OK. So let me get this out of the way at the beginning. Paterson Joseph’s one man homage to Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first Black Briton to vote, sometimes comes across as just a little too fulsomely luvvie. Not over-acting but certainly not holding back. Mr Joseph passionately cares about this project. And Mr Sancho was a big man. In every sense. Who lived a big life. And his story is indisputably worth telling. So I will forgive the occasionally overly exuberant portrayal and tell you why you should seen this if you have any interest at all, which you should, in this subject.
Mr Sancho was born on a Spanish slave ship bound for modern day Colombia around 1729. His mother died very soon after and his father, crushed by this and the Middle Passage, took his own life after they landed. His owner sent Sancho to Greenwich in London to be the plaything of three daft sisters. The Second Duke of Montagu took a shine to the young fella, taught him to read and took him in when he escaped the sisters. He worked as butler for the Duchess and received a pension when she died. He married a West Indian woman, had seven kids and saw service again in the revived Montagu household. He was famously painted by Gainsborough, (the image that first intrigued PJ), and exchanged letters with Laurence Sterne . His writings became a key prop in the abolitionist cause and, after setting up as a greengrocer, Sancho was able to pursue a career as playwright, composer and occasional actor. Financial independence left him qualified to vote. His colourful and forthright letters were published shortly after his death in 1780.
Even if Sancho were of no historical or cultural importance you can see that this life would be cat-mint to an actor looking to create a solo show. The fact that Patterson Joseph was able to tell this particular story takes it into another league. There are now black British actors knocking it out of the park every day on the stage, and in Hollywood, and there are increasingly playwrights of colour in the UK emerging to tell their own stories. But this is something different given Sancho’s place in history, which echoes down the decades through Windrush and into the present day, and the fact that PJ was one of the first black actors to appear with the RSC in the early 1990’s even if you may know him better from his various TV roles.
The play dates from 2015 and has toured on and off since then. This was a one-off at the OT on a Sunday night with a pretty good turnout from the somewhat restricted Richmond theatre-going demographic. Given how much passion and emery PJ commits to his portrayal I am not surprised it was one night only. PJ freely admits to a hefty dose of dramatic licence in the way he has detailed the story, (is Sancho Panza really a namesake?), and kicks off with some break the ice, fourth wall pounding, shop observation of what it is to be a black actor. He never once takes his eyes off the audience. All of the audience it seemed. He has also given Sancho a soft lisp and a fine line in self-deprecation. Which means when it comes to the more harrowing episodes in Sancho’s history there is a real impact. And he packs in a lot of reference.
You never quite lose the feeling that there is an “actor” at work here and, like all one-person dramas, the need to maintain our interest can lead to a surfeit of costumes, props, movements, impressions, comedy turns, pathos and energy. But all this is deliberate and the combination of PJ’s charisma and the story more than compensates. This would be bloody brilliant as a Sunday night BBC mini-series. And I bet the lead, (at least for the older Sancho part – sorry PJ, would do it for minimum equity rates.
Here’s a quote from PJ about how he feels after bringing this story to life. “I now walk the streets of London knowing that probably 30,000 black people were walking these same streets 250 years ago. Knowing that makes me feel solid.” The politics and exhortation embedded in this 60 minute piece are plain of all to see but this is also an uplifting and entertaining piece of theatre and a committed piece of acting.
Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.
Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.
Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.
If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.
Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.
Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.
It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.
Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.
We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.
Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.
I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.
I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.
I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.
It’s been a shocking year so far in terms of getting to the cinema for the Tourist. No excuses. He has the time, the wherewithal and the desire but the theatre and concert addiction, (there have also been a few notable misses on the exhibition front), have crowded out film. There is also the not insubstantial fact that every time he looks to see what is on offer, most of it looks to be utter sh*te, and that the more intimate, thoughtful art-housey European guff that the Tourist prefers can probably wait until a subscription opportunity presents itself. This is patently a self-con, a great film should be always be seen on a big screen, but the Tourist justifies the primacy of theatre in his cultural life by pointing out that theatre is alive. The same production of the same play will vary, as much because of the reaction of the audience as the performances of the actors, and different productions of the same play ….. well just ask my chum BUD. Film, by contrast, is static. Once committed it never changes.
That doesn’t make film a lesser art form. Far from it. Just, right now, the Tourist cares more about theatre than film. And there is just too much to see and learn about even with the luxury of all the time in the world. Anyone who is able, (not even fit as the Tourist can testify), in retirement and can’t find things to do just isn’t trying hard enough. Anyway, for the moment, cinema is taking a bit of a back seat.
That’s not to say that the Tourist hasn’t racked up a fair few film classics so far this year in the discomfort of his own home. (Never managed to find a chair with the perfect construction to support the Tourist’s generous frame and the rest of the family have selfishly secured a more optimal viewing angle). Moreover, and we shall return to this at some point, the Tourist after years of mocking GoT without ever having seen it has bootcamped almost the entirely Westeros back catalogue in the past few weeks so that he is able to criticise from a position of knowledge. It’s eaten into the available hours mind. For your edification, and the Tourist’s own amusement, here is a list, in reverse chronology of the best of what I have seen since the incident that spared me from incessant wage-slavery. You will see there are a fair few “all time greats” here, as the Tourist values the opinion of experts, is easily impressed and, above all, is keen to show off his cultural “cleverness”. Comments welcome.
(BTW for those who prefer to ignore and belittle the facts expressed by those who know what they are talking about, or see conspiracy to deceive at every turn, may I respectfully suggest they give up on their jobs. After all presumably any skills they might have are either made up or valueless based on their own logic).
Strangers On A Train
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Ace in the Hole
La Regle de Jeu
I Am Not A Witch
The German Doctor
Don’t Look Now
Sweet Bean (An)
Catch Me If You Can
The Last King of Scotland
Notes on Blindness
This is England
Dazed and Confused
Shakespeare in Love
Look Who’s Back
The Look of Silence
Twelve Angry Men
A Clockwork Orange
The African Queen
King of Comedy
The Wicker Man
All About Eve
Berberian Sound Studio
A Field in England
The Third Man
Wolf of Wall Street
Beasts of No Nation
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Grand Budapest Hotel
A Matter of Life and Death
12 Years A Slave
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Night of the Hunter
The Godfather 1, 2 and 3
Mad Max 2
Gangs of New York
Withnail and I
The Madness of King George
The Lady in the Van
The Last Temptation of Christ
American Werewolf in London
Dead of Night
On the Waterfront
The French Connection
North by Northwest
Life of Brian
To Catch a Thief
The Crying Game
Right, diversion over, on to Vice then. Whilst this didn’t entirely pass me by when it came out and I must have read some decent reviews, it didn’t leap out at me either. Which is odd given the content, a comic hatchet job on, Dick Cheney (above) one of the architects of the America First doctrine of politics, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay is responsible for two of the funniest films ever made in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and whose The Big Short I thoroughly enjoyed, and the cast, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell, all of whom can, unlike some of their Hollywood peers, actually act. Still a slot in the diary opened up and £3.75 later (yep that’s the pensioner price, even if you aren’t a pensioner) off I trotted.
I loved it. I can see that half of America, and presumably Blighty, would hate it because of its political stance, and many more because of its breathless construction but this, for me, is what makes it so brilliant. Adam McKay doesn’t f*ck about taking sides when it comes to satirising Cheney’s legacy, even as he questions his own veracity, and he mixes up chronology and technique, (a mystery narrator, documentary footage, fourth wall breaks, a nod to Macbeth, crass symbolism, voice-overs, flash-backs, a meta focus group, even a false ending). A kind of cinematic Brechtian satire, familiar from The Big Short, but here more biting and certainly funnier.
Dick Cheney was the Vice President under George W Bush from 2001 to 2009, probably the most powerful in history, and certainly the least liked on his departure. After studying politics at Yale and the University of Wyoming (his home state), he served as an intern for Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration, rose to became Chief of Staff under Ford from 1975 to 1977, represented Wyoming in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989, then became Secretary of State under George HW Bush from 1989 to 1993, overseeing Operation Desert Storm in the First Gulf War. He was Chairman and CEO of Halliburton during the Clinton regime before being chosen as GW’s running mate. He was a key player in the response to 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism, sanctioning wire-tapping and torture, and promoting the invasion of Iraq. Together with his acolytes, including Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, “Scooter” Libby, David Addington, John Yu and Karl Rove, he expanded the notion of executive privilege and the unitary executive theory and legitimised enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
Now Republican administrations, as far as this laymen can observe, seem to function best when there is a genial chump as front man, letting the machiavellian brains behind the throne crack on with doing the nasty stuff. Cheney is particularly important because he was, as even this satire shows, an extremely intelligent man and gifted political operator. It strikes me that the problem with the current administration is that the chief is anything but genial and that there is, in contrast to the relationship between Cheney and GW, no hint of intelligent design behind him, as the GOP is either consumed by an ideology of opposition or, more prosaically, no-one knows what the POTUS is going to do from one tweet to the next, least of all him. Mind you I suppose the caprice, narcissism, limited attention span and questionable work ethic combine to limit the damage, though others are worryingly taking advantage notably in the composition of the judiciary.
What drives these blokes to behave like this? Money? For sure, though Cheney could have made more sticking with Halliburton, especially after smoothing the path for big oil at home and abroad, (specifically in Iraq as Vice shows). Legacy? That only comes once influence is cemented and, if we are to believe the film, Dick only got going after a kick up the arse from wife-to-be Lynne. Faith? Cheney was a Methodist but his religious belief didn’t seem to be at the core of his identity. Ideology? Of course but, in an early amusing scene, Cheney’s politics only become clear to him after he gets going. Not sure I believe that. Our politics are a function of upbringing and environment shaped by experience. For many the critical faculty that higher education brings leads to a politics based on what one stands for. For some though it simply reinforces what they are against. So “conservatives” like Cheney are against rights for minorities. Against change. Against other ways of thinking about the world. Against global co-operation except where it suits their definition of, in this case, America’s interests. Against the “other”. Against collectivism. Against intervention in the working of “free” markets, ironic since “free” markets always seem to require constant intervention in order to be “free” and to resolve the inefficiencies built into the (still required) price mechanism.
Of course when ideology is confronted by immediate, personal reality we can all become a little unstuck. In Cheney’s case this challenge came in his refusal to back GW and his party on the issue of same sex marriage for the very reason that his younger daughter Mary is a lesbian. The film implies that even this principle was abandoned to offer endorsement to his other daughter, Liz’s, successful campaign to become congresswoman for Wyoming. (US politics being more nepotistic than Ancient Rome it would seem). There is plenty of material which documents Cheney’s more equivocal activities whilst in office, notably the Washington Post’s 2007 appraisal and various documentaries, and DC himself was prone to be candid at times, notably his “so” response to a journalist’s remark that the US people had lost confidence in the Iraq War. He has also published a couple of lengthy memoirs which centre on his doctrine of American exceptionalism and influence and gives his side of this ‘story”.
Still it is up to you how much of Adam McKay’s polemic you wish to believe. That’s the problem with knowledge. Even the bit based on experience and perception can be misleading. And, in an ever complex world of information, we seem to getting into a right pickle when it comes to knowledge based on education, that is what comes to us from third parties, outside our own experience. No wonder we are all so confused and angry.
Anyway back to what drives men like DC, almost always men, who are so convinced of their righteousness that they never seem to question what they do or why they do it. Whether their actions are just or whether they simply serve their interests or beliefs, (generally strongest in the abstract fictions that bind us together: money, nationhood, history, culture, freedom, religion). If you ask me they are most dangerous not when their beliefs and values or being formed, nor when their sense of their rectitude is at its strongest in their urge to lead and save us, but when they exercise power simply because they can. I don’t know anything about the academic literature on power but thinking about this will set me on my way. There is a line early on from Rumsfeld which identifies the young Cheney’s dedication to power, loyalty and discretion (read, hiding stuff). And the scene prior to this where Rumsfeld just collapses into giggles when DC asks him “what we believe in”. That just about sums it up.
Anyway it looks like DC ended up as one of this men, a huge influence on where we are now. And Adam McKay’s film, underneath the laughs, and there are lots of them, serves to highlight this. His early labouring days, the hard drinking which led to a drink driving conviction, twice, the Yale drop-out, draft deferments, votes against sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in SA and against the early release of Nelson Mandela, Desert Storm and the Panama invasion, cuts to military spending, intervention in Somalia, accounting irregularities at Halliburton, the 2000 election with the contested Florida outcome, the creation of a transition office ahead of the result, claims that Iraq possessed WMD and that Saddam Hussain was linked to al-Qaeda, the genesis of Islamic State, the pressure exerted on Colin Powell at the UN, lobbying for big oil and weakening environmental controls, concealment of documents, the Plame affair, the Taliban’s assassination attempt, his various offices in the House and in the Senate, his heart problems and, amongst all of the above, the event for which he is best known in popular imagination, shooting his mate in the bum on a quail hunt. Mr Kay certainly had plenty to choose from when making his “bio-comedy-drama” and most of it gets in one way or another.
The creative havoc that Adam Kay has unleashed on the material though needed to be balanced by a superb central performance and this he gets from Christian Bale. He has put on the pounds to look the part, with great make-up work, and, I assume, he has captured Cheney’s alarmingly blunt, charmless manner to a tee. Physically slow, mentally quick. Scarily self-possessed even when suffering a heart attack. Most intimidating when pausing mid sentence. Obviously CB was never going to win any meaningful awards given the nature of the film but it’s easy to see why he was nominated. As good as his Patrick Bateman, a nihilist from the previous decade.
Sam Rockwell as GW Bush, Steve Carell as Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell and scores of others, (even Alfred Molina pops up as a waiter in a fantasy sequence, delivering a menu of euphemisms for atrocity), don’t really get much opportunity to inhabit their characters, but Amy Adams as loyal wife and supporter Lynne is utterly convincing.
Fragmentary, full of holes, partial, wild, high-concept but very funny. As Adam McKay indicates at the outset the creative team here “did its f*cking best”. They certainly did.
It is pretty easy when you spend as much time consuming theatre as the Tourist to go full on luvvie and get well carried away with the “genius” of playwrights, directors, creatives and, especially, actors. So you would probably be wise to ignore all of what follows and the gushing that generally ensues whenever acting royalty treads the boards. But, just for once, this was the real deal.
I see, for example, in today’s Guardian that there is a ranked list of Dame Judi Dench’s film roles. It’s pretty thin pickings, with the exception of some big screen Shakespeare, Iris, Philomena and, especially, Notes on a Scandal. This is not because Dame JD is a poor actress. Nonsense. It is because most films are rubbish. But when a proper text is given to her she is peerless. Which, for anyone who has ever seen her on stage, should be self-evident. I only know her from the recent collaborations with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage, an RSC Mother Courage, Madame de Sade and the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose. Too young and too stupid to have seen her in any major Shakespeare roles unfortunately.
Mind you I had never seen, until now, Dame Maggie Smith, on stage. Never saw The Lady in the Van at the NT or in the West End. Or earlier West End triumphs like Albee’s Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, or David Hare’s The Breath of Life. All in the fallow period for the Tourist’s theatre going. So it’s just the film and telly stuff. More often than not DMS stamps her mark on these screen roles so completely that you cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Sardonic, trenchant, caustic, acerbic, take your pick of adjectives, you know what I mean. Yet always something far more profound, revealing and empathetic beyond the natural comic timing.
So I wasn’t going to miss this. Whatever it was. Even if she had read out the telephone directory. As it happens a play based on the testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, was always going to be right up my street. Ms Pomsel died in 2017, aged 106, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, having given a series of interviews, aged 102, that formed the basis for a documentary film A German Life, produced and directed by Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. This script in turn formed the basis for a subsequent biography and for Christopher’s Hampton’s translation and adaptation for the Bridge stage.
Ms Pomsel had a relatively unremarkable upbringing, despite the remarkable times, as a child in WWI and in 1920s Germany, and went to work as a stenographer in the late 1920’s for a Jewish lawyer and, soon after, simultaneously, for a right wing insurance broker. In 1933 she moved to a a job in the news department of the Third Reich’s broadcasting department, (having taken up Nazi Party membership), and eventually was posted in 1942 to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment where she was a shorthand writer. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, and Goebbels’s suicide, she was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD for 5 years in various concentration camps, escaping to West Germany after her release and working for state broadcasters until her retirement, living in Munich.
Now it is pretty easy to see why the German documentary makers alighted on Brunhilde Pomsel. Yes, her proximity to Goebbels, but also the clarity and honesty of her recollection. Her apparent apolitical stance, she joined the party to get the job and couldn’t quite remember if she voted for the Nazis or the DNVP (the Nationalist party) in the early 1930s, but liked the colours and the meetings, and refusal, even in retrospect to utterly condemn the system she found herself at the heart of, made her a more authentic commentator on what happened to Germany than many others with more pointed conviction in their stories. Her testimony is not concerned with her own personal guilt or innocence and can therefore more credibly get to the heart of the question: what would you have done differently in the same situation?
I am not sure if Mr Hampton had Maggie Smith in mind when he began the process of translating and editing the material from the documentary, though I gather she had plenty of input to the final outcome. I assume that an unbroken monologue, in line with the film, was the only feasible option but I would guess again that Mr Hampton, and the creative team here, Jonathan Kent as director, Anna Fleischle (designer), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound), must have had some trepidation at presenting a talking head for near two hours. The set, a naturalistic representation of Ms Pomsel’s apartment, moves gradually towards the front of the thrust stage, Mr Clark’s lighting subtly rings changes and there are a handful of crucial sound interventions, (not least of which is subtle amplification – the Bridge is a brilliant space but not intimate), but otherwise it is just DMS sat in chair.
They shouldn’t have worried (in fact they probably didn’t). From the opening knowing aside “let’s see how this goes”, through Ms Pomsel’s strict childhood, her delight in Weimar Berlin society, the reckoning of Kristallnacht, the fear in Hitler’s bunker, disgust at the Soviets and the search for her Jewish friend post-war (she died in a camp in 1943), DMS is, and this is no exaggeration, spell-binding. You don’t hear and see a German centenarian on stage, it’s still DMS, but this is the vivid, animated story of a real person, conveyed in an entirely naturalistic way, with just hesitant voice, mobile hands and febrile face. Leaving you ample opportunity, as the details build, to reflect on the core question posed above. For it seems to me that any guilt than Ms Pomsel may have carried was actually more the guilt at not feeling guilt, despite all that had happened, and not the guilt of complicity, ignorance or indifference. The banality that lies behind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil personified. The contradictions about what she did and didn’t know about the concentration camps, or more actually cared to remember about what she knew, especially when contrasted with her own experience in these same camps after the war, are the most pointed passages of testimony and play. “We didn’t want to know about them, we really didn’t”.
This I suppose is why this “evil” is a constant in human history. It’s not lack of resistance or evasive denial that lets this continue. Just “ordinary” people not understanding or caring enough to stop it. This story will never be irrelevant.
I would assume that this will proved to be Dame Maggie’s stage swan song. If so it is a remarkable demonstration of her skill. But beyond that this is a vital story. Powerfully told. It looks like Blackbox Film and Media, the documentary makers, have told, and are telling, other such vital stories. I need to find out more. Not least of which is to see the A German Life documentary. As should you perhaps given the play is sold out.
I liked this. A lot. Certainly more than I might have expected given the string of lukewarm reviews. I liked the way the important story was told, the structure, a later generation revisits and is shaped by its shared history, the three believable relationships that lie at the heart of the play, the way director Joe Harmston and designer Sean Cavanagh, (and a punchy contribution on sound from Matthew Bugg), made very effective use of the SP’s larger space, in transverse, to convey changes in time and place and, especially, I liked the committed performances from the cast of seven.
James Phillips’s play is based on the life and, still contested, crimes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, after spying for the Soviet Union, allegedly having passed secrets about nuclear weapon design secured by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. The play disregards the trial itself, focussing instead on the early lives of the Rosenberg’s and Greenglass’s, the interrogation of Julius Rosenberg and, in a constructive framing device, the attempts in later decades to clear their names after the executions.
Katie Eldred (a splendid stage debut performance) plays history teacher Anna Levi who meets lawyer Matthew Rubenstein (a similarly persuasive, if occasionally overly clamorous, Dario Coates) at an exhibition in 1970s NYC where he is staring at an iconic picture. It turns out that this is his parents kissing, (there is a similar image of the actual Rosenbergs, though the above is the most reproduced). I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that Anna and Matthew have a connection beyond the sexual relationship that follows, namely that he is the son of the Rubensteins and that she is the daughter of David Girshfeld (Sean Rigby) and Rachel Liebermann (Eva-Jane Willis). We go back in time to the small apartment where the earnest Jakob Rubenstein (Henry Proffit) and his spirited wife Esther (Ruby Rentall), who gave up a promising singing career, first set up home and bring up Matthew. Having left the army, where he worked in the nuclear bomb testing facilities in Nevada, (at a time when only the US had this technology), David is invited by Jakob to join his electricals business, allowing David and Rachel to also have a child, Anna. We see how Jakob and Esther’s upbringing, a child of the Great Depression, education and Jewish heritage inform their Communist idealism and sympathy for Soviet Russia (as did so many of their class and background did at the time). We also discover how Jakob was fired from his job as an engineer at a New Jersey facility which carried out research on missile systems for the army because of his CP membership.
In a series of flash-forwards, sometimes acted out in parallel, we also see how Jakob refused to renounce those ideals and confess to his crimes of espionage even when facing trial and under interrogation from FBI agent Stephen Cranmer, a man of considerably more complexity than you might expect, required an appropriately nuanced performance from Stephen Billington. And we see how and why David turns against Jakob and Esther, confesses his own involvement and implicates Jakob as the head of a Soviet spy ring. We also return to Anna and Matthew whose relationship is transformed by the revelation of their shared parental history and by Matthew’s involvement in the campaign to clear his parent’s names.
All this seems to follow much of the actual Rosenberg case, though we don’r really get to understand what exactly the Rubensteins, and David, did, nor, convincingly, why. Nor the events that have unfolded in the last couple of decades which point to the guilt of the Rosenbergs and have changed the way in which the cause celebre is viewed, now focussed on whether the punishment was appropriate to the crime. This is more about the relationships at the heart of the events, embellished and re-imagined, and all the better for it. There may well be another play located in the arrest, indictment, (the way the Greenglass’s changed their evidence is much simplified in TRK), trial, conviction and execution but it might not work effectively as drama and would be pretty thorny to grasp. There have certainly been other dramatic treatments of the people behind the facts on stage as well as film, though I can’t vouch for any of them. As an aside Roy Cohn, who later went on to play a leading role in the McCarthy trials and act for the Trump family, was involved in the Rosenberg prosecution case. And, as all good students of theatre will know, his particular brand of amoral, wanker-ism was spectacularly aired in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America.
So James Phillips has packed a lot into his award winning play which by and large works. This is its first revival following its premiere in 2006 and it is easy to see why Joe Harmston and the Devil You Know company alighted on it. I am happy to forgive Mr Harmston for his hyperbolic comments about its relevance to the “end of days apocalypse of division” we now face. Threats to the enlightened consensus are permanent and democracy always fallible. And, from what I read, there is much to debate around the “rights and wrongs” of the Rosenberg case. But, as drama, this really worked for me. When I fill in one of those stock surveys the major theatres send out to us regular attendees I always tick the “I want to be educated” and “I want to be entertained” boxes. Job done here. On both counts.
For the avoidance of doubt the two fellas above are not Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, the stars of film Stan and Ollie, nor indeed are they yer actual Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. No this, obviously is a statue of the comedy duo, courtesy of artist Graham Ibbesson, propped up against a lamp post outside the Coronation Hall in Ulverston near the seaside in South Lakeland, Cumbria. Where Stan Laurel was born. Pretty good likenesses you’ll warrant. Art initiating life imitating art imitating life …. you get the picture.
For imitation is what the film does best as the two lead actors turn in a couple of memorable, painstakingly detailed, turns as the beloved S&O. The story charts the return of S&O, down on their uppers, to Britain in 1953 to undertake a tour, organised by impresario Bernard Delfont (a well cast Rufus Jones). Only the boys are not offered much in the way of quality venues, (Delfont preferring the questionable comedy talents of one Norman Wisdom), so start off playing to tiny, nostalgic crowds Oop North, with Stan reassuring Ollie that, once in London, he can secure the backing for a new film script, a Robin Hood spoof, that will rehabilitate both reputation and bank balance. Word of mouth, and immortal talent, turns the tour into a massive success, and the lads are joined by wives, the devoted and fiercely protective Lucille H (the ever brilliant Shirley Henderson) and the terse Russian Ida (a pitch perfect Nina Arianda), comically hamming up their own rivalry (“two double acts for the price of one”). Cue a falling out and reconciliation when Ollie’s health takes a turn for the worse.
So cliched you could barely make it up. Except that it is true. And these are about the most lovable pair, as portrayed and in reality, that you could want to watch. There are obviously generations, my age or older, who are familiar with Laurel and Hardy from repeats on the telly. There will be other youngun’s as well, I am sure, who will have discovered them through their own volition or Mum and Dad’s reminiscing. Whatever, there was clearly going to be enough of an audience to make this film a success.
Which may also be why it is played so straight. Not straight as in lacking humour. Like I say Messrs Coogan and Reilly have the routines of S&O down to a tee. As they do when it comes to the more complex off-stage/screen personalities. Vocally and physically the resemblances are uncanny. No, it is just that the way the story is told contains next to no surprises. It isn’t mushily sentimental, but it doesn’t take any risks at all. It is cheesy, sweet and melancholic in all the right places. The two leads, director Jon S Baird and writer Jeff Pope (co-writer on Steve Coogan’s other major big screen success Philomena), all plainly, and rightly adore their subjects but a slightly less decorous tone might have paid dividends.
Still the best bits, the dolly shot opening in the Hollywood back-lot, Stan sticking it to Hal Roach (a cameo from Danny Houston), Newcastle in the rain, the “hospital sketch” repetitions (especially the exchange on Ollie’s actual sickbed), the double door routine, the ladies bitching at the reception, the venue interiors, Stan looking wistfully up at the Abbott and Costello film poster, are undoubtedly effective, laden with pathos, humour and affection. Cinematographer Laurie Rose takes much of the credit and the make-up and prosthetics of Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier, turning John C Reilly into Oliver Hardy, especially in the later scenes, is remarkable.
All in all a very nice, touching and amusing film. Make of that what you will.
I had only seen one of Henry Naylor’s acclaimed plays prior to this double header and that was Angel at this very venue. That was enough to know that I like the cut of his jib. Mr Naylor, prior to writing plays, was, amongst other things, the lead writer for Spitting Image and he has, as far as I can tell, always had an acute political conscience which he is prepared to put to good use in his writing. His first play, Finding Bin Laden, was a satire on the media treatment of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, (and it is now being made into a film,) whilst his second, Hunting Diana, dealt with conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess’s untimely death.
These were showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe as were his next offerings, The Collector, set in an Iraqi jail in 2003, and then Echoes and the aforementioned Angel, to complete the trilogy, Arabian Nightmares. Echoes is a two hander which contrasts two teenage women, one a Victorian colonialist adventurer, the other a Muslim jihadist. Angel is a dramatic monologue about the Angel of Kobane, a Kurdish sniper who became a symbol of resistance against Islamic State. All three plays were multiple prize winners at Edinburgh and have gone on to tour globally as well as to the Arcola.
You kind of know what you are going to get with a play from Mr Naylor. A scrupulously researched examination of a major issue of our time, (with a particular focus on the “Middle East” to date), told from the (often juxtaposed) perspective of individuals involved which sets out to even-handedly explore cause, effect and impact. Part history, part drama, part monologue and part exposition the plays cover a lot of ground in a relatively short span but don’t lack emotional heft. There is enough surprise in terms of dialogue, which is unafraid of deploying poetic symbolism where necessary, to set alongside the unfolding stories to keep the audience on its toes, and there is plenty of opportunity in terms of movement and impersonation to test the mettle of the actors. And, of course, text-based one and two handers are cheap to stage meaning Mr Naylor’s discourse can be quickly spread, as it deserves to be.
Obviously these subjects and structures are not much use to you if your idea of theatre is feel-good musicals but if serious, but never dour, political theatre floats your boat then don’t hesitate to seek out his work.
Borders adds another dimension to HN’s oeuvre to date. Premiered in 2017 at the Gilded Balloon it is another double monologue telling the stories of Nameless, a young graffiti artist in Homs protesting the Assad regime, and Sebastian Nightingale, a photographer who makes his name with an iconic early portrait of Osama Bin Laden, but who goes on to “sell out”, clicking lame-brain celebs for big money. Graffiti specifically, and art more generally, has, I now learn, played an important role in opposition to the regime in Syria since 2011, and Assad and his supporters have brutally punished its practitioners. The story of Nameless’s courage in using her art to incite resistance, and the passion which eventually leads to her exile, is very stirring, especially because, like many of NH’s previous protagonists, she is a young woman in a patriarchal society. Sebastian’s fall from grace, as he debases his own art and principles to chase fame and money, is equally riveting.
You can guess early on that the two of them, outsider and insider, are destined to meet but HN still conjures up a thrilling end. Of course this sort of story-telling, about a conflict few of us here understand at even the most basic level, is occasionally going to have to thwack the audience over the head to get its points across but HN once again finds a way to do this without getting in the way of the personal dramas. There are laughs, quite a few in fact, which often skewer the hypocrisies of Sebastian and of the men who seek to control Nameless. The other characters, played by our two actors, have sufficient presence to go beyond ciphers, Nameless’s Mum, her “boyfriend”, his dad and the elder statesman war correspondent, Messenger, who gnaws away at Sebastian’s conscience. The stories are inevitably contrived but that is probably a necessary pre-condition for theatre with this strong a message.
It wouldn’t work without two remarkable actors and that is precisely what we have here. Now in the original Edinburgh performances, and in the subsequent worldwide tour, Nameless has been played by Avital Lvova, who took over from the sadly missed Filipa Branganca in the tour of Angel, and who is also a fearsomely talented actor. In this Arcola run however the role of Nameless was taken on by Deniz Arixenas. The crib-sheet tells me that Ms Arixenas, who is of Kurdish and Syrian descent, is currently doing her Masters degree in Law with the intention of becoming a human rights lawyer. Acting’s loss is the legal profession’s gain. However if this woman can bring an ounce of her talent on stage to the task of making the world a better place then I can be assured, alongside so many of the young people I know, that the next generation will be able to unravel the mess that my, and previous, generations’ have made of our world. I confess couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Which made Graham O’Mara’s performances as Sebastian all the more exceptional. He nailed that thing where you know that, as a rich privileged beneficiary of the institutional and economic order imposed by the West on the world since WWII, you should help those who haven’t been so lucky, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. In a connected world where those post-war institutional structures are under pressure, where selfish ideology trumps co-operation and where I suspect, (largely suspect), arguments around the concept of “Western guilt” are likely to intensify, NH has come up with am intelligent shorthand for debate.
Games heads back a few decades to tell the story of German-Jewish athletes before and during the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics (Tourist and family had a good look around the imposing stadium, now home to Hertha Berlin, last year). The two protagonists, high jumper Gretel Bergmann and fencer Helene Mayer, actually existed and the main events portrayed in the two-hander actually happened, but from this HN has woven a more nuanced debate on the nature of identity, and the iniquity of fascism, than we had any right to expect Helene Mayer won a gold medal in 1928 in Amsterdam, missed out in Los Angeles in 1932 and won silver in 1936, but despite her fame and success was still forced to leave for the US in 1935 because she was Jewish. The discrimination against Gretel Bergmann was more over,t both before the Nazis assumed power in 1933 and thereafter, as she and other Jewish athletes were denied access to training facilities, competed separately and were stripped of titles. Many left but Helene Mayer returned in 1936 to compete for Germany as the regime succumbed to pressure from the US who threatened a boycott.
Ms Mayer was an enigmatic character, whose German identity might have eclipsed her Jewish heritage and who, at least publicly, was not critical of the Nazis. She returned to Germany again in 1941and lived there until her early death in 1953. Tragic geo-political pawn or naive opportunist who put her own sporting glory above the suffering meted out to her own people? Easy to see then why HN alighted on her story, and that of Ms Bergmann, who died just a year ago aged 103, whose own resistance was implacable and who was determined to point up Hitler’s racial theories for the bollocks it was.
Maybe not quite as powerful as Borders (and Angel for that matter), and a little heavy on the biographical exposition, Games will still make you think and is surprisingly resonant on wider issues of nationalism, self-identity, and the role of politics in sport (or do I mean sport in politics), all subjects you probably thought you had a settled view on. Directed, as was Borders (in conjunction with Michael Cabot), with a confident hand by Louise Skaaping, Games has another pair of actors on top form. Sophie Shad has already written, produced and acted in Kitty’s Fortune which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and her eagerness to tell Helene’s story shines through. She realistically captures her apparent ambiguities, internal conflicts and the impact of personal grief. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel has the physicality and grace of the athlete (maybe she is) and relays her character’s burning sense of injustice. In contrast to Borders the two meet on multiple occasions, Helene is Gretel’s original inspiration, but the use of the space and sparse props, (here two boxes and a flag, just two chairs in Borders), is similarly effective.
Henry Naylor has found a formula to educate us about complex political (and moral) questions without hectoring us and whilst still entertaining and moving us. And he usually brings it in at around an hour. In pretty much any space, (the credits here stop at the lighting design of Vasilis Apostolatos and stage management of Holly Curtis though I don’t doubt many others, from the research end through to the finished production at the ever welcoming Arcola, deserve credit).
I strongly advise you to hunt out more of HN’s his work. I will.