Thursday, 7 July 2016

DVD Review: Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC 1969 - 1989 (BFI, 2016)

Whether or not you accept the media hype about our current cultural moment being a TV “Golden Age”, one thing is certain: what’s sorely lacking from British television schedules at the moment is the one-off drama, the single play that, in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a staple of BBC programming and that resulted in many bold and unusual visions. Closely connected to the theatre of the period, the one-off dramas featured in such regular strands as “Play For Today”, “The Wednesday Play”  and “Play of the Month” benefited from the open-mindedness of producers in allowing writers and directors to push the boundaries of the medium, while the format of the shows  (with limited budgets and running times that seldom exceeded two hours)  led to lean, focused story-telling that’s a marked contrast to the bloated excesses and unwieldy narratives of most TV series today.

Among the very many things that the BFI’s stunning new box-set Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (available on Blu-ray and DVD) accomplishes is to remind us of a time when the one-off play was central to British cultural life, and, more specifically, of a time when a highly stylised David Bowie-starring Bertolt Brecht adaptation was considered fit fare for primetime viewing. Formidable in its thematic range, rigorous in its attention to form, Clarke’s body of work fully deserves the wider exposure that this lovingly assembled 12-disc box-set (which includes booklet essays on each film and a documentary featuring new interviews with a range of Clarke’s collaborators) will inevitably provide. It’s an expensive buy, to be sure. Yet the singular, strangely moving spectacle of Bowie as the rake-ish anti-hero poet in Baal (1982), grubby and barking bitter Brecht ballads in split-screen, is pretty much worth the purchase price alone.  

Baal (1982)
Born in Wallasey, Merseyside in 1935, Clarke studied Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson in Toronto, before returning to England; he began his directing career in theatre, transitioning into television in the late 1960s, where he worked prolifically until his early death in 1990. The fact that Clarke has never become quite as widely known, or as internationally celebrated, as his contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach may be due precisely to the fact that his most essential work was made for television, and that a great deal of it has been out of circulation for many years. Despite this, though, Clarke’s influence remains wide: American indie mavericks including Gus van Sant and Harmony Korine have openly cited Clarke’s later work as an inspiration (van Sant’s 2003 Elephant borrows not only aspects of its aesthetic but even its title from Clarke’s 1989 film, in which an ever-roving Steadicam  captures 18 anonymous murders in Belfast ), while Lizzie Franke detects echoes of Clarke in the work of contemporary British female filmmakers, from Andrea Arnold to Clio Barnard and Lynne Ramsay.

Less didactic than Loach, less prone to caricature than Leigh can be, Clarke’s work is especially notable for its extraordinary diversity, encompassing period adaptations (Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the Innocent, Büchner’s Danton’s Death), intimate character studies (Diane) , poetic rhapsodies (Penda’s Fen) and hard-hitting experimenta (ContactElephant), alongside some indelible curios (Under the Age, Stars of the Roller State Disco). Though occasionally credited as co-writer, Clarke tended to work from others’ scripts (forging productive collaborations with Roy Minton and David Leland, amongst other scribes), which may explain the variety and range of his output.

Scum (1977)
Yet, cumulatively, some recurrent preoccupations do start to reveal themselves.  For one, Clarke’s work is often drawn to explore group dynamics, the workings of “tribes” or institutions, and the fate of individuals therein. That’s true of a number of the finest plays here, including Sovereign’s Company (1970), which astutely explores the interactions of a bunch of new recruits at a British military academy, through to his most controversial work, Scum (1977), a portrait of the inculcated brutality of borstal life that got itself banned by the BBC for its violence and was remade by Clarke as a feature film in 1979. Though slightly undeveloped in its screenplay, Scum still hits hard, and features a career-making performance from  Ray Winstone as the new boy determined to assert himself in the survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of the youth prison system.

Works such as Scum make it tempting to lump Clarke in the “social realist” box, and it’s true that a number of the films here take the pulse and measure of their moment in provocative ways , whether  it’s the portrait of under-pressure staff in a mental institution in Funny Farm (1975) or the radical trilogy of Northern Ireland-referencing projects, Psy-Warriors (1981), Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989).  Yet the classification is a reductive one, as Clarke’s work often transcends or subverts social realism: witness, for example, the curious dystopia Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984), which unfolds in a bizarre job-centre-cum-skating-rink for unemployed teens : a fitting, if unsubtle, metaphor for the ever-decreasing  circles of opportunity experienced by British working-class youth in the early ’80s.   

Penda's Fen (1974)
Another characteristic of Clarke’s work, indeed, is the sympathetic, though decidedly unsentimental, affinity it demonstrates with teenage protagonists. Among the finest plays here are two unforgettable coming-of-age films. Penda’s  Fen (1974), written by David Rudkin, is a visionary pagan pastoral about the intellectual, spiritual and sexual awakening of a conservative 17-year-old, Stephen (Spencer Banks). Sometimes suggesting Derek Jarman or Terence Davies in its hallucinatory imagery, the film is a rich and strange creation that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to, its combination of the mundane and the mythic adding up to a celebration of hybridity (both national  and personal) that still feels gloriously subversive.

 Diane (1975), meanwhile, casts Janine Duvitski as a teenager challenged with making her life after the trauma of bearing a baby by her own father. Scrupulously avoiding sensationalism via an intelligently elliptical approach to its narrative revelations,  Diane is a should-be classic that boasts a stunning performance from  Duvitski, who honours every step of  the protagonist’s  journey from awkward, angry, inarticulate teen to sensitive young woman tentatively making her own way in the world.  

What’s also notable about Clarke is the generous flexibility of his approach. As a director , you don’t feel him imposing a style on the material but rather finding the best way to tell the story in each case; thus, his aesthetic ranges from the vivid lushness of Penda’s Fen to the chilling clinical sparseness of Psy-Warriors. That sensitivity is somewhat less acute in a few of the later films, in which Clarke’s fondness for Steadicam arguably gets over-indulgent, rendering the likes  of Elephant and 1987’s Christine  (a studiedly affectless and monotonous portrait of an atypical drug-dealer making her rounds in the suburbs)  more admirable experiments than fully developed dramas.

The Firm (189)

Yet Clarke was back on peak form with Road (1987), a rowdy, robust adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play starring Jane Horrocks and Neil Dudgeon as inhabitants of a crumbling County Durham street, that includes a startling stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by Lesley Sharp. Even better is Clarke’s final film, The Firm (1989), presented here alongside its previously unseen “Director’s Cut” version, a powerful account of toxic masculinity featuring a phenomenal performance from Gary Oldman as the volatile estate agent  for whom professional success and family life don’t offer the thrills provided by brutal football hooliganism.   

Diane (1975)
There’s no denying that much of Clarke’s work is challenging and demanding, and that a lot of it is grim. Even warmer, more innocuous works such as Horace (1972) and A Follower for Emily (1974) have a sting in the tale, an undertow of loss, distress or compromise. Yet the quality of Clarke’s work, the amount of thought and feeling it provokes, makes Dissent and Disruption a totally rewarding and strangely life-affirming experience overall.  In that spirit, it seems apt to close with the halting, resonant words of Duvitski’s Diane, expressing her tentative sense of the opportunities still available for her after her traumatic experiences:  “There are things … all sorts of things… I don’t know what they are yet but they’re there. I’ve got my life. I’ve gotta have my chance. Bound to make a terrible bleedin’ muck-up, knowing me. But it’s all I can do... It’s the only time I’ve got”.  

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Theatre Review: French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre)

 Joe Eyre, Florence Roberts and Ziggy Heath in French Without Tears
(Photo by: The Other Richard)

It’s both with great delight and a little bit of trepidation that one heads back to the Orange Tree to see French Without Tears, the OT’s co-production with English Touring Theatre, which, revived and (mostly) re-cast, is now back at the theatre before touring later this year. "Delight" because Paul Miller’s staging of Terence Rattigan’s fragrant 1936 comedy was one of 2015’s most purely pleasurable productions; "trepidation" because revisiting favourite productions can carry some risks. Will the show remain as delightful this time around? Or will its pleasures seem diminished in some way? 

Happily, the former proves to be the case here. Miller pitches this revival so perfectly, with so much charm and intelligence and lightness of touch, that resistance is pretty much futile, whether you’re seeing the show for the first or the second time.  

Rattigan’s play takes place on the west coast of France, where a group of young Englishmen have gathered for the summer to study French for the Diplomatic exam at Monsieur Maingot’s “cram school”. Cross-cultural and (especially) linguistic misunderstandings come to the fore, but, mostly,  the play (which was Rattigan’s first hit) is all about the romantic complications that the protagonists find themselves embroiled in, involving the arch-temptress Diana and Maingot’s daughter Jacqueline.

"Is there something more to this than a mere frolic?" wonders Dan Rebellato in his programme essay. Well, compared to the bruising and cathartic likes of The Deep Blue Sea  (currently at the National Theatre in Carrie Cracknell’s fine production), the answer has to be: "No." Yet, watching French Without Tears again, the beauty of its construction becomes even more apparent, as does the surprising amount of nuance that Rattigan brings to his characterisation of the protagonists which, while sharp and wry, never resorts to mean-spirited mockery, and gives the actors plenty of opportunity to go beyond caricature.

The two cast members reprising their roles – David Whitworth as Prof Maingot and Joe Eyre as Kit – both excel again, with Eyre, in particular, skilfully underplaying (even when dressed in one of the year’s most outrageous costumes) to make Kit’s love-sickness and jealousy both funnier and more relatable than I'd remembered it. The new cast members feel equally at home, too, with Tim Delap expertly incarnating a British naval "type" in Commander Rogers: uptight and awkward yet good-hearted and surprisingly perceptive. 

Alex Large makes the uncomplicated Brian (as keen on "tarts" as he is rubbish at French) entirely adorable. Beatriz Romilly invests Jacqueline with sweetness and shrewdness, articulating at least part of the play's perspective when she describes men as "blundering fools". Florence Roberts renders the cooing seductress Diana a more overt manipulator than Genevieve Gaunt did last year, but also clearly makes us understand the motivations of a character  who believes that her only gift is to make men fall in love with her. As the smug observer Alan, Ziggy Heath comes into his own when the character gets knocked off balance by a surprise declaration from Diana.

With a fine design by Simon Daw, and lovely music by David Shrubsole, Miller’s production is perfectly paced and pitched, reaching its comic apex in a wonderful post-revels scene between Rogers, Brian and Kit. Hilarious, loveable, and the ultimate cure for Brexit blues, it’s still hard to imagine seeing Rattigan’s play served better than this.

French Without Tears is booking at the Orange Tree until 30 July. It tours with English Touring Theatre from September to November. Details here

Friday, 17 June 2016

Theatre Review: Richard III (Almeida)

Hamlet may remain the prized part for the younger Shakespearean actor, and King Lear the Holy Grail for the older, but, for those aged in between, there’s no denying that Richard III still retains a strong attraction, as evidenced by the high-profile names – including Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch – who’ve taken on the role in recent years.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of the monarch as a charismatic villain, merrily murdering his way towards the throne, may send certain historians into a fit, but the role clearly remains as appealing to actors as the play itself does to audiences. The attraction lies in part, perhaps, in the way that Shakespeare makes Richard himself a performer, counterfeiting and pretending, and, at one point, essentially coaching his co-conspirator Buckingham in effective acting technique.

This emphasis on performance can turn the play into something of a pantomime; Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, arguably fell into this mode. But Rupert Goold’s excellent new production at the Almeida, which dynamically re-teams Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave after their previous collaborations in the films of The White Countess and Coriolanus, doesn’t take that route. There’s humour, certainly, in Fiennes’s witty delivery and in the memorable darkly comic performance of Daniel Cerqueira as the killer Catesby, coolly bringing out the block and axe to chop off the head of James Garnon’s Lord Hastings.

Yet, from Jon Morrell’s dark costumes to Hildegard Bechtler’s spare set to Jon Clark’s crepuscular lighting, this is a production that takes the play seriously and illuminates it in intelligent ways. A postmodernist framing device, referencing the 2013 discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a Leicester car-park, is striking but superfluous. Otherwise, though, the production, which mixes cell-phones and breastplates, offers a fine blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

At the centre, of course, is Fiennes, hunched and with his right side braced, his body seemingly at odds with itself yet frighteningly nimble when need be. Fiennes has always been a great actor, but in recent years his performances on both stage and screen (not least his superb, uninhibited turn in A Bigger Splash) have taken on a looser, riskier quality. Always exceptionally clear in his delivery, with an expert approach to the soliloquies, Fiennes does terrific, surprising things in this role: whether it’s mocking Rivers with a Cockney “What, marry, may she?”, letting out a bashful “Aw!” when it’s suggested that the throne might be his, making the line “Are you Tyrrell?" into a question for the audience, turning on Hastings with startling ferocity, or chillingly letting his mask of benevolence slip when Baxter Westby’s bound-for-the-Tower Prince Edward jumps on his back.
The dramatic face-offs with Joanna Vanderham’s strongly characterised Lady Anne and with Aislín McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, are particularly disturbing, Fiennes grabbing the crotch of the former and forcing the latter to the floor in a full-on sexual assault,  before railing against “shallow, changing woman” in a moment that powerfully exposes the character’s violent misogyny.

Redgrave, always bold and inventive, makes something equally original of the mad prophetess Margaret. Boiler-suited and carrying a battered doll as the emblem of the character’s losses, she dispenses her curses with stealth rather than stridency, wiggling her finger as she refers to “the worm of conscience”, kissing and caressing the doll  (and reacting with open-mouthed horror as Fiennes grabs its head) and, in a great moment, finally passing her mantle of insight and grief to McGuckin’s Elizabeth. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know”. Redgrave, in particular, embodies that understanding and knowledge here.

Although the production makes good use of the Almeida’s intimate space, Goold’s staging has some problems. The imperfect construction of the play leads to some awkward transitions, “The Citizens” scene feels under-directed, and a couple of the performances aren’t everything they might be: Susan Engel, for one, indulges in some surprising hamming as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Complaints about pace during the preview period may also have resulted in the ending now feeling rushed: the eve-of-Bosworth apparition scene is effectively and unfussily done, and Fiennes invests Richard's fractured final soliloquy with a compelling mixture of self-justification, self-hatred and vulnerability. Yet the battle itself, with blaring lights and a very weedy rain effect, feels somehow stilted, leading to a muted finale. Still, if Goold’s production doesn't match Propeller's amazing take on the play, it remains essential viewing, not least for the chance to see one of our finest actors at the very top of his game.

Richard III is booking at the Almeida until 6 August. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 21 July as the first “Almeida Live” broadcast.

The Pleasure of New Challenges: An Interview with Andrzej Chyra

Andrzej Chyra greets me warmly in his dressing room at London’s Barbican Centre. In under a couple of hours, the actor will be taking to the stage in two roles: firstly, as Hippolytus in Sarah Kane’s  Phaedra’s Love, and, later, as an academic interlocutor in the J.M. Coetzee-derived Elizabeth Costello. Along with the opening Wajdi Mouawad-authored section (in which Chyra doesn’t appear), these pieces constitute the 3 hour 40 minutes triptych that is Phaedra(s), the latest multi-text theatrical extravaganza by Polish auteur Krzysztof Warlikowski, starring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role(s).

Hippolytus, in particular, is a challenging, exposing role for Chyra, but there are no signs of pre-performance nerves on display from the actor, who appears both relaxed and animated as we talk. Chyra thinks hard over his answers, which then tend to come in a rush of ideas and impressions. In short, he’s great company, and the 20 minutes allotted for the interview flies by all too quickly.

Chyra is one of the most acclaimed of Polish actors, known equally for his work in theatre as in cinema, where his key roles include his breakthrough, award-winning turn as the blackmailer Gerard in Krzysztof Krause’s Debt (Dług) (1999); the tormented survivor in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007); and the priest, Father Adam, struggling with his sexuality in Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name of…  (W imię...) (2012). Most recently, Chyra has appeared as the ex-con hotdog vendor  in Jerzy Skolimowski’s stunning city symphony 11 Minutes (2015) and will be seen later this year in Tomasz Wasilewski’s highly anticipated United States of Love, which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2016 Berlinale.

A constant in Chyra’s career has been his collaborations with Warlikowski, the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr. Chyra’s roles for Warlikowski have ranged from Dionysus in Bacchae to Hanan in The Dybbuk to Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, and now at the Barbican for nine performances, Phaedra(s) is the pair’s latest venture together.

I ask Chyra how he and Warlikowski first met, and what he finds particularly rewarding about working with the director. “After I graduated it took a while to get interesting work and I ended up directing TV quiz shows and things like that,” Chyra recalls. “But then Debt happened and things changed.  I don’t know if Krzysztof had seen the film but he heard about me and we met. I don’t think I’d seen any of his productions at that point, either. So we didn’t really know each other’s work so well but there was a great connection between us, and it felt immediately like we were on the same wavelength.  I felt energised again, inspired to act. Since then, it’s not like we’re working together on every production he does, but we always look forward to collaborating.”

Warlikowski’s productions are noted for their distinctive, highly stylised approach. Does the director allow much space for the actors? “Yes, he does,” Chyra affirms. “In fact, Krzysztof’s approach is very collaborative. He works closely with [designer] Małgorzata Szczęśniak, and, in the last few productions, with a dramaturge, on the concepts. But, as actors, we never feel that we’re simply there to slot into a pre-conceived design. He doesn’t treat his performers as puppets. Rather, he is always open to our input and our ideas. He also has a great sense of humour, which is necessary, working on texts that can be quite intense. He’s a very brave director.”

“Brave” is the adjective that Chyra uses to describe Huppert, too. The pair first worked together on Warlikowski’s A Streetcar in 2010 and Chyra’s deep admiration for the actress is clear. “She’s one of the greatest actresses. She has such intelligence, takes so many risks. Sharing the stage with her, those moments when I look into her eyes, or see her hands … there is a strong connection. It always feels fresh. We don’t get tired of each other. At least, I hope that she feels the same way!”

Touring the productions internationally is also something that he enjoys. “Again, it keeps things fresh. We’re in Europe so things are not so very different [a poignant comment given Huppert’s unexpected reference to the EU referendum at the Phaedra(s) Press Night] but there are always little distinctions, country by country.  That helps you to stay present as an actor.”

In The Name Of... (dir. Szumowska)

It soon becomes apparent that Chyra is an artist who seeks out novelty, challenge, the excitement of “keeping things fresh.” He mentions that he recently directed two operas, Shostakovich’s The Gamblers and Paweł Mykietyn’s The Magic Mountain, experiences which he found rewarding. He tells me that part of the attraction of working on A Streetcar was learning French for the part: “that was a great challenge.” 

Chyra recalls that Phaedra(s) is not his first time performing in London theatre: he appeared  here in Festen 14 years ago. He confesses, though, that he and the company had some apprehensions and “doubts” about performing Sarah Kane’s play in the UK. In fact, despite some negative reviews (a couple of which have offensively implied that a French/Polish production can’t hope to share British sensibilities about humour or its sensitivities about racial or gender politics), Chyra contends that the response to Phaedra(s) in London has been more positive than in France, and that the connection with the audience here is stronger.

“We had some great audiences in Paris, but, you know, in France, “Phaedra “means Phèdre, it means Racine. So you have some people walking out at the interval, because this production is not what they anticipate. Different countries, different contexts, generate different expectations. Performing here, in London, it feels … lighter in some way. Serious, yes, but not so heavy. It is a total pleasure to do the play here.”  He looks forward to continuing to tour the production, including to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in September.  Why is the show not being presented in Poland, I ask him. “Well, it got complicated with financing,” Chyra tells me. “And the political situation doesn’t help.”

Our conversation turns briefly to film and to his recent experience of working with Skolimowski. “What a guy, what a guy!” Chyra says admiringly. “He is very special. In fact, straight after we finish Phaedra(s) in London, I go with Skolimowski for a few days to Slovakia to present 11 Minutes [at Art Film Fest] . He wanted me to go to the premiere in Venice and the screening at Gdynia but I was busy on all those occasions. So I will finally get a chance to support the film at a festival.”

Does he have a preference for theatre over film? “No, no,” Chyra says emphatically. “It depends entirely upon the material and on your collaborators. After I’ve done a play, I often feel an urge to make a film, and then vice versa. Making movies, then a production every few years, a directing project… this feels like the right kind of rhythm.” He pauses. “Though I’m over 50 now so perhaps it’s time to rest.” His laughter as he says these words suggests, in fact, that there’s little danger of that.  

Phaedra(s) is at the Barbican until 18 June.  

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Theatre Review: Phaedra(s) (Barbican)

Isabelle Huppert, as Phaedra, in wild blonde wig, killer heels and leather mini-skirt, sprawls centre-stage on a bed with Hippolytus (Gaël Kamilindi), as a huge video projection of the pair is presented on the wall behind. It’s an image that encapsulates much of what’s striking and what’s silly about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), qualities which, in Warlikowski’s work, can be pretty close.

Having premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe last month, Phaedra(s) now arrives at the Barbican, as part of the 2016 London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). While this year’s Festival offers many diverse highlights, Warlikowski’s production is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated. It’s also one of the most starry (for European cinephiles, at least), boasting not only the iconic Huppert among its cast, but also Alex Descas (most familiar to international audiences for his work in Claire Denis’s films) and Agata Buzek and Andrzej Chyra, reunited from Jerzy Skolimowski’s sensational city symphony, 11 Minutes, last year.

Warlikowski and Huppert previously collaborated on the Tennessee Williams adaptation A Streetcar in 2010 and their re-teaming for Phaedra(s) looks likely to receive an equally mixed response. Reuniting, too, with his usual coterie of collaborators – including designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak and composer Paweł Mykietyn – Warlikowski continues to draw on the lingua franca of progressive, postmodernist European theatre for this outing. The boldly hybridised approach of this Polish auteur, who is the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr, has become so patented as to almost be clichéd, with his use of video, dance, multiple intertexts, and headline-grabbing provocations. “Three hours of vomit, fellatio and menstruation” warned – or promised – a screaming Spectator article on Phaedra(s) -  though, in fact, those elements take up approximately three minutes of the production’s 3 hour 40 minute running time.

As the pluralised title none-too-subtly suggests, Warlikowski’s production is all about investigating the possibility of “many Phaedras”, and of exploring the cultural legacy of the myth. The wide-ranging, international ethos of his approach is evident in the diverse texts he’s based the production around, utilising Sarah Kane’s 1996 Phaedra’s Love and extracts from J. M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel-essay Elizabeth Costello alongside a new text, adapted (very) freely from Euripides and Seneca, by Wajdi Mouawad. In addition, there’s a dash of Racine, and clips from Psycho, Theorem and Frances are incorporated.

The production begins with Mouawad’s material, presenting what Huppert has described as “a geopolitical Phaedra”, an immigrant “torn from her roots”, a princess from a family destroyed by Theseus. A punky Huppert enters initially as Aphrodite, before turning into Phaedra, instrument of the goddess’s wrath. A dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero) twirls and gyrates as a singer (Norah Krief) performs “The Ruins” in Arabic to Grégoire Léauté’s ambient electric guitar accompaniment.

The second section presents Kane’s play in its entirety, much of it unfolding in a boxy enclosure, where a second, older Hippolytus (Chyra), mopes and masturbates before facing off with Huppert’s more demurely-dressed incarnation of Phaedra, his step-sister Strophe (Buzek) and later, with a Priest (Descas).  Finally, the Coetzee material takes the form of a parody (or is it?) of academic discourse, as Huppert’s trouser-suited and bespectacled Elizabeth Costello gives her views on Eros and the "man-and-god business" to Chyra’s lecturer character.

Are these divergent strands illuminating? Well, in part. Although the overall trajectory of the production – from a primal, animalistic depiction of desire to a talky, analytical account – is not very satisfying, Phaedra(s) is a powerful sensory experience at its best. The opening section is especially haunting, with Huppert giving a striking performance that pulls us deeply into the character’s tormented head-space.

On film, Huppert’s performances have mostly (though not exclusively) tended toward minimalism. Her fill-in-the-blanks impassivity has often been viewed as the quintessence of screen acting, though not by Pauline Kael who memorably dubbed her a “little French mouse”. Huppert’s face, Kael argued, is “not enigmatic, just closed …She … gives you a little glimmer of something that is so small and wan no camera yet invented could turn it into an emotion” (Kael, Taking It All In, 102)).

There’s nothing mousy about Huppert’s work in Phaedra(s), though. From banshee wails, to desperate crawls across Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s sterile set, Huppert’s performance in the opening section is notable for its physical and vocal abandon. She’s great in the Kane material, too (getting a surprising amount of comedy out of her recitation of the stage directions), and is well-matched by distinguished work from Chyra and Buzek.

Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is not a great piece of work, however, and, stretched out across both sides of the interval, it becomes tedious here,  culminating in an extended dance interlude for Torres Guerrero that feels like it will never end. The Coetzee material is also arch and annoying, and the indulgent clips from Frances and Theorem, ostensibly used to give depth to the theme of mortals/gods interaction, are stubbornly un-illuminating. (To quote Kael again: “It takes intellectuals to be this dumb.”)

It’s a definite relief when Huppert and Chyra launch into some lines of Racine in this final section; the dialogue is so strong, and the actors’ performances so beautifully controlled, that this simply-staged moment outclasses almost everything that’s gone before it. As such, it’s hard not to wish that Warlikowski had ditched the other texts and self-conscious effects and just based the whole evening on Racine’s work.

Still, in its combination of the exciting and the enervating, the admirable and the absurd, Warlikowski’s production remains a memorable experience, and its international approach justified an unexpected coda. At the (rapturous) curtain call, Huppert stopped the applause to weigh in on the impending EU referendum, shouting a heartfelt “All Europe loves you! Stay with us!” at the audience. Coming from an actress known for keeping a tactful silence on political matters, the remark was as surprising as it was touching. It was also appropriate in another way: much like the EU, Phaedra(s) itself stands as a testament to the value of deeply flawed yet nonetheless worthwhile endeavours.

Phaedra(s) is booking at the Barbican until 18 June.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre)

When Terence Davies directed his much-anticipated but ultimately disappointing film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea in 2011, he commented that he cast Rachel Weisz in the role of Hester Collyer because there was simply no other British actress whom he could imagine playing the part. As it turned out, Weisz seemed too young and a little bit lightweight in this particular role, leading some of us to speculate who might have proved a better choice. For me, one immediate candidate suggested herself: Helen McCrory, an actress whose superb body of work encompasses classical and contemporary drama, TV, film and stage.
McCrory now gets her chance to play Hester in Carrie Cracknell’s major revival of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre. It’s not the first time that McCrory and Cracknell have collaborated: the pair delivered a stellar contemporary reworking of Medea at the NT two years ago. Their re-teaming on Rattigan’s text is more conventional, but none the worse for that, for the result is a beautiful, sensitive and measured production of one of the greatest, most emblematic pieces of 20th century British drama.

Since Karel Reisz’s Penelope Wilton-starring 1993 Almeida production revived interest in the play (and in Rattigan’s then-underrated drama more broadly) The Deep Blue Sea has  established itself as Rattigan’s masterpiece, a work that insightfully explores the complexities of love through the experiences of a middle-class woman who, having left her husband for a younger man, attempts suicide as the new relationship sours. For all the drama’s intimacy – it unfolds entirely in the sitting room of Hester and Freddie’s shabby boarding house flat – the piece has its wider resonances. Indeed, Dan Rebellato, in his Introduction to the Nick Hern edition of the play, argues for The Deep Blue Sea as “a much broader, more social play, concerned with the pain suffered by those caught between their desires and a society which will not tolerate them” (xxi). (Mike Poulton’s new play, Kenny Morgan, currently at the Arcola Theatre, probes the real-life events that inspired the drama, one of several recent plays that have used  - or exploited - elements of Rattigan’s biography for dramatic purposes.)

Cracknell’s production attempts to give a sense of that wider social context, and of other lives unfolding around Hester’s. The ambient transition between Acts 1 and 2 (the production’s most self-conscious, dissonant moment) offers a glimpse into some of the other flats in the building. These elements feel a little half-baked, though, and could have been taken further; the large ensemble cast seems somewhat squandered. In addition, although Rattigan’s stage directions specify that the action takes place in “a big room”, designer Tom Scutt arguably overdoes it here with a spacious set, lit in melancholy, vaguely aquatic tones by Guy Hoare, that doesn’t quite help to convey the claustrophobia and entrapment of Hester’s predicament.

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

McCrory’s performance conveys it, though. Her illuminating interpretation captures the character's clear-eyed assessment of her situation, her sexual passion for Freddie, and her deep despair. A calm surface conveying hidden depths, McCrory’s fiercely intelligent, economical delivery matches perfectly the beautiful restraint of Rattigan’s writing (listen to the casual way she inflects “Just my love” when asked if she has a message for Freddie). It also allows moments of heightened desperation to really resonate. Alongside some of the structural shifts and weak additions that messed with the dramatic tension of the material, part of the problem with Davies’s film version was that Weisz’s Hester seemed so much younger than her husband William (as played by Simon Russell Beale) that the transgressiveness of the character’s absconding with a younger man was considerably diminished. This isn’t a mistake that this production makes. Moreover, McCrory goes beyond the individual character to create an archetypal figure here: something similar to what Pedro Almodóvar, in his remarks about Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, described as “a woman sitting next to a suitcaseful of memories, waiting miserably for a phone call from the man she loves” (Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p.80).

Though adept at indicating the way in which the character's frustrations at the direction of his life lead to his callous treatment of Hester, Tom Burke, as Freddie, might do more to suggest the charm and charisma that made Hester fall for him. The other performances are extremely well judged, however. McCrory’s scenes with Peter Sullivan, as the cuckolded William, are especially good, with awkwardness giving way to tenderness as the pair fall into reminiscence about their shared past.

The boarding house characters - variously offering moralistic judgement, advice, and practical help - are also vividly drawn. Yolanda Kettle and Hubert Burton are funny and touching as the well-meaning Welches, and Marion Bailey brings to the production the kind of wonderful naturalness she brought to another landlady character, Mrs. Booth, in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014). (This production is particularly good at suggesting a complicity between its three very different female characters.) As the mysterious Mr. Miller, Nick Fletcher hits just the right note of shrewd detachment and compassionate concern. Fletcher’s wrenching final scene with McCrory beautifully brings out the still-potent poignancy and wisdom of Rattigan’s humane vision, in which a lover may prove lethal but a near-stranger might be a saviour, in the end.

The Deep Blue Sea is booking at the National Theatre until 21 September.

Reviewed for PopMatters.