Bard Mania

This Summer, Get Thee To London For The RSC’s Henry IV

As the British capital marks Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, visitors and locals alike have the chance to enjoy a marathon production of Henry IV and a once-in-a lifetime museum show.

Alastair Muir/Rex

The sun sparkles on the river at Stratford-upon-Avon and I’m halfway through a seven-hour Shakespeare marathon. Not running, that is, but watching a rare double-bill performance of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 from the Royal Shakespeare Company. As the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon attracts nearly 5 million visitors a year from around the world, and is on the itinerary of most American tourists. It’s a beautiful town and—apart from the odd twee Anne Hathaway Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe—surprisingly unspoilt by the tourist industry.

One of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays, Henry IV chronicles the uneasy succession of King Henry IV to the throne following the murder of Richard II, and the rebellions within the Kingdom on the borders of Scotland and Wales. The play also follows the bawdy exploits of Henry’s delinquent son and heir, Hal, the Prince of Wales, his friendship with the dissolute semi-alcoholic old Falstaff, and Hal’s reform, and succession to the throne.

I’m there to review the play for the BBC’s Saturday Review, a weekly cultural discussion programme on Radio 4. Directed by Gregory Doran, and starring his partner Antony Sher as Falstaff, this is a vivid, absorbing production which has received rave reviews. Sher steals the show as Falstaff, of course, but there are also more serious, moments and plenty of food for thought. “What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no.”

Still pondering the nature of honour, the next destination on my cultural odyssey is Tate Modern on London’s bankside. The Tate is a stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and I’m there to see a new exhibition of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. The exhibition gathers around 130 Matisse works, brought together for the first time in decades. It’s a complete joy.

The so-called “cut-outs” are the final chapter in an artistic career which spanned over 50 years. Matisse (1869–1954) called it “cutting directly into colour” and the process itself is as fascinating as the results. What began as a method of trying out arrangements of objects for his paintings became a new art form in itself; his assistants prepared painted sheets of paper in the famous primary colours, the vibrant reds, blues and yellow; cutting out became a way of drawing and sculpting at the same time. Matisse explained: “The contour of the figure springs from the discovery of the scissors that give it the movement of circulating life.”

Matisse turned to this artistic method late in his life, when his increasing ill health and limited mobility in the 1940s prevented him from painting. Flickering film footage shows the artist as a stout old man, confined to a wheelchair, wielding the scissors and cutting freehand into the coloured paper, as twisting forms emerge.

While the cutting-out process was very quick, the placement and shuffling around and re-placement took much longer—and was often endless. (Later analysis of the paper shapes has shown thousands of tiny pinpricks, indicating how many times Matisse re-arranged the shapes around on his studio walls.) In works such as “Oceania,” featuring cut-outs birds, fish, coral and leaves, the walls of his apartment became the canvas itself.

I arrive at Tate Modern first thing in the morning, and already the press view is thronged: art critics, journalists and camera crews from all over the world. Tahitian influences on Matisse are well-known, but these late masterpieces display wider influences, from Islamic tessellated shapes, to African dancing and jazz culture. There is an added poignancy to the “graceful arabesque” of the acrobats, dancers, mermaids and swooping swallows Matisse so loved, when you consider his own physical decline.

It’s the room of Blue Nudes which stop me in my tracks: For the first time I feel a wave of art gallery kleptomania! Matisse created the four Blue Nudes in 1952, one of the most prolific periods of his career, and they have rarely been shown together. Each work features a monochrome blue silhouette of a seated female figure against a white background, each with one leg crossed over the other, arching an arm above her head. Despite these simple shapes and colours, and the sometimes jagged cutting out,the overall effect is one of astonishing grace and dynamism. What strikes me is just how modern the form feels: one could forget that Matisse was pioneering this method as early as the 1940s, well before pop art, minimalism or post-modernism.

Like the RSC’s production of Henry IV, the Matisse exhibition has opened to critical acclaim, with the Spectator calling it “a show of true magnificence”; the Financial Times, “visually stunning and emotionally gripping”; and the Guardian, “the lesson of a lifetime.” To find myself cutting up the Matisse catalogue at home that evening seemed entirely appropriate—my hallway is now adorned with his iconic blue and red dancers.

Critics predict that this will be one of the most popular exhibitions ever staged in London: it runs here until September 2014, before transferring to New York’s Museum of Modern Art until February 2015. If you can’t wait that long, or you need an excuse to visit the U.K., Shakespeare and Matisse are a great reason to cross the pond this summer.

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf