Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dvd/150: CITY GIRL (F.W. Murnau, 1930)

Three years after his masterpiece SUNRISE, Murnau returned to the town vs. country clash in CITY GIRL.  As it was 1930 a sound-incorporated version was released but it is the silent version that survives.

Young farmer Lem comes to Chicago to sell his father's wheat.  Lonely Lem falls for Mary Duncan's city-smart waitress Kate although her cynical nature hides a girl equally lonely in the city.

Yearning for peace, Kate happily agrees to marry Lem when he has to return home.  Their happiness is shattered when his domineering father repremands Lem for selling the stock short and for marrying a tart, even striking Kate when alone with her.

Kate loses respect for Lem bowing to his father's dominance while also facing the father's hatred and the lustful attentions of the farm's hired reapers.  Then one dark and stormy night...

Moments of lyrical beauty offset the plot's later melodramatic turns.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screaming Inside: HENRY IV at the Donmar

I am still becalmed after seeing Phyllida Lloyd's all-female production of Shakespeare's HENRY IV at the Donmar on Monday.   What is frustrating is I think I can see what her intentions were but they were so smothered with 'concept' that the 400 year old play can hardly be seen under it - especially as it has been filleted down to about 2 hours - 1 hour 50 minutes probably if you take out all the music cues and karaoke singing.

This concept meets you at the door, actually at the door across the road to be precise.  Ticketholders are asked to convene at a bar opposite the Donmar and are then alerted by tannoy that they can enter "the secure unit".  Along the road we trooped guided by ushers dressed as prison officers doing their damnedest to look 'ard.  The whitewashed stone stairs may have been a culture shock to some but personally I was happy to see them again as this was the original entrance to the Donmar in the 1980s and quickly felt the excitement I always did going up them to see Barbara Cook, Nancy LaMott, Elisabeth Welch etc.  No such pleasures tonight.

The auditorium is transformed into a fluorescent-lit association room in a woman's prison with uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs dotted about.  Indeed the entire stalls seating has been replaced with said plastic seats so thank God I had the presence of mind to book for the circle.  Brightly-coloured children's toys and furniture are incongruous additions giving the impression this is also the visit hall.

A door is unlocked and the cast troop in and line up, staring mulishly at the audience, before the signal is given for the play to start.  So there's the concept: HENRY IV is being staged by the inmates in a women's prison and during the next two hours it is occasionally interupted when tempers flare between the inmates resulting in the guards appearing to break it up so the play can start again.  My problem with the production is that all this distances you from the actual play - an all-female cast, a play-within-a-play, the concepts unfurl like scrims from above to obscure you from the text.  Am I supposed to be paying attention to the play or to the action surrounding it?

What was sadly amusing was that all these strenuous efforts to make it an immersive, 'realistic' experience only made it feel more phony.  I have no problem with "director" theatre as long as it all goes to serve the play but here I felt at all times Phyllida Lloyd cramming the play into her concept box with no real connection to the text.  In it's favour I will say that it was marvellous compared to the staggeringly awful concept production of EDWARD II seen last year at the National.

This is Lloyd's second "Shakespeare in prison" production which is a collaboration between the Donmar and Clean Break Theatre Group - all very laudable - and with JULIUS CAESAR as the first, I can see the link between them as both deal with top-down power and attempts to overthrow that power by force.  But while I can see how CAESAR could fit within a prison structure, dealing with the race for power when a leader is assassinated, I felt HENRY IV fitted the structure less well.  Yes the major plotline of the HENRY IV PART 1 is Horspur's rebellion against King Henry but where does that leave the more internal, domestic struggle for power between Henry and Falstaff to be the paternal guide for Prince Hal?

Another problem I have with such concepts is that while I have no complaints about all-male or all-female casts all I ask is that the actors can speak the text as if they understand it.  There was also the aural nightmare of strident Northen Irish or Scottish accents, no doubt incorporated here to make it all the more 'real'.

The pleasures to be had from the production were soley down to performances that transcended the sheer obviousness of it all and gave us fully-rounded characters that justified their casting no matter what their gender.

Rising above them all was Ashley McGuire who was a wonderful Falstaff, making a memorable first appearance sprawled on a sagging football-shaped beanbag chopping up lines of coke.  Looking like a stroppy refugee from a benefits cheat t.v. exposé, her Falstaff was the self-appointed life and soul of any party and was eager to be the centre of attention no matter how big the lies to get her there.  She spoke the text with real conviction and gusto, finding a natural rhythm in her cockney accent.

The whole prison concept finally paid off in the final minutes when the newly-crowned Hal disowns Falstaff and bans him from the royal presence.  McGuire's angry response brought the guards swarming onto the stage and she was frog-marched away in handcuffs sobbing loudly, the character and the performer's fates mirrored.

Another surprisingly effective performance - cutting a swaith through the concept - was from Sharon Rooney as Hotspur's stressed wife Lady Percy.  Only a sob away from hysteria, she was very moving in her two small scenes by totally playing it straight down the line.  Her final scene denouncing her father-in-law for wanting to perpetuate the killing by citing revenge felt like the heart of the play and I wondered how Lloyd felt that this moment of pure anguish came from a 'real' female character.

Also standing out in a supporting role was Cynthia Errivo who was so memorable as 'Celie' in the Menier's production of the musical THE COLOR PURPLE last year.  Here she more than held her own in two roles: as the conniving Poins from Falstaff's band of miscreants and as the tenacious Earl of Douglass who fights with Hotspur against the crown.  She was great in the battle scene, lashing out in a martial arts stylee against unseen opponants and there slithering down to stage level from the platform above.  She really is one to watch.

Although it was easy to admire Jude Anouka's Hotspur, ultimately her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the role was wearying and was played too much on one note, surely one should feel some sorrow when Hotspur is killed in battle?  It is noted in the play that there is a duality between Hotspur and Prince Hal, almost two sides of the same coin, but like Anouka's strident performance, Clare Dunne's unrelenting loudness - and in a mind-numbing Northern Irish accent too - made me recoil from both her and the character and felt she showed no real depth to Hal.  It was a shame too that not more could have been found for the ususally vibrant Jackie Clune to do but she did impress as the vainglorious Owen Glendower.

Oddly I felt no surprises from Harriet Walter as the haunted and troubled Henry IV, she played the role exactly as I suspected she would.  Still there were a few moments when she did deliver; in the confrontation scene between the King and the rebellious Worcester (very well played by Ann Ogbomo) and in the deathbed scene when the King is reconciled with his son but fortells the disaster that will befall the country during the War of The Roses.  Walter certainly had the right look: looking like a dessicated, drawn old lag, hidden away from any daylight for years.

Up until now I had never seen HENRY IV on stage, my only experience of it being through two excellent filmed adaptations: Orson Welles' haunting CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) and Richard Eyre's excellent BBC adaptation for THE HOLLOW CROWN trilogy (2012) so it's a shame I did not feel more disposed towards this production.

I have heard it rumoured that the third in Lloyd's "Shakespeare In The Nick" projects will be KING LEAR... hasn't that poor old bugger suffered enough?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dvd/150: YOUNG AND INNOCENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1937)

YOUNG AND INNOCENT begins midway through an argument between a man and woman in a clifftop house.  Next day Robert, who knows the woman, finds her dead on the beach but is later arrested when it is discovered she was strangled with the missing belt from his coat.

Robert manages to escape from the courtroom with the not unwilling help of Erica, the spirited daughter of the district chief constable, the Hitch trop of the couple brought together by fate to prove his innocence.

Waylaid by cafe brawls, a ghastly children's party and a collapsing mine, they finally discover the killer has a distinctive eye twitch.  All this leads to the famous scene when the camera pans from Erica, across a hotel ballroom to the onstage blackface band and into the eyes of the drummer which start to twitch.

Many incidental pleasures sadly do not make a completely satisfying film.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf as it's Hitchcock... 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Savage Dance: Lord Of The Flies

There is nothing better than having your expectations turned upside-down, when the show you are expecting to see is nothing like what you witness.  That was the case at Sadler's Wells last week and seeing Matthew Bourne and Scott Ambler's thrilling dance adaptation of LORD OF THE FLIES.

It certainly helped having a knowledge of William Goulding's chilling novel of a party of adolescents going feral when the plane they are travelling in crashes into a deserted, tropical island.  Of course this only skims the surface events of Goulding's book but as an imagined piece of dance theatre it worked marvellously.

I did have an idea of what I would see as I have seen practically all Matthew Bourne's work but I was proved wrong.  Bourne's last 'straight' dance piece DORIAN GRAY was a rather obvious attempt to be seen to be handling 'adult themes' and eventually felt shallow but here, due to the immersive soundscape by Paul Groothus, one was drawn into the sensory world of the boy's experience with ease.

What has been remarkable about this tour is that the ensemble of young male dancers has been recruited through local schools and dance workshops so is individual to each city played.  All I can say about the London core ensemble of 22 young lads - most of whom have never danced professionally before - was that they were exceptionally good and suggested the pack mentality of the lost boys with savage precision.

I think the biggest joy of the evening was Scott Ambler's choreography which was stripped-down to the barest essentials and was thrilling to watch.  As much as I love Bourne's work he can verge into the cutesy which was my fear going in but Ambler kept the dance taut and lean.

The lead dancers all did great work in suggesting the internal worlds of the characters.  I like Sam Archer's Ralph, the de facto leader of the group whose attempts to maintain an adherence to fair play and order crumbles when faced with the rising star of Danny Ruebens' Jack.  It is Jack who leads the expeditions to find food and eventually he overthrows Ralph and his few followers to become the feared leader of the now-savage boys.

Layton Williams was haunting as Simon, the sensitive boy who is consumed by the horrors of the island while Sam Plant was particularly good as 'Piggy' who clings to Ralph's protection from the bullying of the others.  I also liked the work of Philip King and Luke Murphy as the twins Eric and Sam whose duets started out playfully but turned darker as events changed.  I also liked Dan Wright's Roger, the nasty bully who is Jack's all-too-willing strong-arm man.

The show's success was also due to several Bourne regulars' excellent production: Lez Brotherston's design was spare by necessity as it's a touring show but it's standing set of packing crates, oil cans and scaffolding made that into a very workable and effective virtue.  Terry Davies' pulsing score was wonderfully involving and Chris Davey's lighting conjured up a world of brilliant sunshine and blackest night.

It is a production that has continued to live on in the memory since seeing it and like most of Bourne's best work it would be great to experience it again.  


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Laughing Through Tears: "Doctor Scroggy's War" at the Globe

Another visit to the Globe Theatre in Southwark??  Yes 2014 has been the year when I lost my fear of that auditorium having seen three fine performances there: TITUS ANDRONICUS, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and JULIUS CAESAR.  Oh and EILEEN ATKINS AS ELLEN TERRY in the new Wanamaker Playhouse!  Now here we were again, only this time it was to see a new play: DOCTOR SCROGGY'S WAR by Howard Brenton.  If it fell slightly short then that's to be understood when put against the Bard.

Brenton's play is part of the First World War Centenary and it was certainly odd to see a 'modern' piece on the familiar Globe stage - old habits die hard though so at the end of the play we had all the cast on stage for a merry jig.  That didn't quite sit well with what had gone before but that's the Globe for you.

It was also odd to see the side seats of the Globe noticeably sparser than for the Shakespeares - I am guessing that was a combination of the unknown quality of the play as well as the rainy weather that day.

Brenton's play is based on the remarkable Dr. Howard Gillies who during WWI pioneered plastic surgery techniques on the maimed and disfigured British soldiers returning from the Front.  What made his approach so unique was his insistence on the atmosphere within his hospital in Sidcup being upbeat and positive - in the play Gillies tells an astonished wounded soldier "We don't do glum here" - and the play has him dressing up as a zany Scottish doctor called Dr Scroggy, visiting the patients after hours with supplies of alcohol.

The trouble I had with the play was that I had read Pat Barker's TOBY'S ROOM earlier this year and, as good as much of the play was, it felt like a front-curtain skit compared to the epic drama of Barker's work.  Although Barker concentrated on the role of Henry Tonks, the former head of the Slade School of Art, who worked alongside Gillies by doing exhaustively-detailed drawings of the shattered faces and bodies of the soldiers, her book still touched on the gallows humour that ran through the patients.

In Brenton's play, we follow Jack Twigg, a young working-class lad who becomes an officer on his first tour of duty in France but when badly wounded during the battle of Loos, he is returned to England and Gillies' wards at Sidcup.  Here his initial depression and sniping anger slowly changes as he begins to reap the rewards of Gillies' approach.  We follow his confrontations with his shocked parents, his high-society girlfriend and even Queen Mary.

In another echo of Pat Barker's work - only this time her REGENERATION trilogy - we also witness the dichotomy of Twigg and several of his fellow patients who, once returned to an acceptable level of facial recovery, wish to return to active service in France.  Gillies and Twigg's girlfriend Penelope, who has left her nursing job to become an anti-war protester with Sylvia Pankhurst, cannot accept that he would want to return but for Jack it is not a case of wanting to but needing to.


John Dove's production was swift and well-balanced between the humour and the more serious debates about soldiers in wartime, patriotism etc. and he elicited very good lead performances from James Garnon as the ebullient Dr. Gillies and Will Featherstone as the idealistic Jack Twigg.

In a strong supporting cast, mostly drawn from the JULIUS CAESAR company, there were very good performances from Patrick Driver and Katy Stephens as the naive and loving Mr & Mrs Twigg, Catherine Bailey as the liberated Penelope, Sam Cox and Paul Rider made a fine double act as the feuding Sir Douglas Haig and Sir John French (and interesting to see them played for once not as the villains of the piece) and William Mannering as Corporal Fergal O'Halloran, an Irish soldier who yearns to return to Ireland and the struggle for independence.

Despite it feeling like a re-tread of Barker's better works, I still found a lot to enjoy in Howard Brenton's play and this production of it and it certainly made the case that the story of the wounded soldier and his place in the country he is fighting for is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Julius Caesar: Cowards die many times...

Another previously unseen-on-stage Shakespeare play, another night at the Globe.  Yes, after finally getting to see TITUS ANDRONICUS earlier this year, we took advantage of the Globe's Roman season to see JULIUS CAESAR, which I had only ever seen in the 1953 film with Marlon Brando and James Mason.

Having now visited the Globe theatre more this year alone than any other year, I am getting used to the modus operandi of the theatre, always crowded foyer, the slightly insistent older volunteer ushers and that every play ends with a jig... even with half the characters dead at the end!

For this production we booked for the first level, looking over heads of the groundlings onto the stage.  Sounds perfect?  Of course not, not when you are stuck with a sulk of teenage girls who wanted to be anywhere but there and sighed and shuffled and whispered and looked at each other's watches and mooched about until even the most unflappable of Globe ushers was having a long muttered conversation with them.  Oh for them to have been dispatched as thoroughly as Caesar.

Despite this serious annoyance, I was gripped by Dominic Dromgoole's fast-paced and lucid production and now I understand how this play - like so many in Shakespeare's canon - has been reinterpreted and staged in countries and at times of political instability because within the play there are remarkable political insights, analysis and sly satire - how disheartening that political chicanery and spin have been around *that* long!

In a play of shifting loyalties between characters and audience alike, Julius Caesar is blithely ignorant to the ferment quietly brewing around him.  His friend Brutus is approached by Cassius and, playing on Brutus' strong republican beliefs, recruits him into an anti-Caesar conspiracy by citing the ruler's increasing domination of Rome.

Dismissing the warnings of his wife Calpurnia and a soothsayer, Caesar goes to the Forum and is waylaid by the conspirators who seize their moment and assassinate him.  Feeling justified in their actions they do not attempt to flee and even allow Caesar's friend Mark Antony to speak an oration over the dead leader on the Forum steps.  Blasé about his friendship with Caesar, Antony drops his mask and is consumed with angry grief when left alone.

In the play's most famous scene, Brutus addresses the crowd from the Forum steps, explaining rationally the conspirators' reasons for the killing which has the crowd denouncing Caesar and all he stood for.  Antony speaks next and in a dissembling, cunning speech he turns the fickle crowd against
the conspirators by pointing out how Caesar refused being Emperor three times and brought prosperity to Rome.  He shows them Caesar's will which has left money to every Roman citizen and in a coup-de-theatre uncovers Caesar's body for the crowd to inspect.  The crowd are by now whipped up into a murderous frenzy and they start a hunt against the conspirators.

How interesting to see this during the Party Conference season!  Antony's speech would fit in to any of them and is probably a basis for most of them.  What struck me as particularly modern is Shakespeare's use of repetition for Antony's speech, he raises each reason for Caesar to be revered then quotes what Brutus has just said "and yet Brutus is an honourable man".  He works through his rhetorical questions and lets his audience come to their own decision about Brutus' duplicity.

As in CORIOLANUS, Shakespeare has no time for the Roman rabble with their herd mentality, ignorance and savage partisanship.  Well that certainly hasn't changed, you only have to listen to an X FACTOR audience.

As I said it certainly helps that Dominic Dromgoole has directed such a fast-moving and lucid production, my only quibble being that the doubling and sometimes tripling of the cast makes it sometimes a bit confusing to keep up with who's who, particularly at the end when the battle scenes between Antony and the conspirators come and go so swiftly.

There were good unshowy performances from a hardworking cast.  George Irving was well-cast as Caesar, his avuncular air hiding his wariness at those he suspected of being against him while Anthony Howell was good as Cassius, the chief conspirator against Caesar.  He was well-partnered by Tom McKay as Brutus, the good man who does wrong thinking he is doing right.  His scenes with Howell were particularly enjoyable, particularly in the scene where Brutus and Cassius argue over the rights and wrongs of their actions before going into battle.  The two actors were so similar in look and style that it was like watching two sides of the same coin.

Luke Thompson was a fine Antony suggesting the many shades of his character - the easy-going, sporty, favourite of Caesar, his dissembling nature and finally the avenging warrior.  As I have said, his playing of Antony's funeral oration was excellent.

Katy Stephens was an impassioned Calpurnia, Christopher Logan gave Casca's speech about Caesar refusing the title of Emperor the right air of sneering disdain, William Mannering was very good in his several roles and I also liked Joe Jameson as the chilly Octavius, his wary relationship with Mark Antony already sowing the seeds of mistrust which Shakespeare further seven years later in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.  I also liked the look of Jonathan Fensom's Elizabethan costumes.

With one more visit booked for the Globe this year, I think my wariness of that venue can be said to be exorcised - now if only we can do something about those school parties...

Monday, October 06, 2014

Dvd/150: SABOTAGE (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)

Hitchcock followed up SECRET AGENT with... an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's THE SECRET AGENT renamed SABOTAGE!

London 1930s: Verloc, the German manager of a cinema, is an undercover saboteur with an anarchist cell.  Their leader is unhappy with attempts to disrupt the city so witholds payment until Verloc delivers a proper strike: bombing Piccadilly Circus underground.

Verloc's unhappy American wife Sylvia and her younger, clumsy brother Stevie are befriended by Ted Spencer from the neighbouring shop, unaware that he is a detective undercover observing the under-suspicion Verloc.

Velroc discovers Ted's identity the night before the attack so, to escape suspicion, gives Stevie the bomb to leave in Piccadilly which leads to the famously tense sequence as Stevie is delayed on his journey and is killed when the bomb explodes on a bus.

Hitchcock's taut direction elicits nervy performances from Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka and a characterful supporting cast. 

Shelf or charity shop?  It's ticking away on my shelf...


Saturday, October 04, 2014

The dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching...

A few weeks back I had my second NT Live experience, and oddly enough, neither have been National Theatre productions.  Go figure.

Another not-too-odd thing is that both times the production had been in a small venue with a big star in the lead: Tom Hiddlestone in CORIOLANUS at the Donmar and now Gillian Anderson in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Young Vic.

What is a guy to do?  Stand on the street queuing for possibly non-existent returns - or sit in a comfy seat watching it with a bag of popcorn?  Well yes I know it should be queuing but I am SO aged Constant Reader.  So it was with a guilty heart that we went to the Curzon Victoria to have a gander at the Young Vic's acclaimed revival of STREETCAR, the fastest-selling show in it's history.

First off, let me say that for a newly-built cinema, it would appear that the last thing they want you to do at the Curzon Victoria is see a film there with more space given over to the design of the foyer and bar areas - bizarrely though, at the play's interval the bar staff could not cope.  Odd that eh?

My jury is still out on the whole "live theatre in cinemas" thing, it's like having a shower while standing outside the curtain - you can hear it, you can experience what's going on but you are not immersed.

Especially when the production you are seeing has a site specific design as this one does.  Australian director Benedict Andrews, has for no real purpose that I can see, updated Tennessee Williams' magnificent play to "modern dress" and has it play on Magda Willi's white frame set which slowly rotates during the course of the play.  I am sure it makes sense sitting in the Young Vic, making you feel you are circling the action, but it really makes no sense when you are relying on static cameras to convey the action to you - time and again, a key moment was ruined by the actor being suddenly obscured by a post, doorknob or a door-frame.

The lighting was also bright white light, giving the impression of the characters being seen almost under laboratory conditions.  My main complaint with Andrews' approach was rather than bringing anything revelatory to the text it just underlined, highlighted and rang a handbell over anything and everything obvious.  Williams' poetry was subsumed by the "look-at-me, look-at-me" obviousness.  It ties with Trevor Nunn's misjudged National Theatre production as the worst I have seen of one of my favourite plays.

As with every stage STREETCAR I have seen, the actor playing Stanley just didn't cut it.  Paul Herzberg in 1984, Iain Glen in 2002 and Elliot Cowan in 2009 have all failed to make anything of the role.  I really don't know what the problem is, it never seems to be a problem for the actor playing Mitch or the actresses playing Blanche or Stella.  Are they all trying so hard not to be Brando that it leaves them with nowhere to go?

Ben Foster certainly brought a different attitude to the role - short and pugnacious - but his performance seemed to slide off Williams' character like sweat.  Andrews' vision of the character seemed to have him take his trousers off a lot which wasn't too upsetting for the viewer but there really didn't seem to be any other idea from him of his vision for the character.

I liked Corey Johnson as Mitch.  It's a wonderful role and he made the most of the buffonish comedy it allows but also the desperation that hides behind most of the character's actions.  It's a shame that he seemed to underplay Mitch's confrontation with Blanche.  He was easily out-acted in the scene by Gillian Anderson and it's a scene that needs to be equally balanced and here it didn't have the punch that Rob Ashford's production did at the Donmar - see my review of that one here.

I also liked Vanessa Kirby as Stella, the younger but more grounded DuBois sister.  She had an easy naturalism and you really felt her confusion at being torn between her sister and her husband.  Along with all the others, sadly she had to act in Victoria Behr's deliberately ugly costumes.

However the real reason for going to see this was to experience Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois and, despite all that I disliked about the production, she was worth it.  They really didn't need all that white light as she BLAZED through the play.

She seized every nuance of Williams' text and although she might not be my favourite Blanche DuBois she gave a performance of unrelenting power.  Funny, tragic, grating, touching, haunted and ultimately haunting, it was an astonishingly brave performance that will live in the memory for a long time.

Every so often one of her line readings would break through the screen - and Andrews' bloody obvious trops - and Williams' wonderful poetic imagery would make me gasp.  Her performance was the only thing that made me wish I had seen this production actually in the audtorium to really feel the power.

O has let it be known that he never wants to see another Tennessee Williams revival so Constant Reader, keep your diaries clear.