Saturday 22 February 2014

Bitter sweet - A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre

The 1961 film version of this play is one of the classics of British cinema. Dora Bryan as Helen and Rita Tushingham as Jo made these characters their own and any later version on stage or screen would have to be very very good to match the Tony Richardson directed film. The current production at the National comes very close.

A Taste of Honey was revolutionary when first performed in 1958. With its cast of a single mother, a pregnant teenager, a black sailor and a gay art student it covered issues which still divide today but were incendiary in the 1950's and 60's. Some doubt has been cast on the continuing relevance of Shelagh Delaney's play, that it no longer has the immediacy it had when first written. At the time, single motherhood was deeply shameful, interracial relationships taboo and male homosexuality illegal. Things have changed since then but single mothers are still blamed for many of society's problems, teenage pregnancies increase and recent anti-gay legislation in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia as well as less than liberal attitudes amongst some communities here at home show that things may not have changed that much.

A Taste of Honey is not only about these issues. It is also about loneliness and the need for love and friendship. Helen is not the world's greatest mother but she wants to be loved. Jo does not feel loved by her mother and seeks it with Jimmy, a black sailor. Geoff, the gay student is forbidden to find love and seeks instead a kind of love with Jo. This search for love leads to trouble - Helen may or may not know who Jo's father is and has a string of unsuitable relationships, Jo becomes pregnant to a man she will never see again and Geoff lives in fear of being discovered. Helen may be feckless. She is certainly selfish and manipulative but she does show some feeling for her daughter summed up in a word of warning "Oh Jo, why can't you learn from my mistakes… It takes half your lifetime to learn from your own". Jo chooses not to listen.

Loneliness drives the relationships in the play. Jo ends up pregnant because she doesn't want to spend another Christmas alone whilst Helen goes off with her boyfriend. Helen goes off with a younger, abusive man because she wants security. Geoff pursues the friendship with Jo so as not to be alone. Jo  makes reference to the fear of loneliness saying "I'm not afraid of the darkness outside. It's the darkness inside houses I don't like".

Set in Salford in the 1950's, the play also affords a glimpse of working class life in that period and is one of a number of plays and films of the time that focused on this subject, some of which are amongst the best British drama ever written. Witness Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving, Allan Sillitoe's Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Nell Dunn's Up the Junction and another of my favourites Stephen Lewis' Sparrers Can't Sing. This was the period of the angry young men - not all of whom were from working class backgrounds. Women writers were far and few between and Delaney was very much on her own, not fitting in with the male crowd, very young, poorly educated and northern. She objected to the description "angry" preferring to describe herself as "restless"!

The current production at the National has Lesley Sharp as Helen and Kate O'Flynn as Jo. Lesley Sharp is positively regal as the still glamorous, still hopeful and aggressively domineering Helen, all poise and pout. O'Flynn is equally convincing as the long suffering daughter, completely believable as a vulnerable but knowing teenager whilst Harry Hepple is extremely moving as Geoff, too scared to stand up to Helen, desperate for love and security but too weak to hold on to it. There is also a great jazz soundtrack. A Taste of Honey runs at Lyttelton Theatre at the National until 11th May. See it.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Art deco in Antwerp

99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933
Antwerp is known for its historic centre which dates back to the middle ages, for its connection with Rubens and Flemish painting and for its famous port through which millions of immigrants left Europe seeking a new life in the Americas. Antwerp should also be known for its 20th century architecture, including its rich collection of art deco buildings. 

I recently visited the city for the first time, armed with a google map and tips from an excellent Facebook page called  Art Deco Antwerpen , which is a must for all visitors interested in architecture. This is not a large city and many of the deco highlights are within walking distance of each other. Unfortunately I chose a grey and wet weekend to visit but a warm coat, big scarf, umbrella, camera and regular coffee stops ensured that I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Meir, Antwerp's main shopping street, is home to my favourite deco building in the city. 99 Meir is currently home to Italian fashion designer Massimo Dutti's store. Originally a second Meir branch of Maison Tilquin, manufacturers and purveyors of high quality silver cutlery, it was designed by architect Joseph Selis, and completed in 1933. It is a slim, striking building with numerous deco features making it stand out from its larger neighbours. Constructed from reinforced concrete, the facade features slightly rounded windows and a central pillar topped by a flag pole. The pillar divides the floors in half and has examples of the classic "rule of three" displayed at the top and bottom of the pillar as well as on the flagpole. The door has a striking handle resembling two number threes facing each other.

Selis also designed the original interior including the knife shop, counters and cupboards, some of which remain today due to the protected status of the building. Whilst I was in Antwerp, the store was closed, apparently for refurbishment so I was unable to go inside but it was possible to see the counters and lighting from outside. Clearly, I will have to come again! The building has been the Massimo Dutti store since 2003 and underwent extensive refurbishment from 2002-4 under the supervision of the Department of Monuments and Sites.

Doors, 99 Meir, Joseph Selis, 1933

KBC Tower, 35 Schoenmarkt, Jan van Hoenacker, 1932.
Europe's first skyscraper stands at 35 Schoenmarkt,  a short walk from 99 Meir. Built between 1929 and 1932 and originally the Torengebouw van Antwerpen, the KBC Tower stands 87.5 metres tall, second only in the city to the Cathedral of Our Lady. Reflecting the period architecture of Chicago and New York, it was one of Europe's first buildings with a structural carrying frame, also reflecting practice in the USA. The tower dominates the city centre skyline with its deco-featured soaring facade. Unfortunately, many of the original internal features have been lost. The tenth floor tearoom and beer hall were ripped out in the 1970's and the roof terrace cafe was closed. Things could have been worse. In the 1960's there were plans for complete demolition. A "restoration" took place in the 1970's which included removing the apartments on the upper floors and converting them to offices. Today the tower has retail space on the ground floor and offices at all other levels. 

Despite the losses, the facade can still stop visitors in their tracks with window after window, floor after floor and the stylised figures at the lower levels. The central tower is flanked by two wings, one curved, accentuating the height and narrow waist of the tower. It is known to Antwerp's residents as the Boerentoren or farmers' tower, as at the time of building the most important shareholder was a farmers' co-operative. The architect was Jan Van Hoenacker who designed a number of buildings across Belgium including a theatre, bank office and brewery.

Deco figures on the faced of the KBC building
Many of the buildings featured in this post were constructed close to the time of the 1930 Exposition that took place in both Antwerp and Liege. The Antwerp fair concentrated on maritime and colonial themes whilst Liege focused on industry and science. The Exposition also marked the centenary of Belgium as a sovereign state. Few buildings remain from the Exposition but on the outskirts of the city, the Kristus Koningskirk stands in the middle of the residential area of Kiel. The church was built from 1928-30 and was designed by architect Jos Smolderen. During the exposition the church was used to display Flemish art to visitors from around the world. 

The church has elements from a variety of styles but clearly fits into the modernist/ art deco genre with a particularly striking main clock tower and brickwork reminiscent of the Amsterdam School. Smolderen spent time in the Netherlands during the First World War, seeking refuge in Belgium's neutral neighbour. During this time he had contact with Dutch architectural genius H.P. Berlage. There are other examples of the influence of the Amsterdam School amongst the buildings surrounding the church - a school dating from 1934 as well as a number of residential properties. Kiel is another part of Antwerp to visit again.   

Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.
Kristus Koningskirk, Kiel, Antwerp. Jos Smolderen, 1930.

Detail of school in the Kiel district, 1934.
Few cities can boast an art deco style church. Antwerp also has an art deco tunnel! The Saint Anna Tunnel is a pedestrian and cycle route under the Scheldt river. The entrance buildings on both sides of the river were designed by Emiel van Averbeke who also completed the early drawings for the KBC tower. These imposing structures are constructed of yellow brick and have partially glazed pillars on each flank. There are decorative canopies above the entrance and at the top of each building.

The interior of the tunnel is charming. Visitors descend a wooden escalator reminiscent of some of the old London Underground stations and then pass through a 572 metres of white tiled walkway. There is also a colourful tiled information panel in the tunnel, giving details of its dimensions and dates of construction. The tunnel was completed in just 22 months and cost the equivalent of one million Euros. Seems like a bargain to me. The grand opening took place on September 10th 1933 with Antwerp Mayor Camille Huysmans officiating and walking through the tunnel, bizarrely followed by 20,000 students!

Detail, entrance Saint. Anna tunnel. Emiel van Averbeke, 1933.

Entrance, Saint Anna tunnel.
Ceramic information panel, Saint Anna tunnel.

Antwerp has many other art deco and modernist buildings to explore and discover. The city is conveniently placed to allow a visit to be combined with Brussels, Amsterdam or even Paris thanks to Eurostar. Below are a few more examples of Antwerp's version of deco.

Retail and office building off Meir

Curved detail of building above
Door to the Tropeninstitut, Nationalstraat
Modern house (I think!) in modernist style in Cogels Osylei.
You might also like Brussels art deco - Uccle and Ixelles
Visit my Facebook page Art Deco and Modernism around the world

Sunday 2 February 2014

Vintage travel - visit Mexico…in 1936!

I visited Mexico for the first time last year, but travellers have been attracted to this special place for a very long time. Some have visited through necessity, including political exiles such as Leon Trotsky who found a home here in 1936, although things ended badly with his assassination in 1940. Mexico has also attracted many artists and writers including Robert Capa, Tina Modotti and Josef and Anni Albers, all of whom either made very long stays here or visited regularly from the United States, inspired by the landscape, people and culture.

During the 1930's and between 1939 and 1945, Mexico attracted new visitors including many political refugees from Europe who chose to sit out the Second World War here in safety as well as extremely wealthy visitors who had formerly summered in Europe where war was raging. The proximity of the United States means that American visitors have always been the most numerous and the image at the top of this post is from a travel brochure produced in 1936 to encourage more tourism from north of the border.

Stamped with the details of the Central Travel Agency at 426 15th Street in Oakland California, the brochure is a charming mixture of beautiful black and white photographs of Mexico's many attractions - cities, markets, volcanoes, the pre-Colombian heritage and one of my favourite Mexico City locations - Xochimilco. The photograph of Xochimilco shows an idyllic scene, devoid of the many brightly coloured boats found there today, with just a few canoes and an open expanse of water.

Customers of Oakland's Central Travel Agency must have been well off. This is no budget package tour that is being offered. The trip begins "…when you board the luxurious train that takes you through to Mexico City…with spacious, inviting, sun parlor lounge and dining cars…shower bath, valet and maid service, soda fountain and radio…". Other benefits included sleeping cars which were "…completely air conditioned, sealed against dirt and the outside weather…". Known as the "Hotel Geneve", this luxurious train delivered travellers to Mexico City from where they were able to visit numerous sites and cities including Puebla, Orizaba, Cordoba, Guadalupe and Teotihuacan, driven by employees of Private Pullman Car Tours of Mexico.  

As well as providing would be travellers with mouth watering information about their tour of Mexico, the brochure also sets out some important practicalities. Early reservations are encouraged and a partial payment of $10 would secure your place. And who says the 1930's were not technologically advanced? OK, there was no internet but you could make your payment through any American Express office, at a local railway station or at a tourist agency. Special rates for children aged 6 to 12 were offered with older children paying the full amount. 

All tour members had to carry a tourist permit which would be provided by American Express and astonishingly, not just visas, but also passports were unnecessary for US citizens! The brochure advises that "travellers cheques are an excellent form in which to carry one's travel funds and they protect the holder against loss or theft…" and it ends with a lovely disclaimer about any loss, injury or damage caused to travellers or their property. So, some things haven't changed in almost 80 years!

Costs for the tours are set out in a table showing prices for departure from a range of US cities (and also Toronto) according to the type of accommodation on the train which ranges from lower berth for two  people at $236.75 per person for those setting out from New York City to a drawing room for three people at $285.75 dollars per person from the same point of departure. I think I'd splash out and get the drawing room! These prices include travel from New York City to Chicago where most of the groups assembled. Other assembly points included San Antonio and St. Louis.

Of course, independent travel was also possible back in the 1930's and Mexico City had a number of high quality hotels for those able to pay. These included the sadly lost Hotel del Prado, completed in 1933 and designed by Carlos Obregon Santacila in collaboration with Mario Pani Darqui. Severely damaged by the 1985 earthquake, it was subsequently demolished. As well as being the focus of much of the city's social life in the 1930's and 1940's it was also home to Diego Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda. The mural was rescued from the wreckage of the hotel and now has a home of its own in a specially built pavilion in the Alameda park. Other high quality hotels in Mexico City included the Hotel Geneva with its palm garden, the Hotel Regis with its Italian supper club and the Sanborne Hotel which featured a mural by Rufino Tamayo. Ah those were the days.

Hotel del Prado, Mexico CIty by Yekkes
Hotel del Prado
Palm Garden, Hotel Geneve, Mexico City by Yekkes
Palm garden at the Hotel Geneva
Sanborne Hotel, Mexico CIty by Yekkes
Restaurant at Sanborne Hotel with mural by Rufino Tamayo
Hotel Regis, Mexico CIty by Yekkes
Hotel Regis
Times may have changed since my brochure was printed but the invitation on the first page remains true - "…the language and customs of her (Mexico's) people are enticingly different from ours. In the ruins of her monasteries and in the pyramids and buried cities of antiquity she holds the intriguing remains of other cultures and other civilisations. In her mountains, her quaint, romantic cities and towns, and in her languorous sub-tropical climate, Mexico holds the beauties and elements of ever changing interest that make travel delightful…" Probably not the language we would use today but the message holds true and I am marking the calendar until I return in October this year!

You can see more pictures of Mexico here.