Tag: Nottingham

True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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‘We’re All going to Die!’: Richard Herring at Nottingham’s Glee Club

Richard Herring: We're All Going to Die!

Richard Herring: We’re All Going to Die!

They may seem like unlikely bedfellows but death and comedy have always held a special relationship. Our fear of death often manifests itself in a love of the ghoulish and the macabre and yet we often feel uncomfortable talking about it.

But in his latest show – We’re All Going to Die! – Richard Herring tells us that we should confront death head-on and celebrate the time that we have left on earth.

From being named after an intimate part of the body to becoming a fossil, Herring says that there are all sorts of different ways to live on after your death. Herring examines death from all angles, from religion, linguistics, existentialism to the cost of funerals and falling down the steps on the way out of the gig. He questions what the benefits of heaven are when we have to leave behind all our earthly pleasures (which are, of course, physical pleasures) in exchange for a pair of wings and concludes that death is necessary otherwise the earth would be full of unevolved amoebas who will never die.

Ever the pedant, Herring also spends plenty of time unravelling the absurdity of the nursery rhyme ‘There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly’ before concluding that the last line makes the most sense: there is a finality in death so we should make sure we should make the most of our lives. He also offers a counterpoint to Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech in which he tells the doomed prince not to dwell on death but instead to have fun and take Ophelia out.

Anyone who saw Herring’s earlier show What is Love Anyway will remember the fondness with which he spoke of his grandmother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He tells us that she has since passed away at the age of 102 and what follows is a poignant and hilarious take on how we cope with death, demonstrating his ability to engage the audience with his fascinating and sometimes child-like take on life’s big questions.

Richard Herring appeared at Nottingham’s Glee Comedy Club last week. For upcoming tour dates visit his website.

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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis is full of symbolism and dark humour

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

The story of the struggling artist, eking out an existence from his work and relying on the goodwill of friends, is one that has been told many times before and it is the subject of Joel and Ethan Coen in their latest film, Inside Lleywn Davis. But what starts as a picaresque narrative dealing with a familiar idea becomes something that is much harder to define and the result is a highly original work, full of leitmotifs and temporal shifts.

Set in New York in the early 1960s, just before the explosion of the folk scene, it tells the tale of Llewyn Davis, a down-at-heel singer who seems to be plagued by bad luck. He is someone who lives on the fringes of society, refusing to get a steady job and settle down. As the story unfolds we are drip-fed details about his life but there are always plenty of unanswered questions, for example, why is he beaten up outside the nightclub and what has happened to his partner in the folk duo of which he was once part?

In this film there is a sense in which relationships and friendships are ephemeral. Even the begrudging friendship Llewyn strikes up with a ginger cat is hollow after we discover that it is not even the same cat and in what looks like a conscious attempt to avoid sentimentality he later  abandons the animal when he has the chance to help it.

Llewyn has always led a transient life, first in the Marines and then as a folk singer, and yet the respectable lives led by his father and his sister seem no more appealing or rewarding. He undertakes a road trip to Chicago with two strangers to meet a record executive and as he travels across this vast landscape, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, he becomes stuck in a kind of purgatory where everything is tantalisingly out of reach. His efforts to forge a successful musical career or go back to the Marines elude him in an almost Kafkaesque way and he is left feeling tired and drained.

This might seem depressing but the film is punctuated by dark humour and moments of Schadenfreude. With a raised eyebrow and a knowing glance, we are invited to laugh at the increasingly commercialised folk scene. Another great comic performance came from John Goodman who plays the heroin-addled, cane-carrying jazz musician who travels with Llewyn to Chicago.

Overall, this is a deeply insightful film, brimming with difficult questions, pathos and humanity. And while I am not a huge folk music fan, the score, created by T Bone Burnett, is beautifully melancholy.

Inside Llewyn Davis is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 13th February.

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Review: Trevor Noah performs at Nottingham’s Glee Club

South African comedian Trevor Noah who performed at Nottingham's Glee Club.

South African comedian Trevor Noah who performed at Nottingham’s Glee Club.

There is a real freshness about South African comedian Trevor Noah who appeared at Nottingham’s Glee Club with his latest show The Racist on Sunday evening. He does not rely on crude humour or bad language in his routines and while he is not afraid to talk about politics and race he does so with a wide-eyed innocence which is instantly likeable.

After a short pre-amble in which he mock-confesses that the first part of the show could be ‘awkward’ Noah quickly revealed himself to be an accomplished comedian who was fully at ease on stage. His began with a few observations about life in the UK (it’s cold, dark and there is no mobile phone reception) before weaving insightful stories about life on the road, touring around Africa, growing up during apartheid and the fact that he was the product of an ‘illegal’ relationship (Noah has a white, Swiss father and a black South African mother). Growing up in a township with his mother and extended family he was not even allowed to be seen with his father and there is no bitterness or world-weariness in his tales; the horrors of apartheid are there in the background but what shines through is the humour that permeates family life.

Towards the end of the show, Noah tells us he can speak six languages and indeed it is his command of language that makes him such a pleasure to watch. He moves deftly from black American slang to Spanish to the German he learnt by inadvertently by listening to Hitler’s speeches. Race – and by extension language and culture – are the dominant themes in this show and Noah is able to subvert our notions of what these mean through playfulness rather than lecturing. He didn’t even need to win over the audience; he was greeted warmly from the beginning and he was rewarded with rapturous applause by the end.

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Impressive staging of Richard III at Nottingham Playhouse

Ian Bartholomew

Ian Bartholomew as Richard III

The last time I saw Ian Bartholomew perform he played a very convincing dictator in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Nottingham Playhouse. Brecht’s masterpiece, an allegory which examines Hitler’s rise to power, draws us in to the point where we feel complicit in the terrible acts he committed.

As with his portrayal of Arturo Ui, Bartholomew has a mighty stage presence in Shakespeare’s Richard III which recently opened at the Playhouse. He’s dressed in a Gestapo-like military uniform and jackboots (another nod to Hitler) but he does not immediately appear to be the despot you expect. In fact, he’s somewhat self-deprecating and comical and by addressing the audience directly, he makes us feel part of his wicked scheme.

But the violence of this era nevertheless pervades the performance. A monarch’s reign, often established through battle, cruelty and strategic marriages, was by no means secure and this meant atrocious acts were committed like the imprisonment of the princes in the tower.

And in a perverse twist, Charles Daish, who plays Clarence, staggers onto stage on crutches, his face visibly pained, after suffering a real injury during rehearsals.

All of the actors performed well and the traditional Shakespearean delivery was peppered with an element of playfulness: I particularly liked the depiction of the two murderers as an East-End gangster and a young hooligan dressed in a hoodie, complete with cockney accents.

They also used the entire theatre to great effect and in the climatic moment when Richard is declared king, he stands on the balcony and we sit, surrounded by his supporters, gazing up at him.

On stage, the grey backdrop gives us a sense of foreboding, while the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, horrifying visions are projected onto the white tent in which Richard fights his demons. The final battle scene was also wonderfully dramatic, with swords clashing and bodies strewn across the ground.

In the Playhouse’s production of 1984 last month the quest for absolute power is explored and this play follows on neatly from that. Although many historians now view Shakespeare’s Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda and are less inclined to apply a modern moral framework to his actions, there is no denying that this is a fascinating examination of power, tyranny and oppression. It’s also a must-see if, like me, you have been hooked by the discovery of the remains of the last Plantagenet king in Leicester.

Richard III is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 16th November. For details visit the website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #mykingdomforahorse

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Powerful figures: Geoffrey Farmer’s Let’s Make the Water Turn Black at Nottingham Contemporary

geoff2Walking into a gallery filled with classical sculptures can be somewhat unnerving. Forms that suggest strength and power stand static while the cold, white marble is strangely death-like.

As with Frankenstein’s monster, it is easy to imagine a bolt of electricity reanimating these frozen figures. It’s an idea that played on my mind when I went to see Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer’s latest installation, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month.

Inside, the figures that greet you are indeed white and motionless. Created from salvaged objects and old movie props, some playfully reference traditional sculpture. One even has the muscular limbs and noble face typical of the art form but it has been deconstructed: its body is made up of a mechanical-looking frame, a horn has been placed in its ear and a carrot has been stuffed into its mouth. Seemingly disparate, the sculptures spring to life as different coloured lights flash across them, animating even the cabbages that appear to grow from the solid, white gallery floor. Other characters, created with mop hair and light bulbs for eyes, suddenly come alive in a way that is both playful and sinister.

As well as the transformative lighting, a soundtrack made up of field recordings and Foley sounds perpetually changes the mood in the gallery and abstract electronic soundscapes contrast with the cheerful, half-remembered 1940s radio ditties.

The exhibition takes its name from Frank Zappa’s 1968 song Let’s Make the Water Turn Black which follows the story of pair of young brothers who lock themselves up in the garage and amuse themselves with all sorts of revolting games. The childish humour shifts to something darker as we learn that one of the brothers is in the army while the other is ‘taking pills’. During a recent visit to the Contemporary, Farmer said that he was interested in 1960s LA and his installation perfectly captures the dichotomy of this era (free love and peace versus war, drug casualties and the horrors of Altamont and the Charles Manson murders).

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black runs until 5th January. For details on the exhibition, and the events that have been organised around it, visit the Contemporary’s website.

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Not easy to watch but some genuinely touching moments in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” says Sharon, one of the minor characters in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine as she describes the guests at a party.

While it may have appeared to be an unremarkable comment, I thought it was an apt description of the disparate people who are thrown together by circumstance. In the opening scenes we meet the beautiful, glamorous but intensely troubled Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett who spends the entire flight from New York to San Francisco talking non-stop to a fellow passenger. Carrying her Louis Vuitton luggage, she turns up at her adopted sister’s flat after discovering her rich husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was an adulterous crook.

Jasmine, whose real name is Jeanette, has followed a very different path from her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who works in a grocery store, has two children and a string of rough-and-ready but generally kind-hearted boyfriends. Using a series of flashbacks, we see that Jasmine always looked down on her sister, while seemingly turning a blind eye to her husband’s dodgy deals in return for the lavish lifestyle she believes she deserves. Clutching a bottle of pills and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the protagonist in Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Blanchett’s depiction of Jasmine’s descent into depression and alcoholism is suitably gut-wrenching.

Like its characters, the film is not always perfect; it trundles along in places and it was difficult to muster up much sympathy for Jasmine, who continues to view Ginger with disdain despite her generosity and sweet nature. At the same time, there are some genuinely touching moments and in one scene when Jasmine is babysitting Ginger’s two boys we see a much more ‘human’ side to her as she speaks candidly for the first time about her break-down and the pills she has to take.

Blue Jasmine continues at Broadway Cinema this week.

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Stewart Lee shows his playful side at Nottingham Playhouse

stewKnown for offering the antithesis of big venue comedy gigs, Stewart Lee began his latest show, Much a Stew About Nothing, by telling us unceremoniously that he is trying out new material for an upcoming TV show.

When he was last in Nottingham for Carpet Remnant World he performed in front of a row of grubby, sad-looking carpets and the show culminated in a nihilistic super rant about modern alienation. But when he appeared  at Nottingham Playhouse on Sunday evening, Lee seemed altogether more playful, occasionally cracking a gleeful smile. He even roped three members of the audience to cart a load of boxes to Anish Kapoor’s famous Skymirror sculpture so that he could use it as a stall to flog his DVDs.

For fans of his biting political satire there was plenty here with Lee launching a searing attack on Paul Nutall ‘of the UKIPs’ for his views on immigration. That said, politics does not dominate the show and references to TV programmes like The Really Wild Show proved to be a crowd pleaser. A large part of Lee’s routines these days centres on his experiences of family life and his description of himself as a ‘vasectemised, alcoholic, 45-year-old father of two’ was brilliant.

There is no doubt that Lee is a consummate performer and he is a skillful improviser who easily fended off the heckler who decided to start belting out a song in the middle of the routine. Perhaps this show did not reach the dizzy heights of Carpet Remnant World but Lee seemed comfortable with the audience and there was a warm humour that sat surprisingly well alongside his satire.

An extra date for this show has been planned for 23rd January. For details visit the Playhouse website.

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Explore Sons and Lovers at this year’s DH Lawrence Festival

lawrenceDH1 (1)A festival celebrating one of Nottinghamshire’s most famous literary sons is returning next month with a host of different events planned.

The DH Lawrence Festival, which takes place between 6th and 21st September, will include exhibitions, lectures, vintage fairs, afternoon tea, walks, film screenings, music and activities for families in his home town of Eastwood and the surrounding area.

It is 100 years since Lawrence published his autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers and this year’s festival, now in its 10th year, is an opportunity to explore one of his most acclaimed works. Author Stephen Bailey will be leading a walk around Nottingham on 9th September when he will point out some of the landmarks depicted in the novel including Nottingham Castle and the Theatre Royal. On 12th September there will be another Sons and Lovers walk, this time around the countryside of Haggs Farm (Willey Farm in the novel) and Felley Woods. On the same day there will be a screening of the 1960 film at Broadway cinema. The landscape which inspired Sons and Lovers is also the subject of an illustrated talk which takes place at the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre, Eastwood, on 13th September.

For those who want to venture further afield I would recommend a trip to the picturesque Teversal Village near Sutton-in-Ashfield. As part of an open weekend event, which takes place between 6th and 8th September, there will be a chance to find out about Teversal Manor, which is thought to be Wragby Hall, the manor house in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. On 6th September, Dr Andrew Harrison from Nottingham University will be giving a talk on how the landscape of this region inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover (call Denis Hill at Ashfield District Council on 01623 457426 to book).

Perhaps the event I am looking forward to the most is a screening of Inside the Mind of Mr Lawrence at Broadway. The film, which is set in 1928, stars Paul Slack who I interviewed two years ago ahead of his one-man play Phoenix Rising at Nottingham Playhouse in which he also played Lawrence. Paul, who is originally from Sutton-in-Ashfield, has a wonderful Nottinghamshire accent (there are few performers who can pull this off accurately!) and his shows are infused with breath-taking passion and energy.

Further details, including a full programme of events, can be found here. You can also find D.H. Lawrence Heritage on Facebook, on Twitter @dhlheritage and by using the hashtags #dhlawrence and #dhlawrencefestival.

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Edinburgh Fringe Preview Part II: Notes from the underground in Paradise

paradiseNottingham New Theatre‘s production Paradise premiered in February but I unfortunately I was away on holiday.

The piece of site-specific theatre, directed by Tom Barnes and produced by Gabby Carboneri, was performed in a disused tunnel on the outskirts of the city which would no doubt have been the perfect setting for this bleak tale of modern-day alienation. Although it returned to the relatively safe confines of the theatre for its pre-Edinburgh peview last week, it still had a tremendous energy and poignancy.

Set on the underground in London, the centre piece is a concertina-like chair which is expanded and contracted to make room for the revolving cast of characters. The only other prop is a piece of black and yellow tape which denotes the platform edge somewhat ominously.

On the busy train we meet a young Yorkshire man called Liam (played by Matthew Miller) who, breaking the etiquette of the tube, tries to strike up a conversation with his fellow passengers. But they are all wearing flesh-coloured, dummy-like masks and are unsurprisingly unresponsive; they are reduced to mere types, for example, he refers the banker on his way to work as ‘pin stripe’.

Over the course of the play, which is sound tracked by two female vocalists/guitarists playing buskers, we are given glimpses into the lives of the characters. There is the unconventional hen party, the arguing couple, the band mates, the French tourist. Their lives are interrupted by a tragic event which stops them in their tracks momentarily. But perhaps what is shocking about it is not the event itself – horrifying though it is – but the way in which the characters brush it off with little empathy.

Paradise was created through improvised rehearsals and this gave it a wonderful immediacy. The dialogue was sharp and rhythmical, veering from frenzied outbursts to quiet reflections. It is a play that captures the pathos and disconnection but also humour of modern life.

You can see The Project at Zoo Monkey House at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

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