Posted on July 12, 2018
A huge smile probably doesn’t dawn across the face of many people on their commute into the City each morning, but that’s what happened to me one morning in late May as I descended the steps out of the mainland station at Cannon Street in London. I was home. Working for most of the year outside of the city I was born and grew up in has afforded me wonderful, eye-opening experiences. Yet as I get older, I relish coming back more and more. I romanticise the trip as a chance to recollect, restore and come back to myself after time away in a country where I feel more foreign than I ever really anticipated.
My arrival coincided with the unfurling of union flags in honour of the royal wedding, so it was easy to be swept away by the pleasure of being back in London. Whatever you feel about the fuss made, our national identity is encased within events such as this, on display for the world to scrutinise. So what does it mean to be British today? With the saga of Brexit, sometimes I feel a little lost on the subject. Clues remain in the innumerable works of art, high and low, produced on “this precious stone set in the silver sea”: Turner’s paintings, the words of Blake, the mysteries of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, on Netflix with Claire Foy in The Crown. This month, I’m telling you about the things I saw and did in London that made me feel back home.
The Guildhall Art Gallery is a free gallery that houses varied depictions of London and some arresting examples of Victorian painting, not least Clytemnestra by John Collier and Ruby, Gold and Malachite by Henry Scott Tuke. The museum was an unexpected find as I wondered about streets surrounding the Bank of England, now populated by glass buildings that slice up the chalky remains of gothic monuments littering the City. A Starbucks acting as a hermit crab to the mottled shell of Wren-esque church might make some sigh in disappointment, but I was charmed – lovestruck with Londinium. The Guildhall Art Gallery is itself a portal on to our ancient heritage, containing in its lower galleries the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre, uncovered in 1985. This clandestine ruin expresses part of what I love about existing in a city: the chance to become absorbed amongst the crowd; the opportunity to hide and become anonymous. The way our private and public personas interlace is fascinating, and this subject was explored by ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky as she took the eponymous title role in Elizabeth at the Barbican Theatre on May 17.
The tapestry of voice, music and movement by Will Tuckett and Alistair Middleton wove a thought-provoking portrait of the monarch that, though ignoring much of the political events of the Tudor Queen’s reign, interrogated the woman’s voice and illustrated the tensions present in Elizabeth’s romantic and intellectual life. Yanowksy was always engaging, equally fluent appearing as some imperious Shakespearean ghost, a coltish doe, or employing her long limbs to conquer space like a marauding Boudicca. Yanowsky’s brother, Yuri, was note-worthy for his transformations in to some of the Virgin Queen’s lovers, imbuing each with a nightshade difference of tone.
Continuing my Elizabethan diversions, I happily attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe that made me alert to the rhythmical intricacies of Shakespeare’s writing and taught me about the lively relationship between word, sound and image that exists in our culture. I couldn’t resist Lorenzo’s discussion of the stars: “Look how the floor of heaven, Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold”, and Jacqueline Phillips’ example as Portia was memorable, not lease for lacing the lines “It is almost morning, And yet I am sure you are not satisfied” with a paradoxically tasteful carnality.
I was left questioning whether Manon is ever satisfied after seeing The Royal Ballet’s Lauren Cuthbertson perform the title role in MacMillan’s essay to Parisian love and power. Cuthbertson’s Mary Vetsera in Mayerling last year was riveting for its gamine febrility; her Manon reveals an equally adroit identification with the role. Cuthbertson is aware we are many things to different people, and her approach lit up parts of the choreography that made me know this Manon was a woman with a conscience. What was enthralling to witness was how Cuthbertson embraced, and relished in, her denial of that conscience by using her only commodities to achieve a semblance of agency. How Cuthbertson played with time was another joy to watch. MacMillan gives Manon a clever coup de théâtre in her Act II solo where the whole room freezes except for her, Des Grieux and Monsieur G M. By accelerating certain steps with an icy hauteur, I saw the dysfunction at Manon’s heart. Her ardour for Des Grieux angers Manon, because she understands it leaves her vulnerable. It was deliciously weird, almost immersive. The visual effect is hard to describe, but it made me think of the way screen shots pivot around themselves in the 2010 film Inception: time and space change axis based on human desire.
At the British Museum in the exhibition entitled Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, you see how the French sculptor looked at the pivot points between art in fin de siècle Paris and ancient Greece. To me, Rodin’s sculptures have an appeal for dance lovers. They have a visual line that quivers and tumbles like the line through a dancer’s body. These sculptures sing with western art’s collective heritage – a Dido’s lament for what’s gone before – but also forge a new space for further response. Their languid beauty appear of us, but are also alien. The National Gallery, in partnership with Credit Suisse looks at Monet this summer, but from a less familiar aspect, assembling paintings of architectural subjects that fascinated the French impressionist. The curator’s choice to hang images of Rouen cathedral all along one wall made me think of Instagram and how today we play with light when we post our snaps on the smartphone app. Unintended, I’m sure, but strangely relevant. Another way art and technology mixed was when the Smartify app was introduced to me whilst exploring The Royal Academy’s refurbished spaces within Burlington House. This interactive curatorial app allows you to scan an image of the artwork in front of you in order to draw up the gallery description and other related content, enriching my visit to new subterranean vaults and a handsome gallery space at the top of the building curated by president of The Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun.
I started writing this blog just as I arrived home, and I finished just as I left again, this time not for work, but for exploration. Though it warms the heart to anchor back in home ports, travel has always contained the glitter of the future for me. It changes the lens on the world you regularly inhabit. Saying that, the irony of this blog was not lost on me when I left for my first trip to Asia from Heathrow Airport. Terminal Two was christened “The Queen’s Terminal”. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night contains the line: “Journeys end in lovers meeting”. Was there ever a better reason to keep travelling?
Pictured: The Royal Ballet’s Lauren Cuthbertson in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Photograph by Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
London image by Jonathan Gray.