The Arts Society Spring Tour 2019

The Arts Society West Wales spring tour followed the excellent Valerie Woodgate’s fascinating lecture on the world of Graham Sutherland and John Piper.  Indeed the tour was purposely planned to include a visit to Coventry Cathedral in order to view the Sutherland tapestry ‘Christ in Glory’ and Piper’s Baptistery window. 

Our base was the Grosvenor Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon from where we also set out to visit the National Trust owned Upton House and the world-renowned Compton Verney Art Gallery.  There was also a chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) productions of ‘As You Like It’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and John Kani’s ‘Kunene and the King’.  Our excursions were completed with a guided tour of ‘The Other Place’, the name given to the earlier Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Coventry Cathedral. Located in the city centre, Coventry cathedral is a truly dramatic and magnificent testament to faith, hope and forgiveness in the face of adversity.  On that fateful day in November 1940 when incendiary bombs were dropped on the city the medieval cathedral was left in ruins, prompting the creation of Basil Spence’s ‘new’ cathedral adjoining the ruins and architecturally in sympathy with them.

As one enters the new cathedral, Sutherland’s magnificent, eerily Byzantine tapestry of ‘Christ in Glory’ can be seen behind the High Altar covering the whole wall.  On one’s right is Piper’s stunning and breathtaking Baptistery window of stained glass, again floor to ceiling.  Also of particular interest is the Great West Screen, a glass wall adorned with engraved saints and dancing angels. 

Our morning was full of interest, added to which we were most fortunate with our two very informative guides.  They took us through the history of Coventry from Lady Godiva to the birth of the motor industry.  Many in the group skipped lunch in order to spend as much time as possible exploring this fascinating building.

Baptistery Sutherland Tapestry

Compton Verney

For those those who had not previously visited Compton Verney, its visual impact surpassed expectations revealing an exquisite juxtaposition of Robert Adam architecture with parkland designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. 

Following a warm welcome and a brief introduction to the house and its contents we were encouraged to explore at our leisure the galleries displaying world-class paintings and other works of art. These include: Neapolitan paintings; British portraits; Northern European paintings and early sculpture, together with the UK’s largest collection of British folk art. We were also fortunate enough to catch the exhibition ‘Painting Childhood – from Holbein to Freud’.

For each of us there were collections and features of special relevance.  For some the enigmatic Chinese bronzes were of particular interest. For others the visual impact of the relatively new folk art gallery was very special; and a small portrait of Lord Hamilton and the first Lady Hamilton of Slebech, Pembrokeshire also attracted the attention of this West Wales group.

By way of contrast, it was pleasure to wander through the parkland on such a sunny spring day. Finally, leaving just enough time to visit the shop, we bid farewell to a truly impressive house and gallery.

Compton Verney House Compton Verney Bridge

Upton House and Gardens

This charming, country house was remodeled in the late 1920’s by architect Percy Morley Horder in order to create a comfortable weekend retreat for the family of Walter Samuel, Second Lord Beardsted. The renovations and extensions have provided an opportunity to showcase the growing collection of world-class art and spectacularly landscaped gardens.

The National Trust accepted the gift of Upton House on the strength of the superb collections of paintings and porcelain. Many treasures are to be found throughout including the ‘Disrobing of Christ’ by El Greco and the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Hieronymus Bosch.  The gardens are a particular delight and blessed with a sunny afternoon many of the group strolled through the borders filled with colourful spring bulbs and flowering shrubs.  So much to see, both inside and out inspires many of us to make a return visit in the not too distant future.

Page to Stage Tour at ‘The Other Place’, Stratford-upon -Avon

"The Other Place" Tour "The Other Place" Group

"The Other Place’ (referencing ‘Hamlet’!) is situated a short distance from the RSC Theatre, alongside the River Avon. This square, steel structure which houses a brand new 200-seat studio theatre was built in 11 months to host performances by the RSC while the Swan Theatre, Stratford was closed for redevelopment between 2007 and 2010.  It is now a creative hub for learning, research and development; and houses rehearsal spaces, a gallery where actors can rehearse flying and bungee jumps as well as an extensive costume store.  

Our well-informed guide was enthusiastic and we learned much about casting procedures, rehearsals, voice coaching and the function and history of ‘The Other Place’.  We heard first-hand accounts of the rehearsal process and how costumes and props used in rehearsals can influence performance.  The vast costume store, housing 60,000 costumes was remarkable.  Each costume is laundered and cleaned after every performance, including matinees.  The hour long tour provided a most interesting backdrop to the productions we attended.

The RSC Productions

Kunene and the King

This excellent production was showing at the Swan Theatre, Stratford. Written and performed by John Kani together with Sir Anthony Sher, the production marks 25 years since the ending of apartheid.

The play relays the uneasy relationship between a dying South African actor cast as King Lear and a South African nurse who looks after him and helps him to learn his lines. Their relationship examines the very foundation on which South Africa’s fragile democracy is built.

In essence, the play is a compassionate character study, which examines the weighty issues of terminal illness, race and the legacy of apartheid with a light touch and a degree of humour. Anthony Sher is magnificent as the dying actor, both tragic and comic in equal parts. And his portrayal of Lear throws up many metaphors about South Africa: a divided kingdom and a king out of touch with his people. Shakespeare lives!

The Taming of the Shrew

The RSC Theatre’s thrusting stage, replicates early Courtyard theatres, and creates a strong sense of intimacy with the audience and on this occasion as ever Shakespeare’s play lent itself to contemporary interpretation – for some exciting and for others too distorting. Nevertheless, the artistic direction and performances were outstanding.

This production of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ challenges assumptions about the play of power between women and men.  The women swaggered in their sumptuous dresses with swords attached while the men appeared almost demure in their doublet and hose. The production sets up a situation where ‘Petrucia’ (otherwise Petrucio) is a woman played by a woman while Katherine/ Kate is a man played by a man.  Female Petrucia was fun, likeable, bold and strong and gave us wonderful theatre.  However there was nothing of the shrew in Kate, who seemed more petulant teenager than shrew.

Even with gender-swapping , the play ending was challenging.  The abuse visited upon the male Kate was disturbing.  The text spoken by a woman did not soften the message.  This is ultimately a production which shines dramatic light on the potential of power for abuse and ugliness.
The production certainly provoked discussion within our group! Some loved it whilst others found it unnecessarily confusing.  The live music combined with various electronic effects gave an arresting soundscape, which some found brilliant and others jarring.

As You Like It

This pastoral comedy casts a critical eye on social practices that produce injustice and unhappiness.  It subverts the traditional roles of romance in a riotous combination of feisty gender reversal. Ganymede impersonates Rosalind, originally a boy actor, who was playing a girl disguised as a boy impersonating a girl. Lost? Don’t worry ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’, as Shakespeare once said.

With love as the central theme, there are more songs than in any other of his plays, notably ‘’Twas a lover and his Lass’. The misogynistic melancholy of Jacques is lucidly delivered in the enigmatic speech ‘All the World’s a stage’ based on the seven ages of ‘man’.

Lovesick Orlando dispatched his questionable poetry on post- it notes stuck on an unsuspecting member of the audience. Touchstone, the hilarious court jester, was a gem in his plaid trousers and dodgy haircut. His ‘wisdom’, finally, establishing the contentment found in country life.

The ever-optimistic Rosalind gave a boisterously physical performance. She delivers the epilogue in prose with the play ending in reconciliation, forgiveness, rejoicing and merrymaking. As the clouds of confusion lift there is a triple wedding to enjoy .