Friday 28 October 2011

Last 10 Things Seen In the Theatre Meme #4

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1. Earthquakes in London (Richmond Theatre)
2. How To Be Happy (Orange Tree Theatre)
3. The Importance of Being Earnest (Rose Theatre, Kingston)
4. Farewell To The Theatre (Rose Theatre, Kingston)
5. Othello (Sheffield Crucible)
6. South Downs/The Browning Version (Minerva, Chichester)
7. Street Scene (Young Vic)
8. Grief (National Theatre, Cottesloe)
9. Dr. Marigold and Mr. Chops (Richmond Theatre)
10. Boys Plays (Above the Stag)

Who was the best performer in number one (Earthquakes in London)?
Toss-up between Tracey-Ann Oberman and Paul Shelley.

Why did you go to see number two (How To Be Happy)?
Reviewing assignment.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (The Importance of Being Earnest) that you liked?
Even people who’ve never seen this play can remember lines from it! Stick a pin in the text and you’ll find a memorable epigram. I think my favourite is Gwendolen’s "I am pleased to say that I have never seen a spade."

What would you give number four (Farewell To The Theatre) out of 10?
A charitable 4.

Was there someone hot in number five (Othello)?
Ahem! West! Gilbreath! Shame on Shakespeare for not giving them a happy ending, though.

What was number six (South Downs/The Browning Version) about?
Oh, lots of things. Mainly, perhaps, what unexpected acts of kindness can do.

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (Street Scene)?
A strong ensemble but I suppose  Elena Ferrari just takes it.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (Grief)?
The scene in which Marion Bailey’s Gertrude finds Lesley Manville’s Dorothy in distress and the characters almost - but don’t quite - break through to honest communication touched me a lot. Classic Leigh, brilliantly done.

Would you see number nine (Dr. Marigold and Mr. Chops) again?
Could do.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Boys Plays)?
The first play in the double-bill was fairly lacklustre.

Which was best?
Not a fashionable view, but I thought Grief was absolutely wonderful.

Which was worst?
Farewell To The Theatre. All too aptly titled, I’m afraid.

Did any make you cry?
In approximate order of amount of tears shed: Grief, The Browning Version, Street Scene, Othello.

Did any make you laugh?
Earthquakes in London, How To Be Happy, The Importance of Being Earnest, Othello, Grief, Dr. Marigold and Mr. Chops.

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
Judging by two of the locations in which it ended up in this production, Desdemona’s handkerchief looked to be having a rather jolly time. Alternatively, Sam in Street Scene so I get to sing “Lonely House.”

Which one did you have the best seats for?
How To Be Happy and Grief. Go small theatres!

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Film Review: Elena (Zvyagintsev, 2011) @ the London Film Festival

The best film that I saw in an altogether strong first week at this year’s London Film Festival was Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena (2011), a movie that fully confirms the Russian director as one of the most vital talents in contemporary cinema. Zvyagintsev follows The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007) with an intimate, subtle but bracingly intense drama that intelligently and feelingly explores issues of class and social status in contemporary Russia. It does so through the story of the title character (played with blinding brilliance by Nadezhda Markina). Elena is a woman caught, essentially, between two worlds: that of her poor son and his (ever-expanding) young family and that of her wealthy second husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), who’s none too sure that he owes Elena’s brood any financial favours at all (“I married you, not them”). The manner in which the protagonist opts to resolve this dilemma leads her into some unforeseen territory indeed.

A Tarkovsky for those of us who (confession time) have been bored by the majority of Tarkovsky’s work, Zvyagintsev is as philosophically-inclined as his illustrious predecessor but without losing sight of character and narrative. Elena is a marvellously assured piece of filmmaking: beautifully rhythmed; rich in telling, unstressed details; and full of spaces for the viewer’s involvement and interpretation. It also proves - if proof were needed - that Iris Murdoch’s dictum that “language is soaked in the moral, literature is soaked in the moral” may be applied with equal relevance to film. The thorny ethical dilemmas that result from Elena's predicament are many. But for me perhaps the most resonant question that the movie asks might be: does the notion that “the last shall be first” refer, these days, simply to the opportunity to watch trash on a wider screen TV? But there's no overt proselytizing going on in this movie. All of the characters are viewed with a very clear eye indeed, and the expert way in which Zvyagintsev allows our allegiances to shift (and shift again) as the story develops is one of the deep satisfactions that his film offers.

As our heroine progresses through identities in her daily encounters - from wife-cum-nursemaid to bourgeois matron, cuddly babushka to criminal - so the movie shifts discreetly but dynamically through genre codes, moving from quiet observational character study to suspense drama, propelled at times by hypnotic snatches of Phillip Glass, and arriving at an ending that dispenses the kind of subtle chill you may find it difficult to shake off. Thrillingly good.  Trailer here.

Post-script: In terms of other films screened so far at the LFF, kudos, too, to Miranda July’s The Future, a gloriously quirky, heartfelt and surprising meditation on time that made me exclaim an enthralled “Wow!” on two occasions, and Andrea Segre’s tender Li and the Poet, about the relationship between a Chinese immigrant (Zhao Tao) and a fisherman (Rade Serbedzija) on the Venetian lagoon island of Chioggia. Time permitting, I’ll hope to write detailed appraisals of these and other films in the LFF next month.

Monday 24 October 2011

Concert Review: Kate Rusby (Richmond Theatre) (23/10/2011)

“We’ve never played here before; we wondered if anybody would come,” confessed a characteristically self-deprecating Kate Rusby towards the end of her enchanting concert at Richmond Theatre yesterday evening. Well, Rusby need not have worried, for the folk fans of Surrey and its surrounds were out in full force last night and gave the singer and her band - Damien O’Kane (guitar/banjo), Ed Boyd (guitar), Julian Sutton (accordion), Duncan Lyle (double bass) and John Joe Kelly (bodhrán) - a very warm welcome indeed.

Though nursing a slight cough passed on to her by her and O’Kane’s two-year-old daughter, Rusby performed like a trouper and was in excellent voice throughout the night, sounding confident and clear. With no brand new album to promote - her last, the entirely self-penned Make The Light, was released a year ago - Rusby constructed a thoughtful set-list that ranged widely over her catalogue, offering a pleasing mixture of traditional and original material. And although much of her older work was of course arranged for fiddle and whistles, the competence and energy of the players ensured that the absence of these instruments in the current set-up wasn’t felt as too much of a lack.

Following an enjoyable, assured warm-up set by Kelly, Boyd and the wry O’Kane, the gig proper began with a lovely version of “Playing of Ball,” the opening track from 2001’s Little Lights, and was followed by a rollicking take on “The Cobbler’s Daughter.” (“We’ll get our songs involving deaths out of the way early on,” Rusby quipped. “And then you can relax into your Sunday evening.”) The newer self-written songs also sounded especially supple and strong, with the plaintive “Only Hope” outstanding, while “Walk the Road” - the closest that Rusby’s yet come to an anthem - concluded the first half on an especially stirring note.

It’s fair to say that, stylistically, Rusby’s work hasn’t developed much over the years, and, across an album, her music can sometimes seem to lack variety. But in a live context - and interspersed with her disarming, often hilarious banter - her music feels vibrant and fresh, and the songs sometimes gain new depths and resonances as well. The concert’s emotional highlight came towards the end of the second half with an exquisite, moving performance of “Let the Cold Wind Blow,” while other standouts included a spry, cheeky “Game of All Fours” (“If you’re under 16, then this is a song about a card game. If you’re over 16, make of it what you will”), a gorgeously rootsy “Over You Now,” and a great fun set of tunes from the band. The one-song encore of “Underneath the Stars,” which Rusby took solo, was, appropriately, celestial.

Rusby’s apparently artless, girl-next-door persona belies the talent and tenacity of a musician who’s been on the scene for 20 years now and who’s able to captivate an audience by creating an atmosphere of palpable warmth, intimacy and ease. “This theatre’s gorgeous… I think we’d like to live here,” Rusby mused. And judging by the affectionate response that she received, it seems that Richmond’s residents would be happy if she chose to do that very thing. A delightful evening.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Tour dates and venue information here.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Film Review: Coriolanus (Fiennes, 2011) @ the London Film Festival

Seldom regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most profound or popular tragedies, Coriolanus is a work that has, nonetheless, frequently been raided for contemporary parallels by directors and adaptors across the centuries. The play’s slippery dissection of democracy - its concern with “people power,” the challenges of leadership and what constitutes “good” rule - has left it open to multiple, often contradictory interpretations. Nahum Tate’s 1682 adaptation was set against Whig-Tory rivalry, while later adaptations referred to the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Rebellions. In the 20th Century, the Nazis extolled the heroism of the protagonist and drew favourable comparisons with Hitler, while Brecht’s 1953 version surprised no-one by portraying the masses as heroes.

Ralph Fiennes’s big, brawny new film adaptation strives - sometimes astutely and sometimes ham-fistedly - to chime with the times. The tale of the warrior-hero who, when conspired against, turns his back on Rome to join forces with his arch-enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius, is the tragedy of a man who, though a notable success on the battle-field, is entirely unable to flatter or charm the populace. Tipping its hat to the title of John Osborne’s 1973 adaptation, Fiennes’s film locates the action in “a place calling itself Rome” - a Balkan war-zone - and the early scenes in which the citizens besiege the Senate and are beaten back by riot-police certainly gain an extra frisson in the light of the London riots and current worldwide anti-capitalist demos.

Making his directorial debut here, Fiennes has done a mostly commendable job of work. And returning to a role that he first played on stage in 2000, he also delivers a compelling central performance that has genuine gravitas. But his approach sometimes betrays a certain amount of insecurity in relation to the material. The film strives so hard to be cinematic - jittery camera-work? check; ear-splitting sound? check - that it’s occasionally a little embarrassing. The opening scenes suggest a particularly hyperbolic advert for a Panorama Special, and the decision to present the conflict between the Romans and the Volscians through the language of TV news media (yawn) feels all too predictable. (How fresh this device seemed when it book-ended Baz Lurhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet; how totally shopworn now. The nadir here is a Jon Snow cameo.) As director, Fiennes also seems to have taken instruction from some of his previous collaborators: the over-wrought action scenes find him doing his best Kathryn Bigelow impersonation (Barry Ackroyd, who shot The Hurt Locker [2008], is the movie’s cinematographer), while the presentation of the Citizens as a very motley crew recalls the 2005 Deborah Warner production of Julius Caesar in which Fiennes played Mark Antony.

This tendency towards over-emphasis does result in admirably lucid story-telling, though. The film is thoughtfully paced and structured, with Coriolanus’s rejection of Rome taking place almost exactly at the movie’s mid-point. Hollywood’s favourite screenwriter-for-hire John Logan has done a skilful job of paring back (and simplifying) the text, although some elements and supporting roles do suffer the consequences of his tinkering. While Brian Cox is able to come through with a finely modulated performance as Menenius, the work of Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt as the conspiring tribunes ends up seeming obvious at times. And, more problematically, the association between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler, adequate) never quite strikes the sparks that it initially promises to. The homoerotic implications of the relationship which have been highlighted by some directors aren’t stressed here, although the movie does boast a slightly bizarre night-time sequence in which the Volscian camp seems momentarily to have morphed into a gay club.

The most genuinely exciting moments are those in which Fiennes stops proclaiming “Look! I’m making a MOVIE!” and opts for more sparsely staged scenes that allow Shakespeare’s language to do the work. Coriolanus then offers some memorably taut encounters, and some eloquent and expressive images, too. Fiennes’s scenes with Vanessa Redgrave’s strong, seductive Volumnia are especially fine; Redgrave (who gave even her hokey dialogue in Letters to Juliet [2010] the weight she might give to a bit of prime Shakespearean verse) delivers her best screen performance in years as the ambitious, manipulative matriarch. And she and Fiennes look wonderful together - a pair of Roman statues in the making, indeed - their intense close-ups offering the thrill that the theatre can’t provide. Volumnia’s final supplication scene is brilliantly sustained - the movie’s highlight - and its impact mitigates some of the more questionable, obvious ideas that mar the film’s opening sections. This Coriolanus isn’t, overall, everything that it could have been. But at its best it’s a vivid and gripping account of this now seldom-staged play.

Film Review: Dark Horse (Solondz, 2011) @ the London Film Festival

In Dark Horse (2011), Todd Solondz has made a film without rape, paedophilia and masturbation because, in the director’s words, “it’s always good to challenge yourself.” Toning down the shock value a notch, Solondz has produced in Dark Horse perhaps his most easily digestible feature to date, albeit one that leaves some space for the perverse and disturbing elements that are the director’s stock-in-trade.

Dark Horse charts the experiences of one Abe Wertheimer (a star-making turn by Jordan Gelber). Zipping around town in a yellow people-carrier, with obnoxiously upbeat pop as his soundtrack, this portly 35-year-old considers himself a cool, capable and desirable chap, despite the fact that he’s hardly a success story in conventional American terms, living as he does with his parents (superb Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) - in a bedroom filled, amusingly, with Thundercats and Gremlins memorabilia - and working ineffectually in his father’s industial real-estate firm. Abe’s underlying frustrations manifest themselves in juvenile tantrums and petty squabbles with all and sundry. But he knows - or at least thinks he knows - how to turn on the charm. And when this self-satisfied fellow sets his sights on a distracted-seeming woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), whom he meets at a wedding, he’s soon approaching her with marriage in mind.

As Fernando F. Croce has noted, Dark Horse suggests Solondz’s caustic rejoinder to the endless parade of "adorable arrested development" comedies featuring the likes of Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. There’s also a touch of Coens comedy to the movie’s tone, but the brothers can’t match Solondz for emotional insight and don’t come close to rivalling his unerring ability to capture the sheer awkwardness of human interaction on screen. Its narration unravelling as the protagonist unravels, Dark Horse takes some wonderfully confounding twists and turns as it progresses. It becomes, ultimately, a movie about an individual’s dream/fantasy life, and, in particular, an exploration of the role that other people play as protagonists in such fantasies. If the movie’s did-that-just-happen-or-not? game-playing becomes somewhat wearisome towards the climax, its shakier stretches are redeemed by a final shot of staggering eloquence and poignancy, one which beautifully transforms the fantasised into the fantasiser. 

Thursday 13 October 2011

Film Review: Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011)

Nostalgia is what it used to be - for a while, at least - in Woody Allen’s elegant time-travel comedy Midnight in Paris (2011), in which a Hollywood screen-writer, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), vacationing in Gay Paree with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and trying to work on a novel, hears the chimes at midnight and finds himself transported back to his favourite epoch: the City of Light in the 1920s.

The witty, old-fashioned confection that Allen conjures from this premise (which owes something to that of the 1990s BBC series Goodnight Sweetheart) has become - somewhat surprisingly - his highest-grossing movie ever, and one that’s finally re-awakened American audience’s love affair with the director. Told in Allen’s briskest, most playful style, and shot in gorgeous warm tones by Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas, Midnight in Paris is a fine light entertainment, combining the fantastic mode of Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) with the Henry James-lite Yanks-do-Europe concerns of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

The movie’s warm, wry, romantic tone is established from the off, with an opening montage of Paris scenes so unashamedly touristy that it makes you laugh. And from there on the pleasures are numerous. Up front there’s Owen Wilson’s often-uncanny Allen impersonation in the lead role (watch out in particular for a scene where he emerges from a bathroom baring a pair of earrings and seems, for a moment, to have become Woody), as well as nicely observed turns from McAdams and from Michael Sheen as an unctuous friend.

Mostly, Allen wrests laughs via the roll-call of luminaries that Gil interacts with in the 1920s scenes, all portrayed with just the right degree of affectionate caricature by the other members of the lovely cast. Kathy Bates’s Gertrude Stein is a wonderfully straight-forward fount-of-wisdom; Corey Stoll's Hemingway is hilariously earnest, and Adrien Brody does Dali to a T. As F. Scott Fitzgerald Tom Hiddleston smiles his most beguiling smile, and Marion Cottilard twinkles bewitchingly as a muse to many.  Allen provides a light dusting of philosophy, and a little social comment too, as the movie contrasts the supportive, open, bi-lingual artistic community of the 20s (as perceived/constructed by Gil, at least) with the superficial tendenicies of the contemporary Americans, who, with the exception of Gil, disdain the idea of living in Europe.

There’s a little fuzzy plotting in the final third - some business about a significant diary seems fumbled - but for the most part Allen keeps proceedings on track in a way that he can’t always be relied upon to do. And such minor lapses don’t detract from the movie’s appeal or the cogency of its gentle argument for living in the now. A charmer.

Monday 10 October 2011

Theatre Review: How To Be Happy (Orange Tree Theatre)

Two households, both with the same settee. A settee that gets lolled on, cried on, argued on, walked on and shagged on over the course of David Lewis’s lively and thoughtful new play at Richmond’s Orange Tree. Directed by its author, How To Be Happy unfolds in a series of overlapping, parallel scenes that take place in the separate - yet deeply interconnected - homes of Emma (Kate Miles) and Paul (Paul Kemp), a divorced couple now living with their new partners Graham (Steven Elder) and Katy (Carolyn Backhouse).

Each couple has its problems. Paul, a struggling writer, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, while Graham and Emma’s relationship is undergoing strain, not helped by the presence of a very vocal new baby. Meanwhile, Graham, an advertising executive who’s currently (and hilariously) “brainstorming notions of happiness” in order to best promote a new chocolate bar, wants Paul to collaborate on the campaign. Flitting between the two houses, and delivering sometimes indiscreet dispatches from each, is Paul and Emma’s teenage daughter Daisy (Kate Lamb), who’s harbouring hopes of bringing her parents back together.

At first, Lewis’s conceit of having the two families simultaneously occupy the same space in overlapping scenes feels clunky and obtrusive. But the structure moves into elegance as the evening progresses, creating some effective juxtapositions between the events in the two households: rhyming incidents of domestic discord and complicity. The relationships are, for the most part, sharply drawn, and just when you think Lewis is about to take a swerve into sentimentality you’re surprised by some unanticipated twist or acerbic observation.

The thematic focus of How To Be Happy is - you guessed! - the concept of happiness, and, in particular, its relationship to consumerism. Paul (in one of the play’s improbabilities, or, at least, its heavy-handed ironies) once wrote a self-help book on the subject of happiness and has worked in the advertising industry himself. But he has now come to disdain Graham’s profession, which he views as responsible for the sorry state of a society in which people feel pressured “to spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”

What’s most admirable about Lewis’s writing, though, is that it refuses to employ the characters simply as one-dimensional representations of a particular idea. Rather, the people here are believably inconsistent muddles of contradictions, each with his or her measure of awareness and neurosis.

Graham may represent the horrors of consumer capitalism to Paul, but Steven Elder’s expert performance presents Graham as a rather ineffectual man, affable and eager to please, and nursing his own sense of futility and disillusionment. (It’s not until the end that we see a trace of steeliness.) Similarly, Paul’s rants against consumerism are, as his ex-wife points out, somewhat undermined by his own attachment to his iPhone.

The raspy-voiced Paul Kemp doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to make the disappointed, rather whiny Paul too sympathetic or easily appealing, and the other roles are played with equal bite. As Emma, Kate Miles brilliantly conveys the insecurity and frustration of a woman who’s walked away from one unsatisfactory marriage only to find herself in another. And although the characterisation of Daisy takes an unfortunate late slide into psychobabble, Kate Lamb (a young actress to watch) is spot-on as the daddy’s girl.

Some moments fail to completely convince - the growing intimacy between Graham and Katy, in particular - and the play’s contemporary allusions - Lady Gaga, The X Factor - occasionally feel pat. But Lewis’s spry production nicely conveys the shifts in tone of his writing, as the mood moves from broad comedy to contemplation, with the action underscored by classical pieces that range from jaunty, brisk baroque to the intense drama of Schubert’s Winterreise (“a good break-up CD,” in Paul’s definition). And the production’s truly delicious closing moments, which leave one character alone on stage and make the best use of The Ronettes’s “Be My Baby” since the opening of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, are perfectly judged. Lewis’s play has its glib and undeveloped elements, but at its best it reflects wittily and poignantly on the way we live now.

The production runs for 2 hours 20 minutes and is booking until November 5. Further information at the Orange Tree website.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Covered Girls: Tori Amos and the Art of Reinterpretation

Alongside the many diverse self-penned compositions that she has produced throughout her prolific career, cover versions of other artists’ songs have always occupied a particularly important place in Tori Amos’s live and recorded repertoire. A survey of the songs that Amos has covered over the years reveals an extraordinary diversity, one rivalled by very few artists in contemporary music. Her covers span material from most of the 20th century, encompassing everything from nursery rhymes, show tunes, musical hall and jazz standards, through protest songs, spirituals, folk, carols and pop to heavy metal, rap and grunge, and now the adaptations of classical pieces that form the basis of her superb new album Night of Hunters [review here]. Amos has consistently performed other artists' songs in concert, as well as on the peerless collection of B-Sides that she produced throughout the 1990s, and on her 2001 concept album Strange Little Girls. Ten years on seems an appropriate moment to celebrate that important album, and to place it in the context of Amos’s reinterpretations of others' songs throughout her career.

Despite their diversity, Amos’s choice of covers has seldom seemed random or indiscriminate. Indeed, Amos has emphasised that she will only perform a cover if she feels that she can contribute something new to the song in question. Part of what makes her most successful performances of others’ material so compelling, I’d suggest, is that they come off less as straightforward cover versions than as carefully thought out reinterpretations, which seek to add another dimension to the original version and, sometimes, to radically subvert its meanings. An Amos cover is not necessarily an act of tribute to the song in question, nor does it represent a simple diversion for her from the “real graft” of original composition. Rather, it is a more complex encounter between an extant text and an artist who is expert at approaching songs from unusual angles and infusing them with her unique spirit and interpretive skills.

That interpretive expertise was honed during Amos's childhood recitals and her formative “piano bar” years playing lounges and clubs and taking requests from sometimes appreciative but often indifferent audiences. While Amos has commented upon the difficulty of these years and the frustration that she experienced in performing the likes of “Send In The Clowns” and “Feelings” every night, she seems to have come to acknowledge the importance of this period for her creative development, and has suggested that she learnt much about song structure, stage presence and performer/audience dynamics during this time.

However, the recording that first alerted the wider world to Amos’s special skills of reinterpretation was of course 1992’s “Crucify” E.P. on which intense piano-and-vocal covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” and, most famously, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” succeeded in stripping back these rock songs - two classics and one soon-to-be classic - to uncover nuances and vulnerabilities previously obscured within the originals. These three haunting renditions set the standard for Amos's future cover versions with their mixture of care, intelligence, and impudence. In particular, by boldly transforming Nirvana’s raging anthem into a classically inflected piano ballad Amos offered a timely demonstration that hardcore emotion may be expressed through quietness and economy as well as volume. A female musician performing the song in this way constituted a provocative challenge to grunge’s masculine ethos, proving, in the words of James Hunter in Rolling Stone, that the genre’s “blend of emotional distress and sonic kicks represented a state of mind as much as a guitar sound.”

Although primarily a showcase for her original material, Amos’s Little Earthquakes tour included performances of all the “Crucify” E.P. B-sides plus her favourite Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.” A trio of equally distinctive covers then appeared on the special edition single for “Cornflake Girl”: Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday. “To show that all things are possible, and permissible, for me as a singer-songwriter,” Amos explained when asked by Joe Jackson in Hot Press why she had selected these songs specifically; she went on to stress the importance of each of these artists to her own development as a performer and composer. Her take on the Hendrix song was particularly striking, with her piano played through a Marshall amp in order to create a discordant electric guitar-style motif, a move that prefigured the kind of keyboard experimentation that she would develop across Boys For Pele (1996). 

1994’s mammoth Pink tour found Amos introducing the likes of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and a selection of Beatles tracks into her repertoire, while her measured take on “Famous Blue Raincoat” was one of the highlights of the patchy Leonard Cohen tribute album Tower of Song in the same year. Discussing her version of the Cohen track, Amos talked for the first time about entering a song through the perspective of one of its characters, in this case “Jane” whom she envisaged discovering the letter which is described and transcribed within Cohen’s lyrics. This character-based approach would become increasingly important to her later cover versions.

By the release of the Boys For Pele singles, fans had come to expect something special in the way of Tori-fied covers and were not disappointed as, in a particularly left-field move, Amos turned her attention to the work of cult Cockney duo Chas & Dave, relishing the tongue-twisting lyrics of “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” - with its homages to fellow piano virtuosos Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis - and offering a sultry yet wry take on “London Girls.” “This Old Man,” meanwhile, became an ambiguous, rather menacing piece with undertones of emotional and physical violence. Unsurprisingly, the accompanying Dew Drop Inn tour included some of her weirdest covers - everything from “Kumbaya,” “Blue Moon” and Stephen Forster’s “Oh Susannah” to The Cure’s “Love Song” and a riff on Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is).” (Yes, really.)

On this tour, too, Amos developed her practice of occasionally pairing others’ songs with her own, performing, for example, a short section of Björk’s “Hyperballad” before “Butterfly” and turning Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” into a prelude for the Pretty Hate Machine-referencing “Caught A Lite Sneeze.” This novel idea allowed her to create some fascinating “sonic dialogues” between her work and that of her song-writing peers and demonstrated her gift for linking songs both thematically and emotionally. Sadly, few of these performances were recorded for posterity beyond bootlegs but 1996’s “Hey Jupiter” E.P. did offer one special rendition: namely, the priceless moment when Amos achieves the feat of silencing a group of particularly rowdy, baying fans with a breathtakingly fragile version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

The choirgirl and To Venus and Back sessions yielded fewer cover versions, though a spaced-out “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and a memorably histrionic take on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” both proved effective B-Sides to the “Spark” singles. But just as fans may have been wondering whether her interest in performing others’ work was waning, Amos returned with her most ambitious, controversial and divisive covers project yet: her 2001 album Strange Little Girls.

Amos's covers have often reflected her commitment to giving listeners an insight into what the male-drawn map of rock music history looks like when approached from a female performer’s point of view. Nowhere was this commitment clearer than on Strange Little Girls, which saw Amos reinterpret twelve male-authored tracks from the perspectives of an assortment of female characters, developed in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. While we now know that this album was in part a way for Amos to fulfil her contractual obligations to Atlantic without providing them with any original songs, it’s also immediately apparent that the work goes far beyond this. For Strange Little Girls emerges from Amos's concerns with the definitions of gender roles and the sometimes questionable construction of female characters in contemporary songs by men.

In Piece by Piece Amos explained the album’s genesis in typically vivid terms. “[P]eople were talking to me about how popular music was getting more violent,” she claimed. “Male songwriters were saying these really malicious things … Neil, Mark [Hawley] and I really felt, as I was nursing my little girl child in my arms right before Christmas in the year 2000, that a generalized image of the antiwoman, antigay heterosexual man had hijacked Western male heterosexuality and brought it to the mediocrity of the moment. At its core, this perverted male image was filled with malice and getting high off swallowing its own violent ejaculation.”

Reinventing the covers album as concept album, Strange Little Girls presents itself as Amos’s response to the casual violence and homophobic and misogynistic messages which, she felt, were being expressed in popular song at the beginning of the 21st century. The carefully chosen and researched covers featured on the album included such alpha-male anthems as The Stranglers’ “Strange Little Girl,” Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” and, most notoriously, Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” his infamous rap about murdering a troublesome wife and involving a young daughter in the disposal of the body.

Extremely well-structured, the album linked its songs via a number of themes and motifs, with issues of language and silencing, and images of guns and violence, recurring. The most successful of the performances once more demonstrated Amos’s gift for subverting a song from within, as she turned the “Just the two of us” refrain in Eminem’s song into a ghostly mother-to-daughter message, exposed the emotional cruelty of 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love,” and transformed “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” into a gun-lobby debate. She also gave The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” a chillingly innocent reading at odds with the disturbing lyrics, and transformed Neil Young’s placid “Heart of Gold” into a feral squall. Other interpretations were more reverent: an intimate take on Tom Waits’ “Time,” a moving rendition of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes,” and a subtle, wry version of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” were among the album's highlights. Each track, however, reflected Amos’s skill in sliding into songs from unusual angles, thereby finding fresh dimensions in the material and challenging listeners to view these tracks in new ways.

Not all critics were up for this. While Amos’s earlier covers had generally met with acclaim, the response to Strange Little Girls was much more mixed. Reviews of the album ranged from the enthusiastic through the ambivalent to the openly hostile. Arguably these latter responses - often expressed in terms which labelled Amos a desecrator of the work of male song-writing “geniuses” - reflected some of the prejudices that the album itself was seeking to expose, revealing the sexism of some rock journalists and their knee-jerk antagonism to any project which might be described as feminist.

Certainly, Strange Little Girls can be viewed in the context of the issues raised by second-wave feminists who critiqued male representations of women and descriptions of sexual violence in contemporary literature. The innovation of Strange Little Girls is to extend this debate into the realm of rock, and to recognise popular music as one of the primary cultural spheres in which gender roles get played out and patriarchal ideology disseminated. If this makes the album sound dry, worthy or overly academic then think again: Strange Little Girls is consistently dynamic, varied and musically exciting, employing a range of instruments and arrangements and benefiting from some of Amos’s most compelling and original singing. Her performances were supplemented by Gaiman’s brilliant “Portraits of Girls” narratives, and with the stylist/make-up team of Karen Binns and Kevyn Aucoin on hand to aid her metamorphoses, Amos produced a subversive and rewarding album that deserves reappraisal as one of her best achievements.  Meanwhile, in a fun piece for Q magazine, Amos picked 18 songs by women that she’d like to see male artists perform, her suggestions including Janis Joplin’s “Get It While You Can,” Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavours” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Of the last track Amos commented: “I think E from the Eels could do this well … alone at the keyboard. No drums. Spooky.”

While the elaborate Strange Little Girls seems likely to represent the apex of Amos’s recorded covers, her most recent tours have seen her continuing to engage with the work of other songwriters in compelling ways. The Scarlet's Walk tour included some incredible covers, not least a thrilling mash-up of "Pancake" and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio", while the Piano Bar section of her solo 2005 Summer of Sin tour was the most overt homage yet to her formative “lounge performer” years in the 1970s/80s, with fans invited to submit requests to her via her website. (With the proviso that the song choices “didn’t suck.”) This led to some amazing reinterpretations of never-before-played, often city-specific material. Many of these performances were made available on the Original Bootlegs series [review here], where listeners discovered Amos breathing new emotional intensity into Jim Croce’s “Operator,” spontaneously turning Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” into an anti-Morrissey rant, and investing “Like A Prayer” with more genuine sexual and spiritual fervour than Madonna could hope to muster. “I’ve gotten into this weird 80s thing,” she confessed to one audience, a fact which explained the appearance of songs such as “I Ran,” “Livin’ On A Prayer” and “Bette Davis Eyes” in her sets.

Although less central, covers also formed a significant part of 2007’s American Doll Posse tour, with the reappearance of gems such as “Carnival,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” "Daniel," and “I’m On Fire” - plus the mind-boggling proposition of the ADP characters “covering” Amos’s own songs in the opening section of the shows.

Overall, then, Amos’s reinterpretations make up a substantial part of her contribution to contemporary music. From nursery rhymes to heavy metal, grunge to goofy comedy songs, raps to Christmas carols, and her current inventive adaptations of the classical repertoire, her covers reflect her wide assimilation of musical influences and her gift for selecting intriguing material, and have complemented her original work in extremely interesting ways. Beginning by stripping back the songs, her approaches have become increasingly experimental, and she has proved herself capable not only of performing an amazingly diverse range of material but also of transforming it in her own inventive style. Her best covers make you reassess your relationship to a given song, challenging your perspective and inviting you to see qualities previously overlooked. It’s also likely that her reinterpretations have led her fans to investigate bands and artists that they might never have discovered otherwise. Most importantly, perhaps, her covers reflect her serious commitment to being a performer within a community, an artist with a strong sense of heritage and tradition, and one who is closely engaged in a musical conversation with the work of both her song-writing predecessors and her peers.

For this reason, it’s a genuine shame that her own work has been neglected by other artists. An Amos-covers wish-list immediately springs to mind. Imagine Radiohead tackling “iieee” or “Lust.” Antony and the Johnsons taking on “Pretty Good Year.” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds trying their hand at “Professional Widow.” Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris duetting on “Playboy Mommy.” Prince performing “Body and Soul.” Eminem responding to “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” with a version of “Little Amsterdam.” Well, maybe some day. In the meantime, covers remain an integral part of Amos’s own creative life, and, with her new tour having just opened with a beautiful excursion into The Joshua Tree (see below), we wait expectantly to see where her explorations with others’ songs might lead her next.

Theatre Review: Farewell to the Theatre/The Importance of Being Earnest (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

The Autumn season at Kingston’s Rose Theatre opens with a double-bill of sorts that intriguingly pairs one classic, oft-performed play, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, with another that’s receiving its (rather belated) world premiere, Harley Granville Barker’s 1916 one-acter Farewell to the Theatre.

Directed by the Rose’s Artistic Director Stephen Unwin and starring Jane Asher, the two productions play in rep. However, their pairing doesn’t seem to have been motivated by any particular deep connection between the two pieces, beyond what Unwin has termed his “perverse pleasure [in tackling] one play especially conceived for the proscenium arch … and another about saying goodbye to that kind of theatre forever.”

Farewell to the Theatre - which is also, rather confusingly, the title chosen by Richard Nelson for his forthcoming play about Granville Barker at Hampstead Theatre - takes the form of a duologue between an actress, Dorothy (Asher), and her lawyer, Edward (Richard Cordery), whom she meets to discuss her possible retirement. Dorothy has grown to distain the business of soliciting money to get plays put on, and as the pair discuss the financial prospects (none too good) of the production that she is about to appear in, the play touches upon the protagonists’ personal and professional regrets, finally broadening out into a wider discussion of changes in the theatre and the function of the artist.

Reflecting Granville Barker’s own concerns about the direction of the theatre at the turn-of-the-century, it’s easy to see the appeal of Farewell to the Theatre to those “in the business.” But the play’s musings on theatrical matters may hold less appeal for general audiences. Unwin’s production is competently performed, with Asher stylish and Cordery warm and wry, and it generates more interest towards the end, when the discussion takes a philosophical turn. But the overall effect is static and slightly smug; Granville Barker may be concerned with the function of the theatre here, but what he has produced feels in form and concept more like a radio play.

Happily, The Importance of Being Earnest proves a much more successful and engaging experience. The play is, of course, invariably a pleasure and Unwin’s production has genuine charm. Designed with unobtrusive elegance by Hayden Griffin, the approach is very much in the traditional mould of, say, Peter Hall’s The Rivals rather than the po-mo stylistic revisionism of a Deborah Warner School for Scandal. Unwin and his team offer an unfussy, no-nonsense take on a play whose most famous lines are by now so well known that the audience laughs in anticipation of them.

Still, the production feels vivid and fresh. Asher’s Lady Bracknell could do with a little more vocal heft at times, but her lines zing anyway, and she has some superb moments, not least the classic scene in which she interrogates Jack (the excellent Daniel Brocklebank).

Asher is also well supported by Bruce Mackinnon, who’s a delightful Algernon. Making her professional debut as Cecily, Jenny Rainsford takes a little while to warm up, but her central scene with Kirsty Besterman’s superb Gwendolen is perfectly played. And there’s amusing work from Walter Van Dyk, doubling as the butlers Merriman and Lane, from Cordery as Rev. Canon Chasuble, and from Ishia Bennison who adorably turns Miss Prism’s prudery into a form of flirtatiousness. Two lengthy intervals slow the evening a little more than is necessary. But this remains an accomplished and very enjoyable production that keeps you giggling contentedly throughout.

The productions run until 30 October. Further information at the Rose website.

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Monday 3 October 2011

Theatre Review: Othello (Sheffield Crucible)

At the Sheffield Crucible, Daniel Evans directs a highly accomplished Othello that’s notable for its clarity, pace and excellent performances. Evans has pulled off something of a casting coup in reuniting two of the stars of HBO’s The Wire (a series whose intricacies have sometimes been described as Shakespearean) for this production, which pits Dominic West’s Iago against Clarke Peters’s Othello. That billing is all that Evans has needed to ensure a sell-out run, but the production’s success is fully deserved, for this is a stark, sharp and powerful staging that grips and involves from beginning to end.

Fresh from his brilliant star-turn in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Butley, West delivers another scintillating performance here. Employing a broad Yorkshire accent to underscore the confidence-inspiring “hail-fellow-well-met” persona that’s central to his Iago, the actor gives a vivid, characterful interpretation. There have been more perverse and chilling Iagos than this but few that have been more convincing and persuasive as successful manipulators, and West unearths a surprising amount of humour in the role too, while not stinting on the underlying bitterness. He’s well-matched by Peters whose Othello has gravitas and tragic grandeur, and who movingly conveys the character’s deep love for Desdemona (a touching, fervent Lily James) in a way that makes the tragedy feel both inevitable and deeply shocking. And, while Colin George's Brabantio is a mite feeble and Leigh McDonald's Bianca somewhat shrill,  there’s good work from Gwilym Lee as Cassio and from Brodie Ross as an amusingly lachrymose Roderigo.

And then there’s Alexandra Gilbreath as Emilia. At times, Gilbreath seems to be doing a tad too much in this relatively minor role: her incredible voice, with its exhilarating depths and husky layers, turns the simplest, most straightforward of lines into sweeping, grandiose pronouncements. But her big moments here - from the tenderness with which she invests the “willow” scene and the quiet passion of her plea for female equality to her grief at Desdemona’s murder and fierce denunciation of the men at the end - leave you in no doubt that she’s one of the most magnetic actresses that we currently have the privilege to see on stage. This Emilia starts out as a (slightly frustrated) bawd, and Gilbreath is especially adorable when popping Desdemona’s handkerchief into her cleavage for Iago to find and declaring “I have a thing for you.” But the clarity with which the actress charts Emilia's increase in awareness and refusal to “obey” turns the character into the heroine of the evening, in a production that restores vibrancy and power to even the play’s most familiar, shop-worn moments. Who needs HBO?

Sheffield Theatres website here.