Tamsin Greig in Women on the Verge. Photo: Alastair Muir
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Nervous breakdown coming on? Time to burst into song

Tamsin Greig stars in the innovative Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, while the Tate Modern wallet incident presses us to ask: what is art?

The movies of Pedro Almodóvar frequently flirt with becoming musicals – think of the mile-high flight attendant production numbers in his 2013 aviation comedy, I’m So Excited! – and now the relationship has been consummated. His farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has come to the Playhouse Theatre in London in a song-and-dance version radically revised from the one that disappointed on Broadway.

Sitting in the stalls at the premiere on 12 January, the Spanish film-maker certainly could not complain that the dramatist Jeffrey Lane had ditched much of the cinematic narrative. Pepa (Tamsin Greig), an actress who suffers the indignity of being famous for advertising voice-overs and dubbed movies, is dumped through an answerphone message by her thespian lover, Ivan. Unaware of this, his estranged wife, Lucia (Haydn Gwynne), is still seeking revenge on Pepa, while the actress’s best friend, Candela (Anna Skellern), has become involved with an Arab terrorist. House sales, tranquillised gazpacho, police raids and shoot-outs ensue.

Even in translation the script is funny and clever – and that is the show’s biggest problem. Interviewed in the programme, the composer-lyricist David Yazbek says that the first question about turning an existing property into a musical is: “Why does it sing?” This smart remark explains why musicals of, say, The Importance of Being Earnest and Glengarry Glen Ross are an unappealing prospect, with the songs either replacing dialogue or ruining it. “A handbag?/Are you mad?” trills Lady Bracknell.

Yazbek does, however, make Almodóvar’s film sing very inventively. Pepa’s first work after Ivan leaves her is to record her half of a song for which her ex-lover has already laid down his “ghost” track. Her agonised efforts to croon endearments with the voice of a man she now detests create a truly unusual love duet. “Model Behaviour” is what you might call a telephone number, incorporating 27 messages left by Candela on Pepa’s machine. And the Act I finale, “On the Verge”, must be one of few entries in the Broadway songbook that has nine women singing together.

Indeed, the sound of the show is its greatest innovation. Female characters in musical theatre are naturally associated with soprano parts but one of the unusual aspects of this production is that both leading ladies bring distinctively darker and deeper tones. And because, unusually, Gwynne and Greig are high-class speech actors, their stresses and expressions give the script as much punch as the lyrics. Gwynne is magnificent as a sort of Miss Havisham of Madrid, clutching her wedding dress as she hopes for her husband to come back 19 years on.

Yazbek’s score combines jazz with ominous Sondheim-style shivers and flamenco. Almodóvar’s painterly eye for the shade and arrangement of colours has influenced the sets by Anthony Ward and the costumes of Caitlin Ward, so that the stage often resembles an incandescent abstract canvas.

Two elements are unsettling. Although few male writers have focused so often on women as Almodóvar, his feminism at times seems oddly dependent on female stereotypes – vengeful, depressive, impossible, frigid, left by men – common in misogyny. A more temporary problem is that a chilly silence fell on the audience at the revelation that one of the women was involved with an Arab terrorist on the run: evidence of the cultural impact of the Paris massacre. But bleak political periods and the winter months create demand for feel-good entertainment and the wit and pizazz of Women on the Verge could serve that purpose now.

Modestly shuffling on to stage during the press-night curtain call, Almodóvar seemed to call for the UK’s category of best-loved culture-makers to be expanded to include the category of International Treasure.

The art of indifference

Visitors to Tate Modern come across a wallet lying on the floor but their discussion of this minimalistic critique of capitalism is interrupted when a gallery-goer picks up the item he has just dropped from his pocket. At another gallery, cleaners sweep away scattered piles of fags and crisp packets, unaware they have just destroyed an expensive installation by the British debris artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

In these popular but probably apocryphal anecdotes, the wallet-watchers represent the pretentious suckers who fall for the con of contemporary art, typified by practitioners whose work, in the moral of the second story, is literally rubbish. So what do we learn from a genuine incident? The artist Bruce Asbestos has a show called “A/B Testing” running in the café of the Hayward Gallery (on until 1 March). Flat-screens on the walls, with earphones available, play video works. But each time I’ve dropped by, all the coffee drinkers have seemed to be ignoring the work completely. Is this because they know it’s contemporary art, or because they don’t? The Asbestos website promises that the displays will be changed to reflect the public response to the show. If so, how will he deal with people behaving as if the café telly is on the blink? 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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