Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman (Young Vic)

My review of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's production of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Thursday, 25 April 2019

An American in London (Theatre): My Interview with Joseph Mydell

My interview with Joseph Mydell, in which the actor talks about his career, including Angels in America memories, making Manderlay with Lars von Trier, and the upcoming Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Theatre Review: Śliskie słowa (Slippery Words) (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

Chatting, singing, grinning, gurning, the eight-strong cast of Artur Urbański's Śliskie słowa greet the audience before we enter the auditorium at Teatr Studyjny, via two TV screens set up in the foyer that present the actors individually, against different backgrounds, as "talking heads." It's a cool introduction to a show, which, as its title ("Slippery words") suggests, is much concerned with language: its expressive capabilities and its limitations; how it can be embraced, deconstructed, transcended, remade.  

The third and (aw!) final Diploma Show for this year's graduating contingent of Łódź Film School Acting Students, Śliskie słowa is a different beast to its two predecessors, offering neither an exhilarating collage of material as in Mariusz Grzegorzek's visionary Fever nor a fresh, distilled take on a modern classic as represented by Małgorzata Bogajewska's production of Angels in America. Rather, the new show has been built up from improvisation, an experimental approach designed, in the words of director Urbański, to give the actors "a chance to think differently about dramatic structure and character-building." 

The results are confident, strange and exciting. A timely thematic throughline of male/female relationship dynamics emerges, from the haunting opening moments, in which Faustyna Kazimierska and Filip Warot - slacklining and headstanding - share a shadowy balletic introduction that's one of several thrilling moments of movement featured in the show (and co-choreographed by the actors).

The sequence segues into a bravura display from Karol Nowiński, who turns the stage-floor floury as a celeb chef with a dark side, one that's fully revealed later in a taut scene with the excellent Katarzyna Majda that shifts from playful seduction into deeply disturbing territory. 

Meanwhile, Anna Paliga's love-seeking cashier Renata has a memorable Żabka meltdown with Karol Kunysz's well-drawn divorcé. Aleksandra Skraba bounces in benignly as Małolta, before morphing into the show's most rebellious and questioning presence. Skraba is startlingly good here, whether unleashing an epic string of "kurwas!" or taking to the mic with punk zeal to continue her "A-Z" alphabet run down; this process is begun in one of the production's most magical interludes, the stage flooded with purple light and falling bubbles. It would have been great to see more of the striking Jan Hrynkiewicz as the enigmatic "Silk Boy" but he and Skraba at least get a few memorable moments together. 

As Natalia Spychała's animations spin letters into psychedelic shapes, there are surprise revelations; the gorgeously melancholic sound of Kevin Morby's "Harlem River"; and a re-appearance for Majda - clutching balloons in a red dress - that, intentionally or otherwise, evokes Rosalie Craig's Bobbie in Marianne Elliott's just-closed Company. You leave the theatre surprised, challenged, confounded - and assured that, thanks to the great talent and versatility of these emerging young actors, the future of the Polish dramatic arts is in safe - and daring - hands. 

Śliskie słowa is at Teatr Studyjny between 25-28 April. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska 

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Theatre Review: Angels in America (Anioły w Ameryce) (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

Due to the challenge of its length, the extravagance of some of its rhetoric and imagery, and its self-consciousness about its status as an Important American Play, we've become used to thinking of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes as a huge, starry spectacle: a perspective compounded by Mike Nichols's imperfect 2003 mini-series adaptation for HBO. Yet it's worth remembering Kushner's remarks in his "Playwright's Note" prefacing Part Two of the saga, "Perestroika": "The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly [...,] employing the cast as well as stagehands - which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be." 

That's precisely the approach taken by Małgorzata Bogajewska in her new production of the play at Łódź's Teatr Studyjny. "An actor-driven event" is what this staging, in particular, has to be, since Bogajewska's production is the second Diploma Show for the 2018/2019 graduating contingent of Acting Students at Łódź Film School. This production doesn't rival the first - Mariusz Grzegorzek's thrilling Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki) - for overall jaw-dropping impact. But it offers some indelible moments and provides the talented cast (several of them familiar from Fever) with multiple opportunities to shine. 

Drawing wholesale on diverse American cultural and historical traditions, Kushner's play has a lot on its mind: it attempts to create a fluid myth structure to explore identity politics, religion, economics and the AIDS crisis in the Reaganite '80s, and boasts characters whose garrulousness can be equal parts exciting and exhausting. The text is well known in Poland not only thanks to the HBO series but also Krzysztof Warlikowski's prize-winning Warsaw production of 2007. Presenting only Part One of the play, "Millennium Approaches," Bogajewska's production inevitably feels a bit truncated; a certain amount of context is lost, and the play's humour is sometimes under-served. (Though the punchline to the gag about the Kosciuszko Bridge being "named after a Polack" inevitably gets a reaction here.)

Yet other elements emerge freshly illuminated in this staging. When it comes to representations of desire, Bogajewska is not a director to hold back - as evidenced by her production of Gabriela Zapolska's 1907 play Ich Czworo, in which Gabriela Muskała and Sambor Czarnota shared a riotous table-top sex scene that prompted two shocked patrons to flee the theatre. And Joanna Jaśko-Sroka's spare approach to the design of this Angels doesn't preclude some wonderfully eccentric touches and moments of bold physicality.

Using the deep stage effectively, Bogajewska keeps the proceedings clear and fluid in the scenes of parallel action and dialogue. With a piano ever-present, several sequences are given a delirious nightclub cabaret vibe, with a bald-headed Belize (played by a female cast member, Isabella Dudziak) crooning "Blue Velvet" and "Why Don't You Do Right?" - the latter song brilliantly recontextualised here as a marginalised character's rebuke to the powerful.

Music, in fact, is an important component throughout, the production seemingly seeking to create a soundtrack of '70s and '80s queer-associated artists. Elżbieta Zajko's Harper assesses her marital woes to the strains of Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love," while, in their shared hallucination, she and Prior (Robert Ratuszny), bond to Queen's "I'm Going Slightly Mad." Sebastian Śmigielski's Man in the Park is garbed like an escapee from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" video (Bernard Rose version). More elaborate musical moments - such as an Antarctica bop to "Stayin' Alive" - feel rather forced. But the appearances of the Angel are sensationally effective: spotlighted and sporting Stars and Stripes shorts, Wiktoria Stachowicz's heavenly messenger spreads her wings at the microphone: a punk rock apparition.

There's much to admire in the performances. Kamil Rodek captures the conflicts of the closeted Mormon Joe, his desire and fear startlingly visualised in an unforgettable "wrestling with the angel" moment. Zajko brings both vulnerability and strength to her characterisation of the struggling spouse, retaining her dignity even when kitted out in a bubbly balloon ensemble for the fantasy sequences. Robert Ratuszny's depiction of Prior's physical decline is harrowing, his coughing fits so convincing that they set off contagious bouts in the audience. Ratuszny's scenes with Mateusz Grodecki are intense, and Grodecki finds some surprising sympathetic notes in Louis, the lover who abandons him.

Paweł Głowaty, also the production's choreographer, is exceptional as Roy Cohn, bringing relish to the character's menace, and using voice and posture to evoke age and arrogance in a way that's uncanny for such a young actor. The sensitive Ksenia Tchórzko maximises her appearances as the Rabbi and Hannah, contributing two of the production's most moving moments in the mother/son phone-call scene with Joe - brilliantly staged here to bring the characters into physical proximity that belies their emotional distance - and in the encounter between Cohn and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

Without giving too much away, the scene that Bogajewska chooses to bring the evening to a close is surprising yet satisfying, as it offers a gesture towards "Perestroika" and, with particular poignancy for a Polish production, makes this an Angels book-ended by the sound of Jewish voices.

Anioły w Ameryce is currently booking at Teatr Studyjny between 20 - 22 March, 12-14 April and 29 - 30 April. Further information here.

Production images: Filip Szkopiński and Dariusz Pawelec 

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Preview: Cinema Made in Italy 2019, Ciné Lumière, 26 February - 3 March 2019

When I interviewed Cinema Paradiso's Salvatore Cascio a couple of months ago, the actor remarked on the current situation for Italian films worldwide: "In terms of quality cinema, we have a lot of talent, but the problem is selling our films: it often happens that they are not seen as widely as they should be internationally." While there are occasional exceptions to that rule - Alice Rohrwacher's widely praised Happy as Lazzaro springs to mind - it's true that many new Italian films tend to go under-seen and under-celebrated.

As noted in previous years, that state of affairs makes the annual Cinema Made in Italy season a particularly welcome addition to London's cultural calendar. Now in its 9th edition, the six-day festival, organised by Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in London, and taking place at Institut Francais's Ciné Lumière, gives Londoners the opportunity to catch a range of new productions that would otherwise remain inaccessible. This year's programme of ten films, judiciously selected, as usual, by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton, is typically wide-ranging, encompassing crowd-pleasing comedies, relationship dramas, and politically conscious fables, and supplemented by post-screening discussions with filmmakers and cast members.

This year's opening night film is one that is sure to be widely distributed: Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro reunites the director with longtime collaborator Toni Servillo for an all-over-the-shop Berlusconi satire, with actress Elena Sofia Ricci in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. Classic cinema, meanwhile, is represented by Bernardo Bertolucci's still-vibrant The Conformist, featured as a tribute to the director who died last November.

Two films with a Cannes pedigree - having screened in the 2018 Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight competitions respectively - are among the most distinctive. Valeria Golino’s Euphoria (Euforia), the actress/filmmaker's second feature after the acclaimed Miele (2013), casts Riccardo Scamarcio and Valerio Mastandrea as two contrasting brothers, Matteo and Ettore. Matteo is a gay big city businessman while Ettore is a teacher who's stayed in their provincial home town and left his wife and child for a younger lover, a relationship which has also foundered. When Ettore is diagnosed with cancer, the control freak Matteo takes it upon himself to hide the seriousness of his brother's prognosis from the family and indeed from Ettore himself, moving him in to his palatial Rome flat, which allows the brothers to get to know each other better.

Combining sharp odd couple comedy and melodramatic fraternal bonding, the central premise of Euphoria is not entirely convincing, but scene by scene the film engages and sometimes surprises. While the drama is told from Matteo's point of view, Golino and her co-writers are fair to both brothers' perspectives. Mastrandrea is a touching presence and Scamarcio, previously seen brooding fetchingly in the likes of Vincenzo Marra's First Light, complements his Loro turn with another lively and charismatic performance. There are bumps along the way, but a lovely ending redeems some of the more forced moments.

Gianni Zanasi's Lucia's Grace (Troppa Grazia), which competed in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight, stars Alba Rohrwacher as the heroine of the title, a single mother who works as a land surveyor and who discovers that an ambitious building project is environmentally unsound. What could be a Dardennes premise takes a transcedent turn with a surprising apparation: that of the Virgin Mary, no less, who lobbies Lucia to build a church on the site. Adhering to a comedic tone for the most part, Zanasi's film is more successful in its presentation of Lucia's real world relationships than the fantastic aspects, but Rohrwacher's astute performamce holds the disparate elements together.

Valerio Mieli’s Remember? (Ricordi?) is an ambitious and philosophically-minded romance that's narratively tricksy yet somewhat lugubrious in its tracing of the love story between Luca Marinelli and Linda Caridi's unnamed protagonists. When they meet, he's a miserabilist hipster and she's a winsome dream girl; the film shows a shift in those positions through the couple's many years of interactions. With a script that tends to allow the characters to state the themes, Remember?'s most...memorable element is the associative editing, used interestingly - if insistently - to show how places can trigger reminiscence.

Two less mannered dramas have volatile, down-on-their-luck singers as their protagonists. Bonifacio Angius's second feature Wherever You Are (Ovunque Proteggemi) casts Alessandro Gazale as a hard-drinking has-been who, incarcerated in a mental ward, comes into contact with a young woman (Francesca Niedda), whom he ultimately assists in helping her and her son (Antonio Angius), bumbling his way towards redemption in the process. By turns abrasive and tender, Angius's compelling road movie ambushes you with emotion at the end. 

A mother/son bond is also central to We'll Be Young and Beautiful (Saremo Giovani e Bellissimi) the debut feature by Letizia Lamartire, which charts the renegotiation of the relationship between Isabella (Barbora Bobulova) - a one hit wonder of the 90s who's still singing her signature song "Tick Tock" at a bar a few times a week - and her son Bruno (Alessandro Piavani) who serves as her guitarist but is harbouring different musical ambitions. Occasionally contrived, and much too heavily Oedipal in its later stages, We'll Be Young and Beautiful benefits from lively musical interludes and vivid performances from Bobulova and Piavani, adding up to probably the best mother/son melodrama since Xavier Dolan's Mommy.

Finally, comedies, sometimes hybridised with unexpected genre elements, are well-represented in this year's selection. Paolo Zucca's absurdist farce The Man Who Bought the Moon mixes conventional culture clash comedy with elements of wild inventiveness, while Paolo Virzi, fresh from directing Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in the likeable American road movie The Leisure Seeker, combines satire and noir in Magical Nights (Notti Magiche), which explores the golden age of Italian cinema in Rome through the tale of three aspiring screenwriters (Mauro Lamantia, Irene Vetere and Giovanni Toscano) who turn out to be the main suspects in the murder of a famous producer. 

More modest, but definitely more relatable, is Duccio Chiarini’s The Guest (L’Ospite), a delightful comedy-drama that follows its hero Guido (Daniele Parisi) a taken-for-granted literature professor who's approaching 40, as he finds himself sofa-surfing following a break up with his partner. As such, he's privy to the less-than-ideal domestic arrangements and complicated romantic entanglements of his parents, friends and colleagues, which the film views with a wryly sympathetic eye. Along with a smart script, crisp editing and good performances, the most charming thing about The Guest is that it doesn't take the expected route. The opening scene suggests a ribald sex comedy, but the movie becomes sweeter, sadder and mature in its perspective on romantic and professional compromise. Directing confidently throughout, Chiarini brings his light but wise film together beautifully in a perfect final shot.

Cinema Made in Italy is aCiné Lumière between 26 February and 3 March. Further information here