Mother! film review *****


Mother! 28th September 2017

What the dickens was that all about.

My guess is that director Darren Aronofsky, as with his previous films, is not entirely sure himself. And that is no bad thing. Here is a chap who seems to have a happy knack of selling multi-layered, grand, quasi-surreal psycho-dramas (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) to a willing public on a sufficient scale to please studios and backers and keep the critics happy. Nowhere near Polanski, Hitchcock or Bunuel as film-makers yet but a sort of bastard child of these masters. Except with all the modern technology. I have griped before about Hollywood’s chronic lack of ambition, with technical wizardry and fantasy burying story-telling and ideas, but this is a criticism you can’t level as Mr Aronofsky.

The classic tropes of home invasion and horror movies pervade Mother! but this is just the starting point on to which Mr Aronofsky grafts a hulking great parable on eco-catastrophe, the agony of childlessness, the collapse of privacy and manners, the rise of Messianic populists,, the tragedy of devotion and just about any thing else that takes his fancy. Despite its mythic qualities it is eminently watchable thanks to the performances and DA’s direction, allied to the cinematography of Matthew Libatique. And it is blackly comic.

The film begins and ends with a conflagration from which emerges a crystal which I guess symbolises life (we also get a beating heart at regular intervals). The remote house in which the stories takes place is a metaphor for planet Earth. It also couldn’t look more Amityville if it tried. Javier Bardem as Him (no names here) has a bad case of poet/writer’s block. His younger wife, Jennifer Lawrence, on whom the camera spends an inordinate  amount of time, has very tastefully rebuilt his home following the fire. She wants a child – but like the next book nothing is coming. Cue a knock on the door. Surgeon Ed Harris thought it was a guest-house. He is a “bit forward” as my aunt would say but he is a “fan” of Him’s work so he gets to say. Then the wife, MIchelle Pfeiffer, pitches up and properly “makes herself at home”. Like Jennifer Lawrence you want these people out of the house sharpish but Him can’t see the problem.

Then sh*t really happens. Let’s just say DA doesn’t hold back. It is an exhilarating, if claustrophobic, ride to the apocalyptic climax. Basically Mother has had enough. I haven’t see DA’s Noah but, on the basis of this, I need to as there are, I gather, multiple parallels to be enjoyed. There are certainly great big dollops of Old and New Testament fable mashed into the madness.

I was properly perturbed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer and Javier Bardem was as convincing as he could be as this bizarre beatific character. The Gleeson brothers chew up the fragile scenery just like their Dad does – why is it that Ireland produces the greatest actors and playwrights per capita. It’s the story-telling and the Guinness I suppose. Obviously though, given the story is told through her eyes, the film only works if Jennifer Lawrence convinces and she does. BD wouldn’t see the film with me as she has no time for JL BD is rarely wrong so I must savour this rare instance of her fallibility. For Ms Lawrence plays a blinder. Just to properly creep us out I gather DA and Ms Lawrence are now an item. Old Sigmund Freud would have a field day.

You probably should see this film. An utterly indulgent mess that explodes on to the screen. I will definitely watch it again.





After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***


After the Rehearsal

Barbican Theatre, 28th September 2017

So what was this going to be? Another flawed, portentous (pretentious?), langourous stroll through a story which might better have been left in its original format, like Obsession here at the Barbican earlier this year in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Residency? Or a searing, metaphysical psychodrama in the manner of A View from the Bridge? You never quite know what you are going to get from wunderkind director Ivo van Hove although in this case, given the production of After the Rehearsal and its sister play Persona, are already staples of TA’s performance repertoire, it was possible to get a pretty good idea in advance.

Now I have to confess I was not at my best on the night of this performance and probably should have stayed tucked up in bed with my fading man-flu. The draw of the theatre once again proved too strong (the addict always craves stuff like this – the theatrical equivalent of absinthe) so I made a deal with myself: watch After the Rehearsal and then duck out unless you are absolutely riveted. Well I fear I was insufficiently riveted. On the other hand there was more than enough to chew on in After the Rehearsal and, as I have come to expect from TA’s finest, the performances were marvellous.

After the Rehearsal and Persona are based on Ingmar Bergman films, the former made for TB in 1984 and the latter for the cinema in 1966 (when he had refined his technique to the bare minimum). Unsurprisingly, Bergman is one of Ivo van Hove favourite artists. A version of Scenes From A Marriage has been in the TA repertoire since 2004, Cries and Whispers since 2008 and this double bill since 2012. Mind you Bergman’s influence on European theatre (I mean them not us) has been pretty profound. His own productions were apparently as famous for how they looked as the stories they told. Bergman himself worshipped August Strindberg. Both reach deep into Swedish identity. 

In After the Rehearsal, director Hendrick Vogler (I assume Bergman himself) and young actress Anna are discussing their production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play where Anna is playing the godly Agnes. The conversation expands beyond the play taking in their views on life and the lies they tell. Vogler tries to manipulate Anna. She responds. It turns out Vogler had an affair with Anna’s mother Rachel, also an actress, and she appears in on stage (though in his mind). She is broken by drink and depression but still pulls him to pieces. When she leaves Vogler and Anna imagine a future together: is this real or constructed1?

Now as ever with Bergman there are times when you feel like it would have been a good idea for someone to put their arm around him and tell him not to worry, it might never happen. But “it” does  happen and his exploration of what goes on in our heads and how this sets the narratives we create for ourselves and how the passage of time affects our identities is as penetrating as it gets. This in turns links back to the nature of theatre. Are we always acting? What are our real selves? Who are we trying to impress? Why do we lie to ourselves and others?

The Dutch text is taut and, as in other TA productions, the act of having to read the sur-titles means the words seem to penetrate deeper. Given the fact that not much actually happens (that isn’t the point) there is an awful lot of movement on the stage and lighting, props, music and sound all inject life into the “action”. Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vogler, (who was a brilliant Coriolanus in Roman Tragedies though looked a bit lost as Joseph in Obsession), is again a colossal, brooding presence on stage. Gaite Jansen, who is a relative newcomer to TA, presents a calculating Anna. Best of all though was Marieke Heebink as Rachel whose desperation convulsed through her entire body. I still remember her fearsomely sexual Charmian alongside Chris Nietvelt’s haughtily needy Cleopatra in Roman Tragedies.

So why wasn’t I more taken with this play. I think, once again as with Obsession (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***), that the obstacle that I can’t quite get over lies in the transfer of film to stage. Bergman is full of close-ups. The Barbican stage is not. As Vogler says in this play ultimately theatre is text, actors and audience. If plot takes a back seat then character needs to come to the fore, and in a text like this I need to see right inside their heads. And I couldn’t.

Still Mr van Hove’s productions can never be ignored. Next up Network at the NT.