Thursday, 17 October 2019

Film Review: Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood, 2019)

From the superb (Tom Browne's sensitive, profound Radiator [2014]) to the dire (Ben Wheatley's entirely bogus Dogme derivative Happy New Year, Colin Burstead [2018]), the rural family film has started to become a staple of independent British cinema in recent years. Director D.R Hood already made a contribution in 2011 with Wreckers, a Kent-set tale of brotherly tension and marital secrets starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and she returns to the form with Us Among the Stones, her complementarily themed, but formally more radical, second feature. 

The premise may be perfectly conventional: the clan of a dying matriarch (Anna Calder-Marshall), including sons (Laurence Fox, Jethro Skinner), spouse (Oliver Cotton), his two brothers (Greg Hicks, Bill Thomas), partners and assorted grandchildren - gather for a celebration that unearths family resentments and deceptions. But the telling isn't. Hood mobilises a range of different formats in Us Among the Stones, combining pinhole camera, 35mm stills camera and iPhone footage, expertly edited by Claire Pringle, to give an exciting visual dissonance to the piece.

Nature shots combine with intense close-ups, placing place and protagonists in dialogue. The ramshackle Dartmoor farmhouse itself becomes a character, full of the history and personality of its inhabitants. Most evocative of all is the use of photographs - a device employed to dazzling effect in a single sequence of Christophe Honoré's great Making Plans for Lena (2009) - but one that here forms a consistent, integral part of the film's fabric. As pictures of the past are presented - and the present-day scenes are occasionally freeze-framed, becoming memories in the making - a sense of the family's history is made tangible, while also prompting the viewer's own reminiscences.

What's pleasing, too, is that, while the film explores the generational divide between a Bohemian 60s group - ones too stoned to make a family visit to Stonehenge a smooth trip - and their fractious offspring, that conflict avoids the obviousness that accusatory Boomer-baiting plays like Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love and Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia succumbed to. Hood's characters are too idiosyncratic to be mere representatives of their era, and the actors' inventiveness further ensures that this pitfall is avoided. 

The younger cast members come up with less that's fresh (though Sinead Matthews, who featured in Wreckers, brings her customary vibrancy to her scenes as a disparaged step-mum, brandishing a doll for a baby). But Hicks, Cotton and Thomas vividly inhabit brother characters as different as real-life brothers can be. Best of all is Calder-Marshall as the mother. Always a magical stage actress, Calder-Marshall hasn't necessarily had film roles to do her talent justice. But with her mesmerising vocal rhythms, plaintive looks and sudden, surprising humour, she seizes on all the opportunities offered here.

I'd be hard-pressed to say why her first scene with Hicks - it involves him quoting Tennyson and she responding with a rasped "They've locked me up! Save me!"  - gives me such pleasure, but it has something to do with the theatrical gusto that both actors bring to the moment. The party scene, which finds Calder-Marshall singing the prime piece of bawdy "Blow the Candles Out," achieves a similar effect: a deep English eccentricity that draws on our literary, folk and theatre heritage. (In a lovely touch, the film concludes with a shanty as the credits roll.) It's a shame that, as in Wreckers, Hood sees fit to take the proceedings in a somewhat shrill, melodramatic direction towards the close, with a spot of fisticuffs that doesn't add much. Still, ultimately it's not the soapy revelations but rather the fine performances, experimental elements and distinctive texture that make this family portrait resonate. 

Us Among the Stones premiered at the 2019 London Film Festival. Further information here

Monday, 14 October 2019

Interview with François Ozon

My interview with François Ozon about By the Grace of God is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Theatre Review: Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

Bravo, bravo, bravissimo! If I had to choose one theatre production, of those that I've seen so far this year in the UK and Poland, to watch again now, today, tonight, my choice, without a shadow of a doubt, would be Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever), Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza which was the first of the Diploma Shows to feature the 2018/19 contingent of Łódź Film School graduating actors. Leaping from gaiety to the grotesque, gleeful reality TV parody ("Nabrzmiałe probleeemy!") to haunting folk ballad expressionism, the show offered a rollercoaster ride through contemporary culture (and Polish history) that essentially provided all the shows you could require in one gorgeously baggy, unruly and inclusive package - one held together by the talent, commitment and energy of the young performers and by Grzegorzek's visionary genius. 

The first of this year's three Diploma shows starring the 2019/20 graduating group, Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Don't Eat That, It's For Christmas!) continues the precedent set by Mebelki. Constructed without a text, through improvisation, research and an exchange of ideas with the actors, and including some of the same creative team - Tomasz Armada (costumes), Iza Połońska (vocal coaching) and Leszek Kołodziejski (music supervision) - Grzegorzek's latest provocation again mobilises a collage structure that mixes diverse dramatic scenes, song and dance interludes, the silly and the (very) serious.

The show is audience-inclusive from its opening moments, in which dynamic Dominik Mironiuk ushers us into the auditorium, where he serves as a magical combination of MC, cabaret artiste, preacher and hypnotist, first introducing us to his colleagues: Sylwia Gajdemska, Irmina Liszkowska (who also serves as the show's assistant director), Janek Napieralski, Wiktor Piechowski, Dorota Ptaszek, Aleksander Rudziński, Julia Szczepańska, Dominika Walo, and Michał Włodarczyk. As was the case in Mebelki, this 10-strong collective switch up and share roles throughout the performance, with identities helpfully indicated by velcro labels attached to Armada's marvellous white costumes, which variously suggest hazmat or space suit, straight jacket or hospital uniform.

If a distinctive feature of the previous show was its Polishness, with Czesław Niemen songs rubbing up against Disco Polo parody, then Nie jedz tego! - though somewhat more distilled - casts its net wider for its main reference point. Sure, Polish songs are sung and Prez Duda get namechecked (in a hilariously mournful dirge delivered by Włodarczyk) but the principal inspiration here comes from Skye Borgman's 2017 documentary Kidnapped in Plain Sight, about the abduction of Idaho 12-year-old Jan Broberg in the 1970s. 

Grzegorzek and company use this text as a jumping-off point for an exploration of family dynamics (look how easily those "Matka" and "Ojciec" labels can be peeled off, after all) and social breakdown through the experiences of the kidnapped girl (Suzi, here), her siblings and manipulatable parents and the perpetrator (one Brajan - seldom a name to be trusted). Described as "too strange to seem real," the most sensational aspects of the Broberg case - from the culprit's Theorem-ish seduction of both of his victim's parents, to his convincing Jan that they were meant to marry and have a child who was prophesied to be the saviour of an alien planet - are preserved; indeed, a principal fascination of the show is the way it transforms real-life, documentary-derived material into theatrical phantasmagoria, mixing up genres from sci-fi to detective story under the wryly-deployed "Documentary Film" banner. 

Grzegorzek is the kind of director who can get a mood to shift lightening fast, and here abrupt lighting changes and surprising musical cues whisk us from the playful to the deeply disturbing. Bringing different facets to the character, the actresses convey Suzi's confusion, trauma and fortitude; from Szczepańska's confrontation with alien apparitions pitched somewhere between Dr. Who and the Ku Klux Klan to a touching, simply staged moment in which Gajdemska beautifully performs YouTube "bathtub ukulele singer-songwriter" Abbey Glover's "Please Don't Go". 

Around this through-line, the show throws several other elements into the mix, whether developing its concern with the mediatisation of crime through a very funny parody of a "Traffic Cops" TV series ("National Roads") or offering a memorable moment for Piechowski with his wonderfully rude accordion rendition of "Cipuleńka." Meanwhile, Daria Szymańska's distinctive choreography is at its most amazing in a powerful atomic interlude. 

The actors modulate brilliantly, whether offering heightened physical clowning - dig Janek Napieralski's epic drunk display! - or achieving subtle, sensitive effects. If the end result is not so all encompassingly great, nor as galvanising in its transitions, as Mebelki, there are still more perverse pleasures and terrors here than can be taken in on one viewing. As the actors gather close to the audience for a cathartic and bewitchingly sung finale, you may find yourself reflecting that, while winter holidays come but once a year, Grzegorzek and company have produced a show that's for life, not just for Christmas. 

The next performances of Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! take place from the 3rd to 17th October. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:
The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Theatre Review: For Services Rendered (Jermyn Street Theatre)

(Photo: Robert Workman)

A tea service set out on the table of a garden terrace decked with climbing roses... With a fine set by Louie Whitemore, Tom Littler's production of W. Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered exudes Autumnal Englishness even before a word is spoken. When Diane Fletcher, elegantly grey-haired and clearly carrying an emotional burden or two, enters the scene and takes a seat, the picture is complete.

As in many Maugham plays, though, biting insights and tough ideas belie the cozy, decorous surface of the drama. Written in 1932, when Maugham was at the peak of his power and popularity as a writer, For Services Rendered follows such works as The Breadwinner (which firmly defended a parent's right to leave their family) and The Sacred Flame (which endorsed euthanasia - a theme that returns here) by offering a perspective on WWI that makes clear the damage that continued to be done to former soldiers (and their loved ones) after their return home.

Maugham accomplishes this through a situation that owes a self-conscious debt to Chekhov. Three sisters, Eva, Lois and Ethel, and a brother, Sydney, are the children of Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley. Sydney has returned from the war blind and cynical, and Ewa, who lost her fiance in the conflict, has - increasingly begrudgingly - become his carer. Ethel is unhappily married to a tenant-farmer and the younger Lois has attracted the attention of a an older, married family friend.

Littler's production plays up the Chekhovian echoes, creating a buzz of overlapping funny/sad activity that gives the play's portrait of generational divides and the wider societal damage wrought by war believable human contours. The characters are drawn with Maugham's customary intelligence, and, if this production isn't ideally cast across the board, several of the actors come through with memorable performances.

(Photo: Robert Workman) 

Sally Cheng, Rachel Pickup, Leah Whitaker and Richard Keightley compel as the contrasting siblings and Jotham Annan underplays effectively as a cash-strapped naval hero struggling to make it as a businessman. Fresh from the success of the Orange Tree's Rattigan revival While the Sun Shines, Michael Lumsden brings ardency and pathos to undercut the absurdity of a character who is not adverse to offering a girl money to elope with him, while Viss Elliott Safavi moves beyond comic caricature to convey the desperation of a wife who realises she's about to be ditched.

And the velvet-voiced Fletcher is exceptional as the matriarch, bringing a lifetime of technique to create a performance of great naturalness, one that's restrained and economical but full of feeling. The astute Charlotte, whose reaction to a terminal diagnosis is not the expected one, suggests a relative of the equally surprising Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame: an older female character whose conventional demeanour masks unorthodox views. The same goes for the play itself. Littler's production occasionally looks a bit cluttered on the small Jermyn Street stage, but it succeeds in capturing both the sensitivity and sharp subversiveness that defines Maugham's writing at its best.

For Services Rendered runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 October.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Interpersonal Situations: on Retroperspektywy Theatre Festival, Łódź, 2019

The ill-informed might scoff at the notion, but Łódź's boast of hosting "more festivals than Rio" often feels entirely accurate. No sooner has one arts event finished in the so-called "Manchester of Poland" - Transatlantyk's film, food and music extravaganza in July, say - than another one is starting up. Occurring just prior to the Four Cultures event, last week saw the latest edition of the experimental international theatre festival Retroperspektywy. This festival brings together CHOREA Theatre, a company based at the city's Art_Inkubator venue, with a range of practitioners and companies from across the world for eight days of shows. 

Presenting work from Greece, Ukraine, Sweden, Russia and the US as well as Poland this year, the programme - and indeed the whole atmosphere of the festival - is inclusive. Plays, dance performances, concerts, kids shows, and Q&As make full use of the flexible spaces of Art_Inkubator - and also spill out a little into the city beyond. In addition, the festival had further occasion to mark this as a special year - the celebration of CHOREA's 15th birthday. 

ja, bóg  (Photo: Rami Shaya)

As diverse as the programme is, most of the shows presented, bear, to some extent, the influence of Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theatre, mobilising what the director/theorist called "the principle of reduction, to find the essence of theatre: actors and audience, fundamentally an interpersonal situation". That influence was emphasised not only in the form but also in the subject matter of the opening show "ja bóg", an investigation into the metaphysical questions underpinning Grotowski's texts, created by and starring CHOREA director Tomasz Rodowicz and Joanna Chimelecka.

After the Birds (Po Ptakach) (Photo: Rami Shaya)

I wasn't able to attend the opening performances, which sadly meant missing the acclaimed likes of Tragedia Jana  (John's Tragedy) and Akty (Acts). The first show I did see proved a vibrant and compelling introduction to the festival, though. After the Birds (Po Ptakach) is a collaboration between CHOREA and the Welsh dance company Earthfall, which was first presented in 2005, and retains the same company of perfomers today. Following Grotowski's tendency to base work on classical narratives - the better to tap into mythic resonances and evoke a collective, internal response in viewers - the show, co-directed by Rodowicz, Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, takes off from The Birds, using Aristophanes's comedy as the inspiration for a distinctive piece of physical theatre that dynamically combines the ancient and the contemporary.  

Opening in playful, clowning mode - three men and a ladder greet the audience and soon have us participating in a Mexican wave - the show ultimately runs the emotional and stylistic gamut. The performers flock together, form duos, or break apart via choreography that is breathtaking in its range and expressiveness. Live music and folk song, as well as bespoke compositions by Maciej Rychły - including a deeply moving growled Tom Waits-esque number - add to the intensity of the event. The show inspired a rapturous standing ovation, indicating that this is a piece that audiences would like to see return very soon. 

Othello/ Ukraine / Facebook (Photo: Rami Shaya)

Shifts between the absurdist and the serious also characterised Othello / Ukraine / Facebook, a piece for seven actors from Kyiv Academic Theatre "Golden Gate" directed by Stas Żyrkov, which uses elements of Shakespeare's text and the context of the current "fake news" climate to investigate Ukraine's present, past and possible future. The show is physical - with the cast variously donning fat suits or stripped to their pants - but also verbose, and, presented without English subtitles (something that the festival might consider adding in future years), some contextual elements inevitably remained obscure.

Other moments communicated powerfully, though, not least a homoerotic interlude in which shouted slurs give way to embraces, and a haunting sequence about the Holodomor - the famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in the early 1930s which is the subject of Agnieszka Holland's fine new film Gareth Jones. The show renders as expressionist nightmare what Holland's film presents in an observant, straightforward, classical-filmmaking style. The absence of any female presence feels like a lack,  but Othello / Ukraine / Facebook remains a powerful and subversive piece at its best. 

(The End, The Beginning - SOMA)
(Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)
Male and female energies combined to exciting effect in Koniec, początek - SOMA (The End, the Beginning - SOMA) which introduces its five brilliant performers moving insect-like in separate relays across the floor, before Marta Bury's choreography brings them together explosively for a series of by turns playful and dramatic encounters. Video projections and the dynamism of bodies in motion also distinguished the outdoor performance of Właśnie tu. Właśnie teraz (Right Here. Right Now), created by CHOREA and Laboratorium Kreatywnego Działania. Presented in the social space between the buildings of the former factory, this piece addressed young people's hopes, struggles and dreams through movement and words, also inviting audience members to take to the mic. 

Pygmalion (Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)

Meanwhile, Wojtek Ziemilski's Pygmalion soon subverted any notion that the performance would have anything to do with a certain George Bernard Shaw text. Instead, the piece found the personable Rozalia Mierzicka genially asking for the assistance of a volunteer from the audience to join her - in order, as it turned out, to help her move and manipulate a large piece of cardboard around the stage. Said cardboard is gradually revealed to be a container into which performer and volunteer disappear, moving it from the inside.

Stated themes of socialisation, education and training - of performer or child - gradually emerge and the show retains interest as a kind of minimalist spectacle, especially when its cardboard "creature" is making its way across the space, suggestive at times of fortress and tank, prison or playpen. 

Miasto (Photo: Rami Shaya)

With exciting, challenging concerts by the Kukła Żywa Collective and Magos Makriyannis ("Pythagoras Meets Euclid") closing the event, another surprise highlight of the last day of performances was the morning show Miasto (The City), a delightful piece devised and developed by CHOREA's kids theatre group. The show presents a day in the life of the city, taking us through various spaces - park, airport, museum, cinema - which are all creatively embodied by the young performers. As the group take their seats at the movies (hand-drawn posters for Frozen 2 and Moana to the fore!), the film they watch turns out - wonderfully - to be a document of the research that inspired the show itself.

The scene served as a synecdoche of sorts for the festival as a whole, uniting not only actors and audience but also the theatre with the world outside which it draws on, evokes and transforms. In our divisive, harshly judgemental times, and with Brexit looming, the vibrant "interpersonal situations" experienced at Retroperspektywy offered a timely reminder of the power of performance to unite and connect us across borders of language, culture and nation. 

Retroperspektywy Festival 2019 ran at Art_Inkubator between 23 August - 1 September. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:

The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Angels in America
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Film Review: Nic Nie Ginie (Nothing is Lost) (dir. Kalina Alabrudzińska, 2019)

It's only 5 years since Łódź Film School inaugurated the "Diploma Film," a final project for the year's contingent of graduating students. But in that short time the initiative has firmly established itself as an important and anticipated tradition for the School.

Last year, with Monument, Jagoda Szelc produced the best of the Diploma films yet: a hypnotic and unsettling mood piece that finally revealed its hand as a shrewd meta-reflection on the experience of studying at the school itself. The confidence of Szelc's vision was stunning and was probably made possible by the fact that she had already completed and released a first feature, the distinctive Tower. A Bright Day (2017). 

An assistant director on Tower was Kalina Alabrudzińska, who now steps into the director's chair herself with this year's Diploma film Nothing is Lost (Nic Nie Ginie). A much more accessible offering than Monument, Alabrudzińska's film, which she describes as "a sad comedy," doesn't attempt to replicate its predecessor's oddity or intensity, instead treating serious subject matter in a much lighter way. Screened at Koszalin's 38th Youth & Film festival, where it won the prize for Best Directing, the result is an attractive ensemble drama that will likely have far wider general audience appeal than Monument's trippier vision.

That said, Nothing is Lost actually starts out as "meta" as Monument ended up - with a cheeky reflection on "group therapy" scenes in cinema. Such a session is getting underway as the film commences, and finds the characters wondering: "Are we gonna sit in a circle like this? There are scenes like that in movies. Usually the most boring scenes..." This self-reflexive opening establishes the humourous tone of the film, which never becomes a mere mope-fest. Doubtless mindful to incorporate as many of the graduating actors as possible, Alabrudzińska uses the context of the therapy meetings to bring together a group of diverse characters - and then to branch out into snapshots of their lives and relationships outside the sessions.

As  the "lost" or searching protagonists start to open up and "find" something in the therapy, the set-up sometimes gives off Breakfast Club vibes. But, working from her own script, Alabrudzińska prevents the film from degenerating into a series of predictable emotional showdowns. Bonding scenes and so-called "breakthrough moments" tend to be underplayed, and not everything resolves in the way you anticipate (or at all). 

As such, the film avoids obviousness, allowing its characters to retain a bit of mystery. The storytelling is helped by the contribution of cinematographer Nils Croné, who gives the images a clear, warm, burnished look that's very inviting, and by the crisp editing of Piasek & Wójcik (following their work on Ewa Podgorska's brilliant Diagnosis), which moves us fluidly between the therapy sessions and the characters' individual lives.

Still, while the technical side is more than proficient, Nothing is Lost's main asset is its performers, and those who've been lucky enough to see these actors' often amazing stage work over the past year (in new extravaganzas like Fever, devised pieces such as Slippery Words, or contemporary classics like Angels in America) will be particularly delighted to find them taking to the camera with equal assurance.

Alabrudzińska's writing allows the actors to develop characters who are relatable but who go beyond conventional "types." Michał Surosz is lovely as a guy so dedicated to saving a particular endangered species of turtle that all his other relationships are neglected. Wiktoria Filus charms as a single mum trying out Tinder, and Jan Hrynkiewicz delivers delectably mean put-downs with aplomb as the group's most caustic participant. Zuzanna Puławska is funny and touching as a mother-dominated people-pleaser, and charismatic Piotr Pacek shines as an actor with interpersonal issues - so much so that he feels rejected by nature itself. (The film makes nature a motif, in fact: plants, trees and the aforementioned turtles all feature in the protogonists' attempts to connect.)

And in case it seems that the focus is entirely on personal concerns, Nothing is Lost doesn't shy away from the wider context of darker elements of contemporary Polish political reality, either. The most ambitious sequence here is a night-time nationalist gathering attended by Hrynkiewicz's character and featuring Elżbieta Zajko as a firebrand delivering hate speech, with Kamil Rodek and Mateusz Grodecki on hand as colleagues, the latter playing guitar and singing that "The day of mighty Poland is coming."

Some of the smaller roles need further development; one senses a few of the actors' eagerness to go further into the characters than their fleeting appearances allow. But Robert Ratuszny and Faustyna Kazimierska - memorably opening a beer bottle with her teeth! - maximise their brief screen time, while, in one of the best sequences, Karol Franek Nowiński flashes his great grin - surely one of the best smiles the Polish screen has seen - as a pharmacist who pleases Pacek's character by revealing himself to be a fan - before their exchange is given a great comic twist. And Ksenia Tchórzko gets a lovely appearance as a dog-sitting neighbour, when the film belatedly digresses to focus on the therapist, Remek (excellent Dobromir Dymecki), himself.

Such moments cut to the heart of the concern with human interaction which is the main preoccupation of Nothing is Lost. In the introduction to Powidoki / Afterimages, a poetic book of visual essays about Łódź Film School, (di)rector Mariusz Grzegorzek describes the School as "a special place" where "there flows a source of energy that connects people." In its wise and wry portrait of the challenges and possibilities of making contact, Alabrudzińska's likeable film taps into that source.

Nic Nie Ginie / Nothing is Lost  will screen in the Panorama section of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (16 - 21 September). 

NIC NIE GINIE /////// teaser ////// scenariusz i reżyseria Kalina Alabrudzińska from LODZ FILM SCHOOL on Vimeo.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival 2019 (Orange Tree)

The Mikvah Project (Photo: Robert Day)

This is the third year that the Orange Tree has run its Directors' Festival, which presents the work of graduates from St. Mary's University's MA Theatre Directing course over a week of performances. As Paul Miller has previously noted, "director training is part of the OT's DNA," and the initiative has its roots in the long-running Directors' Showcase seasons of Sam Walters' tenure, when the theatre's trainees staged such seldom-seen plays as Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, which featured future Hamlet Paapa Essiedu in a galvanising turn. 

This year, the four plays presented are, once again, all contemporary works, ones that, via a series of excellent designs by the enterprising team of Cory Shipp, Chris McDonnell (lighting) and Lex Kosanke (sound), transport the audience from the Portuguese capital to the mindscapes of a love-seeking man and woman, from mountain tops to a Mikvah bath. 

The latter is the location for Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project, which, with a surprising amount of humour, unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. Avi is a married thirtysomething trying for a child with his wife, while Eitan is an Arsenal-loving 17-year-old. As the men talk and bond, mutual attraction surfaces, which Eitan is keen to act on. 

As a portrait of gay desire struggling with culture, The Mikvah Project suggests a Jewish Brokeback Mountain or, more aptly, a companion to the excellent 2009 Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Shipp's set opens a pool in the OT floor which the actors slip into and out of. At such moments, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production creates a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging some broad comedy, especially in a manic and very funny Alicante-set interlude. Grace notes are found in the well-judged performances, with Dylan Mason capturing Eitan's ardency and Robert Neumark Jones touchingly conveying Avi's conflicts. 

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Photo: Robert Day) 

A more caustic take on modern relationships is offered in Declan Greene's Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, which presents a hook-up between a nurse and an IT worker - each with their own problems. (He's a miserably married porn addict, and she a debt-ridden shopaholic.) It's more "meet desperate" than "meet cute," and the fantastic opening scene captures the relentlessness and absurdity of needy online interactions with wince-inducing perceptiveness. 

The bluntness of the title carries over into much of the dialogue, which Cate Hamer and Matthew Douglas deliver with aplomb, getting a great rhythm going. Nothing revelatory is said about the way in which technology feeds on and frustrates the human need for intimacy. But, with crackling bursts of static and illumination, Gianluca Lello's sharp and intelligent production makes wonderfully dynamic a play which, like The Mikvah Project, tends to (over-)rely on to-audience narration rather than the creation of dramatic scenes. 

Pilgrims (Photo: Robert Day)

The other two plays in the festival are engaging three-handers. Elinor Cook's Pilgrims offers a feminist take on (male) wanderlust and folk song, with Nicholas Armfield and Luke MacGregor as two dedicated climbers and Adeyinka Akinrinade as the PhD student who, in conventional parlance, "comes between them." Armfield and MacGregor convey an affectionate, but also tense and competitive, bond and Akinrinade moves compellingly from sparkiness to disappointment as the girl who gives up her own dream for theirs. 

Mythological and archetypal resonances are incorporated with a slightly heavy hand, but Ellie Goodall's production is fluid and sensitive, negotiating temporal and location shifts with elegant economy (plus some lovely a capella folk singing by the cast), and giving the production a mystical undertone. Signposted from the outset, the outcome seems predictable, but the play twists in an unexpected direction in the subversive and exceptionally well-played final scene. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes (Photo: Robert Day)  

The most obviously dazzling and surprising of the four productions is Wiebke Green's take on Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. The premise of this play - the imaginative odyssey of a 9-year-old across Lisbon, accompanied by her teddy bear (named Judy Garland) - sounds like the height of preciousness. But, belying its overt playful qualities, Rodrigues' writing (presented here in a fine poetic/profane translation by Mark O'Thomas) turns out to have plenty of bite, and succeeds in confounding the viewer at every turn. "Judy Garland" (a hilarious, bear-suited Nathan Welsh), for one, has suicidal tendencies, a Ted-ish vocabulary and attitude to spare, while the play itself has decidedly complex things to say about loss and the relationship of language to experience. 

Green keeps the proceedings fleet, funny and physical throughout, with the great Gyuri Sarossy multi-tasking superbly as "The Man Who Is My Father" and all the other blokes encountered on the journey. (Including Chekhov!) But ultimately the evening belongs to Eve Ponsonby who gives a sublime and exhilarating performance as the smarty pants, dictionary-devouring heroine who has more to learn about life and language than she realises. A brilliant and barmy trip, Green's hugely enjoyable production makes the viewer wish for more Portuguese plays - and certainly more plays by Rodrigues - on the UK stage. 

The Directors' Festival runs until 11 August. Further information and booking details here