Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2

 

 

DSC_2999Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history.  It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.

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It has been  the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.

Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.

Nelson

 

The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons.  There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.

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The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.

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The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.

You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.

Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

 

Antigone, Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Actors of Dionysus are touring the UK at the moment with this, a sci-fi tinged modern adaptation of Sophocles’ two and a half thousand year old play. Antigone, a Greek tragedy, has never really been an easy watch, but this adaptation has definitely made it more accessible.

Christopher Adams has written, a well thought out, updating of the play. I enjoyed the conceit of making the chorus of the original into the hive mind of linked computers. I thought the idea of making the soul into a chip that needed to be removed and uploaded worked well and gave us a good insight into Antigone’s motivation and into Creon’s harshness at refusing to allow it.

The stage setting is interesting, I guess touring made the set need to be as simple as it was, and I liked the current touches, the surveillance drones are particularly clever and fitted very well with the story and setting. The simplicity of the set did emphasise the universal themes of the play.

I found the acting good and I enjoyed the way each character pushed their agenda. I particularly liked the change in Creon from harsh dictator to broken soul. The well intentioned but misguided leader delivering tough love for the good of the populace can be a hard sell at times, but he brought it off well.

It is a Greek tragedy, so we cannot expect a happy or wholesome outcome, however it is a tribute to Antigone’s universal themes that it is still being performed over two millennia after it was written and this is as enjoyable and accessible a production as you are likely to see anywhere.  Thoroughly recommended.the

Jekyll and Hyde, National Youth Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, London

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The National Youth Theatre’s production of Jekyll and Hyde is a deconstruction of the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt with a modern feminist twist by writer Evan Placey. Combining Victorian settings and morals with modern day language and values adds a new dimension to the duality theme of the story.

The decision to have a female Jekyll is not only brave but astute, and this production perfectly captures the zeitgeist with the discussion about sexism in film and theatre so much in the news. The writing is forthright, the jolt of the coarse language spoken by the Victorian ladies near the start of the play becomes clear in the second act, there is no doubt that Evan Placey is a talented author, of whom we will hear more in the future.

Aside from the writing there is much to recommend in this production. The acting throughout is accomplished. Jennifer Walsh in particular is excellent as Florence, a young adult coming to terms with the fact that although no one else is going to stand up for her, she has the power to stand up for herself.  Elizabeth McCafferty confidently makes the transitions between Jekyll and Hyde both striking and convincing. Mohammed Mansaray has a funny scene as a priest, which he delivers very well.

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The direction is brisk and contemporary, so that even in the midst of 19th century London, we feel linked to the current day. The director, Roy Alexander Weise, is not afraid to be confrontational, daring to breach our comfort zone in order that we feel the characters’ anger. The costume design is remarkable and clever, the ensemble changes from church house to flop house in the blink of an eye.

 

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Pictures courtesy of Nobby Clark

 

Jekyll and Hyde has a few rough edges, but challenging, thought provoking productions like this are exactly the remit of The National Youth Theatre and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this show.

Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

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The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.

 

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Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

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A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

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Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Southwark Cathedral, London SE1

 

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Reputedly the oldest wooden effigy in Britain

 

Literally a few steps away from the hustle of Borough Market is the calm oasis of Southwark Cathedral. It is a wonderful mixture of old and new. It contains a wooden effigy of a knight from the 13th Century, reputedly the oldest in Britain and its Northern cloister was opened in 2001 by Nelson Mandela.

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There are monuments and memorials from many time periods in between. There is a stained glass window and bas-relief dedicated to Shakespeare, his brother Edmund is buried here. The Cathedral is on the South Bank of the Thames where many of the theatres used to be in Shakespeare’s time.

 

Tomb of Thomas Gower
Tomb of Thomas Gower

 

There are tombs of quite different types, from the multi-coloured wooden one of the poet, Thomas Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, to the more austere and eerie one of Thomas Cure, a 16th Century parliamentarian.

 

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Tomb of Thomas Cure

 

There are memorials to those who lost their lives in both the first and second world wars, victims of the Marchioness sinking in 1986 and Isabella Gilmore, the first deaconess of Southwark. There are also monuments to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

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While you are here don’t forget to look at the fixtures and fittings in the building. The black marble font and outrageously ornate wooden cover, at the nave of the church is one highlight, the eagle lectern, near the altar is another.

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Added to all this is the architectural splendour of the Cathedral. There are details here from a whole range of different engineering periods. The vaulted ceilings in the main church are beautiful, but the marble bricked ceilings in the naves are equally so.

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Walk through the church into the garden and you can sit in verdant peace, with the noise of the market in the background. There are a couple of unusual sculptures here, but the flowers are beautiful. An often overlooked gem in the heart of tourist London, just the place to dip in to, if you feel the need to step out of the boisterous city for a quiet break.

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Blue Stockings, The Yard Theatre, London E9

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It is a shocking fact that women were not allowed to graduate from Cambridge University until 1948. This play is set 50 years earlier and concerns four ladies who attended Girton College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th Century. It is a well written and cogent drama about the beginnings of the women rights movement. it gives voice to all points of view at that time, ranging from those who believed that education would distract women from being good wives to those who thought that noisy demonstration calling for immediate emancipation was the only way forward.

The Yard is an interesting theatre space, the seats are close to the action, but the wide stage and high ceilings make it very open. I really like the apparent simplicity of the direction, schoolroom projectors set the scenes, blackboard writings mark us as being in a classroom, a pictures of an orchard or Van Gogh’s night sky move us outdoors. This is inventive and effective.

The quality of the acting is very high and there are nice performances even in the smaller parts. Mischa Jones is fabulous as Tess, she brings a nice balance of intelligence and innocence to her role. Laura Trosser has a great part as Miss Blake, resolutely playing the long game in the fight for equality and she plays it perfectly. I really liked Quinton Arigi as Will, whose position changes as the story develops.

Blue Stockings is part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s East End season at The Yard Theatre. It is a sterling production of a very good play, in an engaging venue. I will be looking out for more Jessica Swale written plays. It has also made me look forward to seeing the next play in the season, “The Host” and their revival of “Zigger Zagger” at the Wilton Music Hall, next month.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Recommended.

Hyde Park Corner, London W1.

Hyde Park Corner

Hyde Park Corner has a lot going on, for what is, ultimately, the central reservation of the busiest traffic roundabout in London.

Peace in a Quadriga

There is Wellington Arch in the centre, which used to house the second smallest police station in Britain until 1992, it is now a museum and open to the public.  It is called the Wellington Arch because the top of it used to be crowned by a 40 ton Statue of the Duke of Wellington – the largest statue of a man on a horse that has ever been made. It was moved to Aldershot in 1912 and the arch now has a statue of a winged charioteer driving four horses on it top. This is the largest bronze statue in Europe.

Australian War memorial

The grassed over island also has the Australian war memorial in the South Western corner and the New Zealand war memorial on the North Eastern corner. These are 21st century memorials built in 2003 and 2006 respectively and commemorating antipodean deaths in the two world wars. They are both moving pieces of public art.

New Zealand War memorial

It also contains the Machine Gun Corps Memorial and the Royal Artillery Memorial, two more pieces commemorating casualties of the World Wars. These are both interesting in their own ways. I’m not sure why the Machine Gun Corps is commemorated by a statue of a young man with one hand on his hip and the other on a large sword, but it is beautiful, nonetheless. The Royal Artillery Memorial has more of a Great War atmosphere, it resembles soldiers guarding a tomb, with a cannon on its top.

Machine gun corps

There is also a statue of Lord Byron and a large bronze of The 1st Duke of Wellington sitting on a horse. The equestrian duke statue is a smaller copy of the one that used to be atop the Wellington Arch. The best way to reach the central reservation avoiding the traffic is by one of many underground passageways. These are bright and well kept and have tiled depictions of the history of the area. I can’t believe that I am recommending  visiting the underground pathways to a traffic island, but these are quite interesting in themselves and definitely deserve a view if you have an interest in the history of the area.

Hyde Park

Not only is the junction itself full of interest but, there are many places very close by. There is Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, and Hyde Park itself to the north. The wall across the road on the southern edge is Buckingham Palace garden. Green Park is on the east, and the Old St Georges hospital, now the Lanesborough Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in London, is to the west. Plus, of course underneath all this is Hyde Park Corner tube station.

Apsley House

In short, if you are to visit any traffic island in central London, then this should be the one!

Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

Wellington Shield

There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.