Monday, 14 April 2014

Interview with Jack Tarlton and Simon Usher about CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow

Simon Usher and Jack Tarlton (Photo: Stephanie Koeniger)
I recently interviewed Jack Tarlton and Simon Usher about their upcoming project, CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow, a production of Sam Shepard-related theatre, film and workshops which is touring the UK from May. You can read the interview here at British Theatre Guide, or, alternatively, here at the Presence Theatre website, where further content about the show will be posted as the tour gets underway.

Theatre Review: King Charles III (Almeida)

“Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be … WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!” That seems to be pretty much the spirit in which Mike Bartlett has approached his latest play. King Charles III is a speculative drama, a “future history play,” that imagines the fate of the British monarchy following Charles’s sucession to the throne and that - intriguingly - utilises some of the conventions and tropes of Shakespeare’s History Plays (plus mashed up bits of Hamlet, Macbeth and others) to do so. Tapping with steely calculation into the obsessions of our weirdly monarchy-friendly moment, the play has - predictably enough - already won much press acclaim as a searing piece of provocation. But, despite moments of engaging cheek, and a typically slick staging by Rupert Goold, I’d argue that it’s a pretty toothless piece of work underneath.
Opening in fine, striking fashion with the funeral of Queen Bess II, the play quickly cooks up a contrived crisis when Charles’s refusal to sign a bill restricting press freedom puts him at odds with the Labour government. With the new monarch refusing to play ball as his Ma might have done, a full-scale political ruckus looks likely. Camilla (Margot Leicester) cajoles; Wills (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) scheme and intervene. And Harry (Richard Goulding) occupies himself by hooking up with a sparky republican student Jess (Tafline Steen), a character who appears to have wandered straight in from Bartlett’s much-admired 2010 play Earthquakes in London. Meanwhile, the ghost of the erstwhile “Queen of Hearts” walks (yes, really), dispensing cryptic messages to her sons and her ex in the wee small hours.
That all of this comes off as a good deal less ludicrous than it sounds in synopsis is due to the confidence of Goold’s production which - evidently aware of the arch-gimmickry of Bartlett’s conceit - refrains from dashing at the play with habitual Headlong gimmicks. Rather, the approach is quite stately and restrained with a spare design by Tom Scutt and magnificent choral music from Jocelyn Pook (a score for a classier play, really) punctuating the scenes.
Then, of course, there’s also the sheer oddity of hearing versions of our current Royals popping out mock-Shakespearen dialogue, with inverted phrases, blank verse, similes, soliloquies and asides supplementing the usual crowd-pleasing Bartlett-ese (“Fucking hell, weirdest day evah” mutters Jess after being introduced to Wills and Kate.) Though some of the state-of-the-nation musings sound contrived in the extreme, the play’s linguistic mix at least gives King Charles III more stylistic interest, theatricality and novelty than the colourless writing which we’ve come to expect in work by Peter Morgan and other “docudrama” purveyors.
It’s a novelty that palls, though, since the political dimension of the piece feels puny and undercooked, and may leave some of us wishing for a more challenging, critical perspective on the House of Windsor. In place of this, Bartlett takes a rather affectionate attitude to the royals throughout, one that avoids any barbed satire. A queasily sycophantic programme essay by Tim Stanley that deems the monarchy to be “Britain’s spine of steel” sets the tone for right Royal rump-kissing, and I, for one, would like the piece a whole lot better if it didn’t pander so obviously to our culture’s current Royalist biases. For, like Morgan’s work, King Charles III perpetuates a view of the Windsors as a bunch of bumbling yet likeable closet liberals who stack up very well when compared to our nasty, scheming politicians. This sentimental stance is turning into a modern myth, and those of us who find it offensive won’t be mollified by Bartlett’s approach here and the presentation of Charles as a staunch defender of press freedom.
With characterisation swerving uneasily between Shakespearean archetype and media-created caricature - Richard Goulding’s Harry comes off as Prince Hal via Fresh Meat’s posh boy JP - there’s only so far the actors can go in their roles. But Tim Pigott-Smith (last seen at the Almeida in James MacDonald’s wonderful production of Albee’s A Delicate Balance) manages to give a very fine performance as Charles, eschewing impersonation for a lucid exploration of the character’s position. Still, for all the production’s witty touches, it’s essentially pastiche that Bartlett’s up to here. And if you don’t feel that’s quite enough for a compelling drama, then King Charles III may strike you, ultimately, as a rather superficial exercise: a hollow crown, indeed.
The production is booking until 31st May. Further information at the Almeida website.

Monday, 7 April 2014

CD Review: Aranjuez (Miloš)

Aranjuez, the new release by photogenic Montenegrin classical guitar virtuoso Miloš Karadaglić, is a Spanish odyssey of sorts. Book-ended by two of the most popular concertos in the repertoire - Joaquín Rodrigos perennially popular masterpiece Concierto de Aranjuez (1939) and his Fantasía para un gentilhombre (1954) - the album pays tribute to the Hispanic composers and musicians who placed the modern classical guitar on the international stage. As well as the aforementioned pieces, the record includes Rodrigos intricate Invocación y danza and two works by Manuel de Falla: Homenaje dedicated to Claude Debussy (a composer influenced by Spanish cante jondo) and, Danza del Molinero from the 1919 ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos.
Described by Miloš as a feast compared to the tasting menus of his previous albums, the record does indeed reflect a deepening of the artists skill and a focus and purpose that makes it feel all-of-a-piece. Accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Karadaglić’s playing is fluid and supple throughout, his guitar-work vibrant and commanding in the solo spots and exquisitely complemented by the Orchestra elsewhere. The opening Concerto is delivered with consummate sensitivity and feeling, with fresh textures brought to even its much-loved second movement, and the concluding Fantasia is equally beautiful, with the Españoleta y Fanfare de la Caballería de Nápoles a highlight. An elegant, compelling and confident album.
 Aranjuez is available on Deutsche Grammophon/Mercury Classics.



Monday, 31 March 2014

Film Review: A Story of Children and Film (Cousins, 2013)

Mark Cousins's latest doc, A Story of Children and Film, is out in the UK shortly. You can read my take from TIFF 2013 here.
The film also has a terrific website:

Monday, 17 March 2014

Theatre Review: Invincible (Orange Tree)

Darren Strange and Laura Howard in Invincible (Photo: Robert Day)
It’s meet-the-neighbours for the second time in a row over at the Orange Tree, as Stephen Sewell’s domestic dystopia It Just Stopped is followed directly by Invincible, the latest play by Torben Betts (The Company Man, Muswell Hill). This time out the focus is on Emily and Oliver, middle-class Londoners (he’s henpecked and eager-to-please; she’s forever expressing pained liberal sentiments) who’ve relocated North to escape London’s economic pressures and “live our lives on a more human scale.” The pair invite their new neighbours, Alan and Dawn - hard-drinking Northerners - over for the evening. And so as the chat shifts from sport to schooling, from art to politics, the stage is set for a decidedly Mike Leigh-ish clash of classes, cultures and personality types and an attempt to draw from the couples’ interactions a wider portrait of what’s gone awry at the moment in this green and pleasant land.
While offering scattered moments of amusing, sharply observed social comedy (Emily preparing to give her verdict on Alan’s cat paintings is especially memorable) Betts’s play proves disappointing overall, never quite transcending its overly familiar, shopworn scenario. Like Leigh’s weaker works, the piece feels too obvious and rigged in its construction of opposing personalities, and the attempts to flesh out the often crudely caricatured characters with depth (a dead child here, a soldier son serving abroad there) feel more tacky than anything else. Some of the comedy is sitcom-broad (to wit: a gag about Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers) and the poignant moments don’t have the weight they should in Ellie Jones’s production, which comes complete with daft dancing scene change interludes but doesn’t manage to make the music a major player in the characters’ interactions, as David Lewis did so well in his 2011 How to be Happy, a play to which Betts’s feels like something of a companion piece.
The performances from Laura Howard as Emily, Darren Strange as Oliver, Samantha Seager as Dawn and Daniel Copeland as Alan are good, and I especially liked the suggestions of sadness that Copeland brings to the bluff Alan. But the performers can’t always overcome the play’s odder notions: a final suggestion that all the uptight Emily needs (and wants), after all, is to be dominated by Oliver is particularly grisly. As delivered last Friday, the evening’s most potent line was accidental: on the very day of Tony Benn’s death, what were the odds of seeing a play that featured a reference to Saint Benn himself?
Invincible runs at the Orange Tree until 12th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Film Review: Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013)

Sporting a dark wig, blood-red lipstick and a fur coat, and speaking in lusciously plummy clipped-Brit tones, the piquant Scarlett Johansson drives around Scotland in a grubby white van, enticing horny hitchhikers to hop in for a lift. Few, inevitably, can resist. They get more than they bargained for once they do, though, for what the men don't know is that Scarlett's femme fatale is actually an alien on the hunt for human prey.
But while going about her mysterious mission – sometimes abetted by a glowering motorcycle man – our anti-heroine observes human activity, and gradually becomes a participant in it. A group of hoodlums rock her van aggressively. A gaggle of party girls manoeuvre her into a club. The turning point comes when she encounters a shy disfigured man who stirs her sympathy and interest, inspiring her to abandon her assignment and take a walk on the human side for a while.
From its woozy – practically migraine-inducing – opening sequence to its startling, snowy deep-woods climax, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin proves a total trip and a treat. Distilling Michel Faber's acclaimed novel to its essence (in a way that may not thrill some of the book's admirers), Glazer - in his first film since the intriguing but muddled Birth (2004) - produces something that's as singular as it is cinematic: a movie whose mix of sci-fi poetics, wigged-out weirdness and gritty social realism suggests nothing so much as Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch taking Ken Loach out on a date.
That the film doesn't go down an explicit horror route, even as it constantly threatens too, may disappoint some viewers. But Glazer's approach is, distinctively, all about suggestion and atmosphere. Mica Levi's haunting strings-and-synth score shimmers and shivers over images that veer from abstraction to cinéma vérité, while the director's background in music video shows through in the highly stylised scenes in which the hitchhikers meet their fates. These sequences are beautifully, captivatingly creepy, with water and darkness and bodies popping and melting like Francis Bacon designing Terminator 2.
Throughout, the use of locations – from beach to shopping centre, city street to suburbia – is also superb and if the film presents a very bleak, grotty vision of Glasgow, Glazer's approach isn't entirely without humour either. "Are you comfortable?" asks Scarlett of one of her victims, in her most seductive mode. The reply: "No, I just wanna go to Tesco."
Acting alongside a very motley crew of men, Johansson proves absolutely ideal casting as the woman who falls to earth, her distinctive gait and watchful air projecting a curious otherworldliness without ever overegging it. Throughout we feel the character taking in the various impressions and stimuli she receives from her surroundings – whether its grim-faced shoppers in the streets or Tommy Cooper on the telly – and becoming increasingly receptive to it. As a chilly exploration of what it means to be human, and a compelling vision of our everyday world through alien eyes, Glazer's movie gets precisely where its title indicates.

CD Review: O Love (Ernest Troost, 2014)

The work of the singer-songwriter Ernest Troost first came to my attention last year via Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band’s excellent album White Swan, which I reviewed for PopMatters. That record featured two brilliant Troost-penned tracks which were, for me, among the highlights of the album: the murderer’s lament “Evangeline” and the superb family saga “Harlan County Boys.” A year later, Troost has released a new album of his own, O Love, a record that finds him supplementing his brand of country, blues and folk-influenced Americana with a rockier flavour and a vibrant full-band sound.
The results prove compelling. Troost has a warm, empathetic vocal style that pulls the listener into the songs but can also turn assertive and gritty when need be. And, supported by a sterling group of musicians, plus beautiful harmony vocals from Nicole Gordon, he’s crafted an album that flows smoothly but not blandly and that boasts several terrific tracks, the best of them rooted in narrative and character. The striking, punchy opener “Old Screen Door” pieces together vivid, disturbing images of family conflict, while the driving title track slides from despair to possible redemption. The twanging “Weary Traveller” and the portentous “Storm Comin’” are both infectious and there are also memorable love songs that manage to be heartfelt while skirting sappiness: the lovely “Close” and the elegant “The Last To Leave” are the finest of these.

Troost takes “Harlan County Boys” slower and more delicately than Glaze and co’s brisker bluegrass-inflected take, making the song an intimate family portrait, economical but rich in its evocation of place and character, and one that ranks alongside the likes of Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill” as a contemporary folk classic that's at once specific in its detail and yet timeless and universal in its evocation of loss and endurance. In sum,  an honest, humane and ultimately heart-warming record from a fine artist.


O Love is available on Travelin’ Shoes records from 29th April. Further information here.