Blackkklansman film review ****

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Blackkklansman, 30th August 2018

Spike Lee is 61 years old. This photo is a few years old but there is still a twinkle in his eye if you ask me. That twinkle, the eye for mischief, has been in his films from the start. Now I can’t pretend that I have followed his career, after the initial breakthrough in the mid 1980s with She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, but every time I have seen one of his films I have been thoroughly entertained, educated and provoked and made a mental note to see more of his work and revisit the early films. I have failed in this.

However I thoroughly enjoyed Chi-Raq a couple of years ago, with its more than a passing nod to Lysistrata, though the remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was disappointing, and can add to the acclaim for Blackkklansmen. It is, to its core, a Spike Lee film, the examination of race in the US and the African American experience, the humour, the exaggerated characters, the mixing of fact and fiction, the incorporation of documentary footage, the title sequences, the slick technique, the music, the dolly shots, all in the service of a captivating and extraordinary true-ish story of a black cop in 1970s Colorado Springs who, with the help of a white colleague, penetrates the Ku Klax Klan as they plan a terrorist atrocity.

Mr Lee is a proselytising political film-maker who can, at his best, appear not to be. (I am not talking here about his specifically documentary films such as 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke). Political films can, perforce, be a dour watch. Especially if they are about the “business’ of politics, political history, made by directors with an avowedly political agenda or focus on big, global issues, the stuff of international relations. Getting bums on seats with this sort of stuff is not easy. Me Lee here though has managed to incorporate the elements of a thriller, the one sure-fire way to secure an audience for the political, with elements of personal and identity politics in the relationships between the key male characters and the main protagonist, Ron Stallworth, and impassioned student activist girlfriend, Patrice. Best of all the satirical mocking of the KKK and its leader David Duke repeatedly hits the target without diminishing the ugliness of their hate. Remember the criminal fascist Duke is still peddling his sh*te and people are still being emboldened by it.

The period setting is superbly realised. The cast is outstanding. John David Washington’s bone-dry Ron is confident enough to face down face down racist colleagues after joining the force and to persuade boss Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to back his plan to infiltrate the KKK. The ever laconic Adam Driver is the perfect foil as Flip Zimmerman, who is sent in undercover to join the KKK cell. We see the political horizons of both expand; Ron after he is sent to monitor a Black rally at the local university, (where Corey Hawkins plays Kwame Ture in a stunning scene), where he meets Laura Harrier’s Patrice, and Flip, as the Jewish heritage he had abandoned is unmasked by the KKK and, specifically, the comically evil Walter (Ryan Eggold). Topher Grace is the spitting image of the young David Duke and brilliantly captures the rhetorical articulacy allied to an idiotic world view. There are some fine cameos on show  from Paul Walter Hauser, following on from his scene stealing performance in I Tonya, from Finnish actor Jaasper Paakkonen as Felix Kendrickson, the leader of the local Klan cell, and from Ashlie Atkinson as his wife Connie, who spews out shocking unthinking vitriol but still ends up as an unwitting victim.

Scene after scene hits home and somehow Spike Lee knits effortlessly knits this all together. Harry Belafonte is immensely moving as Jerome Turner in a scene where he describes the violence meted out to African-Americans in past generations. The Klan meting which ends in a screening of the outrageous DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation is properly shocking as is Alec Baldwin playing white supremacist Dr Kennebrew Beauregard. The ending is proper edge of the seat stuff. As if that wasn’t enough Lee leaves us with actual news footage from the Charlottesville rally in 2017. No equivocation here in contrast to some in the US. You will leave the cinema with no doubt what is right and what is wrong.

Blackkklansmen won a price at the Cannes Film Festival. I regret I am not up on these sort of things and have no idea what it was up against, but I am sure the jury here got it right. Mr Lee has packed so much into this film, plot, character, message, tone, spectacle, and the just over 2 hours flies by. Unmissable.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward Theatre, 31st August 2018

My regular reader, (hello), will need no reminding, (OK maybe they will), that I am a massive fan of Mr Martin McDonagh. Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in the last 3 years, indeed one of the best ever, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, amongst the best films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****). I am massively excited about his new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, which will open at the Bridge Theatre in October, with Jim Broadbent in the lead as Hans Christian Anderson and Phil Daniels alongside him as Dickens. It sound like it will plough the same dark furrow as 2003’s Pillowman, (which Mr Broadbent originally starred in), where a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is meta, a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.

Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to  lose our bearings. That is what makes them thrilling. I would be pretty sure that violence is going to be a theme in the new play, as well as the nature of “story-telling”, based on the intriguing Bridge blurb.

Prior to The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the last produced of Mr McDonagh’s “Irish” plays, and the second in the Aran Islands trilogy, (named after the three islands in Galway Bay), and was originally produced in 2001 by the RSC. (The final play in the trilogy, The Banshees of Inisheer, is as yet unpublished). Michael Grandage, the director here, revived the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, to great acclaim, in 2013, at this very theatre, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. It is, you guessed it, a black comedy, this time about the impact on the community, and specifically bookish loner Billy, of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore in 1934. The documentary, like the play, was a sort of pastiche on the “remote” west of Ireland, and there are strong echoes of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh, with his rapid plot reversals, with his fictions and lies, and with that always slippery morality, again sets out to confuse and offend. Here his target is the whole notion of Irish identity, the creation myths if you will. Set it up, then knock it down, shift it on, that’s the method he employs and that’s why his plays and films are so bloody marvellous.

The ink had been dry for three years or so on the Good Friday agreement when The Lieutenant of Inishmore first appeared on stage. However it was actually written in 1994, and is set in 1993, the year of the Harrods, Warrington, Bishopgate and Shankhill Road bombings. Yet by the end of that year British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds were able to sign the Joint Declaration of Peace, the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Now some halfwit Brexiteers public school jape puts this all at risk, amongst so many other things. Remember it is now near 600 days since the power sharing assembly which forms the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and the threat of a return to direct rule looms without any agreement. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Secretary freely admits she knew nothing about politics in the country ahead of being appointed. Anyway, calm down Tourist. Back to the culture.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in common with many other of Mr McDonagh’s works, uses extreme violence to show that violence is no solution to argument or injustice, whether personal or political. “A violent play that is whole-heartedly anti-violence” as its author described it. Mad Padraic is a terrorist who is so brutal that he has been booted out of the IRA and even the INLA. We first encounter him torturing a suspected drug dealer until interrupted by the news from back home in Inishmore that his cat Wee Thomas is ill. Let’s just say havoc ensues thereafter. The play is a satire on Irish terrorism, for sure, on political violence more generally, and especially on the kind of beliefs, and the fanatical rhetoric and sanctimonious moral superiority underpinning them, that justify mindless butchery by the believers.

It is brutal, callous but also very funny. The idea of a revenge comedy is hardly new: I think this is the best way to interpret Titus Andronicus and its forebears for example (Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****). Or the films of Quentin Tarantino. To squeeze this many laughs out of the situation though, whilst clearly conveying your message, takes extraordinary writing skill.

It also needs a skilful cast to strike the right tone and pace. Now I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise when I tell you that I was probably one of the few members of the audience who wasn’t there to gaze upon the undoubted charms of Aidan Turner as Padraic. Indeed, following a late substitution. the SO stood down to be replaced by LD. The LD has not yet been meaningfully exposed to the genius of Mr McDonagh, unlike the rest of the family, nor frankly is she a fan (yet) of that Poldark. But she can see the fella is gorgeous, I assured here it would make her laugh and the political context was right up her academic street. She thought it was brilliant. And that remember from a youth who is very suspicious of both Dad and the “theatre”.

She was right. This is a brilliant production. And that is due in no small part to the charisma of Aidan Turner. Mr Turner’s stage career has been hijacked by the TV roles and this is effectively his first major role outside of Dublin. He is very, very good, toning down Padraic’s sadism and dialling up his childish sentimentality, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next outing. This is not just about him however. Denis Conway as Padraic’s father Donny, Chris Walley in his stage debut as the hapless Davey and Charlie Murphy as Davey’s sister, and budding “freedom-fighter” and Padriac’s soulmate, Mairead, are all mightily impressive. The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram is revealed to be an exact replica of the family cottage in every detail even as it is splattered with lashings of blood.

 

 

 

Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

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Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.