Letter from London

We’ve been in London for almost a week and have attended four exhibits and two theatrical productions well that are worth noting if you are in London anytime in the near future.

Royal Academy
The Royal Academy has mounted “Rubens and his Legacy” that outlines how Rubens’ exquisite palate, sumptuous style and nudes have affected artists up to and including in current century. Aside from the wonderful Rubens, the show features stunning work by artists who followed him, from Van Dyke to Picasso, Warhol and beyond. It is well annotated and nicely laid out. We’d recommend it highly.

The Imperial War Museum
The IWM — which I had not visited for almost 50 years — has taken a very refreshing step and is more and more providing interpretive exhibits rather than just displaying the implements of war. While the Museum’s collection is impressive, the museum is increasingly using the items to tell a story that is not only political but social. The new WWI rooms present the war from both viewpoints, and the exhibit is both educational, but, at times, verges on the horrific.

The current special exhibit “Fashion on a Ration” tells the story of how fashion adapted (at times with the aid of the UK government) in a period when demands for fabric (for uniforms) or raw materials (steel) limited the clothing options during WWII. Examples include the absence of zippers in men’s clothing (buttons instead — although none on the sleeves of suits, and cuffs on pants were eliminated to save fabric), and girdles that had to made with the minimum amount of elastic to save rubber. To save fabric , children under 13 (I was one) could only dressed in shorts. The citizens of the UK were implored to “Make Do and Mend.” The government produced films on how do to so, including one on how to darn!

As a child who grew up in the UK during the war and had no idea that clothing was rationed, the exhibit was enlightening. I had never realized the sacrifices made by citizens reached so deeply into their personal life, nor that for the UK government, the management of the war caused them to intrude and manage something as seemingly innocuous as how people looked. This is well worth a visit.

The Queens Gallery
The Queens Gallery is adjacent to, but not directly part of Buckingham Palace, and its exhibitions are drawn from the Royal art collection. The current exhibit, “Painting Paradise, The Art of the Garden,” features paintings, manuscripts and drawings that deal with gardens. The art exhibited spans over 500 years, starting with Persian and Mughal drawings. High points include the painting of Henry VIII (see partial view below) and his family, and a perspective painting of the Hampton Court Gardens. It is not a large exhibit, but well worth seeing. A side benefit is that you may get one of the few peeks you’ll ever get (through a doorway) of the gardens at Buckingham Palace. You’ll also appreciate the Royal family’s art collection.

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The National Gallery
There is a magnificent exhibit, “Inventing Impressionism,” that deals with the impressionist paintings sold by the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who was among the first, and became the most important, dealers of impressionist art. He actually purchased and inventoried painters who he recognized had not yet received market recognition. The collection of paintings he had touched that have been assembled for this exhibit (over 80 works) is most impressive.

London Theater
While in London we saw Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Shaw’s Man and Superman; we’d recommend them both.

A View from the Bridge is a Young Vic production that moved to the West End to extended its run. The production is directed by Ivo Van Hove and stars an all-British cast headed by Mark Strong. The set is spare and in keeping with the play pretty bleak — essentially no “scenery,” It is performed with no intermission. We and the audience are clearly captivated by a strong play performed by a more than capable cast. The final scene is simply chilling. The only drawbacks are the unfortunate Brooklyn accents of a couple of cast members. This production is largely sold out, but if you are in London you should be able to get seats.

Man and Superman is at the National Theater. Ralph Fiennes plays the lead. This is a truly sold-out production (we got online re-sale tickets; for some productions the scalped tickets are going for 500 pounds), but if you are willing to pay the price, do go. Fiennes is all but incredible in this Shavian retelling of the Don Juan (but backwards) adaptation that tells the story of how a firmly committed bachelor gives in and almost happily gets marriage. The beginning of the second act — Don Juan in Hell — is a tour de force for Fiennes, who holds stage for virtually the entire scene.

Unlike Broadway, where standing ovations have become de rigueur regardless, London audiences are more guarded of their approval, but Fiennes got one and it was well deserved. This is a funny, witty, clever play that enjoys a great set, terrific direction and a universally terrific cast. It was well worth the price.

Martin McKerrow

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