Happy End film review ****

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Happy End, 7th December 2017

Michael Haneke is a light-hearted fellow. At least that is what he claimed in a recent interview I read. I still have my doubts. Mind you he clearly has a sense of humour. Albeit of the dark variety. As his films reveal. It is a very specific sort of humour, as he provokes and prods you into sniggering at the absurdity of his characters and their situations. I admit it is a little bit more hidden in Cache (ha ha) and The White Ribbon, and most apparent in Funny Games, but it was there also in Amour.

With Happy End, (obviously there isn’t one), the pointed comedy really comes to the fore whilst the everyday horror is dialled down, though don’t worry Haneke fans not by much. All of Mr Haneke’s obsessions are piled up, surveillance, invasion, transgression, alienation unhealthy dependencies, duplicity, secrets, collective and individual guilt, family dysfunction, domestic servants, end of life choices, but here they range across a dynastic family. Like in a soap opera mini-series. Well actually quite unlike.

The magnificent Isabelle Huppert plays the unforgiving matriarch, Anne Laurent, who runs the family construction company in Calais. Her ageing father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to die. Her younger surgeon brother Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz) has to look after his 12 year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) after Eve’s mother (Thomas’s first wife, whose face we never see) has apparently overdosed. Thomas is having an affair unbeknown to his younger second wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden). The negligence of Anne’s useless son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has left the family company exposed but Anne’s English lawyer fiancee Lawrence (Toby Jones) is there to smooth things over.

The haute-bourgeois family all share the same manor house which is looked after by Moroccan servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari). Like I said, just like a mini-series. Except that Mr Haneke isn’t interested, obviously, in offering us the requisite genre cliches. The imperious Anne has only criticism and scorn for Pierre. Georges’s dementia is interrupted by bouts of lucidity. Eve, an extraordinary performance from Fantine Harduin, (maybe she will be the next Isabelle Huppert), is alarmingly imperturbable as she watches her nervous father or connects with her grandad. Please avoid Eve. The family treats Rachid and Jamila with misplaced familiarity, undercut with casual racism, and they obviously resent this.

Mr Haneke can’t be doing with the conventional ways of dramatising and filming this tale. The light, internal and external is harsh. Long range shots abound so that action, and conversation, is concealed. Social media visuals pop up. Scenes begin and end abruptly or jump forward. Close ups come when you least expect. The camera often follows the subject. The presence of the refugees in Calais is apparent but only intrudes into the family right at the end.

So it is a Haneke film. No mistake. But without the punch in the guts of his previous works which leaves us having to put the pieces together, if we are so inclined. It feels like he is needling you into seeing something that isn’t quite there in terms of form, structure, story, plot, character but at the same timing saying all of this guilt, damage, psychosis, anger, deception, is really just ordinary. Well if you are posh that is.

I saw another black comedy this week that sometimes does its best not to look like one by another writer who loved showing off and referencing himself. Titus Andronicus. Preposterous comparison I know though, to be fair, both portrayed families I would studiously avoid becoming involved with and both ended with unfortunate celebratory banquets.

The Hound of the Baskervilles at Jermyn Street Theatre review ****

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Jermyn Street Theatre, 10th December 2017

Everyone likes Sherlock Holmes right. And everyone can see that the stories are ripe for comic treatment. Indeed you have probably seen this done on numerous occasions. Even the amazing Cumberbatch/Freeman/Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, which is regarded with reverence in the Tourist’s household, mines the humour in Conan Doyle’s stories. So if a comedy version of Holmes takes your fancy then you simply must get along to this. A Christmas treat. Take the kids. Any age will do.

It is adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Mr Canny writes and produces for the Beeb and has worked with Complicite. Mr Nicholson is part of theatre company Peepolykus, which specialises in this type of comedy, though he has plenty of other comedy writing and directing credits to his name. This Hound of the Baskervilles was first performed in 2007: this version is a co-production with the English Theatre Frankfurt. (I’ve been there, its great, who says Frankfurt is dull, not me). The creative team of Lotte Wakeham (director), Derek Anderson (lighting) and Andy Graham (sound) have done a marvellous job in bringing this to life but my hat goes off to Louie Whitemore who has adapted David Woodhead original design to fit the tiny JST space. If you go and see this you will understand just how clever Ms Whitemore has been here. This comes on top of her fabulous design for Miss Julie in the same space recently.

Now you will know the plot, or you can find out. A few liberties are taken to make this work but most of the key scenes remain. Suffice to say a fair few characters pop up along the way and one of the biggest joys in this production is seeing how writers, director and the three strong cast cope with getting them on and off the stage. It is acted at a furious pace: now wonder they needed an interval. Simon Kane plays bumbler Watson and is a moreorless continuous, and very amusing, presence. Around his bluff, dull-wittedness, Max Hutchinson plays Holmes in mordant fashion, and Shaun Chambers is an ebullient Sir Henry Baskerville. However, on top of this, Mr Hutchinson plays Stapleton, sister/wife Cecille (with frightful wig and dress), and the servants, Mr and Mrs Barrymore. All I can say is he must be knackered at the end of each performance. Mr Chambers enters as Sir Charles Baskerville, does a fabulous turn as Scottish Mortimer as well as a Cabbie. All three have various stints as Yokels of some description. And, if the logistics are stretched too far, then a couple of dummies appear.

Like I say the comedy derived from movement, props, costumes and accents, (even the ones that don’t appear), is delicious. So is much of the script. In particular the occasions where the fourth wall is broken, especially at the beginning of Act 2, are hilarious. I laugh out loud when I find something funny. BD and the SO who came along, (LD had to bail out which is a real shame as this was right up her Baker Street), are less animate but there was many a chuckle and smile from both. There are a few knowing lines, mostly to do with the bromance between Holmes and Watson, but there was enough for the youngsters in the audience as well.

So if you find the forced entertainment of panto at Christmas a bit wearing but you still yearn for something to do with all the family, I heartily recommend this. It is on this week (to 20th December) and then again from the 8th to the 13th January. There are tickets available as I write.

 

Bach and Telemann: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review *****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Alistair Ross (harpsichord) 

Bach and Telemann: Reversed Fortunes, Milton Court Concert Hall, 7th December 2017

I see I am now close to being a Academy of Ancient Music groupie. Not in a sinister way, that would be very strange. Just that I seem to pitch up to most of their London concerts. Unsurprising given their repertoire I suppose. And what a joy it always is to hear them play. This was no different. And I had a new chum in MSBD to join me.

Now the theme here was to contrast the contrasting fortunes of a certain Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. They were mates in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, with GPT becoming CPE Bach’s godfather, and both successively securing the reputation of the Collegium in Leipzig. Back in the day though Telemann (pictured above), with his suave, easy listening modelled on his French contemporaries, was by far the more popular composer, with JSB and his knotty, brainy counterpoint, and strong Lutheran faith, some way behind. As we all know JSB’s music languished for centuries, now some might say his is the daddy of all Western art music. Meanwhile whilst Telemann maintains a cherished place in the baroque world of the Baroque enthusiast, he is not much performed beyond this.

The influence of Vivaldi’s vast concerto output was much greater on JSB, and is clearly visible in the Brandenburg’s especially when played one to a part as here. In particular in the Fifth with its single tutti violin, though it is the solo harpsichord cadenza, the first ever of its type, that is the most memorable part of the concerto. Alistair Ross didn’t hold back once the harpsichord emerged from the string ritornello and his rubato was unleashed. A bit showier than Steven Devine in the last BC5 I heard in SJSS with the OAE. However, I think the Brandenburg 4 here with Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett on the recorders was the highlight. Once the two Rachels got into the swing of it there was no stopping them, propped up by Bojan Cicic masterful violin playing, and by the end those recorders produced as sweet a sound as you could imagine (not always the case for the period recorder).

Having said that I think the most satisfying piece of the evening was the Telemann Concerto for flute and recorder. He wasn’t the only one to pair the “old” and the “new” wind instruments, Quantz was on to this, but he clearly mastered it. Written in 1712, the Concerto has some very attractive galant homophonic playing from the two instruments looking forward to the Classical. Elsewhere the soloists chase the lines from one to the other against very attractive dances, including nods to the eastern European folk tunes that he studied. The French influence on GPT is more apparent in the Overture suite, (he wrote over two hundred of these), with its simple dance rhythms and story based on Don Quixote. There is plenty of easy on the ear comic effect, (listen out for donkeys), and lots of colour. It is all so pleasant (though if I was critical maybe a tad too pleasant).

So another fine concert from the AAM who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. As I think did MSBD. In fact I know he did as he said so. I shall miss the AAM Messiah in the Barbican Hall and their intriguing Haydn and Dussek programme in April, but will be back here for the 15th February Pergolesi, Corelli and Handel gig, and for the 31st May concert in the Hall with Nicola Benedetti. Unmissable I reckon.

Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, 6th December 2017

As a few slightly unkind people have pointed out most of the “reviews” I somewhat sadly post on this “blog” are worse than useless as, more often than not, they appear after the event. Fair criticism but I can’t be toddling off to everything in the first week and I judge that most plays at least are best seen about two thirds of the way through. If they have flaws by then, they can be corrected where possible, or parts excised if really necessary. Cast can get the full measure of character and interaction, timings, pauses and rhythm honed. So I reckon I will get more for my money. So yah boo to you.

In this case though I am doing you a favour. Parliament Square runs until 6th January having first appeared at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, there are plenty of tickets left and full price is just twenty quid. The main space at the Bush is airy, comfy and sightlines are terrific. Oh and it is a mightily good play, with an excellent cast, skilfully directed by emerging talent Jude Christian. It has an absorbing central concept, just how far will an individual go to protest against injustice, is formally inventive, each of the three sections has some sort of clever conceit, and it is very well written by James Fritz. It is probably fair to say that the ending is a little too calculated. On the other hand the first section, in large part thanks to exceptional performances from Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, is as exhilarating a piece of theatre as I have seen this year.

The play won the Judges Award for Playwriting in the Bruntwood Prize in 2015 and, like other plays I have seen which have been recognised here, it has that spark of invigorating originality from the outset which characterises the best new writing. Kat (Esther Smith) gets up one morning, skips work, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, gets the train to London, and commits a premeditated, dramatic, act of self sacrifice. Through the first act, Fifteen Seconds, she is, literally, coached by her conscience in the form of Lois Chimimba, (last seen by me in the unfairly maligned Common, in Peter Pan and in the excellent Diary of A Madman at the Gate). Lois Chimimba also doubles up as Jo, Kat’s sullen teenage daughter in the final act, Fifteen Years. I expect she, and Esther Smith, will go on to bigger, (and maybe even better), things as they are both superb actors.

Kat “fails” in her protest thanks to an intervention by Catherine, another excellent performance from Seraphina Beh. In the second act, Fifteen Steps, we see Kat, vividly and painfully, reconstructing her life and explaining why she did what she did to husband (a perplexed Damola Adelaja), mother (a bluntly perceptive Joanne Howarth) and health professionals (a sympathetic doctor in Jamie Zubairi and demanding physiotherapist in Kelly Hotten) as well as, eventually, to Catherine herself. The rest you can see for yourself.

James Fritz’s writing is very spare but very accurate. We never get to know exactly what Kat is protesting against but it doesn’t matter. We do get to contemplate why someone might choose this idealistic course to try to make a difference, why some might be inspired and some revulsed and why some might see this as futile and selfish. Jude Christian’s direction, (along with Fly Davis’s design, lighting from Jack Knowles, sound from Ben and Max Ringham and movement from Jennifer Jackson), is perfectly matched to the text. There is nothing extraneous here but the required ambiguity about the wisdom of such action is brilliantly conveyed.

James Fritz’s previous plays (The Fall, Comment is Free, Ross and Rachel and Four Minutes and Twelve Seconds) have garnered significant acclaim. I can see why. This is great theatre, well executed. You will come out likely annoyed by some of the behaviour of the characters, but, that is kind of the point given the subject. I think you will admire both writing and acting though. So get along to the Bush. Now.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

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The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 4th December 2017

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594) – Missa Hodie Christus natus est
  • Anon – Gaudete, Hail Mary full of grace, Quem Pastores, Salutation Carol
  • Jacob Handl (1550-1591) – Mirabile mysterium
  • Richard Pygott (c.1485-1549) – Quid petis O fili
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria (1548-1611) – Ecce Dominus veniet
  • John Dunstable (c.1390-1453) – Speciosa facta est
  • William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – Lullaby, my sweet little baby
  • Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) – Magnificat quinti toni

In the immortal words of the now septuagenarian, Noddy Holder, “It’s Christmassssssssssss”. And what better way to kick it all off than an evening in the company of Andrew Carwood and The Cardinal’s Musick. Here was a programme that spanned a couple of centuries, various important centres of Renaissance music, Spain, Germany and England, Latin and local, liturgical and secular, motet, mass, carol and lullaby. I confess that despite repeated exposure, reading and learning I am still a bit stumped on how all the religious stuff fits together, but, no matter, this was just a lovely evening of choral music.

Andrew Carwood is a terrific host. Pretty funny too. No suggestion that he should give up his day jobs as scholar, director here, chief music honcho at St Paul’s and general provider of music at all important State occasions, for a life on the comedy circuit, but his introductions to the pieces are droll as well as informative. The CM, as in their recent concert at St John’s Smith Square informed by Armistice Day (The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****), which I also attended, make a simply lovely sound.

There was literally nothing here I had heard before (actually not quite true, see below) but no matter, I enjoyed it all. However, I always expect to uncover something new and interesting, and here it was the Jacob Handl motet, with its extraordinary chromaticism, and the Advent motet of Victoria, tip top polyphony. The Palestrina mass and motet, with its mixed split choirs (SSAB and ATTB) is a jolly affair, made jollier by interspersing with the four carols, including Gaudete, which I own in a recording by, of all people, Steeleye Span. Yep, a musical eclectic, that’s me. You will know it. I was a bit less enamoured of the Pygott lullaby with its baby babbles (I kid you not) but the Byrd equivalent was typically dark and unlikely to send you to sleep pacified. The Dunstable, a piece of Virgin Mary fandom, was the earliest in the programme, very short but very, very sweet. The Magnificat from the extravagantly named German composer Hieronymous Praetorius, went on a little bit but was still full of gesture as it flipped from Latin to German.

Like Bouncing Back this was “lovely stuff”. Anyway the tree is up, shopping’s done, SO has kicked off with the cards so time to get wrapping.

 

Marnie at English National Opera review *****

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Marnie

English National Opera, The Coliseum, 3rd December 2017

I really don’t understand why the serious broadsheet reaction to Nico Muhly’s new opera has been so lukewarm. They generally seem to have admired the score, commended the ENO Orchestra’s playing under new Director Martyn Brabbins, praised many of the performers and, largely, looked favourably on the designs of Julian Crouch and 59 Productions (set and projection), Arianne Philips (costume), Kevin Adams (lighting) and choreography of Lynne Page. The criticism, as far as I can see, centres on the “histrionic” plot, though others think the story insufficiently tense, Nicholas Wright’s lean libretto, the unsympathetic characters, the structural stylisations and the absence of “memorable” arias.

Well I profoundly disagree with these criticisms. The operatic canon is littered with plots that are significantly more overblown than Marnie, yes the libretto is direct and lacks poetry, but this is a story of an unhappy woman who manipulates and is manipulated because of what happened to her, so the language seemed entirely appropriate to me. The libretto, together with the dramaturgical and visual rendering and the musical motifs, (each character has its own instrument, a shrill or seductive oboe for Marnie, disturbing trombones for Mark Rutland, a sordid trumpet for Terry), all made for a very clear and complete production. I don’t really understand why so many commentators look to empathise or sympathise with dramatic characters or demand redemption or recompense. Several flawed sh*ts on a stage does it for me.

Finally for me opera usually fails, (as it so often does, though when it succeeds it can be the very best of art forms), because the singing takes over. Sounds perverse I know but when the voice of the fat lady is all the punters care about, to the detriment of plot, acting, movement, staging, ideas, drama, then I am out the door (not literally of course). This is probably why I seem to get on with the best of contemporary opera, and why I can leave, for example, Puccini to the buffs. Stories that make sense, music that matches the action, stuff to make you think. Nico Muhly’s music isn’t challenging, (though it is not entirely tonal), and does occasionally lapse into John Adamesque “romantic minimalist running on the spot”, but pretty soon a captivating new idea or sound pops up. This constant flow of musical phrases mirrors the constant flux of Marnie’s subconscious. His choral writing, (and the chorus here gets lots of action, and Greek style commentary), is sublime, up there with, well maybe not quite, Britten.

Messrs Muhly and Wright, at the suggestion of director Michael Mayer, have taken Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, which is written in the first person, as their source rather than Hitchcock’s 1964 film starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. The latter relocates the story to the US, ramps up the saturated colours, echoes German expressionist films and has a vivid score courtesy of Bernard Hermann. This was the last time Hitchcock worked with Hermann, and with cinematographer Robert Burks, and the last of his disturbing “Hitchcock blonde” movies. So love it or hate it, it is, by the standards of today’s Hollywood, it is heady stuff. It is also in places quite different from the plot of the book.

I thought the setting in Home Counties Britain in the 1950’s and the closer adherence to the plot of the book, (with some tweaks, Terry is now Mark Rutland’s brother and Marnie’s phobia of the colour red is no longer explicit), made for a more interesting and less melodramatic story, without entirely losing the stylised “psychological terror” of the film. Hitchcock generates tension and unease through the way he directs and films as much as the plot itself. The opera was, perhaps, less able to generate this tension, (and cannot hope to draw out all of the dense action in the book), but it did make a better fist of showing why Marnie’s childhood traumas drove her to lie and steal. In particular the four altar ego Marnies which surrounded her at key moments, singing in close harmony, provided not only stunning visual images but also made flesh her inner turmoils. Similarly the eight male dancers, besuited and in natty trilbies provided an intriguing and restrained (most of the time) representation of Marnie’s fear of sex. Most importantly the ambiguity of the novel’s, and opera’s, ending is far more fitting.

American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Marnie was cooly convincing, not only in terms of her singing, but also her acting, no need for any exaggerated, writhing around and screeching which is the operatic default button for “unhinged woman seductress”. Canadian Daniel Okulitch pulled off the remarkable feat of making Mark’s voice, as well as his character, become more disturbing as the scenes unfolded and his desire for Marnie escalated. Countertenor James Laing as Terry was my particular favourite however, a voice of immense clarity, a character of reptilian sleaze. Lesley Garrett as Mrs Rutland understandably owns the stage in every scenes she appears in. I could pretty much hear every word of every performer making this one of those rare occasions when sur-titles might be redundant.

Marnie is off to New York and the Met next and I reckon it will find other homes. For me this was up there with Thomas Ades’s The Exterminating Angel and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in terms of contemporary operas that have thoroughly enveloped me. Marnie though, thanks to Mr Muhly’s musical immediacy and the equivocation of the story, is more approachable and interesting. If you have never been to a contemporary opera start here. Indeed if you have never been to an opera before start here. I bet you watch films with modernist scores, you might well like the theatre, and you will have heard people singing before. Those are the only qualifications you will need to enjoy this.

 

The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios review ****

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The Red Lion

Trafalgar Studios 2, 1st December 2017

Patrick Marber is a talented chap. Directing, adapting, writing screenplays, comedy material. Yet he is at his best when he writes original plays, or maybe even, as in this case, where he remakes his own texts. (Having said that his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal might be his finest work. Zoe Heller’s novel, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Richard Eyre directing, a Philip Glass screenplay. Did the producers have pictures of the SO and I when they were discussing their ideal target demographic for this film?)

I didn’t get to see this at the National in 2015 so was delighted to see this relatively rapid revival, courtesy of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, turn up at the smaller space at Trafalgar Studios. I have to confess I am not the biggest fan of the TS generally, too many imprecise productions relying on cast name recognition to pull in the punters, too pricey and not the comfiest seating. Whilst the seating in TS2, at least where I was, is challenging, the value equation here was sound. It will be interesting to see what happens when the spaces are revamped as is the plan.

So, not knowing the play from first time round, I cannot be sure what Mr Marber has refined here to get it down to 90 minutes or so (from the original 150) but, whatever it was, it seems to have worked based on a quick perusal of the proper reviews this time vs last time. The TS2 stage, with a design by Patrick Connellan, certainly looks the part, a small, dank changing room, kitted out (literally) in perfect detail, you can practically smell the sweat, the grass, the mud, the liniment (actually you really can smell this), the aftershave. Those in the front row are in danger of being picked for next Saturday’s game they are that close. Patrick Marber based the play on his experiences as a director and saviour, with others, of non league Lewes FC, but anyone who has ever played the game at pretty much any level will know this place.

What Marber is able to do here, I gather more successfully than the original, is to use football as a metaphor for life, as so many writers have down in the past, but to avoid the cliche and melodrama that has cursed so many similar of these endeavours. The dialogue is still alive to the rhythms of football, and to the banality of its expression, and there is ruthless dissection of the ugly underbelly of the “beautiful” game. I am always struck by the romantic yet resigned mythologising, the “sporting ideal’ if you like, that some, otherwise rational, men of my acquaintance reserve for their football obsessions. The notion that this is just a very poorly managed branch of the entertainment industry, prone to the worst excesses of capitalist venality and institutional malfunction, just seems to pass them by.

Marber probes these failings but also, as his wont, explores the complexity of male interaction. Trust and loyalty, hopes and dreams, betrayals and deceptions, bravado and vulnerability, all are displayed. Each of the three characters, Stephen Tompkinson’s desperate manager Kidd, John Bowler’s weary retainer Yates and Dean Bone’s talented youngster Jordan, are all flawed in some way, and have misplaced their moral compasses in the pursuit of footballing glory. All of them need to make grubby compromises in order to survive in the world they inhabit. Like I said metaphors abound.

Stephen Tompkinson always seems to bring out the emotional frailties of the men he plays and this is no exception. Kidd is living alone, divorced, broke. He is also a cynical bully, albeit weak and toothless. Football is all he has. It is the last minute of extra time and he needs a break. Jordan’s skill might just provide it. Jordan though harbours a secret beneath his apparent integrity. Dean Bone is on the ball from the opening whistle, asking what’s in it for him. Yates wants a piece of the glory, his own life having collapsed until the club offered a lifeline. He once lifted the trophies, now all he does is clean them. John Bowler’s lines benefit most I suspect from the relocation to the North East in this production. His body may be broken, but his mind, and his words, are sharp enough. Soon enough all three sense an opportunity,  but all three are doomed to see it slide away, but cannot accept the blame for this lies within.

This may sound like an arduous slog. It is anything but. The moral tragedy is leavened with plenty of humour and, under the sure touch of director Max Roberts, the play rattles along to its conclusion (which may actually have been just a touch too rushed).

So a tightly orchestrated production of a now tightly drawn script with much to say about football, masculinity and life. Let us hope that Mr Marber can find another subject which spurs him to write another original play in the not too distant future. His talent requires it.