Gilles. Stendahl claimed they so distracted the faithful that they had to be removed from churches.

    The St Sebastians of the 'divine Guido' Reni (1575-1642) feature in an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until May 11. It offers the public the chance to play an intriguing game of art historical 'spot the difference'. Which are 'real', which are copies? How much is the work of the master, and how much of his studio? Why are they such gay icons?

    0bdf791c743620928b081fe2b01b0fb6.jpgThe Rome painting lacks the impact of its Genoese neighbour. The paintwork is softer, the face and body less defined. A third arrow has pierced the martyr's side and the feathers of another don't now clash with the Roman soldier in the background.

    Standing in front of Reni's version from Genoa it is easy to see why it had such impact on Wilde: an athlete of classical build is indifferent to his wounds. Sacred: his boyish, asexual face, framed by his pinioned arms, gazes heavenward. Profane: his loincloth slips provocatively, emphasised by a partly turned hip.

    7cd7ffb875854fbdebbf336d03113218.jpgPierre & Gilles and Jarman also responded to this sultry mix of agony and ecstasy. Yukio Mishima had himself photographed as St Sebastian and in Confessions of a Mask the narrator discovers his sexuality because of a print of the painting.

    Of the six versions of the (earlier?) composition, that from New Zealand is the most obviously different. The brushwork is far looser, there is less light - yet in spite of these differences, the current view is that it is by Reni himself. Comparing the others on view, they all seem as one.

    e3ddbbe2034eca85ebdc03310a1b7080.jpg 711ae672ff87b3d9396011671f379c49.jpgThe Dulwich's own St Sebastian was long thought to be a copy of the painting in the Prado, Madrid. Now restoration has revealed signs of pentimenti (second thoughts) that have enabled its attribution as Reni's own work.

    For one critic Reni was self-consciously re-working notions of light, texture and atmosphere, the repeated composition a means to an end. Perhaps the explanation for so many versions is more prosaic: Reni wanted cash and welcomed requests for repeat business. He certainly went on to make other paintings of this middle-aged Roman soldier, the parton saint of sufferers of the plague, who met his final end only after his wounded body was dragged out of the cloaca maxima. Either way this Dulwich exhibition (which deserved much greater space) is fascinating.

    The exhibition is complemented by a catalogue which contains more art historical analysis than is usual. Also on show was 'The age of enlightenment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930' - Beardsley's perfumed and obsessional exoticism providing another take on image making.

    Comprehensive Survey of images of St Sebastian

    Review in the Independent

  • Getting into a lather with Millais


    You have until 13 January to see the Tate's latest blockbuster: a seven room survey of the entire career of Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), perhaps best known for his Ophelia and 'Bubbles' the Pears soap boy.

    The greatest painter of his day produced what was then regarded as his greatest painting in 1854-6. The blind girl is a colossally garish exercise in high Victorian sentimentality. Patronisingly, we are asked to sympathise with the poor blind girl, who is unable to appreciate the sudden brilliant sunshine and rainbow that decorates a lead-grey Winchelsea sky. The two girls are awkwardly plonked down on a stream bank and (like several other of his paintings of the time) seem about to separate from the background. The 'pathetic' scene is completed with an improbably applied butterfly on the blind girl's right arm (delicate beauty she will never appreciate) and a toybox collection of country creatures which is randomly strewn across the irridescent meadow behind them.

    e6b37d7adcda9c46522cc798a0122096.png Isabella (1848-9) was Millais first painting as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is both unsettling and unsatisfying. On the right a pink tunic wearing Lorenzo offers fruit to his Isabella, whilst a disapproving servant looks on. Lorenzo's face looks cut out and is curiously lit. On the left Millais casts some of his own friends, the affectionate reality of their portraits at odds with the fantasy scene across the table from them.

    But it's not all bad. Millais was indisputedly an incredibly talented and highly precocious artist and draftsman. That we find his themed works not to our taste is perhaps because they were the soap operas of their day. We get these kicks from Eastenders and Corrie.

    6684e361000c62fc6d639b4b8dda15f8.png The Black Brunswicker (1859-60) is another exercise in popullist melodrama, only this time Millais has resoundingly pulled it off. On the eve of Waterloo a soldier departs to his death. Agonised, his wife tries to prevent his departure, her hand pushing the door closed as he opens it. As she gazes sadly at her imploring lapdog, an etching of Napoleon hangs behind them. The painting is quite sumptuous, the composition perfectly suited to its remorseless narrative. The work sold for 1,000 guineas and made Millais' reputation.

    cfa255385731083e696f4423104b3aa1.jpg By 1864 Millais' style had evolved considerably. In 'Leisure Hours' (the quotation marks are the painter's) he has painted the Pender sisters as perfect ornaments, trapped in enforced idleness just as much as the goldfish in the bowl in front of them. The paintwork is a little looser and without distractions. The blank stares and suffocating stillness of the composition all add to the narrative, unlike some of his later portraits of women and children, which contrive to be either sickly sentimental or alienatingly haughty.

    12b7d53ed05d3e9c3172b8978090b434.png Painted at the same time, Esther (1863-5) shows brilliant mastery of the decorative use of colour coupled with an understated and elegant composition. Esther releases her hair as a gesture of defiance to entice a king. Compared with Whistler's full length female portraits and admired for its 'flashing whites' by Rossetti, this is a very satisfying work.

    fdcc7857b6fd09dfff1a81e76e815fa9.pngIn his later period Millias painted some fine political portraits, inspired partly by Velasquez and Rembrandt. I was particularly taken with The Rt Hon. WE Gladstone, MP, (1878-9). Isolated of all props, Gladstone is austere, almost a visionary. With even looser brushwork and dramatic lighting, this is Millais at his most compelling.


    In 1878 Millias was grief stricken at the death of his second son George Grey. He painted 'The tower of strength which stood Four-square to all the winds that blew'. – Tennyson as expiation and it makes an interesting comparison with Constable's Hadleigh Castle, on view at the RA and painted in similar circumstances. Urqhart Castle on Loch Ness is a Romantically ruin, dissolving in uncertain, smudgy paintwork. The overpowering sea and sky are thick with expressive paint, against which the heroic lone oarsman battles.

    Millais' last works are an elegy to the Scots landscape. In them the painter achieves a kind of apotheosis.

  • Those unfashionable British


    An acquaintance (whose accent locates him in the mid-atlantic, but whose prejudices are decidedly continental) once said to me that 'nothing of world class is ever produced by British artists'.

    We were on the steps of the Royal Academy at the time. One collector who would certainly have disagreed was Paul Mellon (1907-99) the pick of whose Yale Center for British Art is on tour to the RA until January 27, 2008.

    Mellon got his money from his father, the third richest man in America, and his taste for British art from spending his earliest days in England. Christened in St George's Chapel, Windsor and educated at Cambridge, he bought his first major painting, Stubbs' 'Zebra' in 1960 for £20,000. So unfashionable was painting of Stubbs' era that it was sold in a bric à brac sale by Harrods.

    This astonishing portrait of 'the queen's she-ass' pictures it in a pool of golden light in a lush imagined forest. The creature, newly arrived at Queen Charlotte's menagerie from South Africa, has the look of a miraculous mythical beast. St Eustace might appear at any moment.

    Mellon's collecting was intuitive. He mistrusted art historical analysis and bought because a picture appealed, not because its narrative impressed. In a decade or so he assembled (and subsequently gave away) a collection that is a roll call of the greats of British art: Hilliard, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Blake, Wright of Derby, Landseer, Palmer, Zoffany and Dadd. All are magnificently represented in the RA show. In addition there are superb topographical artists like Paul Sandby, caricaturists like Rowlandson and names new to me like John 'Warwick' Smith (1749-1831), John Robert Cozens (1752-97) and William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) whose 'Donati's Comet' is a surreal night-time view almost reminiscent of Magritte.

    The star of the show is Turner's vast, dazzling 'Dort Packet Boat' (1818), described then as 'one of the most magnificent paintings ever exhibited'. Turner's mastery of light is triumphant.


    Two smaller Turners are almost as stunning. 'Staffa, Fingal's Cave' (1832) was completed the same year as Mendelssohn's work. A grubby little steamer pitches in a storm beneath the sunlit splendour of Staffa's cliffs.

    9255c8380c273896a9b87c0638d827f1.jpgIn his 'Eruption of Vesuvius', minute figures are panic-stricken on the shore, powerless against the great red fury of the volcano. 

    Constable's 'Hadleigh Castle' (1829) is another blockbuster. From not very close up at all the 6 foot wide painting disintegrates into fractured, glittering brushwork. Constable's angry grief at his wife's death is painfully visible.


    Mellon was not only a great collector of paintings – he was also one of the greatest book-collectors of the twentieth century. Works on show include Caxton's Canterbury Tales (perfect presswork, even at the very beginning of printing in England); the magnificent Kelmscott Press Works of Chaucer; and the only hand-coloured edition of Blake's gorgeous Jerusalem. In plate 99 an androgynous Jerusalem is clasped by Jehovah 'awaking into his bosom in the life of Immortality'.

    Save for Burne Jones' collaboration with Morris, Mellon avoided artists associated with high Victorian excess. There's no sickly sentimentality here. Mellon's intuition was razor sharp - they may be unfashionable, but these are works of superb quality and refinement, in huge contrast to the masochistic indulgence of the Baselitzes on show on the floor below.

    361b3ed3fe05be0a04bd0068f17c3721.jpg 3cdb1d9e5d86d05b34536d263aaba196.png

  • Overdeveloped giant

    photo Tristram Kenton Sir Anthony Sher's first play 'The Giant' is showing at the Hampstead Theatre until December 1st. Like an over-stuffed Christmas stocking, the play is much too full of goodies. Will Leonardo or Michelangelo win the competition to carve a David for the newly created Florentine Republic? Which of them will get the lissom young quarryman who is the statue's model? What is the nature of beauty and of genius and will a late cameo apperance by the Mona Lisa save the day?

    Almost three hours of relentlessly upbeat entertainment include many fulsome speeches crammed with historical insights, bouts of singing, a masque, much camp tomfoolery from Leonardo's fawning boyfriend (Simon Trinder) and an impressively elaborate set dominated by a recreation of  'il gigante' - the 6m high block of luminous marble on which Michelangelo worked frenetically for over two years.

    As Machiavelli, Stephen Noonan entertainingly spins the statue's importance as a proud symbol of Florence's defiance. Its nudity and lack of circumcision are given credible treatment as is Michelangelo's inspiration in depicting the boy hero with his sling just before the battle with Goliath. That he carved the model's initial on the statue's sling was news to me.

    Two lunatic followers of Savonarola and his 'bonfire of the vanities' caper idiotically across the set far more often than is necessary. There's much undress, most of it by the impressive Northern Irish actor Stephen Hagan who so ressembles the world's most famous statue that quarrymen in Carrera apparently cried out 'Davide!' as soon as they saw him.

    Unfortunately John Light’s passionately devout Michelangelo and Roger Allam’s pompous Leonardo lacked the kind of compelling intensity to be expected of such artistic titans. The play's heart is supposed to be the scene where the two of them debate the source of the model Vito's beauty - but it lacked real dramatic focus. There was far more drama in Light's medieval religious ravings which contrasted so neatly with Machiavelli's devilish pragmatism.

    Director Gregory Doran seems to have been much too loyal to his partner Sher to make the cuts and changes in pace the play so badly needs. The cast work more than their socks off, but it is sadly too easy to see why in its present form this RSC commission is unlikely to make it to one of their stages.

  • Have they put the gaslights back on the gewgaw yet?

    8213a0c1c2226eea0fbff3be512c1a06.jpgSir Edward Simeon, who paid for the obelisk Sir John Soane designed for Reading's market place in 1804, doesn't get an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. This seems a pity, since he was a director of the Bank of England and much given to local munificence – even if in the case of the obelsisk, it was partly intended to prop up his brother's campaign to get re-elected as local MP.

    It has even been claimed that the monument's three lamps commemorated Simeon and his two brothers. Simeon also re-built the family home, Britwell Manor at Britwell Salome in Oxon – not Soane, although there is a monument to his parents there that makes me think of Soane's work. The house was later extensively restored by the designer David Hicks.

    Soane, needless to say, is rather better represented in the DNB. As John Swan (1753-1837) he was born in Whitchurch in Oxfordshire. His father was a brick-layer, humble origins Soane may have been trying to hide when he first changed his name to Soan and then added the final 'e'.

    His eccentricity and his highly original buildings, including his astonishing house in Lincoln's Inn (now a fascinating museum) mean he is well-cast for the role of romantic architect. He has been cited as an influence by many contemporary designers including Robert Venturi (Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery) and Philip Johnson (Chipendale-topped Sony building, New York).

    f909ecac669d943052f65be59b261898.jpgSoane built with clean lines, careful proportions and a skilled articulation of light that even inspired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott when he was asked to design the prototype British telephone box. Scott based the design on the mausoleum Soane built for his wife in old St Pancras churchyard.

    The Soane Museum holds drawings for both the obelisk and for Simmonds Brewery in Reading and they are now on show at a worthwile exhibition there. Pevsner attributed Seven Bridges House (now at the centre of the Oracle Shopping Centre in Bridge Street) to Soane, but this was a confusion with a house long since lost. Soane also designed a house for a Reading Mayor called Lancelot Austwick. It subsequently became Greyfrairs vicarage and was (some would say inevitably in Reading) demolished. Soane also designed alterations to South Hill Park in Bracknell (subsequently re-modelled) and to Wokefield Park near Mortimer.

    A history of the Reading municipal charities (Blandy, 1960) describes how Simeon gave the Corporation of Reading £1,000 to pay for the gas to supply the lights on the obelisk ("erected and lighted forever at the expence of Edward Simeon, Esq" according to the inscription) and for the illumination of the clock over the nearby corn exchange. Surplus was to be used to maintain the obelisk, a responsibility that was not taken very seriously by the town. The gas lights (which in fact replaced earlier oil lamps) went out before the first world war, and as the obelisk decayed it sprouted a number of 'ornaments' including (for many years) a large road sign which obscured it, two subterranean lavatories, a little shed and a ventilation stack one writer described as 'sprouting up behind it like a goofy kid brother'. John Piper and John Betjeman both railed against the neglect of the monument – but to no result.

    When it was built a contemporary letter writer to the Reading Mercury claimed the gift of the obelisk was "an attempt to bias the heads of the Borough in his favour by setting up in the market-place a paltry gewgaw thing without use or name". The lights did have the virtue of extending the working day at the very centre of the town, and no doubt deterred nefarious activities once the working day had ended. In the twentieth century other nefariousness – in the town that locked up Oscar Wilde – is assumed to have prompted the closure of the lavatories either side of the obelisk.

    Only when a centenary loomed and they received some lottery money and a grant of £20,000 from the Soane Monument Trust was the Borough provoked into action. The obelisk is about to be restored by local stonemasons AF Jones and not before time, an exhibition currently at the town's museum commemorates local man Soane's importance.

  • Breaking the Code at Progress

    medium_play_image.jpgThere isn't usually a stampede to the box office when a play is described as being 'about ideas', or the importance of valuing mathematicians like Alan Turing. But in the case of 'Breaking the Code' these are reasons enough to see a play which in fact has a great deal more to offer.

    Whitemore's biographical play weaves three intriguing strands together: the first is historical and describes the breaking of the enigma code during the Second World War; the second is about our failure to celebrate the importance of intellectual ideas, and in particular the work of computer pioneer Alan Turing; the third is a human story about a man who has reached a crisis because society condemns him just for being who he is.

    Communicating all this in two hours places enormous demands on director and cast and in particular on the lead. It's not at all easy to keep up the energy on stage during a play that contains several long speeches about mathematical concepts most of the audience will never have heard of. Furthermore, the sequence of the play is not chronological, since it interweaves scenes from Turing's childhood with others from his adult life. The small stage at the Progress provides little opportunity for lavish sets and elaborate scene changes.

    All of these difficulties were triumphantly overcome in the performance I saw last night. A real passion for telling a powerful story simply and effectively was evident in some excellent work by director and cast. Attention to detail showed in every scene.

    medium_busframed4.3.jpgAs Turing, Mark Simmonds was highly compelling in a finely-observed performance of considerable dramatic range. The brilliantly simple set was a striking visual metaphor for code-breaking. Peter Cockman gave an impressively naturalistic performance as Knox. Jane Bertrand perfectly caught the look of the period as she took her character through 40 years as Turing's mother. Mark Taylor was nicely understated as the policeman Ross, switching from oily charm to barely concealed repugnance as Turing's story was uncovered. Matthew Wellard more than proved the sex appeal of the string vest (of all things) in a confident and likeable performance as Turing's lover.

    Every other member of the cast more than pulled their weight in a highly enjoyable ensemble piece that was entirely without the weak individual contributions that sometimes mar non-professional theatre. This is a production to be remembered for its quality and for its fire.


  • Transfigured in St Paul's?

    medium_06_trans.3.jpgTo St Paul's in London for a Saturday service on the Feast of the Transfiguration. Friends from Schola Aquae Sulis sang music by Howells and the sermon asked for prayers 'for this beautiful but broken world' on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

    Transfiguration - when Christ's clothes became dazzling white and a voice said 'this is my Son, listen to Him' was the theme, with a parallel with moments of transfiguration in our own lives.

    The sermon quoted research documenting instances of theophany: moments when the divine is suddenly made visible. In landscape, when the light changes and everything seems for an instant transformed, at peace and whole – I have experienced these feelings.

    Were there moments like these in the service, when incense mixed with incantatory chants, and light shone on a distant cross on the high altar, music wove a spell and the great cathedral became much more than a glitteringly grandiose tourist attraction?

    Music has this power to move and transform me. It was like this in a late night Prom in the Royal Albert Hall last Thursday. The Canadian counter tenor Daniel Taylor sang the Handel aria 'Cara sposa, amante cara' from Rinaldo. The piteous, plaintive threads of music seemed to shape filigree patterns in the air around us, drawing together audience and performer in a moment of great stillness and beauty.

    But are these 'feelings' real - whatever that means? They might not withstand scientific examination, but it seems to me that there is a transforming power in these humbling moments of transfiguration that can inform our whole lives.

    Tentatively I pray this hope can endure amid all our cruelty and greed and selfishness.

  • Kahlo at the Tate

    medium_kahlo_self26.jpgFor André Breton 'the art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon about a bomb'. A major exhibition at the Tate Modern (to 9 October, 2005) features her powerful work. Many have been gripped by the fascination of Frida Kahlo: not because it is intensely beautiful or hugely grand but because it is deeply personal, intensely vivid and raw. Red raw even with her own blood and with her own tears that fall in self-portraits where her body - maimed by a violent accident that cast its shadow across her life - lies ripped open. Her beautiful face lingers most in the memory. Her expression is proud, resigned and defiant. She is vulnerable and yet composed, face half-turned away from her viewer.

    In her marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera she found the basis for an enduring connection with the Mexican soil and its ancient people. Mexican pitahaya fruit plump erotically and are pierced by needle sharp flags like the steel that shattered her spine and took away her womb.

    medium_mydresshangsthere.jpgThere is duality in her attempt to square her European father with her campesina mother: stiff colonial dresses are juxtaposed with the peasant costume that was her trademark. Duality in her bisexuality too, and in My Dress Hangs There, 1933 which illustrates her antithesis to American 'Fordism' with its concrete factories and obsession with sport and hygiene. Her sense that she sprang from the Mexican soil and that she would return to it gave her hope of a kind of reincarnation. This powerful spirituality, which fused east and west and placed both Gandhi and Hitler in her pantheon, provided an enduring message of hope, carved out of Kahlo's despair and desperate adversity.

    medium_fridaxolotl49.jpgThe cosmology of the Love-Embrace of the Universe (1949), in which she cradles Diego as naked adult foetus while she too is cradled by the Mexican earth goddess who in turn is wrapped by a female sun and moon, seemed a most poignant encapsulation of her spiritual journey.

    As the light faded that afternoon I swam great circles in the men's pond on Hampstead Heath. Trees hid the broad pond from London and the water was sweet with an earthy murkiness.