Monday, August 15, 2005

Falstaff and Frida

I saw Henry IV Part 2 at the National Theatre on Saturday night. After Nick Hytner's brilliant Henry V at the time the Iraq war broke out, I'd hoped to see a similarly bold approach to its prequel in the National epic - but this is actually a very conventional, even conservative production, and as a result much of the politics in the first half seems so remote as to be incomprehensible. The production takes off after the interval, when the play becomes much more personal: David Bradley and Michael Gambon are very moving as the old King and Falstaff, and there's the luxury casting of John Wood as Justice Shallow. But I was still left feeling that the whole thing seemed worthy rather than immediate.

It's with these thoughts that I go to the Tate's Frida Kahlo exhibition on Sunday afternoon. Frida was a character in our Mappa Mundi in 2000-1: confronting one of our protagonists, Enrique, with the realities of the Mexican mestizaje identity (which was especially potent when we toured Mexico, of course!). In many ways, she's the ultimate symbol for the contemporary artistic icon: female, post-colonial, disabled, mixed race, AND bi-sexual. Looking at her paintings is like a lesson in this amazing biography - in fact, many of the paintings only really make sense in terms of the specifics of her life and times. Watching people going round the exhibition, I'm struck that they seem to be spending more time reading the captions than looking at the pictures. This art - political or autobiographical - draws its meaning from its context, and can't really survive without a context. It's hardly Kahlo's fault that we're now looking at her paintings in a very different context from the one in which she made them. But the experience makes me think again about Henry IV. In the theatre, because of the ephemeral nature of the form, we can and must be aware of the context - the particular audience addressed - if we're to have any chance of conveying real radical meaning. This is what Nick achieved so brilliantly with his Henry V - but the current production is generalised rather than specific in terms of the context, and so fails to ignite. Tourist Shakespeare.

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