The Death of Stalin film review ****

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The Death of Stalin, 26th October 2017

There have been a lot of clever people born in Scotland. In fact there was a time at in the second half of the C18 when it was the smartest place on Earth, the Scottish Enlightenment. All right maybe I exaggerate a bit but not by much. Certainly, in David Hume, Scotland turned out one of the greatest thinkers of all time. There have been many dazzling intellects since then and I would put the satirist Armando Iannucci up there with them.

Many of AI’s early collaborators, (Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and Stewart Lee, all big heroes in my world), have gone on to create some marvellous work but AI is the creative with the greatest reach. After The Day Today, the original Alan Partridge shows, (still the funniest comedies I have ever seen), and his eponymous C4 shows, he went on to the masterly political satires, The Thick of It and Veep. His first film was the Thick of It spin off, In The Loop. The Death of Stalin is his second film as director, and was co-written with David Schneider, (who the Tourist, bizarrely, hung out with many years ago), Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. This might be his best work yet.

Political satire is a tough gig. Especially in a world where, as is oft remarked on a daily basis by the commentariat of both established and social media, our politicians seem bent on acting in a way that defies satire. I suspect that this “oh they all grubby, corrupt, clownish, incompetent shysters”, or whatever variation you want to put on that from whatever your political perspective, is a refrain as familiar as Western style democracy itself. However, it does seem that the behaviour of our current crop of leaders in these democracies is particularly eye catching, reflecting their need to satisfy our own narrowing attention spans and mask their own impotence, in a world where capital and labour are increasingly mobile. Other than creating the conditions for the continued explosion of global credit, and orchestrating the mood music of cultural (in)tolerance, our politicians don’t really get up to much.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t tempted to make things happen and that is where we must be vigilant and prevent them doing anything too silly (let’s be honest we are falling short at the moment in the UK and US). Satire is an important component of that vigilance. Taking the piss is a ruthlessly effective way of drawing attention to the ineptitude (or worse) of our leaders and, if it does its job properly, is generally difficult for subject and audience to ignore. A society without satire is a damaged polity. So this is why AI is such an admirable chap in my book.

The Death of Stalin, (which is based on a French graphic novel), does not, obviously, address the failings of today’s Western democracies. It instead takes the year of Stalin’s death, 1953, and the Soviet Union as its subject. Now this was a dangerous and vital place to be a satirist. Modern day Russia has not escaped this legacy it seems. In an ironic twist it seems that this very film has wound up the Russian authorities whose ambivalence about the reign of Stalin looks somewhat ignoble. Whilst the film is rooted in a specific time and place it is pretty easy to see the universal message. Our rulers are human. They are consumed by petty jealousies and, in moments of crisis, often care more about plotting for their own positions and careers than they do about the good of the people.

The film opens with a radio broadcast of a Mozart piano concerto overseen by Andreyev (a frazzled Paddy Considine, currently wowing punters in The Ferryman in the West End which is A MUST SEE). Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin who captures the capricious bully with minimal screen time) is listening. He demands a recording prompting a farcical repeat of the concert. The soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a note into the recording critical of the regime which pre-empts the brain haemorrhage which kills Stalin. All of this may have happened. Well maybe not the note. And the concert repeat may be apocryphal. Maria Yudina was certainly a critic of the regime.

Anyway we had already seen Stalin having a boozy boys night in with other members of the Central Committee. By this time the Central Committee had only nominal powers with the Politburo under Stalin making all the decisions. Remember too that the Politburo had been purged before WWII, and filled with Stalin’s lackeys’s effectively leaving him in sole control. However after Stalin’s death the Central Committee regained prominence, and we see how Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) came to power through manipulating the others members of the Committee and orchestrating the murder of the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the NKVD, the secret police organisation which had carried out Stalin’s purges.

Those are the facts folks, but the way AI and his collaborators show these events is blackly and bleakly comic. These are powerful men holding the fate of an entire nation, embarked on a massive political experiment, in their hands, but they are utterly out of their depth. Some of them could be running a family carpet company in the Home Counties, such is their charisma.

Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is an exception. He is just the personification of the Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. He is first to the scene of Stalin’s haemorrhage but his first act is to destroy incriminating papers. His cruelty is effortless. As you might expect this is an inspired performance from, in my view, our greatest stage actor (on his day). It takes a bit of time to adjust to Steve Buscemi’s accent as Khrushchev (AI uses natural accents throughout I think) but his paranoid energy and gradual realisation that he can take power are perfectly captured. Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov, the hapless Deputy who easily yields first to Beria, and then to Khrushchev’s, manipulations. The scenes where Michael Palin’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the great rhetorician, is unsure whether to condemn or embrace his returning wife, are priceless. The rest of the Committee is made up of Paul Whitehouse’s wideboy Anastas Mikoyan, Paul Chahidi’s effete Nikolai Bulganin and Dermot Crowley’s blunt Lazar Kagonovich. Jason Isaacs’s war hero General Georgy Zhukov is gloriously over the top as is Rupert Friend as Stalin’s embarrassing pisshead son Vasily. Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana Stalin as manipulative brat.

This is an outstanding cast and a marvellous script. It is not the laugh out loud humour of The Thick of It or Veep, and the grotesquerie is constrained, though very real. It is in some ways a serious satire, in the sense that what you see is utterly believable even if what happens is not historically verified. It is full of detail and beautifully put together. And the ending reminds us that, beyond the vanity and scheming, these people bear collective responsibility for a violence which decimated a proud nation

The Tempest at the Barbican review ****

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The Tempest

Barbican Theatre, 27th July 2017

Now I would watch Simon Russell Beale read the telephone directory. Particular past favourites of mine include a Brechtian Galileo, a Face in the Alchemist, alongside Alex Jennings and Lesley Manville, his Stalin in Collaborators, a Timon in the Hytner production, which persuaded me this is a greatish play, and his persuasive Lear. So his return to the RSC after a couple of decades was always going to be an event, particularly in the role of everybody’s favourite grumpy polymath/magician Prospero. The Tempest is not my favourite Shakespeare though I thoroughly enjoyed the all female Phyllida Lloyd Donmar production so maybe I am slowly coming round.

Anyway this production directed by Gregory Doran had secured very good if not outstanding reviews from its Stratford run so, one way or another, it had to be seen, Initially I plumped for the cinema option figuring this might prove a better way to soak in the technology on show. However, after a mix up with tickets and me throwing a tantrum (don’t ask), I missed out. So off to the Barbican it was.

Much has been made of the digital technology conjured up by Intel and Imaginarium Studios which has been used to conjure a real-time, holographic avatar of the Ariel played by a physically graceful Mark Quartley. Well there is no doubt this is an impressive spectacle, especially when combined with the striking designs of Simon Brimson Lewis, a set with a shipwrecked hulk with overtones of whale skeleton, and the dramatic lighting of Simon Spencer. And by and large it augments rather than supplants the words of the Bard notably around the storms, imagined drownings and some very dangerous dogs. In particular the masque created for the marriage of Ferdinand (an earnest Daniel Easton) and Miranda (a surprisingly worldly Jenny Rainsford) was spell binding with some beautiful singing from Samantha Hay, Jennifer Witton and Elly Condron and landscape projections which out-garished Hockney.

But the Tempest for me is a play of subtle shifts and meanings and sometimes all the gubbins on show (including the loudish soundscape conjured up by Jeremy Dunn and Andrew Franks) did just detract a little from the magic Shakespeare conjured up through, er, the magic of words. Once you cut out the comedy interludes supplied by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano (with Joe Dixon, Simon Trinder and James Hayes respectively suitably broad) and the perfidy of the human aristos, you are left with tales of love and forgiveness (father-daughter, Miranda/Ferdinand, Prospero and pretty much everyone else on the Island). For these lessons to, er, work their magic sometimes needs a bit of peace and quiet. Which is why the last 10 minutes or so of this production, largely SRB speaking the verse in a pool of light, turned out to be the most satisfying, and moving.

A fine addition then to the panoply of big name Tempests and well worth a view (there are plenty of tickets left for the remaining performances). But also a reminder that, at the end of it all, it s the text that matters.

 

 

Consent at the National Theatre review *****

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Consent

Dorfman, National Theatre, 27th April 2017

Crikey. This is a very fine piece of theatre make no mistake. This was my first exposure to Nina Raine’s writing though I had been really looking forward to it based on what I had read about her previous works and on the proper reviews for this. But that didn’t prepare me for quite how strong a work this turned out to be.

The play explores complex issues of consent, empathy and justice in the context of rape. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) are new parents. Edward is a barrister as are their friends, couple Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James), and Tim (Pip Carter). They try to set up Tim with Zara (Daisy Haggard), Kitty’s actress friend, without success initially. Cue deft comic writing and unsettlingly direct discussions around the rape (and other) cases that the barristers are prosecuting/defending. We watch Jake and Rachel’s relationship flounder on his infidelity and then recover. Edward too has an affair so that Kitty seeks a sort of revenge through a relationship with Tim, who had been seeing Zara. The break up leads to a custody battle and Kitty seeking  to have Edward prosecuted for marital rape. Edward, perhaps, finally understands. Running through all of this is rape victim, Gayle (Heather Craney), who does not secure justice and, in consequence, takes her own life.

No apologies for laying out the plot but I think this is justified firstly, because the run at the Dorfman is nearly over and is sold out, secondly, because the above doesn’t even get close to capturing just how clever and multi layered this play is and thirdly, because no-one will read this anyway. We get to understand something of how the adversarial justice system works in Britain, notably the emphasis on rhetorical skill in driving the outcome. We see how the necessary fictions which lay behind this system, (such as innocent until proven guilty, the so called “cab rank”, cross examination and the admissibility of evidence), together with the driving need to “win”, leaves the barristers incapable of any empathy with the victims in rape cases. We see how the system fails rape victims and destroys lives. We see how frustration and infidelity sours one marriage and breaks another apart. We see how the need to create a “performance” in work can seep into the home and relationships.

Nina Raine’s writing is exquisite as these insights are layered into believable, but still nuanced characters, and the whole tragedy is leavened with real humour. There are some memorable touches: the play begins and ends with Kitty and Edward prosaically folding a sheet, the witty descriptions of Greek drama, the (I think) symbolism in the shifting positions of the sofas, the early reveals and later call-backs, the multiple lampshades/viewpoints of Hildegard Bechtler’s set.

The research that went into the play is palpable but never obvious or didactic, which given the subject matter is remarkable. The dialogue feels entirely natural and never forced. There are occasions when you can see the joins, when Kitty starts needling Edward at one of the get-togethers, when Gayle gate=crashes the party, when Zara reveals her pregnancy plans, but all are justified to move the stake up to the next level. Overall, the rational and emotional part of your brain will be given a massive workout. Roger Mitchell’s direction is perfect precisely because it lets the text and the actors get on with it.

Anna Maxwell Martin is properly awesome as she charts how Kitty’s need to make Edward understand what he has done becomes overwhelming. Ben Chaplin (who was captivating as the amoral fantasist in Apple Tree Yard on the telly) is also perfectly cast, as his egotistical smugness turns to desperate wheedling. I hope Adam James is not a complete misogynist bully in real life because he is brilliant at playing them (I remember his performance in Bull at the Young Vic). Daisy Haggard (who I only know from TV comedy Episodes where she creates comic genius from one expression) is terrific, as are the rest of the cast. Oh and hats off for the performance of Misha Wakefield Raine as Edward and Kitty’s baby.: nerveless.

So if this doesn’t get a run elsewhere I have absolutely no doubt it will be revived in the not too distant future given its extraordinary quality. And I cannot wait for Nina Raine’s next play which I understand will be … ta dah … a play about JS Bach starring Simon Russell Beale. And if I am not mistaken Mr SRB was viewing this very performance of Consent. I have no idea what on earth Ms Raine will do with this idea but I AM SALIVATING AT THE PROSPECT – repeat it is about the genius Bach starring the genius Simon Russell Beale.

Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican Hall review ****

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Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Barbican Hall, 14th April 2017

Britten Sinfonia
Mark Padmore – Evangelist/director
Jacqueline Shave –  leader/director
Simon Russell Beale – speaker
Britten Sinfonia Voices

JS Bach – St John’s Passion

They were a glum looking bunch these great classical composers weren’t they? It is alright for us with our endless, carefully composed, beaming selfies but these poor b*ggers only had one shot at pictorial immortality normally and relied on some hack artist to deliver it. Of course, the real reason they all look grumpy is obviously because it is so tricky to paint a smile. But I find it interesting that a combination of the “genius” theory of artistic accomplishment together with these received pictorial representations so often leads us into divining the temperament of the man (for alas it was always a man) from his music.

Anyway JS does look a bit stern in this picture. I guess he was a pious chap but then that might largely have come with the job. In contrast the St John Passion to me is anything but stern and pious. It is a dramatic story, well told, with no let up in pace (the bigger St Matthew Passion is not necessarily better in my view for clocking in at 3 hours vs the 2 hours here). JSB mixes up the recitative and chorus, the solo arias, the chorales and the musical accompaniment to marvellous effect here.

Now this performance was delivered, as I understand it, with the forces intended by JSB, so a couple of everything, first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, flutes and oboes, augmented by double bass, cor anglais, bassoon, organ continuo and oboe d’amore and viola da gamba. Thus a mix of modern and period instruments. Each of the vocal parts was a single line sung by eleven members of Britten Sinfonia Voices, including its director Eamonn Dougan, alongside Mark Padmore, who is, rightly, considered a pre-eminent singer of the Evangelist role, and whose vision this performance was.

However, I have to say that the Barbican Hall is not the cosiest venue for such an enterprise, which impacted a couple of the arias, and, just occasionally, swallowed Mr Padmore’s recitative. and ensured that some of the more vibrant chorales were a bit murky.

Laid on top of the piece were a couple of readings from the mighty Simon Russell-Beale, of Psalm 22 and an incredibly moving Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot. I doubt there is a man on earth who is better at thundering out this sort of stuff whilst making it look easy – just marvellous – though I guess it will have wound up the purists. And the piece ended, as apparently it did in JSB’s day in Leipzig, with a restorative motet by a chap called Jacob Handl.

Overall then I enjoyed this performance, though my attention did wander a bit. I am persuaded by this stripped back approach with mostly modern instruments when compared to the big guns approach which I have experienced for this, and the St Matthew Passion in the past, but I wonder if a smaller hall and a definitive leader on stage might have just helped clarify things a little.

Still this is just minor grumbling. At the end of the day it is still a beautiful piece of music whichever way you cut it, notably in the chorales at the top of each Part and the run of arias post the Crucifixion. I am looking forward to the next Bach workout.