The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****

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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 25th May 2017

I love the theatre. It wasn’t always so. Until relatively recently I confess I didn’t have the time or, more importantly, the patience to really grasp what it was all about. Yes I would see a few plays, and sometimes, if the production delivered, and I wasn’t tired or distracted, I could get lost in the drama for a couple of hours. This was though, an infrequent distraction.

Things have changed. I count myself immensely fortunate that I now have the time, and the means, to indulge what is developing into a passion, nay addiction. Which brings me to Mr Edward Albee. Until the last couple of months I had never seen one of his plays. I was just about cognisant of his existence, and had seen the Burton/Taylor Virginia Woolf film version, but that was it. Now I have seen, in quick succession, the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf production, directed by James MacDonald and with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill acting their socks off, and now this version of The Goat.

And I can’t wait to see more of his plays. This was really, really good. The set-up is as simple as it is provocative. Martin, our prize winning architect played by Damien Lewis, reveals to best friend Ross (Jason Hughes) that he has fallen in love, emotionally and physically, with a goat. Ross is compelled to tell Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), who then tells son Billy (Archie Madekwe – what a play to debut in). So we have a man at the top of his game with a fatal flaw who through the action of another is brought crashing down. So this is the classic Greek tragedy updated (apparently the word tragedy comes from “goat ode” in ancient Greek). This forms the structure from which Albee explores the nature of love, its relationship to sex, what society admits is permissible and what is not, and, through an immensely rich text, why this is so,

The ultimate transgression of bestiality is a brilliant device to play with an audience. Obviously it puts us into a very uncomfortable place but also encourages us to laugh, both because some of the dialogue is genuinely funny (Martin and Stevie’s intelligence and liberalism make them very aware), and as a way to deal with the apparent absurdity of Martin’s behaviour. Yet as the other characters come to terms with what Martin is telling them the tragedy of the situation comes through. Hearing and feeling the audience’s reaction to the drama is what makes this an outstanding play.

Damien Lewis perfectly captures Martin’s pedantry and, as he moves from a curiously passive matter-of-factness, to a more impassioned exhortation of what he has done, we get pitched between disgust and sympathy. Jason Hughes as Ross represents a society that cannot, and will not, tolerate his actions. I confess that I think Sophie Okonedo is a brilliant actor – her performance of Margaret in the Hollow Crown is the best thing on the screen which, given the competition here, is saying something. Anyway the way she charts Stevie’s journey from disbelief and incomprehension through anger and vengeance, yet still being reflexive, was riveting.

A play ideally makes you laugh, cry, think and reflect. Inwardly, if not always outwardly. It should also stick with you. This fits the bill for me and, I gather, other theatrical smart-arses. I also gather there have been some highly regarded performances since it premiered in 2002. So maybe the play itself was what bowled me over but I am hard pressed though to see how this production could have been better. A more conflicted Martin from the off maybe – but then that removes his fatal justification on which the reactions hang.

In the hands of director Ian Rickson, nothing gets in the way of the tragi-comedy on the stage. That is as it should be. Next up he is directing Against at the Almeida. I can’t wait.

So if you are like me a couple of years back – a bit too busy to do more than a handful of plays a year – this is what you should do. Book this, there are a few weeks left, the transfer of the Almeida Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre and the transfer of the Royal Court’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. No risks, five star reviews for all of them across the board. Then just wait for the next blockbuster.

 

 

 

Occupational Hazards at Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Occupational Hazards

Hampstead Theatre, 20th May 2017

You can learn a lot at the theatre.

Rory Stewart is (actually was, given Parliament is dissolved) a junior minister at the Department of International Development. Apparently he has known the playwright here, Stephen Brown, since they were kids. Mr Stewart sounds like a bloke with a fair amount of derring-do and an admirable compulsion to get stuck in. In September 2003, at the age of 30, and having already walked across vast chunks of near Asia with just the clothes on his back, he blagged his way into the role of a governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq post the “liberation”. I am guessing that being a scion of Scottish aristocracy, child of a diplomat, Eton, Oxford PPE, tutor to the royal princes and the Diplomatic Service may have helped get the job, but he might just have got lucky (or unlucky as it turns out).

This play dramatises the book he wrote about his experiences. I haven’t read it but I am guessing there is a healthy dose of self-aggrandisement at work. No matter. The question is does this make a good play. After some initial misgivings I have to say it does. It is, unsurprisingly, event driven. There isn’t a lot of exploration of Mr Stewart’s character and motivation (or indeed of the other protagonists), he is the referee between the various parties, and the device of his explaining events direct to the audience only serves to heighten this impression. The play doesn’t go in for dramatic expositions of opposing views or for exploration of historical and geographical context. It gets on with it. Much like Mr Stewart himself did I suspect.

What this approach does mean is that the shifting nature of the struggle for political control post the liberation, and through the attempts to rebuild the province, are very well described. It is confusing at first but gradually the characters and the issues shift into focus which I guess deliberately mirrors the confusion rife in those few months. It certainly points up the multi-faceted consequences that arose from the failure to plan for government in Iraq after the Baathists were booted out.

I knew nothing of any substance or detail about these events beyond a few headlines and pre-conceptions. Now I know more. And this was delivered by a fine cast, led by Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Rory Stewart, and director Simon Godwin in a dynamic, thoughtful and eloquent way. Given the subject and the subject matter it might be easy for others to criticise this. I will not. The run is nearly over but if the subject matter holds any interest, and it probably should, I would genuinely recommend this and think there is a place for more of the same.

 

 

The Levelling film review *****

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The Levelling, 23rd May 2017

This is director Hope Dickson Leach’s full length film debut. In the screening I attended there was a short but illuminating interview with Ms Dickson Leach which discussed the difficulties female film-makers face in bringing their ideas to fruition. She gave up for a bit but came back. And she eventually managed to get financing for this film. Well all I can say it thank goodness she didn’t give up and thank goodness she got the money. This is a genuinely outstanding film. I can’t wait for her next outing – I’d be happy to give her a few quid if it helps

Clover, played by the astounding Ellie Kendrick who apparently is in that Game of Thrones frolic, is a veterinary science student, who returns to the family dairy farm on the Somerset Levels following the death of her brother Harry. Dad, Aubrey (David Troughton), it is fair to say, is somewhat emotionally stunted. The farm is a mess having never recovered from flooding and with no insurance bailout. Aubrey has abandoned the house to live in a caravan in the farmyard. He likes a drink. The two then fail to talk to each other in any meaningful way as the events that led up to Harry’s death are played out – not just the immediate past but over many years.

It is beautifully shot. This is not a conventionally attractive landscape. No attempt is made to leaven the atmosphere. The sun doesn’t shine at all. It rains quite a bit. There are however sone striking close ups of nature to remind us where we are. A farm is not a classic location for a British film I believe. We city types dominate the medium and the rural normally appears more arcadian that Hobbesian. The fragility of the existence and the temptation to take risks to secure economic viability is deftly portrayed. The sheer hard work of running the farm is not hidden.

Not much happens. Not that much is said. But the despair, disappointment, resentment and blame that the two central characters feel is remorselessly laid bare. You want to shake them to sort it out and swallow their pride. You know they can’t. The emotional intensity of the ending is shattering. All of this is accomplished with relatively sparse dialogue and there is loads of detail which remains ambiguous if not entirely elusive. What happened to Mum, why did Dad despise Harry, how exactly did Harry meet his end, what was the relationship between Harry and his best mate James (Jack Holden), who dreamt up the dubious plans to rescue the farm, will Clover stay and why? Don’t let me give the impression that this is in any way frustrating – it is what makes the story so utterly compelling.

The proper reviews have observed how this looks and feels like a horror film without the horror. It certainly begins in that vein. This is apt. Except, as those reviews have also generally observed, the unembellished horror of what has happened to this family is all too real.

If this all sounds more art house foreign auteurish that the Archers you’d be right. Ms Dickson Leach has herself cited the influence of the Dardenne brothers and Bruno Dumont (note to self: find out who these chaps are). Then again it is just so English – in the where certainly, but also in the who and the why.

I could go on and on. The mark of any great film, play, book, artwork is that it stays with in the days and years that follow its viewing. This slam-dunks that test. It will get under your skin. I doubt there will be a better female lead performance this year. Hope Dickson Leach is a mighty talent. And all this probably done for less than the bog paper bill for the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean: Just Serve Them Up Any Old Sh*t.

And this father – daughter relationship is throwing up some truly great films (Toni Erdmann, Graduation as well as this). Maybe there really is still some cinematic mileage in BD’s withering glances following my hilarious observations.

Woyzeck at the Old Vic review ***

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Woyzeck

The Old Vic, 27th May 2017

One day soon the Old Vic under the aegis of its ambitious Artistic Director, Mathew Warchus, is going to come up with an absolute stonker. The strategy of taking a classic play, or new work from a top flight current playwright, stuffing it with stars of stage and screen, wheeling in the brightest directors and other collaborators (if Mr Warchus doesn’t himself take the helm), and then bringing to a steady boil is surely going to pay off. We have come mighty close in the last couple of years; for me Tim Minchin’s musical Groundhog Day was a triumph but the straight plays have, for one reason or another, not quite smashed the ball out of the park.

The production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead saw fine performances from Daniel Radcliffe and, especially, Joshua McGuire, and sure-footed direction from Stoppard veteran David Leveaux, but it is Stoppard, so there is no indulgence for any lapse of concentration by (me) the audience. Art contained three fine performances from Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Ke,y but not enough to persuade me that this play remains rather too pleased with itself. In retrospect there should have been no surprise at all that Glenda Jackson gave us a peremptory Lear, but Deborah Warner’s directing didn’t fully solve some of the play’s issues for me (I am all for massaging the text here to enhance proceedings), and there was some jarring casting. I can’t exactly say why, but the Caretaker directed by Mr Warchus himself didn’t quite deliver that electric thrill that Pinter can serve up when it all comes together, despite an outstandingly wheedling Davies from Tim Spall. And the Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes was frustrating, largely because of Sarah Snook’s Hilde I am afraid. I loved The Hairy Ape with Bertie Carvel (next up as young Robert Murdoch in Ink at the Almeida). In fact, for me, it has been the most successful of the productions since Mr Warchus’s tenure commenced, but I get that early Expressionist Eugene O’Neill is not for everyone. Finally the less said about Future Conditional the better, although the idea was sound.

So I was hoping that Woyzeck might be the one. I fear it was not, though John Boyega’s tragic performance was riveting (let’s hope after this debut he doesn’t get lost to Hollywood). Now part of the problem may be that I only know the story here from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. This is a musical masterpiece which I am slowly getting to grips with having seen a handful of productions now. Whilst Berg himself wrote the libretto he was keen, at least based on what he said, to retain the “essential character” of Georg Buchner’s 1837 play (the poor fella died aged 23) with “its many short scenes, its abrupt and sometimes brutal language, and its stark, if haunted, realism…”. If you have never seen the opera (and you should) then, trust me, he does.

So I can’t be sure just exactly how far Jack Thorne’s new adaptation deviates from Buchner’s fragmentary, unfinished text. But I know a man who does which is why the SO and the TFP’s were fairly willingly cajoled into joining me. And it is fair to say that Mr TFP, who is all over German literature, and I, were both a bit bamboozled by this.

I won’t spoil since the production has some weeks to go, but the shift to the divided Berlin of 1981, the insertion of an extensive back story for the lead and some fairly radical shifting around of events and character action/motivation (notably for Marie, Woyzeck’s wife, Andrews, his mate here, and Maggie, the Captain’s wife) didn’t entirely work for me. The social criticism in Buchner’s work was less evident (how grinding poverty and real hunger leaves the “lower classes” unable to sustain a “moral” life). The depiction (and causes) of Woyzeck’s psychosis were a little forced through some of the the extended dream sequences. The dehumanisng impact of military service seemed to get lost a little inside one man’s struggle with his own demons.

If I am honest I think the laudable attempt to update the play (this is not some plea for “authenticity”) and offer a more complete narrative, left the production poised uneasily between a sort of TV drama realism (Mr Thorne’s comfort zone  as he himself freely admits in the programme), and the more usual Expressionist tableau (most obviously visible in set and sound design), which didn’t quite do it for me. This tension between naturalistic and expressionistic is the conundrum at the heart of Buchner’s text I gather, but Jack Thorne and director Joe Murphy’s solutions seem to drag the structure down. Sometimes less can be more.

There are some memorable images though, especially if you are partial to a bit of simulated shagging, a gentleman’s full frontal, topless ladies and red marigolds (rubber not floral), and other borderline theatrical cliches. The supporting performances are all robust. So maybe, in the spirit of the less is more advice, you might find this more rewarding than me if you go in without too much expectation or preconception.

So next up at the Old Vic is Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, which he is self-directing (with Joe Murphy assisting). Stardust will be sprinkled courtesy of Bob Dylan’s music and we have an interesting and expansive cast (including Ron Cook, Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, all firm favourites of mine). The setting in Minnesota intrigues (so no Steinbeckian dust bowl tragedy or Southern family saga I assume). Maybe this will be the one then.

 

 

 

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic review ****

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The cast for the revival of Art

Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Don Juan in Soho

Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd May

Get this. The programme says that since a Spanish dramatist, Tirso di Molina, first brought Don Juan to the world in around 1620 he has appeared in at least 1,800 plays, operas, novels, films and poems. And I bet he appeared as a stock character in stories before the printing presses started rolling in earnest (though I am not away that this anti-hero was a feature of Greek or Roman theatre – but they were a cultured bunch right).

So what does this tell us. That people really like and admire him? Or that an overwhelmingly patriarchal artistic community keep shoving this obnoxious prick down our throats (literally), reflecting their own wish-fulfillment fantasies? Search me. I only really know the story from Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, Don Giovanni (extracts from which unsurprisingly bookended this production). And every time I go into a performance of that, and usually for the first couple of scenes (the rape of Donna Anna for that is what it is, the murder of the Commendatore, and Leporello’s catalogue of conquests on behalf of his master), I think why I am watching this misogynistic clap-trap.

Then Mozart’s music takes over, Don Giovanni does eventually come unstuck and, finally, gets the comeuppance that maybe he deserves. This neatly then absolves us of any approbation we may have had for our anti-hero (and indeed any sneaking admiration some might harbour). All seems resolved except that within minutes of leaving I am once again questioning how I enjoying the tale of a dissolute libertine. I know, I know don’t judge a work of art written hundreds of years ago by today’s moral compass. But what I do often wrestle with is the audience reaction to this character.

Now the play, as interpreted by Moliere, also ups the ante by presenting Don Juan, in some ways, as worthy of our respect because he represents true freedom, the right to live your life as you please. Even more so he exposes the hypocrisy of all around him. This is where Patrick Marber, in this substantial adaptation originally produced in 2006, and which he also directs, pivots his attention with, I have to say, very considerable success. Our anti-hero, now just DJ, is alive and well in contemporary Soho, alongside his put-upon side-kick, Stan.

Now the first thing to say is that David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough end up with the audience in the palm of their hands so adept are their performances. There are times when I get annoyed by David Tennant who just seems to find it all too easy. I was not as bowled over as most by his last major stage work-out in the RSC’s Richard II and some of his TV work grates. And here, at first, I felt he was just too indulgent in his portrayal. But I was wrong and quickly came round. Similarly I felt Adrian Scarborough, at first, wasn’t getting to grips with any of the reasons why Stan would put up with this sort of treatment. Again I was wrong. The power of reflected glory is clearly an overwhelming aphrodisiac for the poor chap.

The same early apprehension I felt about the actors (remember too this is also the point when I am questioning the whole set up anyway) was manifest with Patrick Marber’s text. It just seemed too simplistic at first and inclined to allow the lead actor, ( I gather this was might also have been true of Rhys Ifans in the Donmar Warehouse original production), to lazily tick off the cheap laughs. Well, again  I was wrong as I think this approach means we too are quickly snared by our anti-hero’s charismatic web, which then serves to heighten the subsequent moral dualism. I have noticed this before with Mr Marber’s work. Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion all take a bit of time to get going and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal is similarly unhurried.

So what of the production itself. I am not sure the shoehorning in of Soho, as a symbol for London’s corrupted history, entirely works. It does give us the necessary statue in the form of King Charles II (he was of course the antidote to the cultural scourge of Puritanism). Soho also fuels a short, and not entirely relevant, piece in the programme focussed on the drunken antics of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s (Bacon, Thomas, Freud and hangers on). However, I think its symbolic value as the capital’s continuing den of sexual iniquity now looks a bit antiquated in a world of ubiquitous digital pornography. Anna Fleische’s modern setting and costumes, and the interpolation of dance and snatches of contemporary music (how can I not like a play that has masked dancers in white robes whirling around to Taking Heads’s Memories Can’t Wait!), does though set the perfect tone for this pursuit of gratification.

Mr Marber really cranks up the ambiguity in the scene with the beggar, here a Muslim who he forments, but fails, to blaspheme, the duping of Dad to keep the funds flowing and DJ’s climatic monologue, which I gather has been updated for this production. Here the railing against today’s grandiosity, virtue signalling and all-round attention seeking cant and humbug, induced slightly uneasier ripples of laughter through the audience when compared to the undemanding sallies at the expense of one D Trump earlier on. I’d say this is where Mr Marber really hit the mark.

So, overall, I think the writing, direction and performances richly decorate what remains, at its heart, still a very ugly construction. We are amused, we are seduced, we are instructed, we are chided for our complicity. The emptiness of hedonism that lies at the very heart of our DJ, is revealed and, ultimately, this proves his nemesis. Catharsis indeed.

 

 

 

The Handmaiden film review ****

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The Handmaiden, 19th May 2017

I don’t read too much fiction these days. I prefer theatre, the visual arts and music. I have also found much of the contemporary fiction that I have read in the last few years a little underwhelming. I have a long list of classics I need to read but figure that will happen in the fullness of time.

There are however some contemporary authors that I do have a lot of time for. Sarah Waters is certainly one of those. Fingersmith, on which this film is based, is my favourite of her novels to date.

I am also pretty picky about the films I see – though I guess if it is a decently reviewed art-housey offering then it will make the cut, even if it doesn’t translate into an immediate viewing. There are also an eclectic handful of directors whose work I will try and see come what may: Mike Leigh, Terence Davies, Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese. No logic here. And this list also includes the director of the Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook, who is back to his Korean native film-making best after the English language Stoker. Oldboy is one of the best films of the last couple of decades in my view and the Vengeance trilogy isn’t half bad either.

So finally I got to see this and blimey what a feast it is. If you don’t know the plot of Fingersmith I won’t spoil it but suffice to say you get proper switchback twists, not once but twice, which makes for a proper thriller. In this respect it goes well beyond the book to explore fresh perspectives of deceit and desire. Yet this plot is punctuated with a knowing humour which is just as well given some of the less than subtle symbolism that is on show. And this all revolves around a lesbian love story with no stinting on the eroticism. There is a fair smattering of mucky stuff as my dear aunt would have said. This is set against a backdrop of a Korea at the time of Japanese colonial rule in the 1930s just to add another layer of confection.

It looks extraordinary with the bulk of the action filmed in wide-screen and set in a house which combines a Western style gothic pile with a Japanese palace. And an interior which is full of all manner of surprises, kinky and otherwise. I am a terrible judge of what is appropriate or not when it comes to issues of the documentation of sexuality in art so I don’t know whether this is lascivious or empowering but it is convincing in its depiction of the main protagonists’ relationship and of the pornographic impulses that drive some of the characters (at one point there a number of fellas who are literally very hot under the collar- hilarious). Apparently Sarah Waters herself has given the film the thumbs up so I guess all is well.

So we have a playful, wry, suspense-filled thriller/whodunnit, dressed up as a very fruity Victorian costumed melodrama, dressed up as a yearning love story, which looks quite stunning. And that’s just for starters. What’s not to like. I have a feeling that for quite a few people pretty much everything. But if you think you might fall into the target audience don’t hesitate (though you might what to ask yourself what qualifies you to be the target).

And if you do accidentally walk into the wrong screen whilst looking for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 I suspect you will realise your mistake well before the subtitles pop up.

 

Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery review ***

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Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends

National Portrait Gallery, 18th May 2017

I haven’t really known what to make of the work of Howard Hodgkin who sadly passed away just before this exhibition began (having been involved in its creation). And I am still not sure what to make of it.

This was the first time I have seen a solo exhibition; previously I had only seen a few works in permanent collections. Now clearly it is impossible, at least for me, not to bowled over by the vibrant colours that he employed in his work and by the exuberance of the mark making. On the other hand I cannot say that I get any great reaction beyond this.

This exhibition focusses on his portraiture. This was largely done from memory and Hodgkin was always trying to capture the essence of the person or persons he was painting – the memory if you like. This means that his portraits became ever more abstract through his career, such that, by the end of his life, just a couple of broad brush strokes might suffice to capture the emotional core of his subject.

The problem for me is that as an observer I have no knowledge of these subjects (many of whom were fellow artists or collectors) and so cannot relate to the essence he has focussed on. So I am then just left with the colour and the patterns which, in some, though not all cases, are extraordinarily bold, vivid and certainly uplifting, with beautiful paint, but, unfortunately, offer me nothing beyond that. With more figurative portraiture, though not mimetic, I am able to see and examine the subject in a way that Hodgkin’s work precludes.

So definitely worth a good look and I have learnt far more about this important, though taciturn, British painter of the last few decades, but I am not sure he is an artist I will seek out in future visits unlike some of his contemporaries. Though as with other vivid colourists, there is no doubt that a good stare at their work makes subsequent real world colour burst into life, at least for a few hours. Be happy.