London Preserv’d

As summer sunshine gives way to thunderstorms and vice versa, I travel to the Tate Modern to see the Matisse exhibition. I arrive a little early and walk along the Thames shore for a while; I notice that much of the materials that make up the beach are items like old bricks that have been rounded and worn but also that the amount of animal bone is extraordinary, with as many bones littering the shore as there are shells. Once inside, the Matisse exhibition straddles arts and crafts with works designed as wall ornaments (often using leaves as a pattern; William Morris would have approved), stained glass windows as well as book covers and illustrations. In fact, the decorative element works well as the cut-out technique used lacks sufficient precision for the representational; the works become an exercise in the serendipitous like Pollock’s dripped paint; Matisse is recorded as saying that he disliked the cut-outs being turned into prints due to the loss of the physical character when the layers of paper are flattened.

Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Thames before arriving at The Globe for a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. I have to admit to not being overwhelmed; the performance makes too much of the comic aspects of the play (the best performance is easily that of Phil Daniels as Enobarbus, who acts the leads offstage) and understates the tragic and fails to make full use of The Globe’s intimate space to create anything distinctive. The most memorable parts are attributable to the staging; Cleopatra’s golden chair dominating the stage or the sacrifice of a goat. It’s a different matter entirely the following week, with the performance of Otway’s Venice Preserv’d by The Spectator’s Guild. I arrive a little early in Greenwich again and spend a while looking at the Baltic Exchange stained glass in the National Maritime Museum. Then I wait at the Cutty Sark for the carnival to start and we are led by a group of harlequins through south London’s council estates to the Paynes and Borthwick building; an unfinished development that will serve in lieu of renaissance Venice. The play has has a modern prologue added that parallels its events with those of a maritime city divided between the ‘chavs and chav nots’ – this with a glance at the towers of Canary Wharf that can be seen gleaming on the other side of the river. As the play progresses we move from room to room, from inside to outsideas planes from the city airport fly overhead. The interior sets are often intriguing; with gauze separating them from the audience so that they can be projected on and gain a film-like quality (no need for suspension of disbelief over the appearance of ghosts; film of the dead characters are projected onto the walls. As the actors were filmed underwater it takes on an especially ethereal aspect. Elsewhere, the actors roam amongst the audience who are asked to don red capes so as to take the part of the Venetian Senate. The play itself seems unjustly forgotten, with the narrative of a bloody revolt against the tyrannical government of Venice resonating against the execution King Charles, Gunpowder Plot and events like the Popish Plot. One thing it does have in common with Antony and Cleopatra is the focus on female characters and their lack of power, with Aquillina and Belvidera’s actions proving the fulcrum on which narrative shifts. The acting is far better than that at the Globe with brilliant performances from all of the cast.

I’ve been reading Sontag’s Volcano Lover, which is in one sense a historical novel relating to the relationships of Nelson, William Hamilton and Emma Hamilton and is in another a more disinterested narrative in which none of those characters are ever referred to by name and in which an assemblage of more minor characters are allowed to narrate events from their own very different perspectives. Much of the novel is also given up to describing collecting or literature as a form of escape against events like either the action of the volcano or the wars devastating Europe at the time. I’ve also read the Orkneyinga where it’s interesting that christian and pagan worldviews overlap; the martyrdom of Saint Magnus sits alongside a warrior’s code of honour that mixes uneasily with christianity. Lastly, I’ve also read Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction; like many of Bernhard’s novels it creates a dialectic between a conservative and reactionary society in one instance and an isolated and nihilistic outsider in another. This manifests itself in the narrator’s contemptuously aristocratic attitude to his sister’s marriage to a bourgeois manufacturer or the way in which his friend Maria rejects his hatred for his family home or his friend Spadolini’s homily for his derided father.

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