Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alice in Wonderland exhibit rounds out our trip to London

On our last morning in London we made our way to the British Library to see "Happy Birthday Alice" which celebrates 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But first we had our morning espresso with our last mince pie of the trip in the library restaurant.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865, was originally entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. It was written by the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). The tale was first told by Carroll on 4 July 1862, to the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a river boat trip. The children, especially Alice, adored the story and begged Carroll to write it down. It took him until February 1863 to write out the whole text, taking great pains to write in neat ‘manuscript print’, designed for the young Alice to read. Once the text was complete, Carroll began to add the illustrations which give a charming impression of his own vision of Wonderland and its inhabitants.

The author gradually revised and expanded the tale, publishing it with illustrations by John Tenniel. "Alice" is underpinned by encounters with talking animals, magic potions, problems with scale and nonsensical ideas.

I really enjoyed the exhibition which contains an extraordinary array of Alice-inspired material, from the original manuscript in beautiful script to computer games designed by undergraduates at De Montfort University. There were toys, tea caddies, Edwardian films and psychedelic posters. I was very pleased to find what I think was the same postwar edition of Alice that I had as a child complete with the same red cover.

The saga of the original manuscript is as surreal as anything in the book itself. Carroll gave Alice the illustrated manuscript, which, later in life and strapped for cash, she sold to an American collector for the then astronomical sum of £15,000. After exchanging hands several times, the book was bought by a group of wealthy American anglophiles who presented it to the British people in recognition of the country’s gallantry in World War II. The Librarian of Congress brought the priceless volume to Britain on the Queen Mary, sleeping with it under his pillow, and it was accepted on behalf of the Nation by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Carroll’s effortful pen-and-ink illustrations, influenced by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, clearly formed the basis for John Tenniel’s illustration of the original edition – which, despite the hundreds of subsequent re-imaginings, remain many people’s idea of the essential Alice. We were shown the original woodblocks and vintage copies, and the way Tenniel’s elaborately worked engravings maintain a poker face despite the patent absurdity of the imagery – mad-hatters, Cheshire cats and all – perfectly encapsulates the book’s eccentric Victorian spirit.

The expiring of copyright in 1907, however, brought a flood of new versions, from Arthur Rackham’s exquisite art nouveau images to Mabel Lucy Attwell’s sugary, rosy-cheeked reading. In the Thirties, Alice became a vehicle for satire, with instantly recognisable figures such as Stanley Baldwin and Hitler taking the roles of the Griffin and the Dodo, while Ralph Steadman’s extraordinary ink-spattered Sixties version is an allegory on consumerism, with the White Rabbit a harassed commuter.

Sadly, we had to leave Alice and become commuters ourselves as we returned to Piccadilly Circus to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the Picturehouse Central in part of the Trocadero building. This wonderful cinema in the heart of London includes a lovely cafeteria on the first floor and restaurant upstairs. We didn't have much time so we bought a delicious Melton mowbray pie and some salad for lunch. We had to get a doggy bag for the pie. This came in very handy in the movie when we were hungry. What can be better than watching Star Wars in 3D and eating a pork pie?

Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage followed by an interminable ride to Victoria Station for the Gatwick Express. We were lucky as we jumped on a delayed express and got the last two seats. Our plan worked out well as we just had time for a quick dinner in Jamie's Italian restaurant before our flight home.

Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench light up the stage

We had planned a very busy day. First of all we did our final M&S shopping accompanied by a nice cup of tea and mince pie. The mince pie a day theory didn't really work since we forgot to have one yesterday.

Once more we made the trip to Leicester Square where we found a nice pub for a steak pie lunch. It was quite an elegant pie complete with mashed potatoes and kale and beans. At least part of the meal was healthy.

Then we went back to the Garrick to see Shakespeare's tragicomedy "A Winter"s Tale" with Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. The story follows King Leontes (Branagh) in a search for redemption after his obsessive jealousy destroys his family and divides the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.

Branagh brilliantly portrayed Leontes’ descent into madness. His easy smile becomes a grimace as he observes what he thinks are tell-tale signs of adultery by his wife, Hermione. All because she is so eager for his oldest friend, Bohemian monarch Polixenes, to stay on as a guest.

Within the blink of a deranged eye, Branagh was reeling, drunk with self-made poison, his speech faltering as the mania gripped him. His nearest and dearest become abhorrent to him, his son dies, his wife apparently follows suit and their new-born daughter is abandoned then lost.

The lost daughter is at the centre of the second, comedic act. The abandoned infant, rescued by a shepherd has grown into a beauty. A local prince, son of Polixenes, has fallen in love with her. The father is enraged when he discovers his son wooing a commoner, but then her true identity comes to light and the happy group board ship for Sicily.

In the final act we see a grey, withered, broken Leontes, after 16 years of penitence. It turns out his wife is not dead but has been under a spell, not to be broken until the return of the daughter. Which is exactly what happens.

That climactic, tearful reunion is presided over by Judi Dench’s wise, grave, lady-at-court Paulina. Dame Judi’s powers remain undimmed and it is a pleasure to listen to her unique raspy voice. Finally, restored to a youthful bloom after a trial scene that washed all colour from her – is Leontes' wife, Hermione, a study in wronged womanhood.

The play was three hours long but worth every minute of it. It isn't every day you get a chance to see the 80-year-old Judi Dench perform with Kenneth Branagh.

Once again outside we found Leicester Square busier than ever, thronged with fans awaiting the Star Wars premiere. Roads were blocked, a helicopter flew overhead, masses of people were everywhere and several screens were previewing the movie outside the theatre. Only people with passes were allowed anywhere near the red carpet area. All we could see were a few storm troopers in amongst the crowds. There was a huge queue for the midnight show as well.

We made our way over to Piccadilly for the evening performance of the Burt Bacharach jukebox musical, "Close to You." Some 30 classical songs were stripped back and repackaged for the show. The stage was decked out in Bohemian bric-a-brac of old sofas, lamps and suspended guitars. The music was rock and roll with a hint of heavy metal, not your regular Bacharach.

I found it a little disjointed. The musicians were very good but some of the music, Strains from Magic Moments reverberate against the melody of Trains And Boats And Planes. Walk On By, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and Close To You blur into each other like some mysterious musical mirage.

After our heavy day of plays we decided to have a good walk from Piccadilly through Hyde Park before we jumped on the tube.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

More theatre, this time a dark comedy about a retired hangman

In the evening it was back to an incredibly busy Leicester Square to see the play, 'Hangmen.' The opening scene featured a very grim looking prison cell where a hanging was about to take place.

'Hangmen' is a black comedy about a retired executioner, Harry Wade played by David Morrissey and presumably named after real-life hangmen Harry Allen and Stephen Wade. The story unfolds in the smoky lung of a Manchester pub run by this dour, upright local celebrity.

We drop in on Harry on the day that hanging is abolished in 1965. A baby-faced newspaperman wants an interview. Any mention of ‘celebrity’ executioner Albert Pierrepoint gets Harry’s goat. The regulars slip into an easy hierarchy of knockabout male power. But matters turn uneasy when a cocky young southerner, Mooney, starts to ingratiate himself at the pub. Unease turns to dread when Harry’s daughter, Shirley goes missing and Harry’s former assistant, Syd has suspicions about the culprit.

The play is very funny with hints of farce to sweeten the menace. ‘Hangmen’ lives and breathes its period with the smoke machine in overdrive. There’s a hint of 1960s cinema in ‘Hangmen’ too. That partly comes via the northern kitchen-sink dramas of the decade, but it’s also there in how young Mooney nods to the discomforting modish charm of the likes of Malcolm McDowell. It certainly had a hint of Clockwork Orange.

For all its talk of hanging and abolition, this isn’t a political play. It’s more about the past catching up with the present, and about power and pride among men. A hangman might wield power over his victim – but there’s always someone round the corner with a bigger, longer rope if he’s not careful. It’s a vicious, funny play, stained with nicotine and nihilism. It was most enjoyable.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tate exhibition shows Pop art from around the world

Tuesday morning found us at the Tate Modern to see the EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop. This was a groundbreaking exhibition revealing how artists around the world engaged with the spirit of Pop, from Latin America to Asia, and from Europe to the Middle East. Around 160 works from the 1960s and 1970s were brought together at Tate exploding the traditional story of Pop art and showing how different cultures contributed, re-thought and responded to the movement.

Pop art is generally considered an Anglo-American phenomenon, associated with such artists as Andy Warhol. This exhibition reveals the alternative stories of Pop, highlighting key figures of the era who have often been left out of mainstream art history. It also reveals how Pop was never just a celebration of Western consumerism, but was often a subversive international language for criticism and public protest across the globe. I found this really interesting as the pop art from behind the Iron Curtain took up the same causes as western pop art.

Reacting to the market and media dominance of post-war America, Pop art arose in many countries and communities as an overtly political, destabilising force. The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop shows how artists used this visual language to critique its capitalist origins while benefiting from its mass appeal and graphic power.

Pop’s comic-book blondes and advertising models have become familiar images of the idealised female body, but this exhibition also reveals the many women artists who presented alternative visions. It was a really colourful and interesting.

We also explored the regular exhibitions at the Tate. One of my favourite pictures was The Weeping Woman by Picasso expressing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The other picture I really liked was a Miro called Message from a Friend.

After a simple lunch of fish and chips and two lovely Fenteman's colas we were lighter in our pockets by $85.00 CAD. And I scrape the batter off my fish. We set off across the Thames on the pedestrian bridge walking along the Embankment to the Temple.

The Temple is one of the main legal districts of the capital and a notable centre for English law, both historically and in the present day. The Temple area of the City of London consists of the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, which are two of the four Inns of Court and act as local authorities in place of the City of London Corporation within their areas. Although it had started to drizzle it was a lovely walk through the buildings housing the barrister's and solicitor's offices. We didn't go in to the Temple Church but stood outside for awhile listening to a choir practicing.

We had a quiet smile as we walked past a shop called Timson's on our way to the Old Bailey. For those of you who are Rumpole fans you will remember that the Timson's family were a great source of income for Rumpole. The Royal Courts of Justice or Old Bailey was finished for the day and we couldn't get access. Another time we will make more time for this visit.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sticker shock along Regent Street, and another great play

Before leaving home we checked the London weather, and packed what we thought were appropriate clothes. However, we weren't prepared for a change in the forecast with temperatures hitting 15 degrees Celsius. The skating rink outside the British Museum began to look like a giant puddle. Every shop we went in had their winter heat on making shopping very uncomfortable. With all this in mind we set off to explore Waterstones. It is a real pleasure for us to go to an English bookshop and actually pick up books and look at them deciding if they would make our book shopping list. We started in the basement with an espresso and scone and worked our way up to the top floor for a strange brown-coloured leek and potato soup. Our trip there was very successful as we ended up with quite a list of books.

Since we had walked up Regent Street last night when all the shops were closed we decided to take the same walk during the day. After all, there were lots of sales going on. We stopped in Kit and Ace, a new Vancouver-based store to admire their cashmere clothes also enjoying a chat with one of the staff who came from Vancouver. As we looked around more stores we were completely staggered by the outrageous prices. We know the same stores in Europe are cheaper and have much better sales. Our shopping trip amounted to a t-shirt from Jaeger's quite good moving sale. Wandering down one of the streets behind Regent Street we stopped for a mulled wine and today's mince tart — for a staggering $29 CAD. We found much of the food really expensive and not very good.

This evening we were off to the Garrick Theatre to see Harlequinade in which a classical theatre company attempts to produce Romeo and Juliet. The intrigues and dalliances of the company members are accidentally revealed with increasingly chaotic and hysterical consequences. Kenneth Branagh played the lead role of actor-manager Arthur Gosport. The strong cast included Zoe Wannamaker and several people we recognized from TV shows. Zoe Wannamaker played a very funny Dame Maud.

In addition to playing Dame Maud in Harlequinade, ZoĆ« Wanamaker performed Terence Rattigan’s dramatic monologue All On Her Own, which has never before played in the West End. In this brief  play, which was staged prior to Harlequinade, a woman with a secret, alone at midnight in London has a burden to share, fueled by much alcohol, that is at times both heart-breaking and sinister. It was a very powerful play.

We enjoyed seeing both plays very much.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Off to London for bright lights and great theatre

By the time we arrived in London we were quite hungry but what could be better than buying a cheese and onion pasty to eat on the Gatwick express into London. Unfortunately, our eating habits become quite bad when we are in London. Having said that the much needed pasty was delicious.

Our hotel was within walking distance of the Kensington high street and all its shops. That was where we headed for some shopping and a cup of tea and mince pie in Marks and Spencer's. Since we had only carry-on baggage we couldn't buy too much. My theory was that f I had a mince pie every day I was here then I wouldn’t have to take any back to Spain. It worked.

Our main reason for being here was to go to plays. Tonight we saw Peter Pan Goes Wrong starring the original accident prone cast of The Play that Goes Wrong that we had enjoyed earlier in the year. This time we knew to arrive early to see cast members try to solve technical hitches. There were electrical wires being run through the stalls. Every so often it would cause horrible electrical noises and blackouts. Then various ‘electricians’ would try to throw wires up to the dress circle. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing and shouting as they tried to solve their problems.

Finally, the play began with the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society playing several roles as they battled against technical malfunctions, flying mishaps and cast disputes. The play director was quite emphatic that this was not a pantomime but there were a few moments when the audience jumped right in with "Behind you" when one of the characters was looking for someone. Then when we were told that this was NOT a pantomime everyone jumped in with "Oh yes it is,” for a bit of an argy bargy.

The pace of the show became quite frenetic as it moved to the second act and the clashes with the  pirates. This really was an incredibly slick show and English farce at its very best. The company will perform a new murder mystery play in the spring. If you are in London and see one play I would recommend this.

After the show we walked up Regent Street to Carnaby Street admiring the shop windows and all the Christmas lights.

All quiet in the village, but Christmas is in the air

The December weather in El Port de la Selva has been "tranquil" as the locals would say. Amazingly, there have been no tramontana winds bringing the clear cloudless skies. In fact we've had a number of dampish days making drying clothes outside a lengthy process taking rather longer than the usual hour.

After the events in Paris there are now border controls between Spain and France, and consequently a lot less French day trippers here. The village is less colourful without them. On the autostrada the traffic is one lane into France. Here you get waved through or stopped, questioned and searched. On a visit to Perpignan we were waved through both ways but on the way back to Spain we saw a very long line-up waiting to enter France.

December 6 and 8 are holidays here bringing visitors from Barcelona. Even Santa rode around the village on his oversize tricycle amusing the local children. For the first time we saw decorated Christmas trees outside local businesses. It was pleasant to walk in the sunshine along the front with the sounds of a jazz duo playing outside one of the restaurants.

Since then things have become very quiet. We were looking forward to a trip to London that we had planned some time ago. In order to catch our early morning flight from Barcelona we left home at 7 am and drove much of the way in the dark. We watched the temperature drop to an unheard of 2 degrees. Fortunately, it warmed up by the time the sun rose. London, here we come.