A Grand Day Out: Art & Shakespeare

A diversion from literary fare today. My daughter and I went to London yesterday for a day of art and Shakespeare. It was a long day – we got home at 1am, but it was rather brilliant. Our first stop was:

The House of Illustration

This gallery nestles beside Central St Martin’s school of art just behind Kings Cross Station.  This area has been really gentrified in recent decades – it used to have a bad reputation, but is now all gleaming offices and appartments, old buildings restored into eateries and galleries, the canalside renovated too. The fountains outside St Martins in Granary Square (right) were also full of kids enjoying themselves in the sunshine as we later ate our lunch (bought from the biggest poshest Waitrose I’ve yet seen, next door to the college).

Back to the House of Illustration., which currently has three exhibitions. A small one of Quentin Blake drawings of birds as people – his drawings always feel so spontaneous. A room devoted to the work of Jacqueline Ayer in Thailand. She was a 1960s artist and illustrator born in New York of Jamaican parents, who lived in Bangkok. She was renowned in the US for being one of the first artists to depict Asian life authentically.

The biggest exhibition was of Japanese Anime architectural backgrounds to classic films such as Ghost in the Shell by Hiromasa Ogura and Takashi Watabe. These drawings and hand-watercoloured paintings are so meticulous – the detail is just superb and the colours so atmospheric. I loved them.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

The Courtyard outside the RA with sculpture by Yinka Shinobare

I can’t believe I’ve never been to this annual event before! I definitely want to make it a regular feature of my summers from now on.  Over 1000 artworks (all for sale for those with deep pockets), and every style you could imagine on display.  Although anyone can submit paintings to the exhibition, naturally when perusing, you look for the famous names – there were plenty on offer …

Tracey Emin this year had three neon light installations of meaningful phrases in her hand-writing… this one I Did not Say I can never Love You I Said I could Never Love will set you back £90,000. I’m never sure how I feel about art like this – for she designed it – but a neon specialist will have manufactured it – so it loses the personal touch for me.

There were multiple paintings by Michael Craig Martin too – loads of them scattered through the exhibition. All big graphic drawings of single objects on bright backgrounds all in bold colours – very distracting when hung next to smaller more delicate paintings – I wondered why they’d not group them together?  Some of the rooms did have a sort of discernible theme to the works within, others less so.  There was also a huge wall-hogging backlit Gilbert and George creation which featured their trademark themes – themselves and sex primarily.

City Skaters I by Bill Jacklin RA

I had two favourites in the whole show.

The first was in the first room – a gorgeous painting of people ice skating in Central Park by Bill Jacklin appropriately titled City Skaters I (there was a II, elsewhere). I loved the colours and the clouds and the skyline.

The other was by Jock McFadyen (who had 3 pictures – all super). Buffalo Grill shows a roadside diner – his other two showed other roadside buildings – all alone on a deserted highway.  Now this one was available in a print edition of 30 for £975 – you can see by the row of red dots that most of them were sold by this time.

We both really enjoyed the Summer Exhibition.

We needed a refresher and a sit-down again after that. Tea and iced-coffee were followed by a good browse in the flagship Waterstones, then an early dinner before the long-anticipated highlight of the day…


Hamlet – starring Andrew Scott

Of what a treat!  I’ve seen quite a few Hamlets and Robert Icke’s production, now at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End after the Almeida,  was my first in modern-dress, set in a contemporary Denmark and boy, was it gorgeous to look at.

From being able to see the vaulted brick walls of the theatre’s backstage ceiling, to the modern furniture (which tended towards towards Italian chrome and glass rather than Scandi-blonde wood), it had style.  It began in the security room, where the guards spotted the ghost on one of the camera screens – and clever incorooration of video was a hallmark all the way through – for instance, we only see young Fortinbras on the screen.  There were superbly clever touches throughout in the staging – so when the players perform, chairs were brought for the Royal party to sit in front of the audience, but a video camera watched them react – which we saw on screen beside the play within the play. I loved the way the main action takes place in an inside room of the castle, yet through the translucent windows, we could often see the other characters carousing, drinking, chatting outside under fairy lights – no tea-breaks for most of the actors in this production.  Scene-changes that weren’t linked by video, were as often as not, linked by Bob Dylan songs – yes! However, All Along the Watchtower is rather appropriate for Hamlet don’t you think?

Which brings me to the cast – what an ensemble!  We’ll come to Andrew Scott in a moment, but the other stand-outs were Claudius and Polonius.  Angus Wright was tall, suave and surprisingly mercurial as the new King –  obviously so in love/lust with Gertrude – here was a man who couldn’t believe his luck, until he lost it.  David Wight was a wonderful Polonius, gossipy, rambling, forgetful, fatherly, sounding like an older Stephen Fry. and making the most of his part’s comic potential.

Previously, my Hamlet touchstone had been Branagh, whose full-length production at the Barbican in the 1990s had been a model of natural speaking that seemed to make everything clear – whomever said it.  The same natural way of speaking suited the modern setting here, but the two Hamlets couldn’t be more different.

We all know Scott from his turns in Sherlock as Moriarty – a role for which he’s got a huge following of fans. His Dublin brogue and different inflections in the way he speaks made him a memorable villain.  In his Hamlet, those inflections came to the fore again, but used to wring a rather different meaning from the text. It felt as if you could hear him thinking of the words to speak, not speaking a memorised text. The words felt fresh and new, whether  coming hesitantly as in the To be or not to be soliloquy, or else tumbling out in torrents. He really lived the words – it was a superbly spoken and physical performance. I LOVED IT, and I can’t believe he’s forty – he seems younger.

The cast and Scott especially totally deserved the standing ovation at the end. What a fantastic production.

We went round to the stage door, where I stood with a crowd of young Sherlock fans to get his autograph. They’d put up crash barriers giving him a direct path to his waiting car, and he had a minder who was very strong on no pushing! It was a choice of photo or autograph, so I snapped him with someone else while waiting for the signature…


P.S. I just read, they’re going to broadcast his production on BBC2 next spring .

10 thoughts on “A Grand Day Out: Art & Shakespeare

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    We saw an outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors on Saturday at The Vyne. Quite a different sort of Shakespeare experience, but the first time I’d seen one of the plays performed in many years. How wonderful to find a production that brings a familiar play to life once again. I love the sound of the staging choices here.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve never seen an outdoor Shakespeare. The staging of this production was really wonderful and the detail superb.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    What a lovely day out. I’d not come across The House of illustration before so very pleased to be pointed at it. I may well be able to use my spanking new Art Fund card there!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s only a little gallery so expensive at £7.50 entry if you don’t get concessions, but a great location and we did see some super art – I loved the anime architecture.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was stunningly different and worked! So glad I managed to get (decent) seats – for it’s nearly sold out for the last weeks of its run.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      No date given except 2018 – but one to record and keep (esp as daughter is studying it for A-level).

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