Catching up (Part 1)

February 2020

Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.

But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.

So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.

The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.

Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century.¬†Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.

Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.

A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.

Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.

What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).

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.