21 July 2014

Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic, Virginia Woolf is the most famous and influential modernist prose writer of the 20th century. She occupied a central position within the Bloomsbury Group: that union of friends who helped rid art, design and society of the constrictions and conventions left over from the Victorian period. 
Frances Spalding 

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery in London has been curated by Frances Spalding, an eminent art historian, author of several books relating to Bloomsbury and now of the NPG exhibition’s catalogue. She has selected more than 100 objects relevant to Woolf’s life including paintings, photographs, first editions of her novels and archival material such as correspondence and diaries. This material is mostly arranged chronologically but, unusually for a modern exhibition, there is no timeline presented at entry, although one taken from the catalogue is available on the NPG's website. Consequently, there is no context for the first images the visitor encounters: photographs of the devastating effect of the London blitz in 1940 on the Woolfs’ former Bloomsbury home, 52 Tavistock Square and on 37 Mecklenburgh Square where they were living at the time (when not at Monk’s House at Rodmell in Sussex). This was a year before Virginia’s death in 1941, the point at which the exhibition eventually ends.

Although their work is not universally admired for its quality, it cannot be denied that the painter members of the Bloomsbury Group, whether at Charleston Farmhouse or elsewhere, had no shortage of noteworthy subjects close at hand. Obviously this show concentrates on images of Virginia – I liked in particular Duncan Grant’s 1911 portrait and Vanessa Bell’s of 1912:

but Lytton Strachey,1904 by Simon Bussy, Mark Gertler’s Samuel Koteliansky, 1930 (below, left and right) and Vannessa Bell’s The Memoir Club c 1943 (below, lower) were all memorable (the Bloomsberries in this picture include both Bells and their son, Quentin, Leonard Woolf, the Keynes’s, EM Forster and Duncan Grant):

Among the many photographs of Virginia in the exhibition are the familiar 1902 society studies by GC Beresford, but more interesting to me were the Man Ray portrait (one of several, I believe, for a Time Magazine cover feature in April 1937), (below top, left and right) and some of the last to be taken of her, by Gisèle Freund in 1939, including one of Leonard and Virginia at 52 Tavistock Square (below, lower, left and right):

 It would be difficult to come away from this exhibition without seeing and learning something new. For example:

Virginia typeset TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (a copy is on display) during the period she and Leonard were living in Richmond-upon-Thames and had set up the Hogarth Press and Virginia was writing Mrs Dalloway. Lady Ottoline Morrell took a photograph of Eliot and Woolf (right) in 1924, the year the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury.

Leonard and Virginia visited Sigmund Freud in Hampstead soon after his arrival from Vienna in June 1938.

Virginia was a Sponsor and Patron of the campaign led by Roland Penrose to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica and the studies for it, in London and elsewhere in late 1938/1939.

This exhibition should have a wide appeal: to admirers of Woolf’s writing, to those fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group – Dorothy Parker is said to have observed that 'Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles' - and to anyone with an interest in 20th century British art. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision continues at the NPG until 26 October.

19 July 2014

NT Live: Skylight

David Hare’s play Skylight was first performed in 1995 at the National Theatre in London. It transferred to the West End and later Broadway and returned to the West End in 1997. To put Skylight in the context of contemporary British politics, there had been a succession of Tory administrations from 1979, firstly under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, which would end with the election of Tony Blair in May 1997. The play has now been revived again in the West End for a three-month run under the direction of Stephen Daldry. Under the auspices of National Theatre Live, the performance on 17 July was transmitted for live projection in cinemas all-round the UK.

There are only three characters in Skylight: Tom Sergeant, a successful restaurateur and businessman, played, as in 1997, by Bill Nighy; Bill’s son, Edward (Matthew Beard); and Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan, who was in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis). Tom, recently a widower, arrives in Kyra’s cold, run-down flat, seeking to rekindle a relationship with the woman who had been both his employee and his lover. She has chosen to teach and live in tough areas of London, he has moved to Wimbledon. The play is a clash of personalities and attitudes, but between a man and woman who have loved, and still have something, for each other. In some ways, Skylight has dated in 20 years. The references to “Yellow Pages” seem archaic until you remember that “Google” didn’t become a registered domain until 1997. And state education in the poorer parts of London is now regarded as much improved – ironically it’s now the rural and seaside areas of England (Kyra’s hometown was one of the latter) which are falling behind.

Nonetheless the play remains engrossing with its enduring major themes of the tension between free market capitalism, embodied by Tom although he hates bankers, and Kyra’s self-sacrificing social responsibility, and of the eternal one of unfulfilled and probably unfulfillable love. The subtle structure of the play – the opening and closing scenes between Kyra and Edward counterpoint Tom and Kyra’s encounter –the sharpness of the dialogue - as when Tom says scathingly of a management guru, “He's one of those people who's been told he's good with people” – and the quality of the acting by all three of the cast were most impressive. And so much better than Hare’s recent BBC TV drama series with Nighy: Page  Eight, and its two sequels, together forming The Worricker Trilogy.

This was the first time I’d seen a play live as a cinema projection. It is an experience in itself and not the same as being in the theatre where a member of the audience has a fixed viewpoint, so might see something like this:

and be aware throughout of the three-dimensional nature of Bob Crowley’s clever set and the actors moving within it. For the live cinema there were, I believe, four cameras available so extensive use could be made of cinematic devices like close-ups:

In the case of a glass of wine held by Kyra which gave Tom a chance to touch her hand, perhaps it was too close-up, and over-emphasised an action which would have been less conspicuous to the theatre audience. A screening is a different experience than actual theatre, and not necessarily worse or better, although it has to be recognised that the quality of the cinema’s projection and sound systems  is an extra complication – I’m not sure the one I was in would have coped well with live opera. Not that the acoustics or seating arrangements of London theatres are perfect.

Something which was unique to the NTLive experience was the interview David Hare gave to Emma Freud during the interval. Hare said that he had made it a condition of this revival that it would be made available widely in this way, and anyone who consequently had the chance to see Skylight should feel grateful. The last Hare play I was able to see in a theatre was Pravda, many years ago, and I would very much like to have had the chance to see some of his more recent theatre work, for example, South Downs.

Anyone who wanted to see Skylight in this way and couldn’t get a seat should look out for forthcoming Encore showings on the National Theatre Live website. There will be an international screening on 23 October.