Naomi Paxton speaks to the creators of The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney

Sex, affairs and literary wit are at the centre of The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney at the Arcola Theatre. Barney was an American poet who moved to Paris in 1898 and ran a literary salon for over 60 years. She lived an openly lesbian life, counting Romaine Brooks, Renée Vivien and Dolly Wilde  among her many lovers.

Frances Bingham wrote this one-woman-play, which is performed by Amanda Boxer. Naomi Paxton spoke to both after the opening night and discovers how they brought this witty, adventurous and courageous woman to life.

The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney runs at the Arcola Theatre until 11 November and is available as a book.

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Exploring Moominland – Review: Adventures in Moominland

Midnight blue Moomin posters along the escalators on the underground invite you to visit a magical realm: Moominland. This realm can currently be found in the form of an immersive exhibition at the Southbank Centre as part of its Nordic Matters season. It’s aimed at children, but grown ups can enjoy it just as much as it tells the life of Moomin-creator Tove Jansson (1914-2001) and how her experiences influenced her writing.

To join the Adventures in Moominland, as the exhibition is called, you’re asked to follow a tour guide with a small group of fellow travellers. Through the opening of a gigantic book, we step inside the world of Tove Jansson… There we are welcomed by Moomintroll, joyful music and a narration with the familiar voice of Sandi Toksvig: We’re going on an adventure dear / to a very special place / it’s bewildering and exciting / it’s full of twists and turns / we can keep one another company / whilst the fire burns, she tells us and, like a good companion, goes on to guide us through Tove’s world, together with the actual tour guide.

Sketch of Moomin, Tove Jansson; © Moomin Characters™

A tent on a sandy beach awaits us. Outside a cosy fire is crackling gently while we learn how the character of Moomintroll evolved. With the Moomins taking shape and Tove leaving the family nest, we enter her studio in Helsinki. At the centre stands an easel and, to the side, Tove’s palette and painting utensils are on display. The 19th-century-style room is furnished with a bookcase showing the magazine GARM for which she made illustrations, a desk and a record player. The soft sound of jazz fills the room, evoking the parties, discussions and laughter she shared with her friends as a young woman.

Adventures in Moominland – photo: Vic Frankowsk

But, with the Second World War raging in Europe, we soon find ourselves in a dark cave, reminiscent of a bomb shelter. These dangerous times are reflected in Tove’s books from the period, such as Comet in Moominland (1946). An enchanted forest with flowers and fairylights offers refuge. There’s also a suitcase hidden here – but not just anybody’s suitcase, it’s Thingumy and Bob’s suitcase, kept tightly closed – and only revealed to people they trust – because its content is a secret. Both characters always hang out together and those who can read between the lines know that this pair represents Tove and her lover Vivica Bandler at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

 

Moominvalley 1930-39, Tove Jansson; © Moomin Characters™

The journey takes us on to the island of Klovharu, where turbulence within Tove’s family is revealed and captured in the story of Moominpappa at Sea (1965). More sombre times lie ahead, and we are ushered into a cold winter’s night, where a full moon shines on to a snow-covered landscape with bare birch trees. Somewhere the chilling, lonely Groke is lurking. Yet, to hear that this creature is not so scary at heart is reassuring. During this cold season, when the Moomins normally hibernate, an unsettled Moomintroll sets out into the unknown in Moominland Midwinter (1957). Tove herself becomes involved with Tuulikki Pietilä, her long-term partner, who lets her see the winter in a new, more positive light. Tuulikki is also the inspiration for the character of Too-Ticky. After a long, adventurous journey we finally reach the comforts of Moominhouse, where the Moomin family is fast asleep and the little party of visitors quietly departs to re-emerge into the reality of the Southbank Centre.

Tove Jansson – photo: Per Olov Jansson

Sandi Toksvig is a clever choice of narrator as her familiar voice offers a sense of homeliness, but also fits, being from Denmark, into the Nordic Matters theme – not to mention her own sexuality, which chimes in with Tove Jansson’s. Her narration and quotes from Tove’s books stress the idea of storytelling and the beauty of words. The text itself is written by children’s author Laura Dockrill and is wonderfully complemented by what the tour guide tells us about Tove’s life and the way it is reflected in her books. The different rooms also show archival sketches of the Moomins and letters placed in glass cases that are built into the specific features of the place – be that a treasure trove, a rock or a cupboard.

Besides the magical imagery and poetry of the words, the jazz music is also a relevant feature of this exhibition. It represents Tove’s grown-up world as she loved jazz; and it’s refreshing to read that it was composed by Aki Rissanen and commissioned by Southbank Centre – so new work can be heard.

Adventures in Moominland lets you literally delve inside the wondrous world of Tove Jansson and her creations. The exhibition runs until 20 August.

More work by Tove Jansson can be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 25 October 2017.

By Sabine Schereck

 

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A Distant Close Up – Review: Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Tate Liverpool dedicates two main exhibition spaces to the Weimar Republic with two artists, who couldn’t be more different: the photographer August Sander and the painter Otto Dix. For those, who grew up in Berlin, like me, he is best known for the triptych Metropolis from 1928. In orangey, yellow and pink tones it depicts a couple dancing to a jazz band; it is often used to represent the Golden Twenties. But none of that can be found here as this section of the exhibition is called Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, which shows a wide range of his work – but more on that later, as the show starts with August Sander.

Three rooms with neatly lined up black-and-white photographs in frames of the same size. It clearly reflects that the content of the images is regarded more as an object than a subject. The images comprise part of a study, which August Sander devoted himself to for the latter part of his life: People of the 20th century. 144 of the more than 650 images of the project can be seen here. Sander put the results into categories: The Farmer; The Skilled Tradesman; The Woman; Classes and Professions; The Artists; The City and The Last People.

The images show people on their own, with relatives or colleagues, in their home or work environment or a studio. The looks on their faces are often very serious, exuding a sense of dignity or honour at being photographed – and with regards to their profession, the pride they take in it, such as the Pastrycook (1928). These are no snapshots as they were taken by a heavy, large format camera, which demanded careful preparation. What is striking is that often even the children have the serious expression of 50-year-olds in their eyes. But there are exceptions, for example the Working class Mother (1927) who is smiling and proudly carries a very healthy looking child. Or strangely the image of a face of a recently deceased old woman – with its closed eyes it carries a peacefulness that captures more life than some others. Despite the vast spectrum of people August Sander covered, not many traces of LGBT life can be detected in this display. There is the picture of The Painter’s Wife (1926), showing Helene Abelen in long white trousers, a white shirt, a tie, very short hair that is combed back, about to light a cigarette, and easily mistakable for a young man. Nearby there’s a picture with her and her daughter, where she looks just as masculine, which makes you wonder and want to find out more, but there is not much to find. Another arresting image is the one of the Secretary at West German Radio (1931). She perfectly embodies the New Woman of that time: cropped hair, and despite her dress, she conveys a more male than female attitude. Her direct gaze is also rather unflappable, if not even slightly hostile. Her thoughts towards the viewer could easily have been: ‘What are you looking at? Never seen a woman before?’ The lack of LGBT figures might lie in the fact that Sander mainly worked in the area of Cologne, rather than venturing to Berlin, where they lived a more open life. Or maybe it tells us something else about him? Did he not want to show them? Did he not regard them as a section of society?

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall 1923
Oil paint on canvas
905 x 605 mm
Kunst und Museumsverein im Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal, Germany
  Photo: Antje Zeis-Loi, Medienzentrum Wuppertal. © DACS 2017.

The string of photographs is accompanied by a timeline starting in 1919 and ending in 1945. The font resembles handwriting, which evokes the idea of a scrapbook through the years, considering the images are placed in a rough chronological order and the texts include unusual nuggets of information such as the first long distance call in 1927 between Frankfurt and New York or the first Book Day in 1929 to promote reading. This is very much in line with Sander’s sober documentary style, which is a typical feature of the New Objectivity that dominated the art world of the Weimar Republic.

Among the many unknown faces who represent a facet of society, there are also a few prominent people such as the composer Paul Hindemith, the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and the painter Otto Dix, which creates a link to the exhibition that follows, which offers a completely different aspect of the art of that period.

Otto Dix: The Evil Eye shows a variety of work that is lesser known and includes early graphic design work from the years 1922-25, playful images of his family, 50 etchings of the war made in 1924 that are not for the faint-hearted, and portraits painted in oil.

While Sander looks at society’s underbelly by taking photographs of beggars, cripples and blind people, Dix presents prostitutes in garish colours and all shapes and sizes. The reality of that period seems to scream with pain to cope with the nightmares of the First World War, which he experienced first hand. In the section Life Undiluted, there is no conventional beauty but a strong vision of the way he experienced the post-war world around him, for example in Exotic Brothel (1922). But there are also more traditional portraits such as the one of the photographer Hugo Erfurth with his dog (1926), which has a very static look in his eyes like the ones in Sander’s portraits. Of more interest however is the Portrait of the Jeweler Karl Krall (1923), which allows the sitter’s sexuality to shine through with a female waistline, sensuous lips and a ring on his finger. It sets itself apart from all the other portraits, in which either women or strong men are depicted. It’s refreshing to see. Altogether, the Dix exhibition is more difficult to navigate your way through. The work is grouped into different themes and it is not clear, in which order they are supposed to be seen to make sense of or provide an insight into his work.

Putting both exhibitions next to each other stresses just how differently the two artists responded to the world around them. While Sander created a body of work that aimed at timelessness by just documenting what he saw and using materials, such as large plates, which would endure, Dix heavily interpreted the world around him with strong colours and shapes and almost completely different subjects.

Both exhibitions provide a close up of the time: Sander because of his range and ability to capture the world precisely with his camera, and Dix because of his uncompromising view of how he saw the world, where one often feels he was bang in the middle of a scene. Yet both retain a distance, too. While Sander’s characters often seem remote and lifeless in their seriousness, Dix’s characters are often so alienated in their depiction that it keeps the viewer at bay.

Neither of the exhibitions celebrate the Weimar Republic as the Golden Twenties that we are familiar with or point to the liberty it brought to many people, but they show us a darker side that we should be aware of too.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933 is on at Tate Liverpool until 15 October 2017

Sabine Schereck

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Singing Suzy Solidor – Review: All I Want Is One Night

Jessica Walker as Suzy Solidor
Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Tall and blonde, French singer Suzy Solidor beguiled men and women alike in her club La Vie Parisienne, which was one of the hottest spots in 1930s Paris.

In her new show All I Want Is One Night singer Jessica Walker delves into Solidor’s life and explores her on and off stage passions. Dressed in an admiral’s uniform, Walker commands the stage from the very beginning. We first meet Solidor in her later years, sitting in her own antiques shop and posing for a portrait by Swedish artist Lindstrom, played by Alexandra Mathie. Although known and remembered as a singer, Solidor reveals that antiques were her first love, discovered during her relationship with the antiques dealer Yvonne de Brémond d’Ars, when she first came to Paris in the 1920s. As she reminisces, she slips into a cream-coloured evening gown and takes us back in time to the height of her fame.

Solidor came from St. Malo on the north coast of Brittany, and Jessica Walker portrays her as someone who clearly enjoyed life: she delights in songs, poems and flirting with both female and male audience members. There is always an air of playfulness and possibility – the themes of ‘sea, sex and sailors’ are evident in many of her songs and for Les filles de St. Malo (The Girls of St Malo), one of her greatest hits, Jessica Walker has not only translated the lyrics into English to make them more accessible, but also retained some of the French verses, giving us a flavour of the original poetry of the song. Solidor lived an openly lesbian life, and we meet some of her conquests, among them a shy Baroness, and the painter Tamara de Lempicka. She created the most iconic image of her, which is captured in a style typical of the 1930s. Solidor had many portraits taken, mainly to decorate her club with, which is reflected in Amanda Stoodley’s beautiful set.

Throughout, Walker is skilfully accompanied by Joseph Atkins on piano and accordion, and shares the stage with Alexandra Mathie and Rachel Austin, who appear as various figures from her past – family, friends, rivals, and lovers.

All I Want Is One Night is an evening of song, poetry, love and lust, and the worthy rediscovery of a major player of the French cabaret world.

The show found a perfect home at Wilton’s Music Hall in London before it moved to the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, where it runs until 9 July.

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Feature: Marlene Dietrich – Beyond Top Hat and Tails on 6 May

Resonance FM repeated Marlene Dietrich – Beyond Top Hat and Tails to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Marlene Dietrich’s death. The programme went out on 6 May 2017 at 21.30h and was presented by author Clayton Littlewood.

Marlene Dietrich dazzled audiences – whether in a glittering dresses or in elegant tails. She crossed gender like no other star and became a gay icon. What was her appeal to a gay audience? Her glamour? Her strength? Her liberty? What could be read between the lines?

Marlene’s illustrious life took her from the heady days of 1920s Berlin to the glamour of 1930s Hollywood, from the fronts of the Second World War to the most prestigious stages in the world. Despite being married, she had numerous affairs with famous men and women. Yet, she managed to avoid scandal to keep her impeccable image intact.

Clayton hears from a number of Marlene connoisseurs, including art historian Simon Watney and Terry Sanderson, organiser of a Marlene Dietrich Tribute. Together they take at closer look at this unusual woman, who was very much ahead of her time and often described as the ‘last goddess’.

We would like to thank the Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin at the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek for their support and Alan Brodie Representation Ltd for their kind permission to use an extract from a letter by Noel Coward to Marlene Dietrich published in The Letters of Noel Coward copyright © NC Aventales AG and Barry Day 2007, alanbrodie.com. We would also like to thank Frieder Roth and the University of Minnesota Press for their kind permissions to use extracts from Marlene Dietrich’s Ich bin Gott sei Dank Berlinerin, Maria Riva’s Marlene Diterich by Her Daughter and from Steven Bach’s book Marlene Dietrich – Life and Legend. We would also like to thank David Benson for his readings.

Marlene Dietrich – Beyond Top Hat and Tails was first broadcast in 2012 and produced by Sabine Schereck.

The programme was online for 7 days.

Terry Sanderson’s next Marlene Tribute with clips from her films and her concerts is on 6 July 2017 at the Cinema Museum as part of the Pride festival.

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Sparkle and Trouble in Paradise – Review: Adam & Eve and Steve

Joseph Robinson and Dale Adams as Adam and Steve

A magical Eden awaits you at the King’s Head Theatre. The glittering green tinsel of Maeve Black’s sparkling design creates the perfect setting for the biblical story with a contemporary twist, Adam & Eve and Steve.

Beelzebub (Stephen McGlynn), smartly dressed in black and red, very easy-going, introduces himself. He wants a bit of fun. And what could be better than making a mess of God’s plan? With paradise in place, Adam and Eve are next on his creation list. Enter: Adam, very charmingly played by Joseph Robinson. He explores his surroundings and is full of anticipation of his new companion that God has promised him, Eve. However, Beelzebub is quicker off the mark and introduces Steve (Dale Adams) to the mix. He and Adam get along famously. When Eve (Hayley Hampson) eventually arrives, trouble lies ahead as she claims Adam for herself – after all: that is what God wanted…

Joseph Robinson and Hayley Hampson as Adam and Eve

Chandler Warren (book and lyrics) and Wayne Moore (music) have created a clever, heart-warming and entertaining show that is brilliantly brought to life by director and choreographer Francesca Goodridge. The microcosm of the triangular relationship and the two antagonists – God (Michael Christopher) and Beelzebub – neatly encapsulates the highs and lows of life with a dash of showbiz razzmatazz. It’s a joy to watch the newcomers in paradise discovering the world, blossoming in companionship, longing for a home or despairing as a result of unrequited love. Also, where else could you find a music-hall-type tap number between God and Beelzebub reminiscing of better days as in Song and Dance Man?

With their witty lyrics and catchy tunes, the numbers You Look Like Me, With You, What Love Is and Empty Hell Blues are little gems wonderfully performed by an excellent cast.

For a blissful 75 minutes, the show offers a touch of musical theatre paradise.

Adam & Eve and Steve runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 29 April.

By Sabine Schereck

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Special Interview: Jessica Walker

Jessica Walker photo: Caroline Michael

Jessica Walker
photo: Caroline Michael

Naomi Paxton talks to Jessica Walker about her upcoming concert Forbidden Love at Omnibus in Clapham as part of LGBT History month. The concert includes songs from 1920s Berlin to Cyndi Lauper. She tells us what drew her to the music, what discoveries she has made while researching them and how she came to do a PhD.

Forbidden Love is at Omnibus in Clapham on 8 February 2017.

By the way, there is also a chance to catch Rosie at Omnibus on 11 February, when she is performing her comedy show The Conscious Uncoupling.

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