Monday, September 26, 2011

Time to catch up on my last two theatre trips, both written by that promising Brummie William Shakespeare.

Both productions featured performances that had Must-See stamped on them but none more so than Kevin Spacey as RICHARD III - if ever there was a perfect marriage of actor and role this had to be it.
This production marked the end of the highly-publicised - and pretentiously titled - Bridge Project which featured Sam Mendes directing nine plays over the past 3 years which toured the world with a yearly company of actors drawn from the UK and the US. However none of the productions I saw seemed to be that successful with some remarkably ropey performances - mostly from the Americans to be honest.

The production was stark - each scene started with the first word of the scene projected on a scrim - and had a clunky stylised air such as certain doors that enclosed the playing space being marked with a X as another of Richard's victims bit the dust - we were treated to Gloucester being graphically drowned while others made do with just having their eyes closed by another company member. All very odd.
As with previous Bridge productions there were some remarkably dodgy performances - the prime suspects here were Chandler Williams as a Clarence who seemed to be channelling a bad Kirk Douglas impersonator, Michael Rudko as a dull Lord Stanley and Nathan Darrow as a dreary Henry, Earl of Richmond.

There were no particularly exciting male performers in the cast so let's move on to Spacey. As much as I enjoyed him I must admit that afterwards I felt a bit becalmed as he gave exactly the performance that I was expecting. The slithery delivery, the barnstorming theatricality, the glittering ambiguity... it was all there. To be honest though, nothing he did surprised me or made me see a hidden dimension to his character.

I must say Spacey's physicality was impressive with his twisted gait and calipered leg and, with his constant scampering around the stage, he had boundless energy.

In both acts Mendes and Spacey concocted indelible stage moments: in Buckingham's stage-managed attempt to 'persuade' Richard to accept the crown while he demurs to be left alone to his prayers, Mendes had him broadcast live on a tv screen seemingly shocked and tremulous to be interrupted praying, while at the same time surreptitiously pushing away the fake monks surrounding him. In the second act, as the Battle of Bosworth draws ever closer and Richard's paranoia increases he delivered his speeches in the ranting style of Gaddafi which really drove home the timelessness of the play.

His death scene - while physically impressive - rather defeated his performance. Mendes has the dead Richard hoisted aloft by his ankles, Mussolini-style, to sway above the stage while Henry delivers his speech to the glories of the Tudor age to come. All this did was to remind me of reports of Olivier's famous death scene in CORIOLANUS at Stratford in 1959 - and Olivier should never be allowed to enter people's minds when they are watching another actor play Richard III.
Oddly enough, for once the women ruled the roost - Haydn Gwynne (not an actress I usually warm to) was an impassioned Queen Elizabeth, Annabel Scholey was a forlorn Lady Anne and, in the real performance of the night, Gemma Jones gave us a thrilling Queen Margaret, haunting the stage in a top coat and wild hair. Her big scene where she denounces the Yorkist Queens was, for me, the highlight of the evening.I guess any time this play is performed it will always seem to mirror whatever despot is ruling somewhere in the world but with Gaddafi shrieking his revenge in a hidden location at all those seeking to overthrow him it made this 420 year old play remarkably contemporary.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Banderas is back... and Pedro's got him!

In news that will make any Almodóvar fan's heart leap up, he has reunited with his former protege for the first time since ATAME! in 1990. Antonio has gone on to a Hollywood and Broadway career but has seemed adrift in no-doubt profitable but increasingly treading-water jokey latino roles. Reunited with Pedro, it is almost a shock to see that he is capable of giving a multi-layered performance - charismatic, tortured yet deeply twisted.

Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a respected plastic surgeon who has baffled his colleagues with what he has been working on so secretly in the hidden laboratory in his isolated mansion.

When he tells a conference that he has researched the invention of a new man-made skin which is soft to touch but resistant to fire, h
e is warned off by his superiors, all too mindful that he is probably still haunted by grief at the death of his wife in a car-crash and more recently, the suicide of his deranged daughter Norma.What is unknown to his colleagues is that he has gone beyond research. Locked away in a spartan bedroom in his mansion is a young woman named Vera, covered in a skin-tight bodysuit, that he has operated on for the past six years. Her only contact with the world is Ledgard and his housekeeper Marilla (Almodóvar diva Marisa Paredes) - who holds her own secret that Ledgard is her son.

This precarious world is shattered with the arrival of Marilla's second son Zeca who is on the run from the law after a failed robbery. Zeca spots Vera on a monitor and after tying up his mother, rapes the girl who he mistakes for Ledgard's wife. It turns out he and Ledgard's wife were running away together when the car crashed and Zeca escaped, leaving the wife to die in the conflagration. Ledgard returns and shoots Zeca dead. This triggers the all-important flashback that lets us know what exactly happened six years ago that led to the mysterious appearance of Vera in Legard's life.
Even by Pedro's standards, the plot is labyrinthine but you are swept along in his brio of telling a tall tale with the straightest of faces helped immeasurably by a committed cast and the combination of lush cinematography and a vivid, Hitchcockian score.

Since his stunning re-emergence with TODO SOBRE MI MADRE (All About My Mother), Pedro has proved himself to be among the greatest of directors working in cinema today, with a facility of drawing you deep within his screen-storytelling. I respond in different ways to his films: his films with female lead characters TODO SOBRE MI MADRE, VOLVER and LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS (Broken Embraces) I connect with immediately; his films with male lead characters HABLE CON ELLA (Talk To Her) and LA MALA EDUCACION (Bad Education) I have to allow to ferment and grow in my subconscious. The joy of Pedro's work is that his films allow this to happen.
Banderas' darkly menacing performance is complemented by those around him. Elena Anaya's Vera is initially seen as a mystery and it's a measure of her performance that with minimal dialogue you still stay intrigued in her which pays off at the end when she really comes into her own. It's always a joy to see Marisa Paredes and here she gives a sturdy, unflashy performance in a role that gives a core to the film - as twisted a core as that maybe.

Jan Cornet makes an impression as the young man in Vera's past and special mentions to Susi Sánchez as his mother, Bárbara Lennie as his shop assistant friend and especially Blanca Suárez as the tragic Norma.
Pedro's film - which echoes his own work as well as VERTIGO, FRANKENSTEIN and EYES WITHOUT A FACE - is given a glorious sheen by his cinematographer José Luis Alcaine whose lush and disturbing cinematography is one of the major triumphs of the film, allied to Alberto Iglesias' teasing and haunting score.

It's a mark of his taste as a filmaker that at the very end, when most film makers would go in for a big emotional screen moment, Almodóvar fades to black. Somethings are best left to the audience's imagination.