Archive for June, 2010

After The Dance

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on June 24, 2010 by alexlarman

Terence Rattigan, long patronised with faint praise as the master of ‘the well-made play’ – i.e a work that dealt with the social and romantic mores of the middle class and featured smug jokes about gin and tonics and the price of servants – has been rehabilitated over the past 20 years as audiences and theatres alike have realised that the brilliance of his writing and emotional power of his characterisations and plots rank alongside anything in twentieth century drama.

Thea Sharrock’s new production at the National of his great ‘lost’ play After The Dance – which marks the first time it has been produced in London since its short-lived premiere in 1939 – only confirms Rattigan’s pre-eminence amongst dramatists. It revolves around a group of hedonists, led by dilettante historian David Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his beautiful party-girl wife Joan (Nancy Carroll). They lead a privileged, gin-soaked life, full of friends (most notably permanent house guest John Reid, wonderfully played by Adrian Scarborough) and acquaintances, and where any serious chat is ‘a frighful bore, darling’. When David meets his secretary’s fiancee Helen (Faye Castelow), sparks fly, but in this brittle, ephemeral world, a divorce is just something to be laughed at over cocktails. Isn’t it?

Well, no it isn’t, and Rattigan’s play acquires much of its considerable emotional weight from the way in which Joan, who has always been desperately in love with David, deals with the revelation. Throwing oneself into parties and drinking isn’t enough. As one character notes, sardonically, ‘It’s the bright young people all over again, only they never were bright and now they’re not even young.’ Cumberbatch and, especially, Carroll are both sensational in incredibly difficult roles, having to convey jollity, weakness or strength as required and, when the chips are finally down, moral purpose.

They’re ably supported by an excellent ensemble cast including John Heffernan as David’s eager then disillusioned secretary and cousin Peter and Juliet Howland as Moya, a woman for whom the party has gone on for that bit too long. Sharrock’s direction keeps the play moving at a tremendous pace, making the three hour running time pass in the blink of an eye. And make sure that you can either stifle your tears or repress your emotions, as some of the play is deeply moving indeed.

Until August 11. National Theatre, South Bank SE1


RIP Sebastian Horsley

Posted in Art, Literature with tags on June 17, 2010 by alexlarman

I’ve just heard a few moments ago that the flaneur, dandy, artist and writer Sebastian Horsley has died. I’m deeply upset. I wouldn’t say that we were close friends – he was far too much of a social butterfly to allow more than a few people into that gilded inner circle – but he certainly was someone whose presence in my life made it a happier and more enjoyable one. The group emails that he would send out, boasting about some achievement or other – a Times interview here, a Guardian profile there – were always miniature works of art, featuring carefully worked over witticisms and designed to amuse the eclectic group of aficionados that regarded Sebastian as something other-worldly and eccentric. A typical email would read like this:

‘Hello darlings,

You will find nothing wrong with this play – except its appalling choice of subject.

I will drink and I will take drugs, and in my weaker moments I will even eat, but I will never, ever, go to a theatre.

Why would I go to the theatre to see rape, sodomy, alcoholism and drug addiction? I might as well stay at home.

Not true. You realise all people will be saying every night is: “Who’s that cunt on the front row with the top hat on? I can’t see a fucking thing.”

I’d known Sebastian since 2005, when I was doing some work experience at his agency, Conville and Walsh. Sebastian was by then well known as a flaneur and dandy, and had attracted a great deal of media attention for having himself crucified (filmed by Sarah Lucas), and so a memoir was in the offing. However, Fourth Estate had turned it down, due to various drug-related incidents (including Horsley, high on heroin, threatening to cut his commissioning editor’s breasts off) and the manuscript, provocatively entitled ‘Mein Camp’ was brilliant, shocking, repulsive, hilarious and witty, as of course Sebastian himself was.

Patrick Walsh, the head of the agency, didn’t take long to twig that my own literary interests closely coincided with those of the decadent and libertine, and so asked me to have a look at the manuscript and make some informal suggestions, which I was delighted to. Some of them were purely cosmetic, some were more essential. (That title had to go.) Anyway, I finished, and the great man requested the pleasure of my company at tea.

The first thing I realised about Sebastian was that, underneath the facade, the suits (the legendary suits, of which he had innumerable) and the brio was that he was amongst the kindest, most decent and, for want of a better word, friendly people I’d ever met. I was at the time a rather callow young graduate, trying to make my way in the world of the media, and Sebastian, a considerable figure in his own right, spent hours talking to me about music, art, literature and, of course, sex and drugs, two subjects that he was an expert in. (On one of the last occasions I saw him, he said despairingly that he had opened a brothel in his two-r0om flat. Business was good, apparently, but he had to take enforced strolls around Soho while his workers plied their trade. I have no idea as to whether this was true, but it would have come as no surprise if it was.)

Thereafter, the book passed into the expert hands of Matthew Hamilton, a fine and experienced editor, and it was soon shaped into a far more commercial and coherent narrative, losing none of its joie de vivre. Sebastian stayed in touch during its construction. I received witty little squibs comparing his predicament to the Count of Monte Cristo ‘and at least that fucker escaped eventually’. Finally, the book came out, and I took the chance, incestuously, to review it for the New Statesman. I wrote that ‘Sebastian Horsley’s autobiography explodes the myth that a “misery memoir” must be as gruelling to read as it must have been to live…this is testament to his style and self-belief’. I went for a celebratory dinner at The Ivy with him, his girlfriend-cum-muse Rachel Garley and some other friends of his, and ended up in some godforsaken basement club at an equally unearthly hour of the morning, drinking cheap sparkling wine and hobnobbing with the demi-monde.

I caught a glimpse of Sebastian that evening, laughing at it all, and revelling in the ridiculousness of it, just as he’d laughed earlier that evening when a customer had mistaken him, in all his finery, for a doorman at the restaurant. And that was the thing about Sebastian that the vast majority of people never realised – that he wasn’t just some posturing pumped-up peacock, but one of the most sensitive and hugely self-aware men out there. He was insecure, hugely so, but never in a ‘woe is me’ way. That, no doubt, was saved for behind closed doors. Did I know that Sebastian? No, of course not. But I saw glimpses of it – Sebastian shopping in Waitrose, ridiculous hat and all, or seeing him in what passed for mufti, minus waistcoats and top hats. (His hats should be donated to the V & A.)

The last few weeks were a flurry of activity for Sebastian, with the opening of a one-man show based on Dandy In The Underworld at the Soho Theatre. I’d been invited to the first night party, but alas a work engagement in Switzerland meant I couldn’t attend. Despite his avowed hatred for theatre (in his last email to me, he wrote ‘There are two ways of emptying a theatre ; the first is to run in and yell “Fire!” The second is to put me on.  I am sure there will be nothing wrong with this production – except its appalling choice of subject’), I think he was excited, and happy, and pleased that he was slowly starting to achieve mainstream recognition, on his terms, and that the dandy really had won out after all.

Goodbye, my old friend. When we end up in the Underworld together, I have no doubt that you’ll still be the best dressed, best read and wittiest man in there.

Sebastian Horsley 1962 -2010

UPDATE: The Guardian asked me to write his obituary, which I was honoured to do. You can find it here.

Briony Anderson

Posted in Art with tags on June 11, 2010 by alexlarman

Went to a wonderful exhibition the other night of a young Scottish artist, Briony Anderson. Her work, which draws on traditional painters such as Henry Raeburn but without the figurative aspects, is genuinely striking and memorable, and she’s definitely one to watch. I had the chance to have a quick chat with her about Caspar David Friedrich – a probable influence – and there’s no doubt that she’s going to go terribly far.

Grandma’s Bag Revisited

Posted in Art on June 4, 2010 by alexlarman

I saw this Ted Noten piece at the Collect exhibition at the Saatchi a few weeks ago. It cost a mere 24,000 Euros. It’s so grotesque but so funny that I rather wish I had had the wherewithal to buy it.


Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 2, 2010 by alexlarman

Puccini’s Tosca, which was first performed in 1900, has deservedly acquired a reputation not just as one of Puccini’s best operas, but as one of the most famous in the world canon. ENO’s new staging, directed by Catherine Malfitano (herself one of the most notable and powerful Toscas of the past couple of decades) is exceptionally well sung, conceived and performed, making this a viscerally satisfying experience that can be recommended even to people who would steer clear of the opera at all costs.

The storyline, based on an obscure 19th century French play, revolves around Rome in 1800, where Italy is being torn between the all-conquering French army, led by Napoleon, and the forces of the Republic. The protagonists are Cavaradossi, a young painter, who is in love with the glamorous singer Tosca. However, the insanely corrupt and licentious chief of police Scarpia is also in love with Tosca, and, seizing an opportunity to blackmail her into exchanging her favours for the life of Cavaradossi, he attempts to right the status quo. Tragedy ensues.

As well as one of Puccini’s richest and most romantic scores (conducted subtly and effectively by ENO’s Edward Gardiner), this features one of his most gloriously hissable villains, in the form of Scarpia, who memorably declares at the end of Act 1, ‘Tosca, you have turned me away from God!’ He is ferociously sung by Anthony Michaels-Moore, whose gusto earned him both cheers and boos on the first night. Amanda Echalaz sings Tosca with both delicacy and force, most notably in her great Act II aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’, in which she bemoans what appears to be her fate, and Julian Gavin is a charismatic Cavaradossi.

This is a superb production, and a must-see.

Newspeak at the Saatchi Gallery

Posted in Art on June 2, 2010 by alexlarman

Charles Saatchi’s most high profile and largest exhibition to date at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea is a return to the world of the Young British Artists. It harks back to the Royal Academy’s notorious Sensation exhibition of 1997, although the emphasis now is less on provocative shock tactics and more on the juxtaposition of a variety of artistic ideas, whether it’s Ged Quinn’s combination of Romantic-styled landscape art with 21st century symbols and preoccupations or John Wynne’s astonishing sound art installation for 300 speakers, player piano and, of all things, vacuum cleaner.

While the Saatchi Gallery has had many conspicuous successes to date, such as its Middle Eastern and Russian exhibitions, this seems to be the closest to Saatchi’s heart since the gallery opened, as this new generation of artists seem to be his chosen protégés, who will no doubt become the Hirsts, Emins and(young) Turks of their time. The choice of the exhibition’s name, Newspeak, is no coincidence; it’s taken from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, literally meaning ‘the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year’. Whether the title is viewed as a self-referential joke – the implication being that modern art can only repeat itself to diminishing effect –  or purely ironically, with the constant growth or artistic forms, it’s a typically bravado piece of showmanship.

Some of the work on display, such as Goshka Macuga’s highly realistic 2007 Madame Blavatsky and collective littlewhitehead’s ‘It Happened In The Corner…’, seem like logical continuations of earlier Saatchi pieces such as Ron Mueck’s ‘Dead Dad’ in their car-crash combination of naturalistic, representative art showing human bodies with the esoteric subject matter. Macuga and littlewhitehead both touch on something sinister and out-of-the-ordinary, which is reflected in Quinn’s ‘The Fall’, a piece in which Icarus or Satan, depending on taste, descends to a ramshackle building swathed in camouflage. For light relief, Donald Urquhart’s ‘A Joan Crawford Alphabet’ offers witty pop-culture commentary on Joan Crawford’s life and career, and similar post modernism comes in Scott King’s ‘Pink Cher’, which simultaneously references Andy Warhol and Alberto Kordo’s iconic image of Che Guavera, to ridiculous yet striking effect.