Saturday, 12 October 2013

Museum by night

There was an  anxious cluster of people outside the Victoria and Albert Museum.  They were reading the hoardings that had appeared.  "NEW RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT" it proclaimed, and a second line added, "AT PRIME CULTURAL HERITAGE LOCATION."

I could hear what the people were saying, although their voices rarely rose above a quiet mutter.  "They're selling everything off."  "I never thought we'd lose the V&A."  "It's such a shame - I'll miss it."  But although passers-by really thought that the government had decided to convert one of London's great museum into luxury housing, none of those I heard suggested a protest.  They minded, they were upset, but not one of them even suggested wearing a badge or writing a letter to an MP.  This was what the government was doing and they would have to put up with it.

I'd have been there with a banner and loud-hailer if I thought the government was selling off the V&A to property developers.  I've loved this museum since, as a London child, I wandered through its galleries and got lost amidst its marvels.  There used to be a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry on rollers so that you could view it in stages.  I lost count of the number of times my brother and I surveyed it, looking for the figure we believed was Harold with the arrow in his eye.  The huge and detailed Raphael cartoons were another attraction and for some reason I was fascinated by the sculpture of the serpents entangling Laocoon and his sons.  There were even visits to the cast gallery, if I could persuade an adult to take me past the sign which banned unaccompanied children under 15.  I don't know if this was to project the fragile casts or to keep us from the replica of Michaelangelo's David with which I was obsessed, though more for the expression of his face than for his nudity.  Fortunately I rarely had any problem in finding a grown-up to escort me past the museum guards.  If only for the strength of my memories, I would fight to preserve the V&A for future generations of children.

But I knew that, for now at least, the V&A is safe from property developers.  I was on my way to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation and, after a moment's shock, came to the conclusion that the hoardings were part of the game they were playing with visitors.  

It was Friday evening.  I've never been to a late evening opening at the V&A before and the feel of the museum is different.  As the skies darken outside, the light in the museum changes.  Visitors seem more hushed and slightly tentative, as though they fear they're trespassing.  And because some of the galleries were closed, I had to find new routes and, as usual with so large a museum, I found myself in unfamiliar rooms.  I couldn't work out if I'd seen the Turners before and hurried past but on Friday evening they were luminous and compelling.  I've only just begun to appreciate Turner after the hackneyed reproductions of The Fighting Temeraire that appeared on so many biscuit tins in my childhood.  But after spending time in the small room of the National Gallery where two Turners are hung with two paintings by Claude, I have gradually come to realise, some years after falling for Claude, that I've learned to like Turner as well.

I wanted to linger by the Turners but I had come to the V&A to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation, called Tomorrow.  I loved the idea of the installation: five galleries of the V&A have been turned into the apartment of a rich and unsuccessful architect which he has been compelled to sell but has not yet left.  Visitors are encouraged to snoop on the invisible inhabitant while the museum guards, dressed as butlers and maids, stand about and respond to queries with deferential courtesy.

At first I thought the installation was great.  My sense of being an intruder matched my sense of strangeness at being in the museum at night.  There weren't many other visitors just then, and I wondered if some of them were part of the installation.  Nervously I picked up items, stroked them, read postcards and bills, leafed through newspapers (lots of stories of the London riots) and perched on sofas and chairs.  There were a few moments which added to my uneasiness - but not many and, for my taste, not enough.  In the end I wasn't sufficiently engaged with the setting nor with the film script which was provided to accompany it.  I was left as cold as I was by Elmgreen and Dragset's consciously kitsch sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.  It's the only fourth plinth sculpture that I've actually disliked.  

I've been trying to work out why I was so unengaged by the installation.  I know other visitors have liked it.  There were elements I enjoyed: the unwashed coffee cups, the unmade bed, the sound of the shower, the fireplace in the living room and the vultures.  But in the end I was uninterested in the people that the room conjured up - apart from the servants.  The servants were great and I'd like to have known more about them.  I leafed through the postcards and photograph album and worked out, from the pictures, that I was supposed to understand that the rich inhabitant of the flat was gay and liked looking at attractive young men - but why was this presented as a puzzle?  It seemed to be presenting the character's sexuality as a not-very-hidden secret, which would have made some sense forty or fifty years ago but is a little strange now.  I looked at the architecture posters and models and wondered what point was being made, then found that I didn't much care.  The installation seemed to be about wealth and people to whom wealth came easily.  In real life I feel much more uneasy in such a world than I did in the installation.  I left unmoved.

But then I found myself among the drawings in the V&A's collection, and I was riveted.  Here there were people and scenes I could care about.  There was clear craft as well as art, and surprising experimentation.  A startling ink drawing which Constable made in old age caught my attention, and I looked with care at some of the tiny oil sketches he had made too.  I particularly loved those of the seashore.  I fell into conversation with people who had taken a different route to the museum and been distracted by the small Constables on their way to the installation.  They were more knowledgeable than me and could trace the influence Constable had on twentieth century artists.   I couldn't stay long enough but I want to get back to see the Turners and Constables again.  It seems that my views of Constable have been unfairly limited by exposure to frequent reproductions of his paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and the Hay Wain.

So it wasn't the temporary installation that awoke my sense of wonder but the familiar seen anew.  I left the V&A determined to return again soon - and on a Friday evening if I can.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Back to the blood tubs: the amazing spectacle of Charlie Peace

When I was a child, I was fascinated by a particular kind of penny-in-the-slot machine - the sort you found in the arcade at the end of the pier, if the pier's attractions were particularly run down.  

In those days pennies were really big copper coins - bigger than any coin in use today.  If you held them tightly in your hand and your hand sweated, you would acquire a green stain on your palm.

The coins were old. too.  Particularly sought after were "bun pennies" with their image of the young Queen Victoria, with her hair in a bun - though it was sometimes hard to make her out on the battered and faded coins.  But those were coins that had been shiny new in Charlie Peace's era, though he was ambitious for more wealth than a mere penny represented.

I don't know if the penny-in-the-slot machines I loved were around in Charlie Peace's lifetime but I suspect some, at least, represented the moment of his death.  Public executions might have ended in Britain, and parents no longer gave copies of the Newgate Calendar to their children as a dreadful warning, but end-of-the-pier machines showed, as well as haunted houses and "what the butler saw," a variety of executions, including the French guillotine and the British "long drop."  While they were bleakly macabre, they also offered the final episode of an unknown story - something to spark the imagination.

Early in Michael Eaton's new play about the Victorian burglar, murderer and folk-hero Charlie Peace, there is just such a tableau.  It's part of an entertainment that harks back to Victorian and pre-Victorian popular culture.  It doesn't belong with the sedate cup-and-saucer dramas intended for upper-middle-class audiences " or the slightly later problem play which barely questioned middle-class morality.  This is part music-hall entertainment, with its master of ceremonies, music and spectacle, and part the kind of melodrama that might have stemmed from one of the "penny gaffs" or "blood tubs" that came into being when "legitimate theatre" was restricted to England's few patent houses.  There are also elements of broadside ballads in some of the songs while either side of the set are huge playbills in the Victorian mode.

The great achievement of the play and its excellent cast is that it demonstrates that this kind of spectacle, so often sneered at by theatrical critics, still works for an audience, and works exceptionally well.  While most performances in this mode are either pantomimes, which have to work for a family audience, or slightly superior mockeries of the genre, Charlie Peace engages with the mode and celebrates it.  At the time, I was too caught up in the plot to analyse my response but I recall laughing, gasping, sitting on the edge of my seat and admiring the craft and dexterity of the actors.  And while the play is not about careful characterization or anguished doubt, Peter Duncan was entirely credible as the kind of friendly villain who could be charming, anguished, angry or ingratiating depending on the company in which he found himself.

There is something serious going on too.  The play led me, at any rate, to consider why I find law-breakers like Charlie so engaging and why apparent villains have such a hold on the English popular imagination.  Plainly class is an element but it's not just that.  I wonder if Charlie Peace has a similar hold over the imagination of people who always expect the law to protect their own interests. 

But you need to see the play for yourself.  It's at Nottingham Playhouse until 19th October and then it moves to the Belgrade Theatre at Coventry.   I don't know if it's touring any more widely but if I was running a theatre capable of staging it, I'd try to get this play with this cast if at all possible.  Get to see it if you can. 

I would like to praise the director but unfortunately I mislaid my programme - or perhaps Charlie snitched it (it's the sort of thing he might have done) so I don't know who the director is.  The sets, by graphic artist Eddie Campbell, are marvellous and the stage technicians have evidently worked hard, to very good effect.