Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.

Vice film review *****

Vice, 30th April 2019

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).

  • Roma
  • Strangers On A Train
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
  • Okja
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Network
  • Marnie
  • Ace in the Hole
  • La Regle de Jeu
  • Mona Lisa
  • I Am Not A Witch
  • Doctor Strangelove
  • Deliverance
  • The German Doctor
  • 13 Assassins
  • Macbeth
  • Baby Driver
  • Don’t Look Now
  • The Piper
  • Sweet Bean (An)
  • Jackie Brown
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Taxi Driver
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • The Player
  • The Last King of Scotland
  • Notes on Blindness
  • The Hunt
  • Casablanca
  • This is England
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Shakespeare in Love
  • Goodfellas
  • Look Who’s Back
  • The Look of Silence
  • Twelve Angry Men
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Gravity
  • The African Queen
  • Great Expectations
  • King of Comedy
  • The Revenant
  • The Wicker Man
  • Foxcatcher
  • All About Eve
  • The Master
  • The Apartment
  • High Rise
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • Chinatown
  • A Field in England
  • Elf
  • The Haunting
  • In Bruges
  • The Third Man
  • The Searchers
  • Force Majeure
  • Hidden
  • Citizen Kane
  • Brick Lane
  • Amy
  • Wolf of Wall Street
  • The Birds
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • Funny Games
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • Tokyo Story
  • Hamlet
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • Moon
  • Barton Fink
  • 12 Years A Slave
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Vertigo
  • The Godfather 1, 2 and 3
  • Mad Max 2
  • Gangs of New York
  • Withnail and I
  • Double Indemnity
  • Gladiator
  • The Madness of King George
  • The Lady in the Van
  • Groundhog Day
  • The Last Temptation of Christ
  • Palio
  • American Werewolf in London
  • Dead of Night
  • On the Waterfront
  • The French Connection
  • Rope
  • Audition
  • Blade Runner
  • North by Northwest
  • LA Confidential
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Life of Brian
  • To Catch a Thief
  • The Deerhunter
  • Seven Psychopaths
  • Trollhunter
  • 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.