Friday, 10 May 2013

Peter and Alice

The storeroom where the meeting takes place
Last night I went to see Peter and Alice, a new play directed by Michael Grandage, about when Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Wonderland) met Peter Llewelyn Davies (Pan) at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. Oh, and stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw. Yep, that was pretty much all I needed to know to be interested. In August of last year I booked tickets, hunting through an already fast selling catalogue to ensure we found a night where we could sit front and centre, three rows back. Being close enough to see the genuine tears glistening in Judy Dench's eyes during the curtain call made the wait and the expense worth it.

I've never had much interest in Peter Pan, but have always been rather obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Not so much the many film adaptations but the books, and particularly the original drawings. (Although, in a similar manner to Winnie-the-Pooh, it is hard to divorce them from Disney's interpretations.) As well as avidly reading both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass when I was younger, I was also obsessed with one of my fathers' books by Raymond M. Smullyan, 'Alice in Puzzle-land', a book of logic puzzles based on Wonderland characters, which really brought the Lewis Carol spirit alive (I must have been a strange child!).

When we arrived in Britain we were based in Oxford, and were invited by a friend to dine at the top table of at Christ Church, where Charles Dodgsen aka Lewis Carol spent a large portion of his life. We walked down the spiral staircase from the staff room, which supposedly inspired the rabbit hole, and saw the various features of the room, such as the long necked fireplaces. But particularly I remember walking under the statue of Reverend Henry Liddell, and our friend said: "I walk under that every day and all I can think is 'That poor man, it doesn't matter what he did or didn't do in his life, he'll always be Alice in Wonderland's father'"

Which pretty much brings us to the point of the play. How do the Real Alice and Real Peter feel about being immortalised in fiction? What does it mean to go through life under the weight of such a burden? It's a complicated thing to achieve fame for doing nothing, to have everyone blur the lines between reality and fiction. As the two share their experiences, their current real life misery is contrasted with happy childhood memories, and the store room becomes a magical stage, full of Wonderland and Neverland imagery. They are joined by Lewis Carol and J. M. Barry, and by Alice and Peter Pan who represent their childhood, storybook naivety. It is a story, that in the wrong hands, could have been terrible, but playwright John Logan managed to get the slightly sinister nature of the relationships the children had with the authors, the world's intense possessive love of the stories, and the leads own battle with real life tragedy, pitch perfect.

Dench and Whishaw jumped perfectly from old and bitter to young and naive seamlessly. Brilliant actor Nicholas Farrell (above - one of those 'you'd recognise him when you see him' actors) played Lewis Carol with a wonderful stutter and a brilliant mix of kindness and creepy. And the rest of the cast were strong. The us of fictional Alice and Peter Pan was a wonderful conceit, contrasting the naive almost pantomime style acting and the authors words with real world emotions. It was a play full of humour, but I was swallowing back tears on more than one occasion.

The design, as you would expect with such a subject matter, was magical. It stayed respectful to our memories, but then took them to another level beyond imagination. Older Alice wore a 1930s style blue floral dress, and a hat with a big bow on it; older Peter wore a crumbled jacket with a green knitted waistcoat and grey trousers; wonderful allusions to the costumes of their fantasy namesakes, but subtle enough that my husband didn't even notice until I pointed it out afterwards. Fictional Alice's dress was a childhood dream, with stiff skirts and puffy sleeves and exquisitely tailored. If I have one fault, the hem of Peter's brown jacket was roughly hand hemmed, distracting enough to make me wonder if it was dodgy sewing or a deliberate attempt to make him look rumpled, but I don't pretend that this would have bothered anybody less costume obsessed.

At the beginning Peter and Alice meet in a crowded store room, complete with subtle details like a pirate ship, a mirror and a white rabbit toy mixed in with old boxes and junk. But once they began to talk properly about the past, the storeroom dissolved into a magical theatre, where lush red curtains were painted onto felt and we lived an breathed scenes of storybook fantasy. Particularly beautiful was the Neverland cavern where, through lighting and paint they somehow managed to recreate the effect of moonlight on water. It reminded me a lot of Matilda(see my review here) in its beautiful way of combining childhood ideas for an adult audience. 

I have this belief that the best theatre should embrace a sort of suspended reality, a magical place that film and television can't go, and this play perfectly illustrates that idea. But it also requires collaboration under strong directing: script, acting and design have to work together in harmony in order to create a really successful piece of theatre, and this is where Peter and Alice really excelled.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Old jobs and new jobs and getting a Work / Life Balance

I've had a quiet Winter work-wise. Part of the problem with being self-employed, and more specifically working in the entertainment industry is that you can get so absorbed with working towards projects and deadlines that you completely forget about your own body's needs. So I'd work long hours, with high stress, low sleep and rubbish diet, and then crash afterwards. That's OK when you're in your teens and twenties, but now I'm a bit older my body doesn't take as kindly to that sort of behaviour.

Even more than the physical needs, I've come to a rather startling conclusion: I like spending quality time with my long-suffering husband, curling up with him and my cat on the couch of an evening; I like seeing my friends; I like having hobbies and spare time and learning how to dance; I like reading books and watching films and going to the theatre; redecorating my house and gardening and cooking healthy meals from scratch. My whole life I've imagined myself as a rebellious artistic type and now it turns out I'm rather boringly domesticated.

And I like sewing for myself. Sewing for a job means that last thing you want to do is come home and sew for fun. I have friends who seem to think I could imagine nothing more exciting that sewing clothes for them for free in my spare time. But for most of the last 10 or so years I've been lucky if I can pluck up the energy to re-sew on that button that fell off my coat. (You'd be amazed how many professional costumiers have clothes held together with safety pins because they can't be bothered to spend five minutes on themselves).

Call it a mid-life crisis, call it my biological clock even (although I still don't want kids), or maybe just call it getting older. But I rather like having a life outside of work.

So after working flat out making (many, many) Wenlock mascot costumes for the Olympic Games, then designing for two films pretty much in a row, I took a much needed rest. Lucky for me I have a very understanding husband who earns enough money to support me. I don't for a moment pretend I could do this on my own. But it's been good for him too. After he took on more responsibility and hours at work around Christmas we have found that we've got on better than we have for years with me being at home to pick up the pieces and make sure he has food to eat and clean clothes to wear. Yep, I'm not ashamed to admit that I became a bit of a Housewife. And while it was hard for the first few months retraining my body how not to survive on sheer adrenaline, I've actually quite enjoyed it. (Even more surprisingly, when I've confessed as much to friends, a lot of my career orientated feminist London peers have been verging on jealousy). After years of being a chronic workaholic, I've worked a few odd days, but mostly I've been learning how to enjoy the quiet time.

Until now.

Over the past few weeks I've taken up two new jobs. One is costume designing a feature film teaser (basically a trailer so you have something to show potential investors) with a producer that I've worked with several times before, which is great because I have a fair idea of how things are going to work from the outset. It's less than a week of filming, and even though it's set over a few days, it's contemporary and fairly straight forward (as much as any of these things ever are).

But I'm much more excited about the second job. I'm going to be doing freelance dressmaking tutoring for teenagers and adults. Ever since I started teaching my 4-8 year old nieces a few years ago, I've been flirting with the idea in the back of my mind that I really love helping others learn how to sew: to unleash their own creativity and a passion for making clothes. While studying I lived and worked in a girls boarding school as a junior resident mistress, and apart from the red tape and politics, I loved it. Now, with almost faultless timing, an opportunity has come up. Basically I have an agent who finds the work and worries about all that side of the business, and I get to see if this is something I potentially want to spend more time doing, but under the safety of someone elses umbrella and without the annoyance of organisational red tape.

I'm not giving up on costuming completely - I doubt I could even if I wanted to - but I'm going to be a lot more picky about the projects I take on. I'm going to choose a smaller number of projects that I really want to do, rather than just anything that comes my way. It's possible that if I was permanently employed in a costume house or workroom on a hourly rate I could have a more sensible life, but I enjoy being self employed, I enjoy the variety in the work and I go mad when I have no creative outlet and get stuck in a rut. Lets face it, if I enjoyed the regularity (sorry did you say monotony?) of a 9-5 desk job, I would have made a much more lucrative career choice.

I'm really excited about the idea of following a career path that goes some way towards getting a work/life balance. Where I can have work variety and flexibility and still follow my passion. But even better I now have a job where part of my self-promotion will be wearing beautiful clothes that I have made myself, so I might finally get the motivation to begin properly sewing for myself again.   

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Lichtenstein at the Tate

Yesterday i had a meeting in town, and on my way I noticed a sign for a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern. I decided to have a pleasant sunny London town walk along the river and have an impromptu art gallery exhibition. Looking at paintings is one of my favourite things in the world. I love dragging my husband around the galleries of the world when we're on holiday to appreciate art I probably won't be able to see anywhere else. I can't stand tourists who just go an take a photo of the famous painting. If you can't enjoy looking at it in and experience the emotions you have looking at it person, why on earth do you think anyone, especially you, is going to want to see a photo of it?? But one thing I have noticed: there's usually a pretty good reason why the famous artists and paintings are the famous ones. Not always, I adore falling in love with a painting by someone I've never heard of in a corner of an art gallery, but look at Botticelli's Birth of Venus surrounded by thousands of other paintings of the same period and you understand why it's the one you've seen in art books.

Lichtenstein is one of those artists that everybody recognises his work, most teenagers with art aspirations go through a phase of thinking he's uber cool, but I didn't really know all that much about apart from the 'he does big paintings of comic books' thing. The thing about Lichtenstein is that because his point is about playing with texture and scale, enlarging small 'low art' pictures and turning them into 'high art', you are never really going to understand his work by looking at it in an art text book. Yes that is true of all artists to a point, but you can still appreciate the composition and technique of a Rembrandt or Vermeer in a picture. Even more modern artists like Mondrian and Picasso's ideas come across in 5" square prints. But they just don't for Lichtenstein, because what you are looking at is more or less the small commercial drawing that he was inspired by.

It's only when you see his precision work with dots in a 1.5m square canvas that his work comes alive.

But more importantly the exhibition is excellently curated. To those who believe art should be about final picture rather than ideas and motivation, it's very easy to be dismissive of what Lichtenstein did. But the way the exhibition is laid out: his different styles and themes, his understanding and homages of other artists such as Picasso and Monet. The most hardened cynic could not but learn to appreciate the true artist behind the images from the information and layout of this show. It's on until May 27th and I cannot recommend it highly enough if you have any enjoyment of art.

Without sounding too much like an art wank, when walking into the gift shop at the end of the exhibition I had that feeling you get where you enjoyed yourself so much that you want to buy a memento of what you saw. But it's like I said above, his work is pretty much about small scale commercial art made into large scale high art paintings, so shrinking them down to be printed onto mass produced mugs and t-shirts kind of defeats the point. Although I think he of all people would appreciate the irony.