Monday, February 23, 2015

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: HENRY V (Thea Sharrock, 2012)

The last in the the BBC Shakespeare series THE HOLLOW CROWN is HENRY V which also brings to an end the chain of events covered in the Henriad.

HENRY V takes up where HENRY IV ended and, although both had different directors, luckily the same actors play the same characters so there is a natural continuity between them.

Tom Hiddleston moves effortlessly from HENRY IV's carousing Prince Hal to the commanding HENRY V making it easy to understand his sudden bursts of rage as coming from him trying hard to stamp his authority.

Ben Power's fine adaptation does have some odd omissions: Henry's execution of the traitorous lords, the killing of the pages by the French which leads to Henry ordering the deaths of his prisoners, and the non-execution of Nym.

Thea Sharrock's subdued film is enlivened by performances by Julie Walters, Paul Ritter, John Hurt and Mélanie Thierry.

Shelf or charity shop?  Joining his fellow Kings on the shelf...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

HAPPY DAYS at the Young Vic

A woman is buried up to her waist in a mound of earth exposed to the strength of the sun, a loud harsh bell wakes her up and announces when she should sleep, her meager, nearly depleted possessions are in a nearby bag while her uncommunicative husband remains on the other side of the mound just out of her eyesight but still she can tell herself:

"Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day.  After all.  So far."

Samuel Beckett's HAPPY DAYS is truly one of the great roles for any actress: actors may have the Shakespearean kings to look forward to as they get older, women have Winnie in HAPPY DAYS.

I had never seen the play before but I read it two years ago so was disappointed that Natalie Abrahami's Young Vic production last year sold out quickly.  However it has now been revived so jumped at the chance to finally experience the play's power in person - which is how HAPPY DAYS should be experienced.

Beckett wrote the English version of HAPPY DAYS in 1961 (he would also write a French version as was his custom) and the part was first played on the London stage by Brenda Bruce.  In 1976, Peggy Ashcroft played it at the National Theatre and she reflected that Winnie "was a part that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at HAMLET - a summit part".  Beckett told Brenda Bruce that who could cope with all that Winnie has to and still go down singing but a woman?

1n 1979 Beckett directed a revival at the Royal Court with his favourite interpreter. Billie Whitelaw.  She later wrote that when she read it for the first time she wondered "how this man could have written the story of my life so long before he knew me?"  For Winnie, does in her extreme state, what we all do - we get through the day as best we can.  We chatter about what is around us and recollect memories to keep the darkness at bay.  

Beckett actually left the rehearsals for two weeks as their intense one-to-one method was, for the first time, beginning to stress Billie out.  She contacted Brenda Bruce and asked did she feel that after doing HAPPY DAYS she could learn anything?  No, said Bruce, after HAPPY DAYS she felt like she could never learn anything again.

Luckily, Whitelaw's performance was filmed by the BBC and can be seen on YouTube in an uncomfortable tape-to-digital transfer - come on BBC, get this remastered and available on dvd.  However even during filming Whitelaw was put through the mill as she was recovering from the flu and had to have cortisone injections on the day of filming to get through it.  Seeing this revival only two months after Billie Whitelaw's death made it all the more moving.

In Natalie Abrahami's production which wonderfully balances the humour and the tragedy, Juliet Stevenson was simply astonishing as Winnie, her bright, optimistic chatter as she goes through the pattern of her day only clouding over when her fears overtake her: that she is an object of ridicule to a couple who pass by, that Willie will one day not be there to answer her with his monosyllabic answers.

Her parasol catches fire in the heat of the sun, her medicinal tonic runs out, her toothpaste is nearly squeezed out but still Winnie chatters away, playing with both the revolver and the music box in her bag.  And she has her half-remembered quotations and memories: a ball she attended with Willie, a kiss in a garden shed when young, a little girl frightened by a mouse while undressing her doll under a table at night.  

In the second act, she is in even more dire straits as she is now buried up to her neck, kept awake by the insistent loud bell and blanched by the heat of the sun.  Although her regimented emptying of her bag's contents is lost to her, she can still see it and there is Willie.  After all.  So far.

Dwarfed by Vicki Mortimer's rockface set with it's path of trickling pebbles and deprived of bodily expression, Stevenson mesmerised with her croaking voice and facial reactions and at the play's climax, when David Beames' decrepit Willie crawls across the ground in his (wedding?) suit to collapse in front of her, she broke my heart with her whispered singing of her music box tune 'The Merry Widow Waltz':

"Every touch of fingers
Tells me what I know,
Says for you,
It's true, it's true,
You love me so"

Monday, February 16, 2015

DI AND VIV AND ROSE (and us) at the Vaudeville Theatre

Last Wednesday it was time to step back in time thanks to Amelia Bullmore's comedy of three female friends negotiating life in DI AND VIV AND ROSE at the Vaudeville Theatre.
The play has transferred from Hampstead Theatre to the Vaudeville in the West End for a limited season - sadly without a title change which I think is unnecessarily cumbersome.  What has happened is the cast has had a two-thirds change since Hampstead: out goes Anna Maxwell Martin and Gina McKee, in comes Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell.

If you know the individual actresses, you can imagine how this will change the dynamic of the play as Spiro and Russell, with their musical experience, play it more 'out front', more West End - and that is certainly not a bad thing in my book.

As good as the actresses are, I must admit that at no time did I find Bullmore's characters at all believable as they seemed to be types rather than fully-rounded characters, sporty lesbian, sex-mad ditz, driven fashion-writer career woman.

The set-up is age-old: three women from different backgrounds come together - here in a shared student flat - and we watch as they slowly evolve into genuine friends despite everything that life - and themselves - can do to them.

We first meet the threesome taking turns on their halls of residence phone, slowly getting to know each other and eventually sharing a flat together.  Over the course of the first act we get to know them too: Tamzin Outhwaite is Di, sporty and taking business studies who can finally admit to the world she is a lesbian after hiding it at home, Jenna Russell as Rose who is studying art history and whose good nature includes sleeping with any man she fancies, and Samantha Spiro is Viv who is studying sociology with a particular interest in how fashion has literally shaped women's lives.

Twice during the play Bullmore delivers a twist to the general sitcom feel, confronting her characters - and the audience - with the casual shocks that life can spring.  The first comes so out of the blue that it takes you totally unawares and the play violently changes gear for a while as the women bond together, only for the former tempo of fairly long scenes to creep back again by the interval.

The interval arrives at the end of their University years and they handle this last scene very well as the realization dawns that, although they are now firm friends, they will never share the experience of living together again. The 80s give way to the 90s and Viv is working for a fashion columnist in New York, Di is living with a partner and Rose is a single mother of two children.

I enjoyed these scenes more - the actresses seemed more comfortable playing ages closer to their own - although I also felt that Bullmore didn't really flesh out the characters that are left offstage, partners are mentioned but you never get a real sense of them.  Midway through the second act, Bullmore pulls the rug out from under the audience again with the death of one of the characters and the tempo changes again to one of loss and recrimination.

I was vaguely reminded of MY NIGHT WITH REG in these final scenes as it too covers the impact of a friend's death on those left behind, who has ownership of what memory, etc. but Kevin Elyot's play works on a more profound level than this one.

What made the play stand out were the performances of the fine actresses, in particular Samantha Spiro as the waspish, and later, soused Viv.  What is also good is seeing a new play that affords three equally prominent roles for actresses, I am sure the play will have a future life as it would be very easy to tour.

Briskly directed by Anna Mackmin, ultimately what's not to love about a production that gives you blasts of Kirsty MacColl *and* Madonna?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dvd/150: CECIL B. DEMENTED (John Waters, 2000)

John Waters' freewheeling satire seizes it's opportunities to poke fun at both the Hollywood and Independant film worlds.

Hollywood actress/full-time bitch Honey Whitlock is kidnapped in Baltimore by The Sprocket Holes, a group of film terrorists and forced to star in their own underground film directed by their leader Cecil B. Demented.

Of course Honey soon becomes a willing guerrilla filmmaker - the irony of Patricia Hearst being cast as one of the gang's mother is not lost..

Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff have great fun in their lead roles and the cast give winning performances, in particular Alicia Witt and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it's great to see Waters alumni Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and Mary Vivian Pearce in the mix.

However the film's climax feels oddly muted, as if Waters ran out of steam.

The dvd needs a commentary track as Waters excels when talking about his work.

Shelf or charity shop?  Possibly a contender for the limbo of a paper sleeve in the storage box

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: HENRY IV PARTS 1 & 2 (Richard Eyre, 2012)

The second in the BBC trilogy of Shakespeare History plays are the two parts of HENRY IV, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre with a clarity that makes them gripping viewing.

Henry IV faces an uprising led by Lord Northumberland who had helped him overthrow Richard II.  Henry is envious that Northumberland's fiery son Hotspur would make a better heir to his throne than his son Hal who spends his nights roistering with the lowlifes in Eastcheap and in particular with the drunken rogue Lord John Falstaff.

Hal's killing of Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury changes the King's opinion but which father figure will Hal finally acknowledge?

Fine support from Joe Armstrong as Hotspur and Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly underpin superb performances from Jeremy Irons as Henry and Tom Hiddleston as Hal.

But above all is Simon Russell Beale's quintessential Falstaff: vain, angry, lyrical, sly and finally heartbreaking.

Shelf or charity shop?  Enthroned on the shelf!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dvd/150: L'ATALANTE (1934) and the shorter films of Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo directed only four films which can be watched in an afternoon.  He died, aged 29, of Septicaemia in 1934.  But directors have long cited him as an influence, two European film awards bear his name while L'ATALANTE is #12 in Sight and Sound's 50 Greatest Films of All Time.

The surrealistic A PROPOS DE NICE (1930) contrasts the Nice rich and poor; a 1931 short showcases French swimmer Jean Taris while the anarchic ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933) has four young pupils rioting at their oppressive boarding-school.

Then there's the poetic realism of L'ATALANTE.  Jean marries Juliette and they start married life on his barge with eccentric Pére Jules and a cabin lad.

When Juliette sneaks off to see Paris, Jean angrily sails away.  Can resourceful Pére Jules reunite the sad lovers?

Commited performances from Jean Dasté, Dita Parlo, Michel Simon and Gilles Margaritis illuminate Vigo's haunting masterpiece.

Shelf or charity shop?  Sur l'etagére naturellement.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT at Haymarket - remembering the forgotten

Last night we went to see something rare in the West End - a new play by a new author in one of the most prestigious of London theatres.  Nope, not the Donmar or Almeida or some poky over-a-pub fringe venue but in the Haymarket, the sometime home of all-star revivals.

If I am honest I think that although this transfer from Chichester is to be applauded for introducing a new voice with a thoughtful and engrossing new play, I think it was an uneasy fit in the plush surroundings of the Haymarket, a more intimate auditorium would have served the play better and made it more powerful.

Mark Hayhurst is certainly no stranger to the tragic tale of Hans Litten as he has already written a tv drama and documentary about him so he is the right person to bring it to the stage but this time he shifts the focus to Litten's mother Irmgard.

Hans Litten was a young barrister in Berlin who specialised in defending the left-wing working-class in court.  In 1931 he prosecuted three members of the SA for killing three and wounding twenty others in an attack by the paramilitaries on a left-wing dance hall.  His bold coup-de-grace was to call Adolf Hitler to the stand where he was cross-examined on his claims that the Nazi Party did not propagate violence and were a credible political party.

Litten set out to show that Hitler was in fact the leader of a party that terrorised it's opponents.  Hitler's obvious discomfort at being cross-examined was not forgotten.  In 1932 the Nazi party rose to power and the following year, on the night of the Reichstag fire, Hitler exacted his revenge - Litten was arrested at midnight and spent almost five years being shuttled around various prisons and concentration camps, subjected to beatings and torture.  This was done while he was being held without trial in "protective custody" - another fine example of the Nazi's corruption of language.  Eventually moved to Dachau, Litten hanged himself on 5th February 1938.

All the time he was in prison, his mother Irmgard relentlessly pursued the Nazis for his release, haunting their offices with increasing desperation, happy for any information of his whereabouts from released prisoners as proof he was still alive.

There was one moment of real hope when Litten's case was picked up by British politician Lord Clifford Allen but although Allen had a meeting with Hitler, nothing came of it as Allen believed in appeasement with the Nazi party.

After their son's death, Irmgard moved to England while his father relocated to Northern Ireland.  She lived to see her son's tormentors defeated and died in 1953 but her husband had predeceased her in 1940.

The play has them at odds over how to react to their son's fate and indeed, Hans had grown distant from his father, a Jew who converted to Lutheranism to further his legal career.  Baptised a Christian, Hans embraced Judaism to get back at his father although this rebounded on him when he arrived at Dachau as he was classified Jewish and made to wear the yellow star.  Which is also ironic in that the tragedy that overtook Hans Litten, his colleagues and other disaparate groups in the 1930s risks being lost in the wake of the overwhelming later Holocaust.

Some artistic licence has been taken in casting the tall and graceful Martin Hutson as Hans Litten as, in real life, he was more of a Billy Bunter lookalike, but he gave a heartfelt and affecting performance, nuanced enough to suggest that Litten realised that he had been the unwitting agent of his own fate.

The supporting roles have been cast well with solid, experienced actors: Pip Donaghy is very good as Erich Muhsam, the anarchist poet/playwright who shares Hans' cell and who remained unbowed in the face of his own death while Mike Grady plays Carl von Ossietzky, a left-wing journalist who also shares their cell.  Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 but remained in prison until he died in the following year from TB.

David Yelland was good as the affable Lord Allen, full of waffle about freedom but doing nothing to anger Hitler while John Light was suitably chilling as Dr Conrad, the Nazi who is Irmgard's one unpredictable link to her son's release.  She has to demur to him in the hope that in doing so Hans will gain freedom but all the time you get the feeling of a sometimes-interested cat playing with a mouse.

There is a final confrontation scene between them when the avuncular mask drops and the real brutal face and mind of Nazism is revealed and it is to the credit of the lean, sinewy writing and committed playing of the actors that in this and similar scenes you could hear a pin drop - apart from the obligatory coughing.

Penelope Wilton was excellent as Irmgard, her unflinching quest for justice reflected in her tense, ramrod posture and her fists clenched.  Lesser actresses would play the sentiment but Wilton remained believably stoic, aware that any sign of weakness would be seized on by her son's captors.  She finally relents in her last meeting with Hans when she begs him to realise that "the time for bravery is over".  Early on in the play it occurred to me that she almost seemed to be channeling her CHALK GARDEN co-star, the late Margaret Tyzack; both in her lower register and speech.  Once I thought that I couldn't shift it from my mind.  I hope she takes it as a compliment that I thought that. 

Jonathan Church's direction has a relentless forward motion to it, moving inexorably towards the inevitable conclusion although after a while I wanted something more than the actors walking on, saying their lines and walking off.  Robert Jones has designed a simple but very effective set which helps the action move seamlessly from scene to scene and is helped enormously by Tim Mitchell's marvellous lighting suggesting the looming shadows of German expressionism.  In one memorable moment, Litten strides off after a reanactment of the 1931 trial with his shadow growing ever larger across the back wall only for it to suddenly change to the shadow of him hanged.

As I said, Mark Hayhurst's taut writing kept us subdued and attentive and with mothers across the world plaintively asking madmen for the return of their sons and daughters, the story of Irmgard and Hans Litten will tragically always be relevant but ultimately the play felt at times like a radio play transposed to the stage.

Dvd/150: The NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (John Huston, 1964)

Three years after it's Broadway premiere, Tennessee Williams' THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA was filmed by John Huston with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, aged only 18 and in her first film since LOLITA.

Shannon is a former priest working as a tour guide in Mexico following a sexual transgression.  When teenager Charlotte in his tour group seduces him, he faces the vengeance of her domineering aunt.

He Shanghais his group at the hilltop hotel owned by his recently widowed friend Maxine and together they attempt to stop the aunt reporting him to his boss.

Also in residence is the painter Hannah Jelkes with her ailing poet grandfather.  Shannon and Hannah befriend each other, to Maxine's jealousy, but during a stormy night, they all understand the key to life is endurance.

Huston's uneven pace leaves Burton's mannered broodiness failing against stronger performances from Kerr and Gardner.

Shelf or charity shop?  Bound for DVD limbo, in a paper sleeve kept in a plastic storage box...