Sunday, February 25, 2018

DVD/150: QUE HE HECHO YO PARA MERECER ESTO!! (What Have I Done To Deserve This!!) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1984)

Almodóvar's previous scattergun approach is still evident - a telekinetic child! - but here he discovered a more consistent tone.

Overworked cleaner Gloria struggles with money and living in a cramped Madrid flat with her controlling husband Antonio, eccentric mother-in-law and two sons: one a teenage pusher, one a pedo-magnet.

Gloria's solace are painkillers and her friendly prostitute neighbour Cristal.  Cabbie Antonio picks up an author and reveals he faked letters from Hitler for a book a girlfriend wrote, which provokes the writer to contact her to persuade Antonio to do the same for him.

Her call provokes an argument and after Antonio hits her, Gloria retaliates with a hambone to his head... now Gloria has to cope with a dead husband in her kitchen!

Carmen Maura is magnificent as Gloria with fine performances throughout, especially Chus Lampreave as her mother-in-law and Verónica Forqué as bubbly Cristal.

Shelf or charity shop?  A definite keeper... 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Dvd/150: BUSTER KEATON: A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW (David Gill / Kevin Brownlow, 1987, tv)

In 1987 Thames TV showed this three-part documentary on silent screen legend Buster Keaton which later won three Emmy Television awards.

This was the third Thames 'silent' series from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and their love of the subject shines through.

Combining testimonies of surviving friends and colleagues with priceless Keaton interview footage, it charts Buster touring in his parents' vaudeville act, his screen apprenticeship with 'Fatty' Arbuckle to eventual star billing, owning his own studio with full creative Independence.

It explores Keaton's most thrilling stunts and routines from classics like THE NAVIGATOR, SHERLOCK JUNIOR, STEAMBOAT BILL JR and his creative highpoint, THE GENERAL.

THE GENERAL was not successful resulting in studio interference and a loss of creative control; with his professional and personal lives in turmoil, alcoholism took hold.

But happily, Buster was rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s, living to see his films restored and celebrated.

Shelf or charity shop? With an excellent narration by film director Lindsay Anderson, this tribute to a cinematic hero of mine will stay on the shelf...

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Exit Through The Giftshop - Postcards at an exhibition....

More postcards from exhibitions and galleries that have caught my eye...

1) TWO BATHERS (1921) - Duncan Grant

Not the best scan but the resolution on the card isn't the best either. I think I bought this at Tate Britain, possibly as part of the exhibition on art critic Kenneth Clark.

Two young male bathers relax after a swim, one is still drying himself while his friend sprawls on the grass gazing into the mid-distance, his languid fleshiness the central focus of the painting.  I like how Grant has fitted his frame into... the frame!


Bought in the very place, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a basilica for the Dominican order in Rome, a stone's throw from the Pantheon.  Built over an ancient Roman temple, the church was completed and consecrated in 1370.

Yes that is an elephant obelisk in front of the church, the oblisk itself dates from the 1st Century and was found in 1665 in near-by excavations and certainly makes the church easy to spot!  The base was designed by the sculptor Bernini.  The church - which was hidden under scaffolding when we visited - is home to Michelangelo's magnificent marble statue of Christ The Redeemer (1521) and the grave of the Early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.

3) COSTUME FOR MLLE BRIAND IN "LE ROSSIGNOL" (1914) - Aleksandr Benois

A lovely and delicate watercolour drawing of a costume design by the artist and scenic designer Benois for Stravinsky's opera LE ROSSIGNOL (The Nightingale).  This was part of a Barbican Gallery exhibition on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in 1996.

Benois is famous for his designs for the Ballets Russes but was also the Scenic Designer for Marinsky Theatre, home of the Imperial Ballet.  I find it utterly charming and transcends it's practical theatrical function.

4) VIRGIN AND CHILD (1450) - Fra Angelico

I bought this in Paris at the lovely Musée Jacquemart-Andre in 2011 when they had an exhibition called FRA ANGELICO AND THE MASTERS OF LIGHT which showcased the Early renaissance painter and contemporaries.  It is a nice memory of seeing Owen overjoyed to be finally able to stand in a gallery surrounded by paintings of his favourite artist.

As Owen said at the time, the power and intensity of his paintings comes from the belief he has in his subjects; as formal and fixed as his figures are, there resides in them a lovely tenderness of gaze and humanity.  Mary's watchful gaze is fixed on her son who stares at the viewer with an unsettling directness and, as usual when faced with his works themselves, ages can be spent marvelling at the glorious colours and detailed drapery of the curtains and robes.


I bought this at the thrilling Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013. Both Man Ray and Miller had a growing interest in the process of solarisation, which excited the Surrealist photographer.

In the 1920s, Lee Miller had been one of the most sought-after fashion models in New York but in 1929 she moved to Paris to seek an apprenticeship with the photographer and artist Man Ray who, despite initial resistance, soon gave in and she became his muse, lover and more-than capable assistant - and all at the age of 22.  This personal daring and directness shines out of Man Ray's photograph.

Friday, February 16, 2018

TOSCA at Covent Garden - Love and Death in Rome...

In 2016, after seeing a marvellous English National Opera production, we had left the Coliseum wondering "Wow, what would TOSCA be like if done by the Royal Opera?"  Well I know now...  Wow!

TOSCA made it's London debut at Covent Garden in 1900 and Puccini's tragic, headstrong heroine has swept across it's stage practically every year since then, interestingly the only two noticeable breaks were in the periods during the two World Wars.

Giacomo Puccini and his librettist clashed during it's writing as the composer wanted to strip back Sardou's original play, cutting his five-act drama to three acts; Puccini succeeded and the opera is remarkable in it's through-line - cutting through the usual operatic padding to tell the tragic tale of the diva Floria Tosca and her Republican lover Caravadossi who fall foul to the machinations of chief of police Scarpia in the tinderbox atmosphere of Rome in summer, 1800 as Napoleon's army advances..

Jonathan Kent's production was first seen in 2006 and again I find it remarkable that his theatre productions from that era are lost in time but his opera production is still seen 12 years on.  Be that as it may, Kent rose to the challenge excellently; he said at the time "What I admire about it, quite apart from the thrilling music, is its theatre craft ... It's a taut, sinewy melodrama, exquisitely put together. There isn't an ounce of flesh on it ... That's what interested me: to find a way within that hurtling narrative to examine the relationships and its themes of sex, power and death".

Sadly the production now stands as a tribute to the designer Paul Brown who died last November.  His wonderful designs for TOSCA have an epic quality to them - his Act 1 Sant'Andrea della Valle chapel is wonderfully realized especially in the Te Deum scene, with the front-stage occupied by Scarpia in the gloomy chapel while above and behind it, the main church is ablaze with light as a mass is sung to celebrate the alleged defeat of Napoleon.

His Act 2 palazzo apartment for Scarpia is dominated by a huge statue of a conquering figure with drawn sword which, of course, mirrors the later action where Tosca kills Scarpia, and his Act 3 battlements for the Castel Sant'Angelo were stark and dramatic - oddly enough I missed the huge sweeping wing across the top of the set which references the enormous statue of the avenging angel atop the building (I've been there you know!).

Mark Henderson's lighting was wonderfully evocative as well, particularly towards the end of Act 2 in the pinpoints of candle-light in Scarpia's palazzo room while the Covent Garden orchestra made Puccini's score come to resounding life under the baton of Dan Ettinger.

Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka played Tosca with a willful passion although I think the English National Opera's Keri Alkema edged her for performance.  However her singing of Tosca's great aria "Vissi d'arte" was quite lovely.  Maltese singer Joseph Calleja gave a robust performance as Caravadossi with an equally marvellous rendition of "And The Stars Shone" in the last act.  Gerald Finley from Canada was a very hissable Scarpia and fully deserved the panto boos he got at his curtain call!

I think I still have a way to go to fully appreciating opera but TOSCA is now a firm favourite.

Monday, February 12, 2018

JULIIUS CAESAR at the Bridge Theatre - all terribly new, all terribly old

All in all, it was an evening of remembering things..

...I remembered that Nicholas Hytner's 'modern-dress' Shakespeare productions might make critics salivate but to me they are crushingly obvious attempts at saying "Hey kids... Shakespeare could almost be writing about today!"; surely any decent production should rely on the text to get that over to an audience.

...I remembered how The Bridge Theatre's YOUNG MARX so underwhelmed me and here I was seeing it's second production to similar feelings

 ... and I remembered how uncomfortable the seating is at The Bridge, a willful act of neglect on the part of Hytner and oppo Nick Starr as the theatre was only built last year.

...and finally I remembered how much I loathe being interrupted during the first important minutes of a production by disruptive latecomers and a clueless usher.  Could they have come in during the caterwauling pro-Caesar band playing in the round playing area?  No.  Due to this-in-the-round configuration, the latecomers had to come through our row led by a clueless bumbling usher to get to far-flung seats as the actors were already speaking.

Now The Bridge Theatre's 'dress circle' third row has NO legroom when you are sitting in the large tip-down seats so we all had to stand and attempt to squash against the back wall when this tribe of arseholes made their way loudly and clumsily along the row.  Cue shouting from people whose feet were stood on and those who did the standing... meanwhile I have lost my train of thought and the actors might as well be speaking Urdu for all I fucking cared.  I repeat... this theatre was built last year, so we are not talking about seating as in the more ancient west end theatres which are cramped.  So one can only assume that the architect responsible deliberately made them like this.  The arsehole.

So.. by the time the mayhem died down we had missed the first scene altogether.  Sad to report I was so angry at all of the above that the production had lost me... and nothing I saw particularly made me fight to catch up.

Which is a shame considering I was looking forward to seeing this especially after seeing Dominic Dromgoole's gripping Globe production in 2014 which showed how timely Shakespeare's play is and probably always will be... and no, that wasn't in modern dress.

It's also a shame as there were good performances struggling to get out from Hytner's absurdly LOUD production, nothing terribly revelatory, but good.  Ben Wishaw was well-cast as a liberal elite Brutus, first seen at his desk surrounded by books, who is suckered into joining the conspiracy against Caesar when they appeal to his Republican idealism.  Wishaw is not a terribly likeable performer; there is a prissy petulant quality to his acting which suited the role of Brutus - a man whose idealist nature led to his downfall - but there were also no surprises in his performance: he gave me just what I expected.

Michelle Fairley played Cassius with a needling earnestness but nowhere in her performance did she suggest anything that was revelatory or what was gained by having her cast over a male actor, I also got no real heat off of David Calder's Caesar, for all the hints of Donald Trump - which was too drearily obvious to have been pursued in rehearsal.  Again, it's not that he gave a bad performance... it just didn't reveal or illuminate.

I had sadly the same feeling for David Morrissey whose hang-dog Mark Antony reminded me of the Tex Avery cartoon dog Droopy more than the quick-witted character who subtly beats the conspirators at their own game.  He upped his game for the famous funeral oration but then he almost seemed to disappear into the clanging loud whirlwind of the final third of the production.

One had to look further down the ranks for the performances that did stand out: Wendy Kweh's Portia was suitably impassioned in her attempt to keep Caesar from going to the Senate while Hannah Stokely and Leila Farzad stood out as Metellus Cimber and Decius, senators who all play their parts in lulling Caesar into thinking it's just another day at the office.  The most sparky performance of all was from Adjoa Andoh as the spiteful Casca, whose shade-throwing starts the whole conspiracy off; her pointed and arch performance made one feel sorry for the character's absence in the second half.

As i said all the stalls seats have been removed for JULIUS CAESAR making the punters so-many unpaid extras in the crowd scenes - and just like the Globe's groundlings - we had a fainter!  The production had to be halted in the scene between Cassius and Casca when a young bloke fainted and he had to be removed from the acting area, the wuss - it was only about 30 minutes in.

Although I can see the point in the promenade set-up, ultimately I tired of seeing the audience being moved about like so much cattle and looking about themselves while the actors were performing in front of them.  I did however like Bunny Christie's inspired production design of having platforms rise up in and around the audience to give the actors their stages - the Senate was particularly well-realized.

I'm only sorry I did not enjoy the production more.  To be honest I got more from the excellent programme notes than from the production!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

ANNIE at the Piccadilly Theatre: Nostalgia isn't what it used to be...

Well it took a while but finally, 40 years after it's original London opening, I have seen ANNIE on stage!  I must admit that I wasn't particularly bothered about seeing this production when it opened starring Miranda Hart or after Craig Revel Horwood took over, but when it was announced that Meera Syal was taking over the iconic role of Miss Hannigan... well it had to happen!

I remember managing about ten minutes of John Huston's film version as it was so ghastly and since then I have kept the musical at arm's length but know of the show's more successful songs thanks to Grace Jones, cabaret star Jason Graae - and yes, Jay-Z.

So there I was, finally watching Thomas Meehan's odd tale of orphan Annie who escapes from the drab misery of Miss Hannigan's orphanage to live in Oliver Warbucks' mansion on a whim of his to give an under-privileged child a nice time for Christmas. Slowly he is won over by her optimistic outlook and decides to bankroll a search for her parents.  Meanwhile back at the orphanage, Miss Hannigan's crooked brother Rooster and his tarty girlfriend Lily St.Regis decide to scam Warbucks by claiming to be Annie's parents.  Ultimately the Big Daddy, President Roosevelt turns up to sort things out!

Meehan's book has a refreshingly direct trajectory but for all it's shiny-faced optimism, it does occasionally sound disquieting notes, usually around the odd figure of 'Daddy' Warbucks and the idea that money can ultimately buy you anything.

Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's score certainly has it's high-points - TOMORROW, MAYBE, EASY STREET, YOU'RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE and HARD-KNOCK LIFE are all rightly standards - but the rest of the score is a bit forgettable with one too many songs featuring characters and the ensemble standing around saying how lovely Annie is but then it's not like they would call her a shady bitch  It's surprising but maybe not that neither Strouse or Charnin have had as big a success since.

Director Nikolai Foster writes at length in the programme about how he was struck by the underlying sadness and seriousness of a lonely orphan trying to find a home in the deprived world of the the 1930s Depression and cites the show's relevance in the era of Trump, Brexit and Syrian refugees.  Nice try Nikolai... but his production is anonymously slick with all the depth of a postage stamp, it also felt like all the big numbers were like guest slots on the Royal Variety Performance.

Foster also claims that Colin Richmond's standing set and proscenium design of jigsaw pieces references Annie trying to join up with her long-lost parents.  Ah, so that's what it is... and there was me thinking it was a *cough* homage to MATILDA.  Ben Cracknell lights it well however and Nick Winston's choreography is energetic if ultimately not quite integrated.

As I said, we went to see Meera Syal and she delivered a very funny and sly Miss Hannigan while also suggesting, where she could, hints of a lower depth than her lines and business allows.  As Alex Bourne's well-sung Daddy Warbucks or the ever-shrill Grace of Holly Dale Spencer started up yet another song about how gosh-darned lucky they were to have Annie in their lives, it made you realize just how little Miss Hannigan is in the show but Meera made you miss her character and charisma.

We had the Team Madison troupe of kids on and Isobel Khan was delightful as Annie with a nice voice and a confident performance; sadly as soon as the other children started singing their screeching fingers-down-a-blackboard pitch rendered the lyrics totally incomprehensible.  The supporting performances were fairly anonymous, but Russell Willcox stood out as Franklin Roosevelt, he also scooted across the stage in his wheelchair admirably.  Jonny Fines as the nasty Rooster chewed the jigsaw pieces off the set while Kate Somerset How as Lily merely stood by and watched.

Of course the most notable supporting performance was from Amber as the plucky, lovable pooch Sandy but apart from lighting up a scene in the first act, she had to settle for running across the stage during scene-changes and wandering on to join Annie's new-found family at the end.  Amber... you're a star but you need a new agent.

On reflection, it all made for a nice evening - and as you can figure from the above, I always love seeing Meera Syal onstage - but I think ANNIE is now a musical I can chalk up to having seen with no further investigation needed.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Dvd/150: IDA (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

Winning both the BAFTA and Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Pawel Pawlikowski's film creeps into your bones like the film's chilly weather.

1960s Poland: orphan Anna, a week before becoming a nun, discovers she has a surviving aunt who must be visited before taking her vows.  Wanda is a former favoured judge with the Communists, now cynical and seeking solace in drink and men.

Anna is stunned to learn they are Jewish and her real name is Ida.  Wanda reveals Ida's parents were murdered in WWII by Poles who had promised to shelter them, and despite warnings that only sadness awaits them, Ida demands they visit her family's village.

Provoked by the villagers' silence, Wanda's reawakened sense of justice leads them to the tragic reality which changes them both.

Running 82 minutes, Pawlikowski directs with a forensic economy that, with committed performances and haunting cinematography, lingers in the memory.

Shelf or charity shop?  Undecided... I think I should share this one with others...