“Man and Superman” at the Lyttleton, National Theatre

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Yesterday Kath and I went to see George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, “Man and Superman”, at the Lyttleton Theatre at the National. A Saturday matinee performance, which started at 1.30 and finished at 5pm. Three and a half hours, which absolutely flew by. A brilliant, engrossing production, which starred Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner, the rich, idling iconoclast: the breaker of taboos, the political radical, the seeker after truth, and, in the end, the conventional man.

The play was written and first performed in the early 1900s, a turbulent time politically and socially, as new ideas challenged Victorian orthodoxy and the working man started to have a say. And women – or some women – started to break free from traditional shackles. Shaw was at the forefront of all of this, and “Man and Superman” fizzes with all these disturbances. At the same time, its enduring popularity comes from the fact that it is, in essence, a romantic comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. Shaw himself called it “A Comedy and a Philosophy”. The philosophy runs through the play, and gives it its edge; but the heart of the philosophical discourse lies in a densely written third act, in which Tanner, captured by Spanish brigands in the Sierra Nevada (suspend disbelief please!) falls asleep and descends into a dream in which he becomes Don Juan in Hell and ends up in debate with the Devil about the meaning – or not – of everything!

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Strangely, I’m unfamiliar with Shaw’s work, though not his reputation; and so I was on quite a learning curve yesterday – and a fascinating one. I learned that the play has often been performed without that third act, and stands up as a satirical romantic comedy without it. I can see that; but after yesterday, I couldn’t contemplate a version without its philosophical heart. It clarifies what drives Tanner on, and prepares him for his capitulation to Ann, the wealthy young heiress, whom he has known since childhood. As he describes it, his ensnarement, his suffocation by the boa constrictor. The outrageous radical, the thinker of great thoughts, the man of impulsive action, the challenger of orthodoxy, succumbing to the inevitability of love.

The play succeeds on so many levels. It’s brilliantly written for a start, and this production, directed by Simon Godwin, sharpens and modernises it, so that it is even easier to relate to. It feels like a good thing to be watching as we go through our own political turbulence, as the status quo, the establishment orthodoxy, the received economic model, the political settlement, feels increasingly untenable. Being the National Theatre, the sets are stunning – quite simple in some cases, but so complementary to the play. And, above all, the acting is just superb. Ralph Fiennes is, of course, the star. His role, as John Tanner, dominates the play: he must have at least two-thirds of the lines. In the Hell scene, the other characters even joke about his verbosity! Fiennes plays the role extravagantly, all gesticulation and expression. But also with wit and sympathy. You engage with him. I was reading his biography beforehand. It mentioned the Harry Potter films. For some reason, I couldn’t remember whom he’d played. Must have been one of the good guys, I thought to myself. And then I remembered… Voldemort!

There wasn’t too much of Voldemort in this performance – although it was about someone who’d like to revolutionise the world…

The supporting cast are excellent too. Indira Varma, as Ann, displays the manipulativeness and disingenuousness of her character, while remaining likeable and sympathetic. Her part is crucial to the play: not only because the love interest  revolves around her, but because she portrays the “new woman”, challenging those Victorian norms of subservience and domesticity.  Even though Tanner suspects her of trying to trap him in that life of domestic non-bliss.

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And Tim McCullan, as the brigand leader Mendoza and the Devil, is very funny. Mendoza, the Che Guevara prototype, who used to be a waiter in the Savoy, and bores his fellow rebels, as well as the captives, with his poetry of his lost love, Louisa, who turns out to be the sister of Tanner’s driver, the working class sage, Henry Straker. A daft coincidence, which, I think, gently mocked dramatic convention. And a very louche Devil, presiding over a Hell which sounds a lot of fun (thus offending all religious norms at the time?), although its unthinking pleasures are denounced by Don Juan/Tanner, who wants to strive for a higher purpose. For the Superman.

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It’s a joyous production, which got a great reception at the end of the performance. Your attention never wavers, even when Tanner is expostulating at length about life forces, pleasure’s flaws and the dangers of women in that third act. It’s genuinely funny, as well as thought-provoking. Essentially it’s good because the play is good; but the production and the acting updates it, makes it real for us today, and completely captivates.

Yeah, I think I liked it!

It’s on until 17 May, and while it’s sold out, further tickets are released from time to time.

Photo credits

All are from Google Images. The top photo is just of the programme cover. The Hell scene is from the National Theatre blog and the photo is by Johan Persson. He also took the last photo, of Mendoza and Tanner, which I got from the Official London Theatre website. Ann and Tanner is from the Times online review and is by Donald Cooper/Photostage.

 

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lovelondonscenes – 94

No sooner do I capture one St Luke’s church in Chelsea, that I come across another. In the borough if not the heart of it. This one’s in Earl’s Court, heading towards the river. It’s the site of a primary school too.

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And, knowing how much my good friend DC misses the bluebells, here’s something for him along similar lines. Taken as I walked down to the river. I’ve given it a little tint.

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lovelondonscenes – 93

The last couple of Friday evenings, after finishing work, I’ve walked to South Kensington tube from my place of work on Millbank, by the Thames. It takes about 45 minutes, winding through Pimlico, the bottom end of Belgravia, Sloane Square, the Kings Road, deepest Chelsea and then South Ken. Posh London, you could say. It’s a lovely walk, and one of the highlights is St Luke’s church, hidden in the middle of Chelsea’s opulent housing. Until I started doing this walk a couple of years ago I had no idea that the church existed.

Not exactly hidden London, but undiscovered on my part. It has some attractive gardens on one side and a load of five-a-side football pitches on the other. The church was designed by James Savage in 1819 and was part of a Gothic revival architecturally. It was built as Chelsea expanded from a village on the fringes of London to an integral part of the city. Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth there in 1836.

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Robin Trower at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 11 April 2015

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After the brilliant Courtney Barnett on Thursday, a journey back in time…

One of the first concerts I ever went to, in 1975, was a Robin Trower gig at Hammersmith Odeon. We came down to London, from Oakham, in the East Midlands, on a school trip. I think we were meant to be doing something cultural in the afternoon, but went to see “The Exorcist” in Leicester Square and then headed off to Hammersmith for the mighty Trower. A big adventure for a few provincial 16 year olds!

Trower was amazing that night. At the time he was one of my favourite artists. His Hendrix-like guitar, married to the soulful vibes of bassist James Dewar’s singing, was perfect for my rock-loving, but sentimental self. He was up there with Bad Company, Free and Led Zep. The very best, until Dr Feelgood and then the punks came along and blew everything away. I never stopped liking Robin Trower though; his guitar-playing was an amazing thing: so expressive, so atmospheric; sometimes wild, sometimes incredibly tender. The spirit of Hendrix was undoubtedly there; and of course, as a youth, I thought he was better than Hendrix! Later I learned that no-one, before or since, has been better than Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar.

And so, 40 years on – oh my God, forty years! – Dave (DC to blog comment viewers), Tony and I set out to Shepherd’s Bush Empire to see if the dream lived on. In the seats, so we could take in the spectacle in comfort, with beer in hand. Surrounded by lots of other people from our generation and older. Returning to remember…

Supporting Robin was Joanne Shaw-Taylor. We caught the last two songs of her set – and immediately wished we’d seen more. She played the rocking blues, accompanied by drums and bass. And she was superb! A raspingly soulful voice, which sounded quite like Joss Stone, and great guitar. Classic Les Paul rocking solos. Really impressive. Set us up nicely for Robin Trower and his band.

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Robin Trower is 70 now. He’s backed by two young guys, Christopher Taggart on drums and Richard Watts on bass and vocals. It could be James Dewar! If you saw Robin in the street you wouldn’t know he was one of the great rock guitarists. He was always quite unassuming, preferring to let his guitar do the talking. And man, did it still talk!

I was just bowled over really. He obviously didn’t leap about, but when he got that white Fender Stratocaster going, I was was transported back in time. It wasn’t just the memories of youth: it was the awesome power and grace of his playing. As good as I ever remembered it. I knew most of the songs; but really, it wouldn’t have mattered if I didn’t. It was that playing, those sounds. As magisterial as a guitar can be. Those echoes of Hendrix as clear and true as ever, especially in the faster numbers.

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Inevitably, the highlights for me came in some of the slower pieces, when Trower let his guitar sing. The loveliness of “Daydream” from his first album; a wonderful “For Earth Below”, which ended the performance; but best of all, “Bridge of Sighs”. It sprung slowly from the preceding “Day Of The Eagle”: those swirling patterns as evocative as they were to me as a misty-eyed sixteen year old. Played with such grace and ease, but also passion. You could see it in his eyes, the facial expressions. Still lost in the sound.

It was an inspiration. Still going at 70, still plucking those impossible sounds from the Fender Strat. The same guitar all evening (unlike so many, these days); no endless tunings in between songs. Just a man and his guitar and a few pedals. A master.

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Courtney Barnett at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, 9 April 2015

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Courtney Barnett is an Australian rock’n’roller who has just released her first full album, “Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit”, although she merged two EPs a while back for an album called “The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas”. That was a great collection: some excellent songs like “History Eraser”, “Avant Gardener” and my favourite, “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)”, which has brilliant rumbling bass line. She has a distinctive musical style: the music itself is stripped-down rock/punk/blues rhythms over which she extemporises about daily life, everyday traumas. It’s pretty personal at times: “Avant Gardener’ is well known for its candid description of an asthma and panic attack. The delivery is quite deadpan and the Aussie accent shines through. It’s a really intriguing mix.

She’s been building up a strong live following and the new album, in indie circles, was much-anticipated. It’s not disappointing. I haven’t listened to it enough yet to become really familiar, but there are some striking tunes, not least the single, “Pedestrian At Best”, which has had a lot of airplay from BBC 6 Music. Her latest tour was sold out – I just managed to get some tickets for the show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom before they ran out. And I’m sure glad I did!

There were two support bands. The first, Fraser A Gorman, we missed – we didn’t manage to extricate ourselves from the Sushi Salsa restaurant in time (it’s so rock’n’roll). But I really wanted to get there for Spring King, as I’d loved their track, “Better Man”, which I heard on the 6 Music Recommends Playlister on Spotify. ( I strongly recommend this as a great way of catching up with some of the best sounds of the moment). It was punk with a melodic streak; and the half hour show bore that out. A lively, tightly played sound. Unusually, the drummer taking lead vocals, which must be difficult when you are playing full-on rock’n’roll. Easy to make comparisons with the likes of The Vaccines and Palma Violets, and so, almost by definition, The Strokes and The Ramones. But these are good comparisons! It was an impressive cameo, and I shall definitely be checking out more of their music.

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Courtney came on and gave us an hour and a half of hard rocking. The sparseness of the recorded songs give her plenty of room to improvise and rock out live, and this she most certainly did! She was accompanied by a bassist and drummer, Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie – a classic three piece. (On the new record there is another guitarist, Dan Luscombe). The music could have been from any time since the early seventies; but I kept on thinking of Nirvana, and grunge in general. In the noise of the live concert, you lost the subtlety and quirkiness of the lyrics, but you got some hard-driving rhythms and spiky guitar instead. Played with confidence and style. There is something about Courtney Barnett that makes me think she could become quite a big star – and that she might appeal to the Americans too. And if she manages that then she is laughing.

Highlights? A bit hard to say, because I’m still familiarising myself with most of the music, apart from those tunes I mentioned earlier. So “History Eraser” got an early airing; and “Avant Gardener” and “Pedestrian At Best” made for a magnificent climax to the show. Sadly “Canned Tomatoes” didn’t make the cut, but you can’t have everything!

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So if you like good rock’n’roll that both draws on past heroes and has a contemporary touch, buy the album(s) and try and catch Courtney Barnett live. Before she ends up just doing festivals and stadiums!

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lovelondonscenes (92)

A couple of shots, turned into black and white, from Boston Manor Park, near Ealing. It’s a lovely park, but has the M4 cutting through it.

On its edges, down by the Grand Union canal, is the GlaxoSmithKline building.

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And then that M4. Well, it has to go somewhere.Has a certain impressiveness.

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Sportsthoughts (130) – Waiting for the Chelsea implosion

So the battle for the Premier League is shaking out the contenders. Spurs and Liverpool are falling short. No great surprise with Spurs; maybe a bit more with Liverpool, who’d started to look like they were getting it together. Biggest surprise of all is the slow deflation of Man City. A couple of losses have turned into a trend, and their superstars are looking jaded, uninterested. A defeat last night to feisty Crystal Palace said everything. The sort of game no serious contender for the title is going to lose.

Two sides, other than leaders Chelsea, are looking good. Man United have battled their way through the season, through a barrage of criticism about Louis van Gaal’s tactics, the quality of the players, and so on. Par for the course for United if they aren’t top of the tree. But they hung on in the top four and are looking pretty strong now. Rooney is playing well, the re-introduction of Mata has added some quality to the attacking, and this has been possible because Michael Carrick is back, holding together the defensive end of midfield. Commentators and fans are rarely sympathetic to teams when there are injuries; but they can have a major impact on the way teams are able to play. And that is exactly what has happened with Arsenal too. They are back to pretty much full strength, Spring is in the air, and they are playing football to dream about. The midfield maestros – Ozil, Cazorla, Sanchez, Ramsey – completely took Liverpool apart on Saturday at the Emirates. 4-1 and could have been more. Revenge for the traumatic collapse at Anfield the previous season. Giroud is strutting around like a French cockerel and the defence is more solid, helped by the emergence of Coquelin as an outstanding defensive midfielder. But it is so infuriating! WHY DIDN’T THEY DO IT EARLIER? Well, maybe it was the injuries. There were loads. It makes a difference.

The remaining doubt about Arsenal – OK, there are quite a few – is whether they can do it when there is a real chance of winning the League. Now there isn’t much hope they are turning it on. The pressure is off. It was the same in the Champions’ League. Total screw up in first leg against Monaco; brilliant in the second. What might have been…

And what might be. What if Chelsea implode? Like Man City have.

It’s unlikely. They are seven points clear, with a game in hand. They are not playing at their best, but they are still winning. There is depth and quality in the squad – and Jose Mourinho is the manager. He won’t take risks. He’ll grind out the edgy results. Until they are over the finishing line. The only hope for the chasers is that there are games for Chelsea coming up against Man Utd and Arsenal. If both those teams beat them – and on current form it is possible – then it will become even more a question of nerve. I’m clutching at straws, because, of course, I’d love to see Arsenal snatch it. But I wouldn’t put money on anyone but Chelsea right now.

And credit to Chelsea – and Mourinho. They have been impressive this season. And good to watch. Hazard, Fabregas, Costa, Oscar embellish any game. And there is a strong supporting cast. Worthy winners.

But come on the Ars-en-al!

PS. Sadly, after a brief moment of hope about bigger things just before Christmas, West Ham went into reverse and are now settling for relegation-free mid-table mediocrity. Entirely predictable. Grateful we aren’t in the relegation dogfight I guess.

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