My review of Carol Morley's The Falling, which is on DVD this week, is up at PopMatters. Really expected to love it, but... You can read the review here.
Monday, 24 August 2015
My piece on BFI's London on Film season is up at PopMatters. Spotlights on Underground, Pool of London, The Long Good Friday, The Heart Within and Wonderland. You can read it here.
Monday, 3 August 2015
Following Robert Icke’s radical Oresteia (widely praised and now set to transfer to Trafalgar Studios), the second production in the “Almeida Greeks” season is James Macdonald’s take on Euripides’s Bakkhai. The production is, of course, highly anticipated, not least because of its pairing of Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus, the cousins whose conflict embodies an archetypal face-off between wildness and rationality. Like Icke’s, the production proves a mixed offering ultimately, with some questionable elements combined with startling moments that serve the primal weirdness and danger of the text well. “On some level,” as Carvel has wryly noted in interview, “Bakkhai is just a family drama where someone said something nasty a couple of generations ago and this is the revenge.”
Macdonald was responsible for one of my all-time favourite Almeida productions in A Delicate Balance (2011) but he doesn’t manage to bring quite the same level of total assurance to this venture. At times - the report of Pentheus death, for one - the proceedings are surprisingly dull and feel under-directed. Despite such problems of pace, however, the production’s assets include a sound translation by Anne Carson that boasts some of the qualities of her recent Antigone: intelligence, clarity, occasional wry humour. (“Man against Gods? Never works.”) With a spare design by Antony McDonald, and a predominantly traditional approach overall, the production also avoids the elements of Warner/van Hove pastiche that slightly marred Oresteia for me. (No screens! No mics! No pop songs, yay!)
The apportioning of roles harks back to Greek models, with Carvel and Whishaw supplementing their Pentheus/Dionysos double with turns as Tiresias and Messenger (Whishaw) and Agave (Carvel). Kevin Harvey plays Kadmos and Shepherd, and the cast is completed by a formidable ten-strong female Chorus: Amiera Darwish, Aruhan Galieva, Eugenia Georgieva, Kaisa Hammarlund, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, and Belinda Sykes.
The ululations, keening and chants of this posse (compositions by Orlando Gough) are dividing opinion: the guy seated to my left sighed and put his head in his hands at the women’s every appearance. But I’d argue that Macdonald succeeds in making the Chorus crucial to the tone and texture of the production, even if the amount of hearty thyrsus-stomping that goes on becomes headache-inducing by the end.
The evening boasts arresting moments, and the performances of its leads are about all that you could wish for. Signalling Pentheus’s recourse to rationality by having him attired in a suit may be an over-obvious touch, but Carvel is skillful at conveying the character’s arrogance and misogyny as he denies Dionysos’s status as deity. It’s clear from the off that, unlike Pentheus, Whishaw’s Dionysos has no difficulty whatsoever with duality: long-haired, dress-clad, he’s a waifish rock star androgyne. It’s a role that the mercurial Whishaw seems born to play and he inhabits it with absolute intelligence, feeling and unpredictability here. Nothing feels forced, everything is fresh: the performance has both intensity and absolute casualness. Still, if the evening gains much of its interest from the actor’s uncanny presence it’s actually left to Carvel to best incarnate Dionysian frenzy with a memorably mad matronly exit as Pentheus prepares to spy on Dionysos’ female followers and an even more startling re-appearance as Agave. “Darkness is serious,” Dionysos reminds us. At its finest, MacDonald’s production illuminates this play’s darkness intelligently and hauntingly.
The production is booking until 19th September.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
My review of Barb Jungr's City of London Festival shows, Barb Jungr Sings Nina Simone and Hard Rain: Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.
Monday, 29 June 2015
Monday, 15 June 2015
Friday, 12 June 2015
With Ben Whishaw heading up the Bakkhai from July, Kate Fleetwood tackling Medea in the autumn and Robert Icke’s production of the Oresteia now under way, the “Almeida Greeks” season is one of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the year. “For theatre, to begin at the beginning is to begin with the Greeks,” notes Artistic Director Rupert Goold, and the exciting season is also being supplemented by a series of context-providing talks and Q&As. The first of these, held last Monday before the performance, found Goold, Deborah Warner and Ivo van Hove sharing their thoughts on “Why Greeks Matter”. With Goold serving as interlocutor, the directors talked insightfully, wittily and sometimes even movingly about their experiences of directing Greek tragedy over the years. (The discussion can be viewed at the Almeida website.)
All agreed that these plays pose unique challenges for practitioners, actors and audiences, mostly because, as van Hove noted, they’re built around very specific “conventions that have to be approached in a new way.” Frank about her dissatisfaction with some English approaches to the plays, Warner reminisced about her first foray into the field with her influential production of Electra in 1988. The director recalled the “frightening” experience of not making any progress after three weeks of rehearsal (a soon-to-resign Orestes with a drug problem didn’t help, apparently) before ordering an impromptu run-through that – thanks primarily to Fiona Shaw’s dynamic brilliance – showed her that the play could indeed “release pure emotion” as she intended.
Warner was particularly interesting when discussing the limitations of a text-based approach to Greek tragedy, emphasising that the words can be a mere blueprint or membrane in this case: “With most plays you think you can go to the words on the page and something will happen. But you can speak a Greek play and nothing may happen.”
|Ivo van Hove|
Both directors talked about the importance of specific collaboration with actors - Warner with Shaw, of course, and van Hove with Juliette Binoche on their recent Antigone - with van Hove stressing the importance of researching the characters’ context and back-story: his first direction to Binoche when preparing Antigone was to go away and read Oedipus at Colonus. Van Hove discussed his strategies for involving the Chorus in Antigone while Warner warned directors to be wary of the “Choral Revolt” – which happens when cast members realise that they’re not playing one of the main roles. Hilariously, she recalled how the Chorus for her Medea came to her and announced that they couldn’t be in the play, after all, because they didn’t approve of child murder. (Warner: “I’m not sure that I do, either…”)
Especially memorable (and moving) were the directors’ remarks about the contemporary resonances, or political parallels, of the plays. Warner recalled how a performance of Electra in Co. Derry in 1992 affected the audience to the extent that they didn’t applaud but instead demanded a discussion with the cast afterwards. Suggesting that his approach has become more politicised over the years, van Hove, meanwhile, talked with palpable emotion about the impact of the shooting down of Malasia Airlines Flight MH17 last July on his staging of Antigone. Warner, however, was adamant that such parallels shouldn’t be forced or imposed on the plays but rather emerge organically from specific contexts. Ultimately, the plays are family stories, she said, and, as such, “they go to the core. To something essential. They define the profound experience that theatre can be.”
|Jessica Brown Findlay and Angus Wright in Oresteia (Almeida Theatre)|
The idea of “approaching conventions in a new way” is unsurprisingly central to Icke’s take on the Oresteia: sometimes scintillatingly, sometimes less successfully so. Icke’s production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns last year was one of the great polarising productions of recent times and his take on Aeschylus, on which he serves as both adaptor and director, could prove just as divisive. Running at a lengthy 3 hours 45 minutes, Icke’s production approaches the trilogy with a good deal of irreverence, replacing the Chorus with a "doctor" figure (Lorna Brown) who’s interviewing Orestes (Luke Thompson), for example. Hildegard Bechtler’s fine design is filled with meandering, ghostly presences as the evening progresses, as Icke, a shrewd and often daring manipulator of pace, tone and mood, languorously stretches out some scenes, allowing particular flourishes to really resonate.
Some of the production’s innovations (mics and screens, the employment of an iconic pop song) aren’t really innovations at all. Rather, they’re borrowed wholesale from the precedents set by the likes of van Hove and Warner. But while there’s perhaps too much recourse to elements that have essentially become the "lingua franca" of contemporary takes on classical tragedy, the actors come through: Angus Wright with a memorably conflicted Agamemnon, Jessica Brown Findlay with an intense Electra, and especially Lia Williams as a stunning Klytemnestra, galvanising when screaming “I’ll wake the house!” as her husband confronts her with his murderous plans for their daughter or raising a shriek of pleasure at her own violent acts. The production, with its share of excitements and irritations, makes for a memorably bold and potent start to this season.