My Rembrandt – Review

Directed by Oeke Hoogendijk

2019/ Netherlands/ 97 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The artworld is a savage affair where there are no friends, plenty of enemies and slim pickings with who to trust. In this cultural battleground, there are few artists as sought after, as valued and envied as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The renowned master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt is resolutely the country’s most prestigious art figure, working across all the principal genres of portrait, landscape and historical or mythical scenes.

So, what happens when a lost piece is discovered? Or when the French and Dutch go head-to-head in a bid to secure a pair of privately owned pieces? Oeke Hoogendijk pries open the dust-laden dens of antiquity as My Rembrandt examines separate but interweaving tales of the painter’s masterpieces and their current resting places.

This multi-stranded narrative has Hoogendijk whisking us across the dreich estate grounds of a Scottish baron, to the prim and pristine luxury of the Champs-Élysées in her determination to fuel a sense of adventure. She knows precisely where to cut the film, where to draw enough intrigue into the opulence and history of each segment, and what to curtail to cause hunger in the audience for a fuller picture. The stories both hinge around a central crux: Dutch art collector Jan Six XI, whose promising discovery of an unknown Rembrandt muddies the dignity of his clients, and Baron Rothschild’s sale of his prize pair of paintings threatens the entente relationship between the Louvre in Paris, and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Thing is; when capturing art on the screen, shifting its medium from a physical frame to a cinematic one, the art direction must be exceptional, or the experience is fruitless. Thankfully, Gregor Meerman & Sander Snoep capture Hoogendijk’s intentions with their cinematography, homing in on precisely which aspect of the painting is being discussed, dissected, or argued over. The toying with levels, to reinforce the presence of a portrait is a minor work of art in itself, especially when contrasting the shadows of An Old Woman Reading, kept out of reach from thieves, with an ever-present eye on her books.

Boudewijn Koole and Gys Zevernbergen’s editing shapes the documentary to this arcing narrative, a clever touch driving a much richer investment from audiences who may not value art history as much as others. The three-act structure centring around different paintings and their respective owners makes for a sense of motion, instead of a stagnant documentary. The film flows, gradually building on the mystery or the crumbling relationships between buyers and sellers – making for a strikingly opulent experience where the audience creates heroes, villains and old, wise experts.

Eccentric is the kindest way to describe the dragons’ hoarding tactic these elite collector’s exhibit, and Hoogendijk frames these characters magnificently. Whether it be the kind-hearted Baron Eric De Rothschild, a man who reluctantly parts with his iconic Pendant Portraits of Maerten and Oopjen to save his brother from taxes, or Professor Ernst van de Wetering twisting the knife in a ‘fake or fortune’ moment as authenticity is called into question.

Art captures the world’s most gruesome and glorious details, and DogWoof’s latest documentary demonstrates how the often faddy and sombrely viewed world of art can be a source of drama and spectacle. My Rembrandt illustrates the value of one of history’s finest artists, and the endless machinations and cut-throat antics commissioned by those desperate for a piece of the action. Hoogendijk takes no broad strokes in her approach, instead, she strips away the layers of veneer these dealers and collectors exhibit to reveal the ravenous children beneath, and on occasion, the purists who seek to protect these once-in-a-lifetime portraits for generations. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review

Birdsong – Online

Written by Sebastian Faulks

Adapted by  Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the bleakest moments of atrocity, even war, stories of the human ability for kindness, compassion and endurance offer lifelines. 104 years, to the day, since the Battle of the Somme, one of modern Europe’s most horrific events, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaption of Sebastian Faulks 1993 novel Birdsong pays tribute to the tremendous valour and sacrifice of so many while streamlining their theatrical production for a digital medium – hoping to not only maintain the embers of theatre but promote The British Royal Legion and grasp the world’s focus, on the precipice of such inward destruction, that the lesson we seemingly have yet to learn about conflict.

For those lucky enough to catch the 2016, or subsequent 2018 touring production, fond memories will flood back of a dauntingly poignant show, and this returning online version contains enough deviation and difference to feel entirely innovative and individual. Set shortly before, during and after the Battle of the Somme, Faulks’ story revolves around the Tommys, miners who would dig the trenches and attempt to uncover enemy tunnels, focusing particularly on Jack Firebrace, and of his commanding officer Stephen.

Amalgamating the video format into a live performance, Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ direction refrains from cheap gimmickry, and while other productions find difficulty in modifying their narrative to a digital format, Birdsong excels. The intensity of the close-ups, only achieved with direct video, convey a rich connection with the performers, particularly Tim Treloar’s Firebrace. Fixated, it’s difficult to look away as the black knot in your stomach grows as Treloar’s words enrapture you, gripping the audience. In the silence of your own home, away from the distractions of a theatre, Treloar’s performance breathes humanity into Wagstaff’s words.

And this silence is paramount to the enjoyment of Birdsong – where possible, try to avoid watching this on a tablet or small screen, the editing process and visual quality has been crafted for no different an experience than a feature film. Dynamically staged, with multiple screens and the occasional fourth-wall break, Birdsong adapts to the medium, rather than accepts limitations. Where there is no physical set, it makes do, focusing on background designs, audio tricks and score. A composition played and designed by musical director James Findlay manages to almost evoke an intense response as hearing it in the heart of a theatre.

Additionally, combining elements of theatre and film, Faulks narrates the interceding scenes, offering a transition in place of a theatrical one which would enable time displacement or location changes. Swerving between the trenches, the earth-laden tunnels beneath the German troops or in the bright, fresh lands of provincial France, Tom Kay, Madeleine Knight and Liam McCormack all play their part in engaging with the audience, strengthening the believability of the digital production. Transformation is imperative, and each cast member evolves as the production moves forward. Kay’s status dynamic with Treloar shifts, as too does his emotional chemistry, resulting in powerful moments of silence, as he comes face-to-face with the enemy.

Are there insignificant issues of audio or effect warping? Certainly. Does this cause issue with enjoyment or appreciation? Not in the slightest. The tenacity, ingenuity and momentum propelling this unique performance of Birdsong forward are precisely what theatre thrives on, what empowers its creators and drives the audience to follow the siren calls of our treasured artform. Wagstaff’s adaption of Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect, recover a sense of waning history and demonstrate a significant reminder of the imperative words; “Never Again”.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/birdsong-online/

Available here to rent from 7pm 1 July until 3 July 

Nixon in China – Festival Theatre

Opera by John Adams, Liberetto by Alice Goodman

Directed by John Fulljames

Gorbachev & Reegan, Putin & al Assad, Blair & Bush, Johnston & the highest bidder – throughout history, politicians have had their images emblazoned with that of another. None quite so unexpected as Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China. An event the world never thought they would see, the President of the US stepping foot into China. Was it an act of peace, a way forward with the Soviet Union, or just a smokescreen to improve Nixon’s plummet in opinion? The face of Mao Tse-tung still reverberates in China, though his symbolic presence seems to wane. Nixon, scarred by the marks of corruption, would find at least another place in histories lexicon as the man who would pave the future for other presidents.

Considerably shrouded, Nixon’s visit to China with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger is an effective time-period to transcribe into opera. A mere decade later John Adams, with libretto from poet Alice Goodman, would craft an opera which would open as much a path as Nixon’s visit had done, this time for the synthetic manipulation of sound for ‘mainstream’ libretto’s. Chartering their time from Air-Force One’s landing to a profoundly intimate epilogue on the people behind the parties Nixon in China, in the hands of Scottish Opera, is a powerhouse of aria, composition and powerplay.

Taking their first foray into Scottish opera’ clan, American baritone Eric Greene champions the part of Richard Nixon, refraining from the cheap characteristics of trademarks. Commanding, while conveying an endearing attraction of presence, it’s difficult not to see the President who would hoodwink many. As Henry Kissinger, David Stout captures a far more playful perspective, which exudes an animated characterisation as the narrative advances. Opening with the meeting of Nixon and Chou En-lai, China’s Premier, the men soon sit with a rapidly ageing Mao Tse-tung, more a philosopher than he was a Politian. Equally as compelling, Mark Le Brocq has a ghostly presence, with a voice harmonising the growing frustrations and deafening silences as the two world leaders talk.

At what may first seem a man’s opera, Nixon in China begins to centre around the women, not behind, but besides these men. Transitioning into an avant-garde piece, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-Tung) Carneiro squarely frames these women in the dynamic they exude. Julia Sporsén spends much of the first act in the presence of her husband, which starkly alters as we enter act two, where from now on the production’s focus is away from the camera’s point of view and to a personal voyage. 

Sporsén’s control of her emotive range, beyond pure sensational sound, is world-class. Particularly for opera in the audience’s home language, here English, it’s easy to detach from the annunciating break in emotion, words we use daily drawn out. Obvious to this, Fulljames direction tethers Goodman’s poetry to the performers. Greene plays with this immeasurably, his charming, disingenuously schmoozy Nixon toying with the crowd.

Sporsén’s role contrasts Greene as the politician, though both reflected sympathetically. Bestowing kindness across histories image, geopolitics is but a framework, accurate, but not incorporated to align allegiance or point blame. Madame Mao Tse-tung (Hye-Youn Lee) an equally, inequitably powerful woman in her own right, stands polar to Pat Nixon, an intimidating, shrieking performance which dominates. Mesmeric in attitude, almost archaic in her sinister prowls, Hye-Youn Lee’s coloratura aria haunts with a vision untouchable by mortal means. Chiang Ch’ing’s position within the opera may serve to reinforce the relationship of the Nixon’s, as well as an accessible look into the often unknown life of Mao Tse-tung, but her inclusion shakes the dynamic enough, encompassing the production’s more creative, bespoke acts.

Initially reflective of the onerous tempo of the piece, Carneiro’s conduction takes time to build from the gravity laden slowness into the energetic rhythms in a more subdued manner than one expects. Further diverse than first appearances, Nixon in China refrains from the confines of expectation, carving its path alongside Goodman’s libretto. Adam’s infusion of heavy brass elements with Stravinskian neoclassicism, injecting a heaping os saxophone jazz to reflect Nixon’s youth. Leaping into a softer palette accompanying traditional dance of the nation builds in a prolonged resolution, which returns to the classical roots of the genre. John Ross’ original choreography manipulates this production into a piece of movement. Intense, reflective but all the while subverting expectation, the Scottish Opera orchestra champion the onstage vocals sensationally.

And it takes a voice to stand-out on this stage, a design which defines the term ‘epic’ in droves of creativity, integrating into the narrative mechanics, as opposed to flashy or gimmicky. Exploring the past, delving into the personal story, much of Nixon in China may present itself as a live unfolding of events, but truly this is a rich archive of investigation. Still photos under the spot lamps, raw video footages, crates groaning with historical artefacts and Deliveroo for the hungry archivists. John Adams opera has been remodelled by Scottish Opera, utilising their talent for perfecting an already genre-defining piece. Here the meta-narrative slashes down myth, the sepia-tints of history sift away before us in fluid space, examining the bones rather than the legend.

Of course, legend has a place in Dick Bird’s design work – his unfolding scenes echo an almost story-book transition. With live theatre, within the production, being staged for the ‘pleasure’ of the visiting American’s, Bird’s design plays heavily with a dream-scale of colours, palette and lighting. Notably a tricolour of women, Chinese performers forging a connection with Pat Nixon, where opera marries as close as possible with dance, poetry and theatre. The revolving stage, vintage projectors capturing the moment on film, all confined to a warehouse of hundreds of boxes, each containing a treasured memory or revelation of the political meeting of the century.

Revolutionising the spirit of Opera, staying authentic to its roots, but lifting the visage of this artform to stellar heights – Scottish Opera achieves a starkly modern, edgy production with a pulsing beat of classical direction and inspiration. A decisive moment of modern history, it’s explosive reverberations clenched tightly within three-hours of lyrical majesty.

Touring information can be found at: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/nixon-in-china/

Photo credit: James Glossop