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My May 2011

Around New York

High Line – disused railway line turned into an urban park above the streets of the city

32 mile walk around the shoreline of Manhattan – totally worth the effort

Art

Picasso and Marie-Marie-Thérèse , L’Amour Fou (The Gagosian Gallery, Chelsea) – a visual love letter

Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections (The Frick Collection) : in a digital era 400-year old drawings on paper still have the power to move

Books

Moby Dick (Herman Melville) : hard to believe it was published in 1851 because the structure is so modern

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan) : my favourite book this year, and is very modern with one chapter in Powerpoint

The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Paolo Giordano) : unique combination of teenage angst, mathematics and love

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) : scary and heartbreaking combination of teenage angst and love amongst children who grow up with a dark secret

Cinema

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog) – forget Avatar, this is what 3-D was made for

Thor – in contrast I went to see this because it looked totally ridiculous but fun and it totally delivered on this premise

Music

Kylie Minogue : a modern goddess

Theatre

The House of Blue Leaves : manages the difficult trick of being funny and tragic at the same time though pitch-perfect performances from Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and especially Edie Falco

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“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land”

The last verse of Jerusalem by Willam Blake

Last year I saw Mark Rylance give a virtuoso performance as Valere in La Bête when he came on stage and  launched into a 30 minute mesmerizing monologue.

In Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem he manages to achieve the same thing without speaking a word. As Johnny “Rooster” Byron he emerges from the trailer where he lives after an all-night rave and with mesmerising physicality washes his face by doing a handstand and dipping his head into a trough of water. He then makes himself a liquid breakfast of eggs, alcohol, milk and drugs while gyrating to music.

As you can tell from his name, Johnny represents an Englishman – but one far removed from the usual image portrayed on American TV in either regency breeches or the landed gentry. Instead Rooster can only be a muscledound tatttoed drug-dealing bling-wearing swearing gentleman of the 21st century who fights for his own mythical vision of England against all forms of modern authority.

The play is set on St George’s Day, which happened to be the day when I went to see it. After many standing ovations, Rylance gave a great speech about how the English don’t celebrate St George’s Day because the flag and nationalism came to be associated with racism and fascism – but true Englishness does not mean any of these things.

Like Rooster, he is fighting for his own vision of England’s green and pleasant land.

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My April 2011

Books

The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) : intelligent young adult books which topically highlight the impact of war and violence on children

Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule The World (William Cohan): for those interested in finance, an absorbing 600+ pages on the investment bank

One of Our Thursdays is Missing (Jasper Fforde) : one of my friends bought me the latest Thursday Next book which is my favourite brand of literary quirkiness

The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde) : so then I had to go back and read the first one

Cinema

Source Code (Duncan Jones): as original as Inception but with characters that you believe in and care about

The Princess of Montpensier (Bernard Tavernier) : typical French film in which every man falls in love with a beautiful, enigmatic woman in very low-cut dresses but this time set against the backdrop of the wars between Catholics and Protestants in 1562

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga) : wasn’t going to see this but it was on at my local cinema while I was reading The Eyre Affair.  Visually atmospheric but not as emotionally stirring as my favourite version the BBC series with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson.

Lecture

German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse (MOMA) : have now seen this fab exhibition for  the third time and it was fascinating to learn that artists took their etching equipment with them while they served on the front during World War I

Theatre

Jerusalem (Jez Butterworth) : thrilling theatre which displays a decidedly modern view of England.

I saw this play in the same week as the Royal Wedding and it reminded me that one of the things I love about England is that it can be both very modern and very traditional at the same time.

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My March 2011

Art

German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse (MOMA) : has become one of my all-time favourite exhibitions

Infinite Variety : Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts (American Folk Art Museum) : quilts as modern art

Books

Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart) : super sad and frightening view of a future digital world

Suits: A Woman on Wall Street (Nina Godiwalla) : you should read this if you are a woman thinking about working on Wall St

Readings

Victor LaValle and Gary Shteyngart (92Y) : both as funny as their books

Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri (The New School) : Franzen read some non-fiction while Lahiri read an extract from the new novel she is writing which sounds just as good as her previous books.

Cinema

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) : a haunting meditation on religious intolerance which stays in your mind long after the film is over

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy) : a win if you enjoy off-beat comedies with believable characters and intelligent, witty dialogue rather than mindless movies based on comic books with nothing but special effects

Lectures

Gary Wills – Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (The Morgan Library & Museum) : turned out be more about Macbeth but was still a fascinating talk on how Verdi was inspired by Shakespeare

The Big Story : Uprisings (The New Yorker) : proof that a small portion of the American media gets the rest of the world

Music

Seeing Double: Concertos by Bach and Vivaldi (Miller Theater) : part of my ongoing classical music education

Theatre

Good People (David Lindsay-Abaire) – a really good play

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My January 2011

Art

Abstract Expressionist New York (MOMA) : a beautiful expression of the energy of the city

Books

A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor) :  see the world in a new way

Lords of Finance (Liaquat Ahamed) : understand the world of today

How to Read the Air (Dinaw Mengestu) : how can you build a life in America after your father has smuggled himself from Africa inside a shipping crate

Zilch, The Power of Zero in Business (Nancy Lublin):  zero can be just as powerful as lots of money

The Phoenix, The Men Who Made Modern London (Leo Hollis) : fascinating combination of the building of St Paul’s Cathedral with the building of a new way of thought

Architects and Architecture of London (Ken Allison) : insider’s educated guide to why modern London looks like it does today

Lectures

Peter Weir in person (The Film Society of Lincoln Center) – a truly skilled director as I hadn’t realised he made so many of my favourite films

I Remember Tenn  , Part One of The Kindness of Strangeness: Reframing Tennessee Williams @ 100 (Museum of Arts and Design) – think I was the only one there who hadn’t met Williams, been in one of his plays or written about him

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love & Fallout (New York Public Library) – love is as powerful as radiation

Movies

Another Year (Mike Leigh) : another bittersweet film from Leigh, as one of the lead characters says “Life isn’t kind to some people”

True Grit (Coen Brothers) : truly wonderful, especially the cinematography

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance) : blue that Ryan Gosling didn’t get an Oscar nomination

Flamenco Flamenco (Carlos Saura) :  amazing amazing passion passion

Theatre

Blood from a Stone (The New Group) : getting blood from a stone is probably easier than this family finding happiness

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It’s not often you get to see a modern play written in verse. La Bête is set in the French court of 1654 but still seems relevant to today’s world of radio shock jocks, partisan talking heads, non-stop blogosphere and the ascendance of reality TV. David Hirson‘s play sets Elomire, leader of the high-brow royal acting troupe against low-brow street performer Valere.

Mark Rylance plays Valere and makes a stunning entrance with a 30 minute  monologue which constantly makes you laugh and David Hyde Pierce is his perfect foil as Elomire. Anyone who has watched Frasier will know that Hyde Pierce can do disdain quite like no-one else and he has my favourite speech:

“It shows that what you really do or say

Is less important than the commentary!

Good art – good deeds – become unnecessary:

What’s crucial is portraying them as good!

Hard facts count less than how they’ re understood;

Pretension and the truth become confused !

The honest word is violently abused;

And when the honest word is stripped of sense,

Its form assumes unnatural consequence:

The way a thing is stated holds more weight,

Than what, if anything, one seeks to state!

“I do my play in rhyme,” he says with bluff

As if refined expression were enough

To pardon an impoverishment of thought!

Yet that’s the place to which we’ve now been bought:

A place where men, as far as I can see,

Aspire to saying nothing endlessly!”

La Bête manages to say something with originality, style and verve and most importantly with humour – a combination of the skills of  Elomire and Valere.

Joanna Lumley‘s princess wants to bring the two together to create a whole out of their separate parts. La Bête brings together a script and a perfect cast to create a whole that makes you both laugh and think and that is truly great art.

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The company of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre were in New York to perform The Merry Wives of Windsor and put on a production that lived up to the merriness in the title.

Harold Bloom, in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says he shares AC Bradley’s indignation about the play:

“[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, picked, mocked, insulted, and worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.”

All these things do happen to Falstaff but the genius of this production is that it’s not at all horrible thanks to the comic timing of the actors and their pitch-perfect delivery of the bawdy language. Being English, I am very fussy about the way Shakespeare is spoken and British actors can make Shakespeare sound conversational – a skill which still eludes many American productions.

It was great fun to see the merry wives – Mistress Page and Mistress Alice Ford – at the centre of the action and coming out on top thanks to their brains and wit after the “fat Falstaff” tries to seduce them both (at the same time) :

“What tempest, I trow, threw this whale with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor ? How shall I be revenged on him ? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of his lust have melted him in his own grease.”

I really enjoyed the play and think it is just as hard to make people laugh as to make them cry. But comedians get a lot less critical acclaim so as my tribute to all comics:  Make ‘Em Laugh, from Singing in the Rain:

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In this interview, Christopher Walken says he told his agent that he wanted to play a wholesome family man. Instead, in A Behanding in Spokane he stars as one-handed Carmichael, a racist homophobe with a very macabre hobby.

As a  birthday treat, I was lucky enough to see Walken in his first appearance on Broadway in a decade in the premiere of Martin McDonagh‘s latest play. According to the interview with McDonagh in the program, Walken was the last actor to be cast – which I find amazing as the play revolves around his performance. I can’t think of anyone else who could carry off the mixture of menace and dark humour which is so necessary for the part as well as Walken.

In the opening scene Walken makes you laugh despite the fact that you think Carmichael has shot someone in the head, in a similar way that Fargo or Pulp Fiction make you uncomfortable at laughing at appalling acts of violence.

To see how he manages this in his own inimitable style, just watch Walken reading the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s Pokerface on the Jonathan Ross show:

(Off course, YouTube than had a Lady Gaga/Walken mashup.)

In the play, Carmichael has been searching for his hand for 47 years after it was allegedly chopped off by hillbillies in Spokane, Washington, who then use it to wave goodbye. I say allegedly because it is unclear what is the truth and what is delusion in the stories that we hear from any of the characters –  Carmichael, the weed dealers and con artists played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan or the hotel receptionist, who doesn’t like being called a receptionist, played by Sam Rockwell.

Ultimately, I think is where the play falls down. It is ninety minutes of very dark humour but once the shock and the laughter- and there is plenty of both – die down, you are not left with anything more profound about the characters or the situation they find themselves in.

I guess it would be unfair to expect a play about a one-handed sociopath to say something deep about the world  and it is still worth going to see as you get a fantastic performance by an actor who is unlike anyone else and for 90 minutes you do manage to suspend disbelief in a plot that is unlike anything else I have ever seen.

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The design of the new production of The Tempest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music looks fantastic according to this photo in the New York Times;

and this is a review from The New Yorker. I am still unsure whether they think this is a good production but the piece is headlined Big Magic  so that must be a positive.

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