Sunday, 20 March 2011

True Grit

The Coen brothers’ adaptation of the 1960s novel by Charles Portis is a fine example of a Jacobean revenge tragedy transposed to 19th century USA. 14-year-old Mattie seeks justice – or is it really vengeance – for the murder of her father: amurder that left her siblings orphans and her mother a widow.

Her audacious and indeed courageous pursuit of the perpetrator of the murder is both entertaining and somewhat peculiar. What sort of 14 year old would behave in this way in 1870s USA? The gothic language of the male protagonists, their proclivity for brutal violence, and their justification of this violence by convoluted masculine reasoning is both entertaining and disturbing.

Mattie’s search for ‘justice’ causes damage to others – both human and animal. And the young heroine does indeed get her revenge in the end – actually killing her father’s murderer for herself. But she pays a price. She loses her arm to a poisonous snakebite. She never manages to settle down and marry – surely a prerequisite for a woman in late 19th century USA. Perhaps more significantly she loses touch with those who aided her revenge and when she tries to reunite with them 25 years later discovers one has died days before her arrival and the other had disappeared from history’s record.

In these last scenes we see that the attractive perkiness and determination of the young 14 year old have become closer to cruelty and bitterness – a blight on the joy that she though her revenge would bring.

The film is visually satisfying. There are many striking images: a crow pecking at the dead body of a man hanged high on a leafless tree; snowy landscapes and trudging horses; a vagabond wearing a bear’s head; a decayed corpse harbouring venomous snakes. As for the humans, the Coen’s have assembled a cast whose physical appearance seems to reflect their moral position in the world of the film – all are compellingly distinctive and their characters are explicit in their bodily appearance.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Red Shoes

As is usual with a Kneehigh show there is no 4th wall and the performance starts before the actual play. We sit in the foyer waiting for the auditorium to open. Some musicians come down the stairs that lead to the performance area and play tunes. Soon three not so young men in old-fashioned white pants and vests watch them from the balcony above. The musicians go into the adjacent café – still playing – the men in pants follow. Everyone has shaved heads is wearing dark eye makeup.

After a while the audience goes into the theatre space. We sit on three sides on uncomfortable seats, but we do have cushions. The windows to the street outside are not curtained so there is daylight in the auditorium.

The play is a final revival of a 2001 production. The story is a variation on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes. It is about a compulsion not to say addiction that ends in death. The tale is told in a light and foolish manner – but it is also dark and disturbing. There is wonderful clog dancing – such a contrast to the ballet of the recent film Black Swan or, indeed, the 1948 film starring Moira Shearer.

This story of endeavour, foolishness and ambition is told in the style that has become and remains the benchmark of Kneehigh shows. There is deceptively simple staging and obvious artifice that disguises the deep level of skill and invention that bring their shows to such extraordinary life. The integration of music, dance, story telling and performance creates an intellectually and emotionally satisfying theatrical event.

The brilliant ensemble cast, musicians and technical support receive a deserved ovation at the end of their performance.

BAC until 9th April

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Black Swan

This film is directed by Darren Aronofsky whose previous work includes The Wrestler and Requiem For A Dream. It tells the story of a young ballerina (played by Natalie Portman) who is in contention for the lead role in Swan Lake.

Her single mother – a former ballerina herself, who did not fulfill all her own ambitions pushes her daughter to be her surrogate in triumph, and malignly dominates her life. Their home environment is pressurized, manipulative and disturbing.

The director of the ballet – a creepy and also manipulative character played with élan by Vincent Cassel – introduces a rival for the role into the equation. It is never clear if this other girl (played by Mila Kunis – who is possibly this decade’s Eliza Dushku) is friend or foe. In fact the style of the film is one of whole-hearted ambiguity: we are often not sure what is real and what are terrible imaginings.

The film has a claustrophobic feel, enhanced by the closeness of the camera work. There are striking sequences as, for example, when Natalie Portman becomes the Black Swan. And in the climax of the film the real and the imagined intermingle to disturbing effect

Sunday, 27 February 2011


Directed by Danny Boyle and adapted by Nick Dear – this dramatic version of Frankenstein follows Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818 pretty faithfully.

The production is notable – among other things - for alternating the actors playing Victor Frankenstein and the creature. We see Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein. Their performances – and particularly the Miller’s are superb.

The cast also has strength in depth – featuring among others Naomi Harris as Frankenstein’s doomed bride and Karl Johnson as the old blind man who helps educate the so-called monster.

The opening scene in which the creature comes to life is strikingly vibrant. In fact all the staging, the set and lighting are brilliant – as is the soundscape and music.

For once the Olivier revolve is used not to cover up production or narrative weakness but to enhance the drama. Its use is both spectacular and unobtrusive, if that makes sense. The drama plays straight though for two hours but doesn’t drag; and the narrative drive would lose impetus with an interval anyway.

At the end the ovating members of the audience obscure the views of the curtain call of those who remain seated. I suspect ululation may accompany the ovations after press night.


Friday, 25 February 2011

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s play is an odd mix of broad and sometimes cruel comedy, coupled with a tale of shipwrecked siblings each assuming the other had died in the catastrophe. It features cross-dressing, mistaken identity and has a gay subtext at certain points.

Peter Hall’s production features his daughter Rebecca as Viola. Also in the cast are a lively Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch, Amanda Drew as Olivia and David Ryall as a fine and gloomy Feste.

The staging is plain yet effective and the narrative clear. The live music adds depth to the production. Charles Edwards gives a strong performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, getting much comedy out of the part, often in a non-verbal way. His achievement is more notable for the fact that all his scenes include Belch – but he is never upstaged by the ebullient Callow.

The second half moves along with more pace than the first. This is altogether an attention-holding and entertaining production. Despite this, there is a feeling that Rebecca Hall is occasionally a bit wishy-washy. The gay subtext of the play is quite strongly highlighted – which adds an extra element. Sir Toby Belch is revealed as an unpleasant rather than entertaining character. And the cruelty to the uptight Malvolio is suitably jarring.

The happy ending symmetry that is a feature of some Shakespearian comedies is undercut by the low-key way this particular one is handled. Overall this is a satisfying and entertaining production, performed in style.

Cottesloe Theatre

Roald Dahl's Twisted Tales

This is an adaptation by Jeremy Dyson of several of Dahl’s stories for adults. Dyson is perhaps best know for his work on League of Gentlemen, but he also wrote the TV series Funland and co-wrote Ghost Stories which played at the Lyric last year before taking up residency in the West End.

This latest enterprise has something of the feel of Ghost Stories to it. A cast of five (plus one child actor) plays multiple roles in this fast moving and quick changing drama.

The five tales are book ended by characters on a commuter train being told these very stories by a newcomer in their midst. The tales are typical Dahl fare, featuring cruelty, the threat of horrible violence (not always delivered) and darkly comic twists to the narrative.

While it generally feels as though the production aspires to the cult success of Ghost Stories, it actually falls a little short of that.

However, it is all slickly staged and nicely performed – altogether an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Lyric Hammersmith

The King's Speech

The much-praised film The King’s Speech is directed by Tom Hooper (who’s other work includes The Damned United a film about Brian Clough’s short tenure as manager of Leeds United).

Hooper’s current film tells the story of the stammering monarch George VI, father of the current Queen who had to take over the throne after his older brother Edward VIII abdicated. The film is apparently historically inaccurate at several points, in terms of the attitudes and actions of some of the leading politicians portrayed in it. Some of the things I found a little strange were the fact that, while George was shown as a bullied victim, his character was never presented as other than his disability. Thus the main narrative thrust of the film concerned his attempts to overcome his stammer so as to be able to speak at public gatherings or over the radio to the nation and empire at large.

Having said that I must admit this did prove compelling enough as the process was shown and advanced through the King’s relationship with his Australian (male) speech therapist. There is humour and pathos in the clash between royalty and commoner, deference and service, heredity and democracy.

Colin Firth as George and Geoffrey Rush as Logue the speech therapist excel. The evolving relationship between the two men is the key one of the film. It moves from initial hostility through various hiccups to what we are led to believe becomes a true friendship. Helena Bonham Carter is also excellent as the king’s wife. There is of course a stellar cast giving cameo performances as the various political, religious and royal grandees surrounding the reluctant king. There are also one or two oddities – a lack of servants surrounding the royal couple, the fact that they appear to be able to travel alone and unrecognised by cab throughout London and – indeed – at one point George angrily walks off alone from a London park to return presumably to his palace.

The climax of the film is George’s address to the nation as war is declared on Germany. The speech is stirringly delivered over the Allegretto of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and is cut to the rhythm of the music. It is an excellent illustration of the use of music to influence emotion. I’m not sure though how intentional the irony of using German music to underscore the speech of an essentially German royal family declaring war on a fascist Germany is, though.

In the final analysis it’s a skilful and intriguing film with plenty in it to stimulate debate.