I stopped reviewing exhibitions a while back as I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job of it but I haven’t stopped going to them. Bob Dylan at the National Portrait Gallery was disappointing, Michael Landy’s Saints Alive at the National Gallery was great fun, reminiscent of the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition back in the 60s. Bruce Munroe’s light sculptures at Waddesdon House, particularly the Christmas collection, have been wonderful and the Beastly Hall exhibition of modern art at Hall Place was intriguing. However, the one unmissable exhibition this year is Heaven in a Hell of War: Stanley Spencer’s war paintings loaned from Sandham Memorial Chapel while the chapel is being renovated. Somehow, his pictures of the mundanity of war, scrubbing floors and making beds rather than fighting, makes it even more moving. It continues until January 26th and it is free, so there is no excuse not to visit if you are in London, especially as this year marks the centenary of the Great War.
It is unfair to compare performances in small theatres with those in large theatres but in this case, Michael Pennington’s astonishing performance in Dances of Death would not have been out of place on the stage of the Olivier. Howard Brenton superbly edited Strindberg’s play to include the rarely performed second act – this really should have gone on to the West End. As usual, the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond was dependably first class, most notably The Stepmother starring the superb Katie McGuinness (and Christopher Ravenscroft who was also in Dances of Death). The slightly larger St James Theatre was more variable but Rutherford & Son and The Room Next Door were both excellent. A final word must go to the Old Red Lion Theatre for another astonishing play by Philip Ridley – The Fastest Clock in the Universe. He is clearly one of our greatest playwrights and I’d never heard of him until last year.
An extra category this year as there have been so many funny afternoons and evenings. Eddie Izzard was very funny at the O2 (now available on DVD) and One Man, Two Guvnors was as funny as everyone says. Other comedies didn’t quite hit the mark, such as The Ladykillers. The Room Next Door was a good play with some very funny moments but the one performance that had me crying with laughter throughout was The Play That Goes Wrong from Mischief Theatre. They tried again with Peter Pan Goes Wrong which is probably just as funny for audiences who didn’t see the original but not quite as funny for those of us who did. I look forward to seeing where they go next – I hope it’s somewhere different.
The National Theatre was inconsistent again this year but Strange Interlude and Children of the Sun were superb. When I reviewed Othello, I wrote, “I feel pretty certain I’ve just seen the winner(s) of the next Olivier for Best Actor.” It’s too early for the Oliviers but Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester deservedly shared the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor. The Young Vic shone with A Doll’s House (a strong runner up which I saw in the West End) and Public Enemy. The Old Vic didn’t have any productions that grabbed me until the excellent Fortune’s Fool right at the end of the year which I also strongly recommend. I also enjoyed One Man, Two Guvnors but the West End was otherwise a little disappointing this year.
I have seen far too few concerts this year. I’m really glad I saw Jah Wobble at last (I didn’t see Public Image until after he left) but I think it’s the last time I’ll be able to stand up waiting for a band to come on late in the evening. The Wigmore Hall lunchtime concerts are more my thing nowadays. However, it was well worth going out in the evening to see two massive works as part of The Rest is Noise: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony and Tippett’s Child of Our Time. Both overwhelmingly good but there are a dozen other concerts I’d have loved to go to as part of this season – if only they did matinees.
This category covers any event that happened during the year and doesn’t fit into the other categories. I did consider the strangely beautiful performance work Above Me the Wide Blue Sky at the Young Vic. There were also some enjoyable days out, such as the London Film and Comic Con in July and the ENB open day. However, there is no doubt that Brasserie Zédel’s celebration of Bastille Day wins out. The brasserie is one of my favourite restaurants in London, an art deco shrine which serves classic French food at decent prices, and the prix fixe is a decent pre-theatre meal for under £10. On Bastille day they offered a free menu formule to regulars (or anyone on their mailing list) wearing a beret and a Breton sailor’s top. The atmosphere was fantastic and fun-filled. It was also lovely to wander up Regent Street afterwards, shut to traffic for the day, even if it did mean spending what I saved on food on silk ties instead.
I’ve made it clear that I think Stravinsky was the greatest composer for the ballet and I have really enjoyed some of his classic ballets this year: the Royal Ballet performing Firebird and Rite of Spring, and English National Ballet’s interpretation of Fokine’s Petrushka. Surprisingly, my favourite interpretation of his music this year was Boston Ballet’s flawless performance of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. However, I was just astonishingly lucky to see Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg’s final performance with the Royal Ballet: two of today’s greatest dancers giving what might have been their greatest performance to date. The event was amazingly emotionally charged, a couple in real-life as well as on stage, saying goodbye to the company in one of the most romantic ballets.
The three great productions this year for me were the Royal Ballet’s Wozzeck, ENO’s Satyagraha and this. Death in Venice had to win, though, as on of the most moving productions I have experienced in any medium. I suspect I appreciated it more for being old (although I loved the original story by Thomas Mann over 40 years ago). It is not just a story of an old man longing for an unobtainable youth – this production makes it very clear that it is a story of an old man longing for unobtainable youth. The production was magical, the scenery and lighting complementing the underlying feelings perfectly and the words came through crystal clear with no need for surtitles, demonstrating Britten’s place as the greatest composer of English opera.