Monday 26 November 2012

The Wheel Is Come Full Circle: Interview with Kieran Bew at One Stop Arts

The Almeida must have begun to feel like something of a second home to Kieran Bew by now: in the past 18 months he's acted in three shows at the theatre. Firstly, in what Susannah Clapp termed "a feministly thrilling cast-list," Bew played all the male roles, no less, in David Eldridge's addiction drama The Knot of the Heart. He then brilliantly brought to life an archetypal example of LaButean maleness as Kent in Reasons to be Pretty. And last month he finished playing a witty, wily Edmund in Michael Attenborough's production of King Lear, with Jonathan Pryce. Though currently busy filming a 5-part BBC drama series, Kieran kindly took the time to talk to One Stop Arts about his experiences in King Lear, reflecting on the particular pleasures and demands of the play, on what he likes most about performing at the Almeida, and on why playing Edmund can sometimes make an actor feel a little bit like Bill Hicks.
AR: King Lear remains one of the most highly regarded and frequently performed of Shakespeare's tragedies. What do you think are the reasons for the play's reputation? 
KB: I think given the scale of the play, the ambitiousness of what he covers and the size of the cast, the reputation of the play is understandable. Before I read it, many people referred to it as their favourite play. I couldn't pinpoint one thing specifically, but perhaps it's the family: two families torn apart by money, greed, power. It's those base human desires that distract us from what really matters in life. Of course, the poetry's not bad either.
How would you describe the arc or journey that Edmund undergoes in the play? 
Edmund is damaged; he is chronically human, fallible and hurting. I'd say it's a tragedy. If you label and mistreat people, they will become reactive. He has the capacity to be evil, but there is provocation. The vacuum created by Lear's actions gives him fertile ground to slither through. I'm not saying his evil deeds are legitimate or right, but I believe Shakespeare is warning us about the nature of prejudice.
How much fun was it to play the villain of the piece? 
It is enormously fun to play the villain. They are often the engine of drama, and Shakespeare takes the edge off the severity of his deeds with the soliloquies. Ingratiating yourself with the audience with wit and charm helps keep it theatrical and fun for the audience. He's the anti-hero – hopefully; each performance is different. Otherwise he would be unbearably brutal and cruel. 
Was there anything that you found surprising or unexpected about the play during the rehearsal period or in performance?
I found the journey of Kent to be incredibly moving. When you read a play with your character in mind you tend to concentrate on that. Watching Ian Gelder's very delicate portrayal of Kent was wonderful. Obviously Lear going mad is what people talk about, but seeing this friend, caring and desperately trying to reach a man who is slipping away was very beautiful. Those who care for the mentally ill, suffering through their love, it's quite brilliantly observed. 
Is there a line/scene/moment that you particularly looked forward to performing every night?
I would look forward to the second scene, it has three soliloquies! Edmund lays down his case for action, asking the audience to go with him. He makes a very compelling argument with his first speech. The second is in prose and sometimes feels like a bit of a Bill Hicks stand-up routine. The challenge is of course in the live aspect of theatre; what worked and was charming last night may not necessarily work the next. That's why I love doing theatre. I might fall on my arse but at least I'm going to go for it.
Did anything surprise you about Edmund as a character, or about the audience reaction to him and the production generally?
In rehearsals, I found playing Edmund strangely lonely. He is incredibly quick-witted. He suits the manipulation to the person he is with so deftly, that you can end up feeling slightly hollow afterwards. Of course he feels elated with his success, but it's hard to separate your own feelings on the moment. Most of the time he plants the language of treason or doubt very delicately, and then uses his victims' paranoia or anger against them, like Iago. His vocabulary echoes theirs to create a feeling of collusion and trust. He is brilliant. But it can leave you feeling a little isolated. I'd have a soliloquy which, after five weeks rehearsing it to the wall, I was desperate to talk to the audience. Once we began performing, the interaction of the theatre was just wonderful. It's the third character you are missing in rehearsals, and suddenly there are so many more possibilities. Audiences at best participate in the action, and at the Almeida, even with the intimacy of the space they were not afraid to show their allegiance or distain. It's really fun having that push-and-pull with them. It was the same with Kent in Reasons to be Pretty and the reporter in The Knot of the Heart
The audience reaction to the "incestuous" aspect of our show was surprising. I was largely unaware of that colour given Edmund is in the other thread of the play. Sometimes with a classic, particularly one which so many people have studied at school, there is a great sense of ownership as to what a play should be about. Shakespeare has such depth and is so multi-layered that there will be thousands of productions highlighting some bits and not others.
I also think it's great if the work is provocative and gets people thinking and talking. In the last two plays I did at the Almeida, there was plenty to get upset about. Its good when people's ideas are challenged, not in a gratuitous way, but surely that's what theatre is for, to get us thinking and debating?
Unlike many current productions of Shakespeare plays, your production was traditional: it didn't seek to make obvious parallels with the modern world or "current events". As an actor, what's your attitude to modern-dress productions of Shakespeare? Do you have a preference for modern or more traditional approaches? 
It's strange that the word "traditional" gets used almost as a derogatory term. Our play was set in a nowhere time, really, a pagan-esque world with swords, wheelchairs and electric lighting. I loved the asylum-like feel of the castle.
For me the most important thing about the play and the interpretation is the human element. Clarity: Do you relate to this? Do you identify as a human being? Shakespeare has written these extraordinary, well-rounded, flawed, contradictory people. They are us. If a concept or a setting is getting in the way of you hearing the play or the poetry, what's the point? 
I don't think Shakespeare needs to be updated or signposted with a modern setting necessarily, but of course it's wonderful to see the parallels. Greg Doran's Julius Caesar and Ralph Fiennes' film of Coriolanus for example, I thought were brilliant. And I loved the setting Tom [Scutt] and Mike [Attenborough] chose for King Lear. It allows you to play the play. Having said that, I'd love to do Shakespeare set in space... can anyone make that happen? 
Do you remember the first Shakespeare play or production that had an impact on you as a reader/audience member? 
The first play to have a major impact on me was Richard II. I asked an English teacher from my school to help pick scenes for my audition. I had never even heard of it. He chose a few soliloquies and I just fell in love with it. The complexity of language and poetry were totally new to me. I struggled with spelling and English at school; I was intimidated and felt like it wasn't something I was capable of doing. I had terrible marks in my work. Acting changed that completely. I found that once I was speaking it and seeing it as people rather than an academic exercise, I could learn. Before that it was incredibly frustrating. 
I watched the Derek Jacobi version filmed for the BBC and thought yep, that's what I want to do. Coriolanus was another, I studied it at drama school and learned most of it off by heart. I used to carry copies of both around with me.
You've performed at the Almeida in several different shows now. What do you like most - or find most challenging - about the space? 
I love the intimacy of the Almeida; the staff are so friendly and it has such a great history of shows. I feel very lucky to have been part of it while Mike Attenborough has been in charge. I think what I enjoy most is the warmth of the space; you are close to the audience but still on a "stage". You can really feel the temperature of the audience. Which, of course, with a play dealing with heroin abuse, was incredibly moving. Thank god I had some moments of comedy in that one. In Neil LaBute's play, I could actually feel the hatred emanating from the female audience members. There was a line I had which would shift them from, "Oh, he is a lovable douchebag" to "I want to cut off that guy's nuts!" Getting to chat and befriend them as Edmund was great fun. It's a very cool theatre.


Friday 23 November 2012

Theatre Review: Headlong's Medea (Richmond, & touring)

There’s just one very good reason to see Headlong’s Medea, which updates and relocates Euripides’s tragedy to contemporary England. It’s not Ruari Murchison’s set design – clever though it is – which places the characters variously inside and outside an archetypal two-storey suburban home that opens and shuts like a large doll’s house. And it’s certainly not Mike Bartlett’s text, by far the weakest element of the enterprise. The reason to see the show is, simply, Rachael Stirling, blazing and brilliant in a great performance that overrides some – though, alas, not all – of the problematic elements of the production.

Red-haired here and by turns husky, harsh and velvet-voiced, Stirling’s Medea dominates – as every good Medea surely should – from her first appearance, with Stirling’s vocal resemblance to her mother Diana Rigg (who of course played the role to great acclaim in the early 1990s) adding another layer to the performance. Bartlett, who also directs the production, makes the character palpably an “outsider” figure in her community, a woman who’s about to be evicted from the house she shared with her husband Jason (Adam Levy), the latter having left her for their landlord’s daughter, Kate, who he’s going to marry. This event has made the couple’s son Tom mute and sent Medea herself into a black depression that’s interspersed with tirades against her errant ex and against a woman’s lot in general.

By turns proud and paranoid, bitter and desperate, Stirling “kills” in the role. But if only every element in Barlett’s production were as strong. It’s not so much the modernising that’s the problem – indeed, it could be argued that Bartlett hasn’t been as radical as he might have been in his adaptation of the text – but simply that the writing isn’t adequate to the task at hand. Complete with references to Strictly Come Dancing and Richard Curtis flicks, the dialogue is sub-soap opera standard for the most part, but there are occasional lurches into a more heightened mode. Medea reminds Jason about saving him from “the Grecian sea” and pauses at one moment to muse: “Is everything preordained? Do you believe in fate?” These jarring juxtapositions mean that the production struggles to find a suitable tone. For the most part, it’s more comic than tragic, and the OTT final moments simply haven’t earned the emotion that they evidently seek to incite.

There’s the odd effective episode, notably a touching late scene between Medea and her ever-silent son, but a couple of moments feel like indulgences (a painful cookery scene scored to Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” for one). Overall, the familiarity of the context tends to dampen rather than accentuate the tragic dimension of the piece, and, for all its contemporary allusions, Bartlett’s adaptation gives startlingly little insight into what might motivate an infanticide.

Since Medea is provided with an escape route – courtesy of a kindly neighbour (Paul Shelley, the only cast member to give a performance that’s a match for Stirling’s) – it might have been more effective if Bartlett had not had his heroine wreak vengeance – or at least not in the unconvincing manner in which it happens here – thereby subverting our expectations and providing this Medea with a different fate. It’s a tactic that may have proved more in keeping with the overall tone of the production, for as it stands this Headlong plunge into Greek Tragedy proves a disappointment, albeit one that’s just about worth seeing for Stirling’s commanding work.

At Richmond Theatre until 24th November. Further information at Headlong's website.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Theatre Review: Love's Comedy (Orange Tree)

Sarah Winter and Mark Arends in Love's Comedy. Photo: Robert Day
From the Rose’s The Lady from the Sea to the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House and the Old Vic’s Hedda Gabler, 2012 can’t be said to have stinted London theatregoers on (excellent) Ibsen productions. But - last year’s Emperor and Galilean at the NT notwithstanding - it’s fallen to our smallest fringe venues to alight upon (some may say “dredge up”) the playwright’s earlier, lesser-known work. First off the block was the Jermyn Street Theatre with its revival of St. John’s Night and now the Orange Tree are producing Love’s Comedy. Ibsen’s 1862 verse drama and “first play of modern life” wasn’t performed in the UK until 1963, and is only now receiving its first professional London production. The willingness of these venues to think outside the box and stage such seldom-seen plays is admirable, of course. But while David Antrobus’s production has some charming and engaging moments it doesn’t entirely assuage the suspicion that there’s a reason why this particular work - deemed “immoral” upon its Norwegian premiere - may subsequently have been left to languish. As Raymond Williams suggests in Drama From Ibsen to Brecht: “It is a play of considerable incidental talent, but it shows more clearly than ever the false position into which Ibsen had been driven by his acceptance of contemporary theatrical techniques.”

The setting is the country-house of the widowed Mrs. Halm, where two students, Falk and Lind, are staying, wooing their host’s two daughters, Anna and Svanhild. Falk, a passionate, guitar-wielding aesthete who criticises bourgeois values in his poetry, initially finds his proposal to the quiet but free-thinking Svanhild rejected on the grounds that she doesn’t want to be his muse, and that writing is no substitute for action. But when a discussion of love ends with Falk denouncing his apparently happily-hitched hosts as hypocrites Svanhild is favourably impressed, and she and Falk plan to defy the family and run off together.

Had Ibsen concluded proceedings here the play would have been a rather pleasing miniature. But a draggy third act tests the patience and the decision that Swanhild and Falk finally come to - spurred by the intervention of a rich businessman, Guldstad - seems more perverse than poignant. The play is, as Williams suggests, an odd hybrid of elements, and Don Carleton’s translation proves erratic in its rendering of the language: sometimes spry and witty, often clunky and obtrusive.

Boasting a fairly fetching Munch-inspired design by Sam Dowson, Antrobus's production strives for a musical rhythm and achieves it in a few scattered moments. The highlight comes at the end of the first half, with the discourse on love undertaken as a kind of symphony by the cast that’s then interrupted by Falk’s great denunciation of the group. But the final developments have a depressive sting, and the heavy-handed combination of mockery and melancholy makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Clearly, at the time of Love’s Comedy’s composition, Ibsen still had some way to go in order to become the master of irony which so much of his later work would prove him.

Last seen rocking five roles at the Orange Tree in the superb Yours for the Asking, Antrobus does a creditable job of work in his first outing as director and gets some entertaining performances from the ensemble. In his effort to capture Falk’s high-strung passion Mark Arends over-pitches his turn a tad, but he has some effective moments. Stuart Fox is amusing as the pontificating pastor who started out as a revolutionary but now has settled into the establishment and the (seemingly endless) production of offspring, and there’s sharp work on the sidelines from James Joyce, from Amy Neilson Smith and Mark Oosterveen, and from Jonathan Tafler as Guldstad. And the appealing Sarah Winter - so good as the betrayed fiancée in the Finborough’s recent Hindle Wakes - once again brings a particular glowing candour to the stage as Svanhild. But none of that can quite make up for the fact that this is a play in which the heroine has to declare to her lover - straight-faced - “What strength there is in you, my magic oak!”

How you feel about a line like that will very much determine how you'll feel about Love’s Comedy, overall. Its primary interest lies in seeing Ibsen initiating the critique of conventional thinking, women’s position and marriage that would become central to his best work. But the patchiness of the piece makes Antrobus’s production a mildly intriguing curio rather than the great discovery one may have hoped for.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. The production is booking until 15th December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday 12 November 2012

Film Review: Amour (Haneke, 2012)

I gravitated, at this year’s London Film Festival, towards several films focusing upon elderly characters dealing with illness and decline. Due to various family circumstances this year, such films have a special resonance for me just now, more than works focusing upon my “own” generation tend to have. In its intelligence, its intensity, its subtlety and its deep compassion, Michael Haneke’s Amour simply blows the other films I saw out of the water, exposing the likes of Quartet and Song for Marion as the shallow exercises in uplift that they are. Amour had such a profound impact on me that I’ve delayed writing about it; I felt overwhelmed for quite a while after the screening, and I’m not sure that I’ve recovered from it yet, having found myself reduced to tears at the oddest moments in the past few weeks, when a scene, line or image from the movie resurfaced in my mind. I’m not sure, either, that there’s really any way to do this film justice, other than to simply say: “Don’t miss it.” Still, the following remarks represent an attempt to get beyond that clichéd - though entirely heartfelt - exhortation and to try to express a little more about what makes this film so rich and haunting, and so essential.

It could have been called A Man and a Woman - had not Claude Lelouch already used that title for his iconic 1960s romance. Haneke’s stark style is about as far as can be imagined from Lelouch’s chic ‘n’ glossy visual blitz. But the title fits because Amour, too, is an intimate portrait of a couple - specific in detail yet timeless in feeling - and one that stars one of A Man and a Woman’s actors, to boot. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (53 years on from her debut in an another film with amour on its mind) play Haneke’s latest “Georges and Anne” incarnation, here a middle-class, long-married pair of former music teachers dealing with Anne’s gradual decline following a series of strokes. Returning home in a wheelchair after her initial hospital stay, Anne gently requests that Georges doesn’t allow her to return to a care facility and instead looks after her at home. The film follows his attempts to fulfil that promise, with the help of kindly neighbours and not-always-kindly nurses. “We’ve always coped, your mother and I,” Georges reminds the couple’s daughter Eva (superb Isabelle Huppert), who arrives at the flat periodically, offering tears, concern and accusation but not much in the way of practical help. But Anne’s heart-rending deterioration - from wheelchair-bound to bed-ridden, from eloquence to incoherence - proves, for Georges, an ultimate test of love.

Amour is, by some margin, Haneke’s most interior movie to date, his most distilled, his most intimate, and - as critics have not been slow to point out - his most tender. Apart from a few early scenes - brief but crucial in establishing a sense of the day-to-day normality of the couple’s life that Anne’s illness will disrupt - the entire film plays out within the walls of Anne and Georges’s Paris apartment. However, despite Haneke’s background in the theatre, and the attention to spatial dynamics that it evidently fostered, there’s nothing remotely stagy about the director’s approach here. Rather, Amour establishes - and sustains - an intensity that is entirely cinematic. Less self-conscious about spectatorship than much of Haneke’s output - though at one moment Georges, describing Anne’s worsening condition, notes, poignantly, that “none of this should be shown” - Haneke’s approach is at once discreet and unflinching. His mastery of technique and peerless rhythmic sense keep the viewer in a state of absolute alertness throughout. And if his intention continues to be to combat the "mediatisation" of experience by encouraging us to perceive reality "better" then there’s no surer evidence of his success than the attentive, discerning and - yes - loving gaze that Amour inspires.

Our supreme anatomist of fraught interaction in the contemporary city thus becomes a master of huis clos, then. But the movement feels less like a retreat than a confrontation. For Amour must rank as one of the most fearless examinations of mortality the screen has ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film that conveys with more rasping poignancy the experience of watching a loved one languish, and of being their care-taker. Or, of course, of being the person being taken care of. What we witness is the progressive deterioration of a woman into a wraith, deprived of speech and control over her body.

As Amour maps that trajectory with scrupulous sensitivity, scene after scene rings with resonant, telling detail, as well as a cumulative sense of the protagonists’ history together. For what the movie also offers is a rarity in itself: an un-idealised portrait of a loving marriage. As Michał Oleszczyk points out in a characteristically astute comparison: “In contrast to such works of comfy denial as Mike Leigh’s Another Year, [Haneke’s] aging couple… is present[ed] as both affectionate toward each other and as struggling to preserve the level of affection that we observe. Despite the near-constant civility of their on-screen exchanges, there are hints at past wounds that never get developed, but retain their prickling force nevertheless.” Amour’s scenes-from-a-marriage therefore feel so much more honest than Another Year’s, giving the viewer more space for interpretation, and avoiding the broad brush strokes to which Leigh’s movie so damagingly succumbed. Wearing the weight of their history of screen performances very lightly, Trintignant and Riva perform their duet with consummate skill and absolute emotional bravery. You believe in them completely as a couple, and if there have been finer performances than theirs on screen this year then I’ve yet to see them.

Amour presents a paradox, ending up both translucent and ineffably mysterious. Some moments - best left un-specified here - make you wince in pain. Others - more rare, admittedly - surprise you into laughter. “His British humour is only bearable in small doses,” Anne notes of Eva’s partner, played by William Shimmell, here establishing himself, after Certified Copy, as every auteur’s go-to English guy. (And I think, even if I didn’t already admire Haneke as much as I do, I’d be his fan forever just for writing that single line.) Throughout Haneke keeps faith with the texture of everyday life - albeit with some jarring excursions into Geoges’s mind at moments. And he and DP Darius Khondji make the apartment itself a felt presence too; we’re made aware, from the very first frame, of its walls and furnishings, its passages and doorways, and, most pointedly and poignantly, of the characters' presence or absence within that space.

The tone of many of the reviews of Amour has been “Ah ha! So Haneke has a heart after all!” (Catherine Wheatley, one of the director’s most insightful critics, praises him here for “piling on none of the scorn that he has heaped on previous protagonists of his films.”) Haneke's reputation as some audience-punishing sadist has never made for a perfect fit, in my view, but it’s certainly true that Amour constitutes the most significant rebuttal to that accusation. It’s also true that the film’s final scenes are endowed with a quiet, unstressed sense of transcendence and grace that is new for the director, and that leaves the viewer equal parts humbled and floored.

For all the praise that the film is getting, the very subject matter of Amour will be enough to put some viewers off and to doubtless get the movie dismissed as a downer in certain quarters. Haneke isn’t, of course, a director to sweeten the pill; there is, indeed, no “comfy denial” or, worse, any “ain’t-it-funny-when-old-people-talk-about-sex” banter (a current pet peeve for yours truly) that lesser filmmakers might feel obliged to include as a pacifier. But the steadiness of Haneke's gaze, the radiant intelligence of his insights and the sheer humanity of his vision, mean that Amour generates its own kind of joy. A film that goes so very deep is not only a rarity in our current culture; it’s a gift. And so: Don’t miss it.

Friday 9 November 2012

Theatre Review: People (National Theatre)

It’s surely one of the odder cultural spats of recent years: Alan Bennett versus the National Trust. The bone of contention is Bennett’s new play People, just opened at the National Theatre, which offers a none-too-flattering portrait of the “other” NT, who’ve voiced their displeasure at the presentation. Audience displeasure may stem from just how lacklustre the evening proves to be, though. For People is a disappointment, a play that badly needs another draft or two. (Or three.) It starts out - intriguingly enough - suggesting Bennett via Beckett, swings - not unenjoyably - into Bennett-by-numbers but ends with the distinct sound of Bennett scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The play concerns the fate of a shabby South Yorkshire stately pile occupied by Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) and her companion Iris (Linda Bassett). The former is being courted by the National Trust (represented by Nicholas Le Prevost’s John Craven-ish eager-beaver) and by a mysterious organisation (glib Miles Jupp), both of whom hope she’ll hand the property and its illustrious contents over to them. But Dorothy - who, as a former model, knows a thing or two about objectification - disdains the idea of people tramping around the house, looking and snapping. Yet she’s more enthusiastic when a film-producer former flame (Peter Egan) enters the picture, and proposes using the house as the set for his latest porn production.

The opening of People is promising. De la Tour and Bassett establish a lovely, winning rapport, there are some genuinely sharp and funny lines, and the play’s investigation of the commodification of Heritage England seems to be generating some steam. (A riff on potties filled with the preserved pee of the great and the good - but not that of Henry James - is truly inspired.) You expect the second half to go deeper, but alas it only gets shallower. The porn filming interlude - complete with disgruntled crew, stereotyped Latvian leading lady and a leading man who (ho, ho) can’t get it up - is a right old Carry On carry-on, and, I think, cringingly unfunny. Isn’t there a comedy rule that if you have to resort to wheeling on a bishop to make something amusing, the gag should have been put out to pasture ages ago? Well, if there is, Bennett breaks it here.

Nicholas Hytner’s production never regains momentum after the embarrassment of this interlude, and Bennett's plotting grows more fanciful as the Significant Speeches get more clumsy and obtrusive. A late transformation of Bob Crowley’s nicely detailed set is clearly meant to impress but it feels too contrived and self-congratulatory a coup. And the viewer is left, ultimately, with the slightly queasy sense of a playwright indulging himself by working through some all-too-familiar pet peeves. As Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, Selina Cadell gets to be the mouthpiece for Bennett’s contention (we've heard it before) that belief in God is “not an issue” in the Church of England. There’s an early swipe at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as “barrow boys” - a line Bennett must like since he already used it in the Talking Heads "Hand of God" episode back in 1998. And, later, Dorothy observes that “there’s nowhere that isn’t visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us.” Wasn’t this point made in The History Boys?

Though most of the roles are underwritten, the main reason to see People is the acting, and especially Frances de la Tour’s excellent performance. The actress’s authoritative tones make it a treat to hear her say anything, almost, and introduced in her fur-coat and plim-solls, she moves entertainingly from grime to glam before Dorothy embraces her fate (one in which people, alas, cannot be avoided), creating a wry but warm figure who holds our interest and attention. She’s well partnered by Bassett who executes her character’s comic business with a minimum of wasted motion. But their best efforts can’t disguise the fact that People is very far from Bennett at his best.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

CD Review: Sing the Delta (Iris DeMent, 2012)

“It’s sure been a while,” drawls the unmistakable, soul-stirring voice of Iris DeMent on “Go Ahead and Go Home,” the brisk, buoyant opening track to her (very) long-awaited new album Sing The Delta. The listener can only nod in agreement at this statement. It’s been, in fact, eight years since DeMent’s last record, the lovely gospel album Lifeline (2004), and a whopping sixteen since the release of her last album of all-original material, 1996’s The Way I Should. Before those releases, DeMent put out two albums - Infamous Angel (1992) and My Life (1994) - that rank as contemporary roots music classics. Deep, powerful, unabashedly personal and emotional works, both records showcased DeMent’s stunningly perceptive song-writing and Arkansas-born, California-bred vocals, a voice whose visceral yet delicate intensity was best described by Folk Roots, for whom her singing “cuts like a knife, takes you apart, then kisses it better.”

Pushier in tone, more controversial in lyrical content yet more commercially-orientated in sound, The Way I Should didn’t really play to DeMent’s strengths, and seemed to send her into a prolonged period of uncertainty about the direction of her art. Depression and writer’s block - and the fact that, as DeMent humbly put it, she simply didn’t feel that she had enough good songs to make an album out of - have therefore significantly curtailed her recorded output, leading to a certain amount of frustration (and sadness) that one of America’s finest artists wasn’t producing more new work.

These long gaps between releases would have turned DeMent into the Kate Bush of Country, were it not for the fact that she’s kept up a pretty consistent touring schedule in the intervening years, maintaining contact with her audience and occasionally debuting new material in concert. Some of those songs now find their way on to Sing the Delta, alongside more recently composed tracks. This rather protracted gestation means that the album can’t boast the complete cohesion of Infamous Angel or My Life and doesn’t quite match either of those masterpieces for sustained impact. Still, it’s a beautiful, heartfelt piece of work, and one that features several songs so good they’ve been worth waiting sixteen years for.

Sonically, Sing The Delta is warm and inviting but never cloying: it expands DeMent’s palette subtly and sympathetically without the jarring flourishes that marred The Way I Should. There’s no fiddle, hardly any harmony parts, a little less twang, more swing and sway. Sparsely employed horns and organ and Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett’s guitarwork adds texture. Front and centre, though, is DeMent’s simple, elegant, churchy piano-playing which provides intimate, apt accompaniment for her stories of loss, grief, family, home-coming and endurance.

From Infamous Angel’s opening track “Let the Mystery Be” onwards there’s been a kind of stealth subversiveness to DeMent’s best songs, which have often approached classic country subject matter with a gently questioning, questing contemporary spirit. That approach is continued on Sing The Delta. The album’s most overt love song is its title track, an embracing, languid homage to DeMent’s roots that appears to take the form of an address to her step-daughter Pieta Brown and finds the narrator musing on her deep connection to the land that she and her family left so long ago: “it’s the link which my spirit understands.”

Throughout the record, DeMent remains concerned with the role that memory plays in our lives, how we make sense of our past and our losses, and how reminiscence can serve as a source of strength and inspiration. The plaintive yet resolute “Before The Colors Fade” resolves to keep an absent loved one present, through recollection, for as long as it is possible. “If That Ain’t Love” finds strength in the belated recognition of a father’s prayers and the sound of a favourite singer’s voice coming out of the radio. “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” meanwhile, is a bracingly honest addition to DeMent’s catalogue of songs about her parents, recalling with mingled amusement, frustration and admiration her mother’s inability to dissemble. “Right there in that little house there was a bigger world than I may ever see,” DeMent sings, a line that nicely encapsulates the ability of her work to locate the macrocosm in the microcosm and to spin very specific details into songs that connect intimately with the listener’s own experience.

For all their turning away from the less palatable aspects of religious dogma, DeMent’s songs also remain soaked in religious imagery and fully alert both to its uses and its need for subversion. A counter to the “my-real-home-is-in-the-next-world-and-I-can’t-wait-to-get-there” sentiments of a hymn like “I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted To This World” - itself delivered by DeMent with exceptional defiance and spark on Lifeline - “There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven” finds the narrator placing faith in “the love we carry in our souls” rather than in hopes of glory in the afterlife. A more potent expression of the theme comes earlier, though, on the exquisite “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” which opens with DeMent’s narrator seeking solace in a church (“though I don’t even know if I believe in God”), before finding expressions of divinity manifested in the everyday, DeMent’s delivery in the choruses turning the song’s title from tremulous inquiry to ecstatic revelation.

A couple of songs feel under-worked by comparison, notably the anti-introspection ballad “Livin’ On The Inside” and “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” both of which would benefit from another verse or two. The latter track seems to me the most problematic song here. While deftly avoiding self-pity as it recounts the narrator’s memory of her brother’s death despite her fervent prayers to God to save him, the perky arrangement seems at odds with the subject matter, even if the shuddering moan that DeMent unleashes at the end saves it.

Indeed, even on some of the less distinguished tracks, DeMent’s vocals remain a source of wonder and fascination, and they seem to have gained some new colours and contours over the years. Hearing her voice, I’m always reminded of the description of a character’s singing in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net: “she seems to throw the song right into your heart.” DeMent’s singing achieves just that kind of full-on intimacy and immediacy. Her voice can be a sob, a snap, a sigh, a croak, a gurgle; it can sound agelessly old or girlishly fresh. Always it’s filled with pure emotion. Her diction much muddier here than on her earlier albums, her spontaneously slurred, stretched and swallowed syllables succeed in adding a level of mystery to some of these songs, complicating quotidian images. There’s also a new sultriness. “I feel desire,” DeMent sings on “The Kingdom Has Already Come” and damned if the line doesn’t come out sounding like “I feel these arms.”

DeMent’s diction reaches an apex of obscurity on the album’s outstanding closing track “Out of the Fire,” an eight minute emotional epic that builds slowly through memories and associations, its various images - a truck ride with her Grandfather, the aftermath of a revival meeting - gradually achieving clarity through repeated listens, like a blurry film coming into focus. The song pushes DeMent’s writing into a much more abstract zone than ever, but the final image of rebirth and home-coming rings as clear as a bell from the first listen, as DeMent wrests a redemptive flourish out of a moment of absolute emotional desolation. It’s a staggering finale, and one of her finest-ever achievements on record.

For all their scepticism about aspects of conventional belief, then, Sing The Delta’s songs show the listener how to pray: through memories of people and places, through quiet reflection, through careful, loving attention in the here and now. Throughout the record, DeMent seeks - finds - “links which … [our] spirits understand.” It’s absolutely wonderful to have her back.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Monday 5 November 2012

Film Review: Song For Marion (Williams, 2012)

Does the mere idea of Anne Reid performing “Let’s Talk About Sex” send you into hysterics? If so, then Paul Andrew Williams’s Song for Marion (2012) is the film for you. Williams’s movie teams Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave as Arthur and Marion, a long-married London couple with a divorced son (Christopher Eccleston) and a granddaughter. Temperamentally the two are opposites: Marion a vivacious and optimistic woman who’s intent on living life to the full despite her terminal cancer diagnosis; Arthur a cautious and closed-off man who’s fully embracing his reputation as a curmudgeon. Marion’s current interest is the singing group that she attends, a contemporary choir for the elderly that’s presided over by a young instructor, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Arthur opposes Marion’s involvement in the group, fearing it will further jeopardise his wife’s health, but the persistent Elizabeth wants Marion to participate in an upcoming competition, and decides that Arthur might just benefit from joining the choir too.

Criticising Song for Marion is a bit like scolding a puppy: Williams’s movie is so cutesy, so very eager to please, that you feel bad for pointing out its shortcomings. If only the film wasn’t so calculating, so obvious in its tear-jerk/uplift designs upon the audience, and if only it were made with more consistent craft and care. Very much in the feel-good, salvation-through-performance, working-class-whimsy mode of Brassed Off and The Full Monty, the film seems inspired by Stephen Walker's successful doc Young@Heart and it’s no surprise that it’s been picked up by the Weinsteins, with an eye on the post-Marigold Hotel “grey pound,” no doubt.

But the movie’s flaw - apart from its predictable plotting and reliance upon unconvincing conflicts - is that it never really communicates the protagonists’ pleasure in performance, or does much to individualise the supporting characters, as Dustin Hoffman’s superior and not-entirely-dissimilar Quartet does so successfully. Here they’re just an endlessly (and interchangeably) quipping, grinning, jigging bunch, and most of the song choices - Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" alongside the aforementioned Salt ‘n’ Pepa ditty - might have been selected expressly to make them a laughing stock. (Williams gets himself in a bind here: the film tuts over people’s tendency to laugh at the group while inviting the audience to do exactly that.) Complete with Arterton’s excruciating exhortations - “You guys are gangsta!”, “You sound like rock thunder!” - the rehearsal scenes are especially poor, but the director’s work is erratic to the very end. This is all the more frustrating because you sense a much classier movie struggling to get out at times. Williams comes up with a lovely, poignant final shot, for example, then wrecks the emotion with a sickly closing dedication “To family” and Celine Dion caterwauling over the credits. Amour  it ain't. (But else what is?)

Despite these lapses in judgement, it’s great to see Stamp and Redgrave - two bona fide 60s icons - sharing the screen and both of them come through with good performances. This is Stamp’s most substantial screen role since The Limey (1999) and - moving gradually from glower to twinkle - he underplays nicely to make Arthur’s awakening to life a lot less cloying than it might have been. Redgrave, whose vividness and eccentricities can make her seem too outsize for ordinary roles (cf. Driving Miss Daisy), modulates her performance effectively too. Marion and Arthur seem an unlikely pair, but the actors manage to suggest a genuine history together. (The only way Williams might have enhanced the cinephile delight is by casting Julie Christie as Marion, though perhaps that would have been a layer too many.)

In the film’s pivotal scene - and one of its few effective musical moments - Marion sings a quavering rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” for Arthur, and Redgrave’s combination of vulnerability and eagerness is so touching that it transcends the corniness of the conception. As does a quiet scene between Arthur and Elizabeth that finally allows Arterton to express something other than irksome perkiness. Such scattered moments suggest, a little tantalisingly, just how much deeper Song for Marion might have gone, were it not so keen on its clunky, contrived conflicts or the allegedly hilarious spectacle of old people singing about sex.