Sunday 30 January 2011

Review: Propeller's The Comedy of Errors (Sheffield Lyceum; & touring)

With their take on The Comedy of Errors, Ed Hall’s Propeller have crafted yet another blissfully enjoyable production, one that blows the dust right off of one of Shakespeare’s earliest (and, some would say, creakiest) comedies and proves a more than worthy companion to the company’s startling Richard III. Despite its equivocal reputation within Shakespeare’s canon, The Comedy of Errors seems to have remained surprisingly popular with audiences, with several major stagings in the last ten years (including a rap version!) and a new production just announced for the National Theatre this Christmas. It will have to go some way to top this one, though. For those underwhelmed by Peter Hall’s bland Twelfth Night at the National Theatre Hall Jnr provides the antidote: a breathtakingly inventive, energetic and hilarious production that makes a flawed play shine like a masterpiece.

Like Twelfth Night, the Plautus-derived plot of The Comedy of Errors revolves around twins separated by shipwreck: two sets, in this case, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and their servants, both called Dromio, who wind up in Ephesus on the very same day as the Antipholus’s father, Egeon. Comic complications ensue, not least for Antipholus of E’s wife Adriana and her sister Luciana, who react in rather surprising ways to the odd behaviour of the man they believe to be their husband and brother-in-law.

Unsurprisingly, the innate silliness of the plot is embraced with wholehearted, hog-wild enthusiasm here. Where the ambience of the company’s Richard III was black and steely, suggestive of asylum and morgue, this time Michael Pavelka’s set and Ben Omerod’s lighting evoke nothing so much as a delightfully tacky package holiday resort, complete with fairy lights and graffiti, and mariachi music provided by a marvellously stoned-looking sombrero-sporting Chorus. Richard III’s violence was staged with gory Theatre of Blood-esque bravura; here the many beatings are presented as cartoonish slapstick, supplemented with comic sound effects. Snatches of pop songs (from “The Girl From Ipanema” to “Like A Prayer” to “Gold”) are judiciously - and sparingly - employed, and the company has great fun with some of the devices of Shakespearean comedy. When a character delivers an aside, for example, he steps out of the scene, leaving the rest of the action effectively “freeze-framed” (usually with the actors in the most ungainly positions possible). Speech delivered, the character then returns to his place to pick up the scene from where he left it.

Perfectly honed moments such as these exemplify the skill of this ensemble which is, as ever, beyond praise. The actors work together with consummate ease and expertise. Every character - no matter how minor - is vividly realised, and each performance is a gem, from Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Sam Swainsbury as the Antipholi and Richard Frame and Jon Trenchard as the Dromios to Wayne Cater’s merchant Balthasar, Chris Myles’s whip-wielding, lavender-booted Abbess, and Kelsey Brookfield’s canny bunny girl courtesan, whose sensational cleavage catches the roving eye of Richard Clothier’s Duke. I think I laughed the hardest at David Newman’s Luciana - a coquette with a hip-flask and some mean martial-arts moves - and at Dominic Tighe’s fabulously accented (and frequently tumescent) Officer, who seldom succeeds in keeping the peace. Robert Hands puts on a superb display as Adriana, all the while giving a marvellous emotional truth to a character who’s often just presented as a shrew or a scold. And John Dougall’s Egeon is a singularly moving presence; the performance nicely complements his understated Clarence in Richard III, and the actor really makes you feel the weight of the character’s long, weary search for his lost family.

Throughout, the big set-piece scenes are orchestrated with sometimes jaw-dropping invention and aplomb, from Frame’s delivery of Dromio’s discourse on Nell the kitchen wench to Swainsbury’s late recapitulation of the plot, a priceless moment in which the production turns around to comment on some of its own strategies. And I can’t imagine seeing a more wildly enjoyable sequence this year than the production’s outrageous, tour-de-force take on the “exorcism” scene, in which Tony Bell’s conjourer Dr. Pinch - who’s re-imagined here as a dirty-minded tele-evangelist (think Robert Duvall in The Apostle crossed with Sir Les Patterson) - leads the company in a rousing chorus of “He Was Saved!” (Then there’s Bell’s exit scene, which I won’t spoil for you, except to say that it involves a very strategically placed sparkler.)

Propeller’s irreverent cheek and pick-and-mix approach never becomes tiresome because it’s tied, at base, to traditional values: care with verse-speaking, clarity of story-telling. And they never labour a conceit. Hall’s command of pace and rhythm is such that the production can move from the riotous to the reflective with ease. (Against all odds, the final reunions here carry much more emotional weight than those in the current NT Twelfth Night.) The company’s generous, inclusive spirit of play is infectious (the actors even provide musical entertainment during the interval), and, like Richard III, the production teems with so many great ideas and details that it practically demands to be seen more than once. This is a total theatre experience, and delightful in every department. Do not miss.

The production runs for 2 hours 20 minutes. It tours internationally, along with Richard III, until July. Newcastle next week; full details here

Sunday 23 January 2011

Review: Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010)

According to Christian Metz, the cinema, is “better structured than any other art to recreate unconscious states, dream worlds and their projected articulation of our fears and desires.” Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan it’s hard not to agree with Metz’s assessment. Employing every piece of cine-trickery in the book, Aronofsky’s movie skilfully manoeuvres the viewer right into the increasingly freaky head-space of its heroine, the ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman), whose unravelling the film traces as she rehearses dual roles as the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake. Black Swan accomplishes its blurring of perceptions and personas, reality, dream and fantasy, with a visceral immediacy that I don’t think any other art-form could match. And it’s this more than anything else that makes the movie a memorable - if not, in my view, an entirely satisfying - experience.

I find it a little surprising that some people seem to be taking Black Swan quite so seriously, though. Stylish and exciting as the movie frequently is, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that, at base, it’s pure hokum - a deluxe pulp-porn fantasia on female creativity and psychosis that mashes up elements of All About Eve (1950), The Red Shoes (1948), Repulsion (1965), Carrie (1976), Fight Club (1999) and Inland Empire (2006), along with some very chic psychobabble of its own. Maybe it’s the film’s setting in the world of ballet that’s convinced people that we’ve entered the realm of High Art here. But I think Black Swan is more accurately described as High Trash, and that it’s in that spirit that the movie should be approached and, for the most part, enjoyed.

There’s nothing very subtle about the film’s psychology, its symbolism, or its use of Swan Lake’s plot (which is thoughtfully sketched for us early on in the film). Can the controlled (read: repressed) Nina overcome her inhibitions to dance the Black Swan with the required wildness, danger and passion? Can she get over her guilt at having usurped the bitter, ageing prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, in a high-camp cameo)? And what are the motives of the apparently affable new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who, it seems, might very well be prepared to displace her? If all this wasn’t enough for a girl to contend with, back at home Nina is saddled with a monster-mommy (Barbara Hershey), whose attitude to her daughter is one of smothering over-protectiveness.

There have been complaints from some quarters that Black Swan is not an “authentic” depiction of the ballet world. Does the film ever really purport to be any such thing? Ballet, it seems to me, is really the hook on which Aronofsky hangs his wild trippy ride through various film genres, ending up in the realm of psychological horror. (I love Popsublime’s most excellent description of the movie as “The most passive-aggressively constructed film I've sat through.”)

As well as the previously cited films, Black Swan also reminded me a bit of Atom Egoyan’s overwrought folly Chloe (2009) - right down to a lesbian sex scene that seems to have become a rite-of-passage for every Hollywood actress these days. Aronofsky’s movie is a much more artful piece of work than was Chloe, but it figures female relationships in somewhat comparable ways: ie. in terms of pathology. The days of the female “buddy” movie seem a long, long way behind us in 2011; what we have instead are paranoiac fantasies presented through the aesthetics of hetero-porn.

Despite the complaints one might have about Black Swan's gender politics, Natalie Portman’s commitment to her role is evident in every frame and her performance carries Nina through her startling transitions and the film through its loopier stretches. It’s a vivid, striking interpretation. Kunis is a provocative, ambiguous presence, and Hershey works well with what she has, but, though her performance has been much-commented, in some ways I think she’s under-utilised here. Another performer is also worthy of note: I found Vincent Cassel hilariously awful as the company’s Artistic Director, Thomas, whose somewhat unorthodox methods include groping his dancers during rehearsal and advising masturbation as a research tool. Poor Cassel is also saddled with most of the movie’s worst, spelling-it-all-out dialogue, such as the moment in which he tells Nina: “We know you can dance the White Swan… The real work will come with your metamorphosis into her evil twin!”

Well-written Black Swan is not, but, throughout, Aronofsky’s restless, bobbing camera - and a wonderfully imaginative sound design - generate a kinetic excitement that keeps you hooked even as you’re stifling giggles. This is a deliriously silly film, and I’m not sure that what it’s actually saying about female creativity and psychosis adds up to anything profound at all. But by the time Portman’s Nina is duking it out with her unruly id in the dressing-room, it’s very possible that you’ll be having too much fun to care.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Of the many ways there are to celebrate your 80th birthday, directing a Shakespeare play at the National Theatre might not seem to be one of the most obvious. Unless you happen to be Sir Peter Hall, that is. Returning for the first time in years to the theatre that he used to run, the indefatigable Hall marked his 80th by beginning rehearsals for a production of Twelfth Night starring his daughter Rebecca as Viola at the NT’s Cottesloe. The production has been much anticipated and sold out almost immediately. I’d practically given up hope of seeing it, but thanks to the benevolence of a certain good friend and very occasional theatre-goer I ended up at the fifth preview of the play last night. And, well… call it the curse of high expectations (or what you will) but Hall’s production ended up being rather disappointing. It’s the kind of evening that you hope will be special, unique, revelatory. You want this most lyrical and exquisite of Shakespeare’s comedies to transport you, to be charming and crazy and magical. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen last night. “Bland” and “mediocre” would be closer to the mark.

Hall’s traditional approach to classic texts can sometimes pay dividends: his sublime Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose was one of my favourite productions of last year. Here, though, he seems to straightjacket the play far more than he liberates it. Part of the production’s appeal is the chance that it gives to see a Shakespeare play in the tiny Cottesloe, an auditorium which, under Nicholas Hytner’s tenure, has focused exclusively on new writing thus far. But while Anthony Ward's uncluttered set allows for some fine intimate moments, a lot of the action takes place on a wide stage in which too little seems to be happening. Such sparsity in staging Shakespeare can be wonderfully effective: it certainly proved so in Sam Mendes’s gorgeous production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar back in 2002. Here, though, you can spend a lot of time staring at dead space, and wondering why, in a couple of key scenes, Hall doesn’t seem so much to have directed the play as to have placed it under sedation.

It’s a shame because all the elements would appear to be in place, not least an excellent cast. In truth, though, the actors also have mixed success. As Viola, Rebecca Hall has some lovely affecting moments; her best scenes convey steeliness and wry humour and she gives a wonderful concentrated stillness to Viola’s great speech about women’s capacity to love. But Hall’s is a fairly low-key performance overall. There’s not much chemistry between her and Marton Csokas’s rather unappealing Orsino, while her scenes with Amanda Drew’s Olivia certainly don’t achieve the kind of sexual tension that’s characterised this relationship in other productions. This is, by some considerable margin, the most chaste, asexual Twelfth Night in recent memory; the production seems oddly oblivious to the implications of Shakespeare’s gender play, and its subversive, disruptive and liberating potential.

Even so, there are some appealing elements. It’s particularly wonderful to see Simon Callow back on an NT stage; the actor’s Sir Toby Belch is - unsurprisingly - merriment personified. Callow’s palpable relish of the language and sheer delight in performance are infectious, and he gives the proceedings a needed shot of energy each time he appears. He’s well supported by Finty Williams’s giggly Maria, and by Charles Edwards who proves an endearingly insecure Andrew Aguecheek. Edwards’s “I was adored once too” touches the heart, and he has some memorable comic business, especially when indulging in some marvellously inept swordplay. The expert David Ryall is a good Feste, and Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio has some effective moments (not least his po-faced delivery of Malvolio’s declaration “I am happy”). But the big set-pieces - notably, the "yellow stockings" scene - tend to disappoint; they’re simply not funny enough. And the presentation of Malvolio’s punishment and humiliation don't penetrate very far into the darker recesses of the play, either.

Indeed, Hall’s production seems content to stay on the surface most of the time, with the result that the final reunions and pairings carry little emotional weight. Twelfth Night - a play in which almost every character is madly in love with someone they shouldn’t be - needs more crazy energy than the fairly measured staging that it’s given here. Hall’s approach seems altogether too decorous. The play’s quick shifts in mood aren’t fully achieved; the production never exhilarates you; and there never seems to be very much at stake.

It’s possible, of course, that some of these elements might fall into place as the run progresses. At present, though, the production just feels sadly unadventurous; it leaves the wilder, stranger and sexier reaches of this great play entirely unexplored.

The production ran for 2 hours 50 minutes on Saturday. The entire run is sold out, but day seats are available.

Friday 7 January 2011

Review: Midsummer (a play with songs) (Tricycle Theatre)

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s play (with songs) Midsummer is now at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, where it runs until 29th January. The production hardly needs more acclaim at this juncture, having been a huge success at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009, made its first London appearance at the Soho Theatre early last year, and toured internationally. But I wanted to briefly add my voice to the chorus of praise and to urge you to see the play if you possibly can. Set over a midsummer weekend in Edinburgh, the delightful two-hander focuses on the relationship between Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) and Helena (Cora Bissett), a couple of disappointed thirty-five-year-olds who meet in a bar, have a rather unsatisfactory one-night stand, go their separate ways (Helena to her sister’s wedding; Bob on an errand for one of his nefarious "employers") and then meet again. Periodically, the couple take up their guitars to sing their thoughts, feelings and desires.

In truth, there’s not a lot of variety to the songs, composed by McIntyre, which are mostly low-key acoustic strumming; they’re serviceable rather than spectacular. Still, they stop the play from becoming too frenetic. And there’s plenty of variety to the rest of Greig’s production, which creates its music through language and structure as much as the individual songs.  Fluidity is the key word here, both in terms of staging and performances. The play plays like a great pop album: instantly accessible but with unexpected depths; cohesive yet constantly surprising; infectious; exhilarating. Greig’s dialogue is full of refrains and riffs (on running, on agreeing, on being thirty-five), and the play skilfully moves between contrasting moods. The narrative mode is wonderfully elastic and inclusive: the play shifts between third- and first-person address (the protagonists spend as much time observing themselves as observing each other) and also incorporates flashbacks, Hollywood-movie parody, a conference involving audience participation, and the most charmingly blatant deus ex machina in recent memory. Greig also proves adept at balancing ribald comedy (a sex scene interrupted by a talking Elmo toy; Bob’s conversation with his penis), with touching moments of reflection, lyricism and melancholy, lovely undercurrents of wistfulness and rue.

Pidgeon and Bissett are beyond praise, capturing the vagaries of 30-something angst and ecstasy with aplomb, and seamlessly morphing into other characters when required. The production also conjures its various locations - flat and fetish club, plush hotel room, park and city street - with a minimum of fuss. (It's a love song to Edinburgh, too.) Infelicities are minor: Greig’s occasional over-reliance upon repetitious profanity to convey his characters' frustations sometimes makes the protagonists sound like they've stepped out of the opening sequence of Four Weddings and a Funeral, while a late scene between Bob and his son (played by Bissett, of course) didn’t quite work for me. Ultimately, though, it’s impossible not to be touched by the play’s portrait of two characters bumbling their way towards each other, or by its heartening insistence upon the possibility of change. Funny, intelligent and inventive, Midsummer is a perfectly delightful way to spend a midwinter evening or afternoon.

Further information at the Tricycle website.

Hideko Takamine (1924-2010)

I was sad to learn, via a Facebook buddy, of the death of the Japanese actress Hideko Takamine on 28th December. A former child star dubbed "Japan's Shirley Temple," Takamine is best known for the compelling melodramas that she made for the director Mikio Naruse in the 1950s and 1960s, notably Floating Clouds (1955) and When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960).  I wrote the following short piece on her performance in When A Woman... for PopMatters's second Essential Film Performances series last year.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Hideko Takamine

In the West at least, the films of Mikio Naruse have never quite received the same level of interest or acclaim as those of other celebrated Japanese auteurs such as Ozu and Kurosawa. The cinema scholar Freda Freiberg places the blame for this, in part, upon the responses of American male critics who “failing to find either the boyish playfulness of Ozu or the macho histrionics of Kurosawa [in Naruse’s cinema] treated him as second-rate.” But Naruse’s finely detailed films are ripe for rediscovery, not least for the stunning performances that the director coaxes from his actresses. As Freiberg points out, the focus of Naruse’s best work tends to be on “single women on the fringes of Japanese society battling to make a living and keep their self-respect.”

The modernist melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, with its beautiful black-and-white Cinemascope photography and cool jazz score, exemplifies this interest. The film centres on the widowed Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a bar hostess in Tokyo ’s Ginza district. As Keiko assesses the very limited options available to her as a woman in this society – suicide, remarriage, opening a bar of her own – the film develops into both a feminist social critique and an intimate portrait of one woman’s emotional life. Takamine’s beautifully modulated and deeply affecting performance captures both Keiko’s professionalism – her smiling compliance with her clientele - and her frustrations, fears and regrets. But Keiko is no one-dimensional victim: rather, Takamine invests the character with humour, stoicism and moral strength, so that her final walk up the stairs to the job that she despises feels less like a pathetic surrender to circumstance than a valiant commitment to endurance. “Life is a battle for the women here,” Keiko recognises. “A battle I must not lose.” The mixture of vulnerability and strength in Takamine’s great performance conveys precisely that.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011)

Thinking, over the past couple of days, about Pete Postlethwaite performances. The resourceful butcher in A Private Function. Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit. Giuseppe Conlon in In the Name of the Father. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. Clem in Victoria Wood’s great costume drama parody Plots and Proposals. (“Mish Alish, you musht shink me a shorry shimpleton!”). The spectacularly tattooed Friar Lawrence in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. King Lear in Rupert Goold’s controversial production. Mostly, though, I think about Postlethwaite as the volatile, tyrannical Father in Terence Davies’s indelible Distant Voices, Still Lives. In his book on the film, the poet Paul Farley sums up the power of that performance like this:

Postlethwaite’s father manages to cast quite a pall over Distant Voices. We hear his voice - full of attack, its default setting seemingly the barking of orders - before we actually see him … Our first shot of him - during the cellar scene as Maisie scrubs the stone floor - is from the waist down: dark slacks and shiny shoes, followed by an eruption of violence. He is the voice of the house ordering Eileen to get inside as she and Micky linger on the step for one last ciggie after the dance … When the family goes to visit him in hospital, it’s his voice itself that seems stricken, thwarted: his agonised ‘I was wrong, son’ to Tony is strangulated, gurgled, bent out of shape.

He is so often an aggressor, whether physical or frozen mute. In the frosty Christmas dinner scene he moves from one state to the other before our very eyes, and it is heartbreaking … Postlethwaite’s hands begin to shake, and soon his entire body seems racked by some invisible force he is struggling to, but can’t, contain … In the end the tablecloth is yanked away, and all the food and crockery along with it, and he yells for his wife to ‘clean it up!’. Later, at the other end of Distant Voices, he has turned back into a voice again, a shade: as the camera moves through an upstairs room flooded with light, with curtains billowing, we hear him call her name, aggressively, as thunder rumbles. (Farley, Distant Voices, Still Lives: BFI Modern Classics [2006], p.35-6).

Fantastic performance. Great actor.