Sunday, September 18, 2016

DVD/150: THE DEVILS (Ken Russell, 1971) - still unsettling after 45 years...

Of the films that caused film censorship controversy, THE DEVILS has lasted the longest with constant censor and distributor interference: Warner Brothers still refuse to include 'lost' footage or release the film on US DVD.

THE DEVILS is based on real events:  In August 1634 in Loudun a catholic priest Urbain Grandier was burnt to death for witchcraft and causing a number of Ursuline nuns to become demonically possessed, the chief accuser being the Mother Superior Sister Jeanne.

Grandier was victim to public and private revenge; he had opposed Cardinal Richelieu's wish to crush Loudon's autonomy and he was the subject of Sister Jeanne's sexual fantasies which turned to hate when she learnt of his other mistresses.

Explosive performances from Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed and the supporting cast, Derek Jarman's glorious design and Peter Maxwell Davies' disorientating score all contribute to Russell's vision of an individual crushed by the State.  

Shelf or charity shop? Ken Russell's cataclysmic vision will be disturbing me for years to come...

Saturday, September 17, 2016

DVD/150: DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT (Two Days, One Night; Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014) - Cotillard's Quest...

Sandra has been on sick-leave from her job in a small factory after a nervous breakdown but is ready to return.  But, on the Friday before, she learns the owner has decided the workforce can manage without her but gives them a vote: keep Sandra as a workmate or get a 1,000 Euro bonus.

Sandra is distraught but her husband Manu convinces her to visit each of her sixteen colleagues over the weekend and ask for their vote.

Sandra explains to each how losing her job will impact her family; sometimes she succeeds, sometimes not, but constantly reevaluates exactly what she is asking them to do while battling feelings of hopelessness.

The Dardennes usually work with little-known actors so for them to work with Marion Cotillard is unique but she responds with a performance of powerful simplicity.  Fabrizio Rongione is excellent as Manu as are the supporting cast.

Shelf or charity shop? I will keep this fine film as I am sure repeat viewings will reveal more in Cotillard's performance *nb* it ended up at the charity shop...

DVD/150: THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach, 2006) - Blood Brothers...

This Cannes Palme D'or winner is Ken Loach and Paul Laverty's devastating account at the two violent events that shook 1920s Ireland: the fight for independence from British rule and the following civil war which made enemies of former comrades.

Two brothers live in County Cork: the oldest, Teddy, is involved with the Irish Republican Army while Damien is to sail to England to finish his medical training.

After witnessing unprovoked assaults by the British "Black and Tan" Specials, Damien becomes a fighter ultimately confronting the reality of war when he has to execute a childhood friend who had been coerced into betraying the battalion to the British.

A truce leads to a treaty but it divides the country: Teddy sees it as a 'road map' to peace but Damien sees it as a betrayal. 

Loach's film is a wonderfully-acted classic of a community at war with outsiders and itself.

Shelf or charity shop? A tragic tale beautifully told... one to keep

Friday, September 16, 2016

DVD/150: I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN (Peter Sasdy, 1975): The Killer Baby Film From Hell....

You know a film's bad if the title keeps changing: I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN is also called THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, THE MONSTER, IT LIVES WITHIN HER and SHARON'S BABY, the last is bizarre as there is no character called Sharon!

Some films are so truly godawful they become hilarious and boy, this is one.  There are so many wrong elements here, it's a film you need to see for yourself - I am thinking of having a viewing party!

Joan Collins - always a narcissistic performer - is at her most am-dram while Ralph Bates and Eileen Atkins share laughable Italian accents - "possessed by the Dayvel" - as her husband and nun-in-law while Donald Pleasance just looks sad, probably thinking his career is over.

Collins and Bates' baby is evil, is it because of a curse by a demonic dwarf who danced with her in a strip club ? !

Shelf or charity shop?  A film this awful is a definite keeper - worth it alone for the inclusion of a scene where Ralph Bates can't hang up his trim-phone properly - and it stayed in the film!!!

DVD/150: THE NIGHTCOMERS (Michael Winner, 1971) - when Brando met Winner

In 1972, on the heels of THE DEVILS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Michael Winner's THE NIGHTCOMERS restarted the censorship debate for it's scenes of violent sex.  I remember it from the film magazines and the poster trumpeting BRANDO BRUTAL BEAUTIFUL - now, after over 40 years, I have seen it!

It is an unnecessary prequel to Henry James' TURN OF THE SCREW showing the malign effect on orphans Miles and Flora of their governess Miss Jessel's sexual relationship with the gardener Peter Quint.  Michael Hastings' script emphasizes what should be left nuanced.

Winner directs with his sledgehammer style - endless camera zooms, no atmosphere - so one looks for comfort in the performances.

Stephanie Beachum is colourless, Verna Harvey excels as Flora, Thora Hird pulls focus as the housekeeper and Brando wrestles with an Oirish accent rather than being brutal or beautiful however there is one monologue where flashes of brilliance are seen.   

Shelf or charity shop?  Seen it finally... no need to keep it

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

ALLEGRO at Southwark Playhouse - 69 years later, a London premiere...

The musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have received countless productions in the UK:  OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I and THE SOUND OF MUSIC have all been frequently revived in London as well as countless touring versions and regional outings.  But nestled in between CAROUSEL and SOUTH PACIFIC, a musical was written and staged on Broadway which has had to wait 69 years for a London production.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ALLEGRO at the Southwark Playhouse...

If ALLEGRO is mentioned these days it's usually in connection with the fact that a teenage Stephen Sondheim was a gofer on the original production, secured through Hammerstein who was a father figure to the young Stephen as the son of divorced parents.

Sondheim has said that Hammerstein meant the show to reflect how he felt as the lyricist and book writer of two hugely successful shows namely that all the acclaim and glad-handing that followed OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL took him away from his real love of writing.  Maybe so... but why choose such a hokey way of illustrate that problem?

Bless him, Oscar always wanted to push the musical form forward - this was the man who had been partly responsible for SHOW BOAT and then CARMEN JONES - so ALLEGRO initially was to tell the tale of a man from birth to death but that was scrapped early on but he stuck to the idea of an ensemble acting like a Greek chorus and also for dead characters to still be seen on stage, the fates who help the hero find his way back to the right road.

The trouble is that Hammerstein's Everyman story is just too un-involving and while Thom Southerland's cast give it their all, the idea to stage in a traverse production becomes deeply wearing after a while as the cast sweep from left to right to left to right to left with great purpose but little effect.  Table and chairs are press-ganged into other uses and a high moving platform gets moved left to right too but from where we were sitting it meant looking up the cast members' noses.

A son is born to a regional doctor and his doting wife who watch over his development with care - WARNING: little-boy-puppet alert - and after succeeding at college Joe jr. returns home and marries his childhood sweetheart Jennie.  All fairly standard but his mother and soon-to-be wife violently clash which results in the mother's death, and by the time we are into the second half, Jennie has become bored with country life and maneuvers Joe into taking a high-paid job in the Big Bad City.

Joe soon becomes swamped with rich hypochondriacs all demanding his time which makes him lose his focus on humbler patients but he is kept on-track by his practical (and secretly-loving) nurse Emily.  Both Joe jr. and nurse Emily are upset when a strike-leading nurse is sacked by the head doctor at the insistence of the hospital's main trustee, but how will Joe react when he realizes that Jennie is having an affair with the nasty trustee?

The character of Joe is too much of a cypher to become attached to and the sudden change of Jennie to being a soap-opera villainess is also too much of a contrivance so one latches onto nurse Emily in the second act thinking "finally, a character to root for" and she is played at Southwark with great verve by Katie Bernstein in the performance of the show.

Nurse Emily also sings the only really well-known song from the score "The Gentleman Is A Dope", the score is pleasant but slips by too easily; indeed, the only other song worth a damn was "So Far" which is sung by Beulah, a girl Joe dates for a night while at college who then vanishes from the plot completely!  Luckily the talented Leah West did not vanish from the show after singing "So Far" as she popped up again as the hospital trustee's utter bitch of a wife.

Thom Southerland has worked wonders with former Southwark Playhouse musicals like TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL and GREY GARDENS but with ALLEGRO it all stays fairly flat.

If he wants a little-seen musical to direct may I suggest Frank Loesser's THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, not seen in London since 1960?

Sunday, September 04, 2016

IVANOV at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre - Earlier Early Chekhov

After enjoying Jonathan Kent's production of THE SEAGULL I wanted to see how he approached Chekhov's earlier drama IVANOV. especially as he was using the David Hare translation that was the basis of his starry production at the Almeida nearly 20 years ago where Ralph Fiennes was an impassioned anti-hero.

Geoffrey Streatfeild, who had been a very urbane Trigorin in THE SEAGULL, here played the tormented lead character, a hard part to play as nothing makes him happy - and by extension, potentially the audience too.  Since Ralph Fiennes I have also seen Kenneth Branagh play the role, well... half of it.

It was in 2008, in the balcony of the Wyndhams Theatre, during Michael Grandage's production when I started to feel strange... was I going to faint, be sick, both?  More importantly, was I going to do it sitting dead centre in a long row?  I could not have negotiated my way along the narrow leg room in the dark, half way through the first act.  So I sat it out, staring at the chandelier which was on eye-level, daring not to look down at the stage in case I toppled forward with the vertigo I was experiencing.  God it seemed to last forever, all the time enduring Branagh's whiny performance.  The interval came and I left...

Ivanov is on the edge of the financial abyss; his acres of farmland are failing thanks to the progressive methods he championed when younger - a fact that his unctuous land manager never fails to mention - and his creditors are getting louder.  More troubling, he has fallen out of love with his Jewish wife Anna who is also succumbing to consumption.  Ivanov had expected to inherit her family's fortune but her father disinherited her when she not only married a gentile but also changed her name.  The town's thinly-veiled anti-Semitism is beginning to infect Ivanov too.  Anna's strait-laced young doctor Lvov hates Ivanov for his negligence and also delights in telling him.

There is one last chance for financial escape; Sasha, the daughter of his sympathetic friend Pavel Lebedev and his hard-hearted but wealthy wife Zinaida.  Every night Ivanov goes to their house to be belittled and patronized by their boorish friends but also is succeeding in wearing Zinaida down.  Sasha is bored living with her parents and is eager to be married to Ivanov but what of Anna?

Oddly I remember Kent's Almeida production as more light-hearted despite the moments of anguish for Ivanov and Anna but here the sombre tone is more prevalent.  The overall gloom is signalled by Streatfeild's Ivanov, rarely varying the pitch of his performance even when romancing Olivia Vinall's Sasha.  For once I liked Vinall's performance, her usual overly-declamatory style matched the character's nervy desperation to be married to her beloved older man.

Kent certainly showed the division between the two households: the depressive air at Ivanov's house and the boorish clamour of the Lebedev parties - at the former Des McAleer was delightfully awful as the overseer Borkin, James McArdle impressed as Doctor Lvov, whose high-minded self-righteousness takes no prisoners, and Nina Sosanya was a gentle Anna Petrovna, blazing into an anger that consumes her.

The excruciating Lebedev household featured fine performances from Brian Pettifer as the dull gambler Kosykh, Beverley Klein as the ghastly widow Avdotya, Debra Gillet's steel-hearted Zinaida and Emma Amos as the predatory widow Marfusha although I kept looking through her down the years to see the late and very great Diane Bull who played the role at the Almeida, an indelible stage image was Bull picking her nose with boredom then trying to get rid of the evidence on her black dress when spoken to.

There was also fine performances from Peter Egan as Ivanov's emotional uncle Shabyelski who agrees to marry widow Marfusha for her money - echoes of Ivanov and Sasha - but has the good sense to back out at the end, something the ever-vacillating Ivanov cannot do.  Possibly the performance of the evening however was Jonathan Coy as Lebedev, saddled with a penny-pinching wife but unable to get angry at his friend Ivanov; the scene where he offers a dejected Ivanov money to pay some debts was beautifully played: Lebedev's embarrassment at offering it meeting Ivanov's rigid mortification at being offered it.

Tom Pye's set seemed to have more seamless transitions than when we saw THE SEAGULL so were all the more effective as were Emma Ryott's lived-in costumes; Mark Henderson's lighting illuminated the stage wonderfully, visually linking to the characters' inner turmoil.

Rufus Norris is to be applauded for giving the Chichester Theatre's season of early Chekhov plays a wider audience and a home in the Olivier Theatre.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Dvd/150: NARA LIVET (So Close To Life) (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)

Known as BRINK OF LIFE in the USA, this film won the Cannes Festival Best Actress award shared between Ingrid Thulin, Eva Dahlbeck, Bibi Andersson and Barbro Hiort af Ornas, as well as the Best Director award for Bergman.

Although the film has all the traps of soap-level drama, Bergman's rigorous and spare direction of Ulla Isaksson's script gives it a quiet intensity.

His four leads also keep emotions reigned in and all give memorable performances.  Thulin is Cecilia, a secretary who has had a miscarriage and recovers in a shared maternity room with two others, the irrepressibly happy Stina (Dahlbeck) who longs for her overdue baby and the withdrawn teenager Hjordis (Andersson) who has tried to abort hers.  They are cared for by Hiort af Ornas' caring Nurse Brita.

Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson play hapless husbands but, once again, the director's actresses shine magnificently.

Shelf or charity shop?  For the wonderful actresses it's a definite keeper...

Thursday, September 01, 2016

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS at the Lyteltton Theatre - War on your doorstep...

To mark 100 years since the Dublin Easter Rising the National Theatre is staging Seán O'Casey's masterpiece THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS - a damn sight more appropriate than the Globe's awful TAMING OF THE SHREW, a decision which still has my head a-spin.

I had never seen the play before and, indeed, my only O'Casey play seen onstage was in 2000 at the Grammercy Theater in New York when I saw the transfer of the Donmar's JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK.  I missed the National's production of THE SILVER TASSIE in 2014 so was determined to see this.  I am glad I did, it was one of the most thrilling nights I have had at the National in ages.

The play famously was the cause of a riot after it opened in 1926 but to know why you have to go back to the roots of Irish nationalism.  John Casey was born into a protestant, middle class family in Dublin, and slowly became interested in Irish nationalism; after joining the Gaelic League in 1906 he changed his name to Seán O'Casey.  His involvement in worker's rights led him to become General Secretary of the Irish Citizen Army - a militia of trade union members to protect workers while on strike.  He resigned however when he felt the militia was corrupting it's socialist principals by becoming allied with the Irish Volunteers, a military organization fighting for Irish nationalism.

In 1913 O'Casey had been involved in the Dublin Lockout, the Irish version of the General Strike, and had been appalled that the Irish nationalists had not supported the strikers and he had a particular dislike for the Republican and teacher Patrick Pearse who continued to use the transport system during the strike although the transport bosses were violently against the strike.  O'Casey took no part in the 1916 Easter Uprising but must have been given pause knowing that his ex-Irish Citizen Army colleague Jim Connelly and Pearse were both executed by the British in the aftermath.

Ten years after the uprising he premiered his third great play staged by the Abbey Theatre THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and a few nights after it's premiere there was an organized riot by Republican women in the theatre which intensified with the arrival of Pearse's mother soon after.  But why choose the play to riot?  Because O'Casey had dared to flout the belief that the uprising had been the results of martyrs attempting to cast off the yoke of British bondage and had used parts of Pearse's rabble-rousing speeches in his second scene where a prostitute is trying to pick up men in a pub where outside a Republican gathering is taking place.

The genius of O'Casey's writing is that he uses the uprising as a device to focus on the effect of civil war on the non-combatant people in the danger zone, people whose petty squabbles and attempts to get on in life are thrown into turmoil by being witness to, and in the cross-hairs of, two warring sides.

O'Casey sets his play in a tenement building on an anonymous Dublin street in 1915 where the swirling anti-British feeling is growing louder on the periphery of the lives of the tenants.   In and out of each other's lives and rooms, the tenants strike up friendships that last only up to the next argument.  Two widows - the catholic Mrs Gogan and protestant Bessie Burgess - hate each other and are always rowing, although Bessie always spares time for Mrs Gogan's consumptive daughter Mollser.

However what they both agree on is the proud ways of Mrs Nora Clitheroe who also lives in the tenement.  But the recently-married Nora is arguing with her husband Jack as he has discovered she hid a telegram from the Irish Civilian Army which gave him orders to be part of the upcoming insurrection.  Also in and out of the tenement building are Fluther Good the carpenter, The Young Covey a root and branch communist fitter and Norah's uncle Peter, an old-time Fenian Republican.  Also floating through the men's lives is local prostitute Rosie Redmond.

Over the Easter weekend 1916 however, the characters' local streets become dangerous sniper alleys as the English army retaliate against the Republican Uprising and while Bessie Burgess shouts 'God Save The Queen' from her attic room, pregnant Nora goes quietly insane with fear at Jack's safety on the front line.  Fear gives way to excitement when the locals start looting but as the violence becomes more random and arbitrary, no one is safe.

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS has the feel of a typical Howard Davies production but he fell ill during it's set-up and Jeremy Herrin stepped into the breach.  The pace has an unrelenting quality once the uprising starts and the final scene has an unsettling, almost inevitable, conclusion.  If I have a criticism of the production it's that Vicki Mortimer's sets tend to look lavish when filling the Lyttelton stage which is a bit of a disconnect when you consider the characters are supposed to be living in near-poverty.

An excellent ensemble of actors brings O'Casey's play to life but two performances in particular stood out: Judith Roddy gave us an impassioned Nora Clitheroe, losing her reason at the unknown fate of her husband and the death of her newborn child, while Justine Mitchell was truly remarkable as the seemingly hard-hearted protestant Bessie, proudly declaring to her neighbours that her son is fighting for King and Country on the Western front, but ultimately showing sympathy to those she has castigated.  Her final moments in the play will not be forgotten by anyone who sees it.

The final moments are given over to two British soldiers who take over the tenement building to flush out a Republican sniper and who help themselves to the tea that Bessie had made.  They drink their tea and wistfully sing Ivor Novello's sentimental "Keep The Homefires Burning", the irony being that Bessie had been doing just that for her son away in France.

At the end of that Easter weekend in 1916, 450 people were dead.  O'Casey's play stands as a reminder that over half of that number were civilians including 40 children.  Watching the fear and terror that swept the tenement building was also to be reminded that this was happening as we sat watching the play, in Africa, in Syria, in the Palestinian territories....