'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Modernity Begins: Parade's End

We have, understandably, become a bit familiar with the fragile decadence, pomp and ceremony of the Edwardian era. Downton Abbey long sated the national appetite for costume drama, and we duly gorged on the carcass of carefully enunciated accents, stiff attire and over-the-top formalities. It appealed, perhaps, to a certain lost sense of what it meant to be 'English'. Now, having devoured the main course, we turn, like some bloated Edwardian gent, to the next: Parade's End. Can we stomach another serving?

Of course, like Downton, we once again have the accents (and doubtless debate will grumble on about whether Cumberbatch has mastered his or not); once again there is the careful attention to dress and formalities. But unlike the fast-flowing luster of the Downton stream, there is real depth to Parade's End.

Indeed it's a different beast altogether, something which is clear from the outset. The novel, written by Ford Madox Ford, and adapted for screen by Tom Stoppard, is a great work of modernism. To its credit, the BBC production has embraced the idea rather than shied away from its complexities. Visually, for example, it has laced what could have descended into 'English-rural idyll porn' with hints of vorticism and abstraction, as well as the exhilaration, noise and speed of technology. In doing so, it highlights the relevance of the period in a way Downton couldn't: we are witnessing a period of tremendous technological upheaval, scientific discovery and the collapse of seemingly impermeable institutions.

The adaptation weaves in some wonderful imagery. Madox Ford's interest in colour is teased out in several scenes. His description of the Yorkshire mist, for example, is not a flat one of various shades of grey, but a rippling description of 'bars of purple; of red; or orange; delicate reflections: dark blue shadows from the upper sky...'

Parade's End also addresses the fallacy of presenting Edwardian England as a 'golden era' frozen in time; a last 'huzzah' for the old days before the oncoming war. It highlights that modernity was not simply forged from the slaughter of the Somme, but that deep undercurrents were already at work in England. Indeed as the historian Phillip Blom has highlighted in his excellent book The Vertigo Years, underneath the pomp and ceremony, Europe was already deeply unsettled during the period. New technologies and scientific developments were progressing apace and more subtly, but no less importantly, new ideas linked to psychology, the self and the role of women were undermining a crumbling façade of imperial order. Indeed Cumberbatch perfectly brings out the self-doubt and emasculation of Tietjens, and the ruling class more generally.

It's interesting, amidst all this, that it's the distant old Tory Tietjens, who is at the centre of things. He is oddly enough more aware of the constant change around him than his colleagues. For him the 'world' had already ended long-ago, with the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the undermining of that rural pastoral that is smeared by the soot of modernity. Yet the increasing pace of that change – in the form of women's votes, collapsing morals and social order – seems to focus itself particularly on this time. Far from simply being an easy jaunt into a mystical past then, Parade's End feels like a strong reminder of the lessons we can learn from the period.

Review of Prom 46

Collin: 'Fancy seeing you here James'.
James: 'Collin! What are the chances? I didn't know you were a VW fan. Margery meet Collin, we only live down the road from one another'
Margery: 'What a coincidence! Nice to meet you Collin, I'm James' niece.'

Ok. It's not word-for-word, but this is more or less the exchange I overheard when I sat down at the Royal Albert Hall. It's exactly the sort of image I had of a Vaughan Williams audience. A certain sort of staid comfortable middle-class audience who just love listening to the 54 repeats of the Lark Ascending played on Classic FM each day, in between furniture adverts. In my mind, these are the people who still think the Archer's is a form of social realism; the sort who wear socks with sandals and grumble about things like 'principle' and the use of semi-colons.

Andrew Manze, who conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Williams' Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies at Prom 46, is keen to challenge this comfortable image. To be sure, the composer's life was often taken up editing hymns, carols and running festivals; it's hardly the image of a revolutionary artist, and has given him a parochial and narrowly English label. Yet the truth is more complex. Williams' is more than a sentimental musical poet, drawing nostalgically on a long-gone past. Maze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a vigorous performance of each symphony – from the initial shock of the Fourth Symphony to the dying embers of the Sixth.

The Fourth Symphony seems to point to the crush of the city rather than the English rural idyll. It's a piece that revels, I feel, in the speed and momentum of the city. A piece in which the listener seems to be in constant movement after an initial sensory overload on the first chord. The symphony takes us from winding and echoing passages, to the rumble of something from below, and then back to the throbbing mob of the streets. It's a nervous and often disorientating work, which seems to have been influenced, in part by a description by the critic H.C. Colles in The Times in 1931 regarding modern music. 'They all rely on the same order of stimuli. The hearer is prodded into activity by dissonance, soothed by sentiment, overwhelmed by the power of the battering climax.'

The Fifth, to my mind, takes us out of the city and lulls us back to the rural scene. It's the Williams' we are more familiar with – the Williams' of Lark Ascending and Fantasia. Yet even here there is something slightly amiss with the first scene. And by the second it's no longer a human pastoral we're inhabiting, but something much more primeval and natural. We begin to duck and weave through the symphony, assailed on all sides by competing strains and chords.

Williams' was famous for grumbling about such literal interpretations. Can't a man just write a nice tune? Yet, if it was conscious or not, his own experience is bound to have impacted upon his works – and it should fall on us to unpick and interpret them. His Sixth symphony, which has been labelled his 'war' symphony contrasts with the Fourth and Fifth in that it doesn't really seem to offer any vision whatsoever. Instead it offers us glimpses of themes which occasionally jut up heroically out of the desolation, before disappearing once again. It's a bleak piece, which asks more questions than it answers, offering no easy visions and full of raw and elemental emotion.

'VW' then, but happily an exciting,dynamic and often challenging performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Gates and Jobs

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope

Philosophy. The very term strikes fear into the hearts of business types and marketeers everywhere. It suggests unwelcome froth or meaningless snobby asides on an otherwise adequate page of 'top line' bullet points. "If only", think the business types, "we could walk around wearing clothing that indicated a good education, and then there'd be no need for such intellectual posturing. By the way, who's this Hegel? Doesn't he work in sales?"

But, in our frazzled CEO's defence, where to find the time? "I don't have time to even eat lunch; how can I be expected to read these nuanced arguments?" they rightly point out. "Is a top line of the Wealth of Nations possible?" Alas, no. Top line information is good for simple tasks - "closing a door" - or ridiculous sweeping stratagems - "invade Russia and stop at Moscow". Such forms of communication are harder for everything in between. This is not - note - a sign of intellectual deficiency, muddled ideas or a failure to be 'on the ball'. It is merely the acceptance that not everything is clear cut.

The School of Athens - Plato points up urging 'blue sky' thinking; Aristotle tells him to calm down and 'check the figures'.
But do not despair! An article in today's Times by Danny Finkelstein brilliantly touched upon an almost biblical spectacle of two great modern - but opposed - philosophies: that of Jobs and Gates.

he Jobs philosophy, wrought from his time at Apple and subsequent exile and resurrection, is Platonic in character. It is one of complete integration; command and control and a striving for the ‘insanely good’ (Plato meekly stuck to 'the Good'). It is the sort of philosophy which is easily understood – and marketed – and idealistic. (The followers of this sort of philosophy can be fanatical in their devotion.) The universe, according to this vision fits neatly together and can be explained through Divine forms and geometry. Gates’ Aristotelian philosophy is a bit messier and complex and more concerned with economic sustainability and common sense. It's not as elegant or pretty, but hell, it's a lot cheaper. 

Which leads me to Alexander Pope. What is worse than avoiding these fresh waters of tempting knowledge all together? The answer is merely dipping one's toe in, recoiling and withdrawing. This trend of 'short-cut learning' for the man on the move is both cringe worthy and  potentially damaging. A manger who has consumed and proceeds to regurgitate the latest business text is a dangerous thing. Indeed, a
fter 200 pages of the latest managerial educational bile we suddenly realise, amidst the 'case studies' and 'stats' proving poorly made points, that the book is, in fact, vacuous nonsense. At best these authors sit slumped, pathetically, on the shoulders of some greater thinker, slightly dizzy at the heights they've somehow managed to land on. 

The books consumed, then, by many in business, present us with simplistic and deceptively elegant - let's say 'Jobseian' - ideas, which translate poorly into the nuances and problems day-to-day business. And nuances, unfortunately, must be displayed in more than a few lines.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

John Martin Apocalypse Review

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood 
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.

The Bard ~
Thomas Gray

As with the other great event of 1789, there are many overlapping possibilities and routes for interpretation with the figure of John Martin. With him, a horizon of potential explanations opens before us – from Madness to Mammon. The opening image of the Tate Britain's exhibition is Martin's 'The Bard' and it can provide us with several possibilities for understanding his oeuvre. 

The Bard is an arresting and stunning display of man and nature; an image brought about in a cultural milieu of Scott and Wordsworth. The Bard’s mad gesture blends with the jutting landscape; the English army’s progress is defined by the river it trundles past.

Despite the drama of the scene, there is a clear link between Martin's early works and eighteenth-century painters such as Claude. Here – as with 'Pan and Syrinx' – Martin follows the French example, drawing on lush greens and soft blues to provide a pleasant and harmonious landscape for classical games to be played out on. This was familiar and inoffensive. Yet there is a visually striking difference between pieces like this and his other work. Martin’s 1812 piece ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ displays a pulsating and despairing scene of a landscape consuming and ruining the individual. The themes, however, collapse into one: Martin is saying that there is essentially man and nature; and despite your modern factories, steam engines and mills, this remains the case. Touching on the sublime is intimately connected with this duality. 

In another sense the Bard represents a deeper idea. The old prophet – the last crumbling bastion of an antediluvian way of thinking – madly attempting to stem the current of an England representing order and progress at the expense of older values. In vain does he challenge the monotonous and inevitable advance of the English army. 

With images like Belshazzar's Feast (1820) Martin takes this critique of the material a step further, thundering a message of Old Testament retribution to a rapt audience. And what better way to remind the masses of His wrath than the vision of hell and the apocalypse? Martin’s apocalyptic scenes of crumbling towers, cities engulfed by torrents of fire and frenzied armies baying wildly into decadent cities became hugely popular for many.

In this sense, Martin is doing more than merely painting images on canvas; he is not simply presenting intellectual ideas or narratives. The overly refined messages, references and puns that defined much of eighteenth-century art in England was already giving way to a love of more emotion and feeling. Martin, like the later Turner, is speaking to the viewers souls; searing lasting impressions. We do not, despite the explanations provided by the Tate, need to delve too deeply to see the messages behind visual testaments like 'The Fall of Babylon'. 

Indeed the exhibition represents a broader sense of spiritual unease felt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. It is in this sense that reviews – such as that of Jonathan Jones in the Guardian – pathetically miss the point with Martin. Nineteenth-century Britain after the fall of Napoleon was neither spiritually nor materially stable. It's a sense of unease that for many heralded the black satanic smoke of mechanised Britain blotting out any idea of religion or community; stability succumbing to Peterloo Massacres and negligent Laissez-Faire giving way to Revolutions. 

That revolutionary apocalypse did not engulf Britain says more for the ability of an establishment to listen, adapt and integrate ideas – such as those of Martin or Carlyle – than it does for any inherent British stability post-1815. While Martin's painting lack subtlety and delicacy, they had a profound impact. Attacking the overly complex paintings, the wildly animated figures and pyrotechnic madness of Martin as crass, negates the strong practical reasoning behind them. The Bard then, who is on the cusp of a dramatic leap into the thundering current, does not simply represent the failure to cling to ancient ideas in the face of progress or a glorious romantic outburst culminating in self-immolation. Instead it represents the practical success artists like Martin had in appealing beyond the material and to the very souls of the huddled masses of the nineteenth-century, untouched or unaware of ideas of progress, economics and democracy.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Like a juror about to pass judgement on a famous celebrity, it seems impossible for a discussion of Melancholia not to drag into their analysis pre-existing prejudices. In this case, the director, Lars von Trier. This is a shame as we are often in danger of getting into such an excited frenzy over the controversial artist that we overlook the work he has produced.

Von Trier! Von Trier! Who is this Von Trier? I would argue that it does not matter. Artists, however self obsessed, are very rarely – Beethoven like – putting themselves fully and consciously at the centre of their works. In truth, most are simply vocal or visual symptoms of a wider zeitgeist; unwittingly amplifying the white noise around them. Others simply present a part of themselves – often in graphic detail – for us all to wince at, never knowing – or daring – to fully immerse themselves in their project.

Occasionally, as I believe with Melancholia, the artist reaches a half-way house – not quite immersing, they nevertheless produce a whole-work of art; a work wrought from a mind aware and suddenly conscious of the spirit of the age it inhabits.

So what then does Melancholia say of the spirit of the age now? The film is not, despite superficial observations, an idyllic one. There is wealth and comfort, but underlying spiritual unease. Throughout, the film is beautiful but it is an uneasy, often unbearable beauty that pervades; the sight of a naked Justine lying by the river side and bathed in cool blue moonlight seems to consume the showy superficiality of the wedding dress, cake and flowers. The consuming beauty is stark and ravishing. It is threatening to onlookers; stunning in its delivery. It is not an easy beauty.

It’s from scenes like this – which reference Ophelia – that our gleefully hacks have jumped on the theme of Germanic culture. The clues are everywhere. The Kandinsky’s are unceremoniously dumped in this film, replaced by Brueghel the Elder and Millias. The strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde reoccur throughout, and the striking Dunst is seen riding horses through misty pine forests. 

Yet this is simplistic at best, and fails to look beneath the sparkling surface of the Germanic aesthetic. What lurks beneath? Misty pine trees, sparkling blue eyes and castles on remote outcrops: we know what the Germanic ideal looks like, but what does it mean?

As with the ‘Northern’ Renaissance and the later outpouring of Teutonic creativity in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, Von Trier is reacting against an overly scientific, organised and analytical view of reality which pervades modern culture. The film is an intellectual invasion of a slumbering paradigm of progress, science and reason. Here, perhaps, is the significance of the film.

The key here is not the more obvious Wagner, but Dürer’s woodcut Melancholia. Like the film, Dürer shows a distraught and depressed figure, surrounded by the clutter of science and progress. The apparent triumph of progress and reason is no triumph at all. In the distance hangs a hazy hopeful semi-reality of horizon merging with sea and beyond that a bright light in the sky. As with the film, the bean counting, scientific instruments and refrain of ‘trusting the scientists’ counts for nought here. The world is a creation of the self; external reasoning and logic have little influence on it. It attacks the view – espoused by eighteenth-century French philosophers – that ‘a work of politics, of morality, of criticism, perhaps even of literature, will be fine, all things considered, if made by the hands of a geometer.’  
It’s this obsession with mathematical models, numbering and categorising that the film stands against. The sort of philosophy that, for Isaiah Berlin, ‘operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusion; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world....’ 

What Dürer recognised, as with Wagner, Goethe and later Carlyle in Britain, is the fundamental failure of progress and mechanistic thought to address the problem of the spiritual vacuum they create. Where to turn to for inspiration or wonder? For Carlyle, who reacted strongly against the emotional desert progress had created, the consequences were clear to see and in need of remedy:

We Boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; whereby the better sort had soon to end in sick, impotent Scepticism; the worser sort explode in finished Self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead. But this too is portion of mankind's lot. If our era is the Era of Unbelief, why murmur under it; is there not a better coming, nay come? As in long-drawn systole and long-drawn diastole, must the period of Faith alternate with the period of Denial; must the vernal growth, the summer luxuriance of all Opinions, Spiritual Representations and Creations, be followed by, and again follow, the autumnal decay, the winter dissolution.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

White Review


White engrosses us in the charming and imaginative world of Wrinkle and Cotton. How they got here, and why they are here is not explained; it’s one of those innocent states of unknowing unique to childhood. 

Adults tend to call these ideas ‘dystopian’, and like any good dystopia, something is amiss: Colour. If found, any trace of it is consigned to the Rubbish Bin. "Good," says Wrinkle each time a shade is eradicated. 

This regime becomes increasingly awkward for Cotton, however, as he discovers something not as easily thrown away, which has the potential to sully the white sparkle of their pleasant existence. 

The set is very well done, and the attention the production pays to detail is commendable: expect hidden bells and whistles. The initial scene, especially, where Cotton and Wrinkle wake up, evokes the mechanical chaos and efficiency of the Wallace and Gromit breakfast routine.

Finally, it’s important we steer well clear of the inevitable discomfort some over-clever parents or reviewers may get from a world in which White is (initially, at least) supreme at the expense of Colour. This is not a political comment: children under five do not see anything inherently strange about the fact that Tinky Winky has a handbag, Burt and Ernie share a bed or that White contains large amounts of white. 

Charming, original and an excellent stimulus for young imaginations.

Stick Man Live on Stage! Review

Stick Man Live on Stage!

This show is a stage adaption of Julia Donaldson’s popular book about the healthy, handsome and happy stickman who lives in the forest with his stick lady love (it’s unclear whether sticks can get married) and stick children three. 

The performance uses live music and has plenty of action and games for the kids to join in with. Alex Scheffler’s interpretation of deep winter is kept, with the steely blue sky and Bruegel-esq trees jutting out of the snow.

As the original illustrations highlight, children love simple, clear visuals. They lack the ability of artistic directors to interpret; show a child a Monet and they will ask why the woman doesn’t have a face, or the trees are all squiggly. Unfortunately, Stickman is not represented by an actor in a costume – the best plan, as any child who has been to a theme park will tell you. Instead he is represented by the cop-out of an actor bounding around the stage with a model of the character in hand. This, along with the abstract representations of nature, doesn’t sit well with the under 5s and comes across as rather wooden.