Thursday 31 January 2013

Theatre Review: The Turn of the Screw (Almeida)

Henry James’s suggestiveness and super-subtlety get fairly short shrift in Lindsay Posner’s rather laborious new production of The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida. Inspired originally by an Archbishop’s anecdote, and inspiration, in turn, for Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Alejandro Amenábar's The Others, James’s devious 1898 novella - about a Governess’s conviction that her two young charges, Flora and Miles, are possessed by the spirits of depraved dead servants - has been the subject of about as many adaptations as critical interpretations over the years. And its central ambiguity - are the ghosts “real” or hallucinated by the imagination-prone (and love-struck) Governess? – is still capable of provoking a very heated class discussion or two even today, I can attest. Alas, despite some scattered flashes of interest and a few chills, Posner’s ploddy production doesn’t contribute a great deal that’s new to this oft-adapted, much-debated enigma.

Overseen by Hammer – the rebooted studio responsible for James Watkins’s lame film of The Woman in Black and here making a first stage foray – the production attempts to steer a course between psychological study and Gothic spook-fest and thereby retain a certain amount of ambiguity. Posner adds thunder storms and lightning flashes; there are shadows, sudden flares, chalk scraping down a blackboard and all sorts of things going bump in the night. Peter McKintosh’s set revolves to become parlour, bedroom and riverbank and to suggest, as the novella does so brilliantly, the workings of the Governess’s mind: what Edna Kent called “the ebb and flow of troubled thought.” For all these effects, the production lacks atmosphere, though, and there’s a formulaic, workmanlike quality to the scares that means that the proceedings don’t generate enough tension or terror. (Hey, even webcowgirl didn’t scream!) An unnecessary interval doesn’t help, either.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s script has its effective and witty touches (“It’s hard to do interesting things and keep your hands clean at the same time,” chirps Flora early on) and nicely brings out the elements of class hostility underpinning the narrative. Yet other notions tend toward the crass and crude (a spot of groping; a masturbation moment for the Governess). The production also cribs rather liberally from earlier adaptations - especially Jack Clayton’s classic 1961 film The Innocents – without coming near to matching the beauty and horror that Clayton’s great images managed to achieve. Throughout, indeed, the material cries out for a more imaginative, theatrical approach than Posner and Lenkiewicz seem able to provide. Watching the production, I began to think more fondly of the 2009 BBC version which, for all its shortcomings, at least attempted to offer a fresh take on the material by vindicating the Governess’s visions and wagging an unfashionably feminist finger at those who’d prefer to view the character as a sexually repressed neurotic.

Here Anna Madeley’s performance certainly gives ample space for such a reading; the actress delivers a solid turn though perhaps not a truly disturbing one. Emilia Jones as Flora (alternating with Isabella Blake Thomas and Lucy Morton) and Laurence Belcher as (a rather too-teenage) Miles both work hard at their demanding roles, and Mrs. Grose’s shift from belief to scepticism is sharply caught by the always-reliable Gemma Jones – once a memorable Fleda Vetch in the BBC’s adaptation of James’s The Spoils of Poynton. (“From Spoilin’ to Screwin’” as a dear James-freak friend of mine wrote me when informed of Ms. Jones's casting.) But the ghosts themselves – Eoin Geoghegan as Quint and Caroline Bartleet as Miss Jessel – are fairly weak presences here, seldom made sufficiently vivid to us to “raise the dear old sacred terror” that their creator desired.

An odd amalgam of the OTT and the undercooked, the production feels inessential, then. Those unfamiliar with James’s tricky tale might glean some enjoyment from this particular turn of the screw. But given the richness and potential of the source material, Posner’s well-intentioned yet ultimately lacklustre take seems a missed opportunity overall.

Monday 21 January 2013

Theatre Review: Old Times (Harold Pinter Theatre)

“You see, this is our marvellous Bard, Barbara: you cannot paraphrase. It’s not like Pinter where you can more or less say what you like as long as you leave enough gaps...” Victoria Wood’s great gag may slip errantly into the mind during less-successful productions of Harold Pinter plays. And it certainly slipped into the mind of this viewer at several points during Ian Rickson’s underwhelming production of Old Times, which is currently previewing at, yup, the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s not really Rickson who’s at fault here, though. The director’s take on the play - though a tad too reverential - has an undeniable chic efficiency. It’s the play itself that’s the dud.

Focusing on the reunion of two old friends, Anna and Kate, when the former visits the latter in the rural home she shares with her husband, Deeley, Old Times presents itself as a poetic exploration of an ambiguously shared past: of memory as a site of contestation. (Pinter had been adapting Proust at the time of the play's composition.) The trio’s recollections of their time in 1940s London - of who’s met who before and how - don’t match up, pivoting around the memory of a screening of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out which both Anna and Deeley claim to have seen in the company of the apparently pliant Kate on different occasions.

There’s promise in the premise, but what a bloodless corpse of a play Pinter fashions from this scenario. Though often revived Old Times is, I think, one of the playwright’s weakest works: pretentious, hollow, cryptic but not insightful, full of dialogue that has the ring of parody. (As often, Pinter ends up sounding Pinteresque.) It’s all hints, suggestions and evasions, along with a few tossed-in Absurd linguistic slips (Anna to Deeley: “You have a wonderful casserole ... I mean wife”). Underpinning it is a half-baked slab of male anxiety about female/female relationships (hey, might Deeley be the “odd man out” in this threesome?) – an aspect that doesn’t have enough hostility in it to give the proceedings the icky kick of The Homecoming, say. A play in which the protagonists’ past gradually insinuates its way into the present should be riveting and disturbing but Pinter’s characters are so depthless and underwritten that precious little seems to be at stake here.

The actors aren’t working together - yet - in a way that would help redeem the drama’s deficiencies. As Anna, a figure present, possibly, only in Deeley's and/or Kate’s minds, Kristin Scott Thomas (who proved her Pinter chops two years ago in Rickson’s production of  Betrayal) spends a lot of time stretching herself out languorously. Playing with her hair, caressing the furniture, she tries hard to bring an erotic charge to the piece, and certainly looks a dream, but the effort is - at the moment at least - all too apparent in her rather self-conscious performance. Rufus Sewell also seems ill at ease, slipping out of character (sic) for sometimes strained comic effects and moving about the set awkwardly at times, as though having his stage directions fed to him. Only the compelling Lia Williams appears to be in her element already, giving her line readings the tension and airy weirdness to suggest that the mannered dialogue just might add up to something, after all. The production’s much-discussed gimmick is that the two actresses will alternate their roles, eventually tossing a coin to decide who’ll play Anna and Kate at that performance. Whether you consider this a revelatory conceit that sheds light on the play’s themes or simply a cynical money-grabbing gesture will doubtless depend on how profound you find Old Times to be in the first instance. Those unconvinced may leave Rickson’s production thinking that, in this arid enigma, it doesn’t matter so very much who plays who (or – per Wood – who says what). And wishing that they’d spent their evening watching Odd Man Out instead.

The production runs for an interval-free 1 hour and 25 minutes. Booking until 6th April.

Theatre Review: The Silence of the Sea (Trafalgar Studios)

France, the early 1940s. A German officer, Werner (Leo Bill), is billeted at the coastal home of a man (Finbar Lynch) and his pianist niece (Simona Bitmaté). The latter resist the German’s presence with the only weapon that they have at their disposal: total silence. While respecting their refusal to address the hated invader, the officer, in turn, meets their silence with words: a series of monologues in which he recalls his experiences both before and during the war. Apparently ignored, his discourse actually ends up impacting deeply upon both the man and the girl over the months he spends in their presence.

That’s the premise of The Silence of the Sea, the classic novella published secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942 by Jean Bruller (under the pseudonym Vercors) and now skilfully adapted for the stage by Anthony Weigh. The material was made into an acclaimed - and New Wave-influencing - film by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1947; the movie employed voiceover to convey the Older Man’s thoughts and commentary. But, in Simon Evans’s fine, atmospheric production - in which only one of the three characters speaks to the others - the story proves equally effective and affecting as a theatre piece, its quiet, immersive impact accentuated by the intimacy of Trafalgar Studios 2.

Indeed, much of the power of The Silence of the Sea resides precisely in the way it uses a small space to gesture towards a larger picture.  Part of what became known as the "intellectual resistance" to the Nazi invasion of France, the piece explores the intricacies and sheer awkwardness of occupation for both occupier and occupied. Were the piece written now it's probable that the situation would be milked for more conventional soap operatics: an affair between Werner and the girl, for example; betrayal, discovery, revelation.  But Vercors takes no such predictable course. Rather, his story simply charts the small shifts in feeling and allegiance that occur in the household, slowly deepening and complicating the characters and their perceptions of one another. Expectations are usurped throughout, especially in the sympathetic presentation of Werner. No Nazi thug, he's revealed as a cultured man, a former composer and Francophile who loves the sound of the sea and can't quite believe in himself as a man of war.

Evans's confident, spare production keeps the proceedings low-key yet charged, with a standout sound design by Gregory Clarke that renders every creak and bang, every piano note telling and expressive. Weigh's writing creates indelible images too, from the Older Man's recollection of bringing his niece to the house for the first time to Werner's shattering final monologue which recounts his witnessing of – and participation in – the humiliation of a waiter in a Paris restaurant.     

What a terrific actor Leo Bill is. As Werner, he starts out eager and expostulating, expressing his belief in brotherhood between France and Germany. He ends in disillusion and (self-) disgust, his sense of the righteousness of his country's mission irrevocably shaken. It's an absolutely superb performance, full of feeling and nuance, and, by the end, very moving. He's well matched by Finbar Lynch as the Older Man, a bachelor who's only just getting used to his niece's presence in his house when the officer arrives. Lynch establishes a strong audience rapport from his first speech, his wry, watchful presence suggesting a latent desire to connect with the German.

Simona Bitmaté has the most challenging job of the three in many ways, having to convey her character's anger, frustration and growing fascination with Werner without recourse to words. Bitmaté manages this skilfully, yet can't quite overcome the sense that hers is an underwritten role: the piece would surely only have been richer for allowing the niece to speak her thoughts to the audience too (a short monologue at the very end seems too little too late). As it stands, the girl's feelings for Werner remain a tad too vague, with the result that the ending, which might have been wrenching, is merely poignant here.

The balance between ambiguity and revelation isn't perfectly achieved, then. But Evans' production resonates, nonetheless. It's an understated slow-burn that won't be to all tastes, but the intimate portrait of occupation and resistance that it offers is likely to linger long in the mind of the responsive viewer.

Gig Review: The Counterfeit Stones (Richmond & touring)

“Knock up your daughters!” shrieks the none-too-subtle (and none-too-PC) poster for The Counterfeit Stones’ current tour. It’s a tag-line that sums up the unashamedly brash tone of this show – part tribute concert, part spoof – that zips through Rolling Stones hits with raucous glee, and features gags that veer cheerfully from the corny (“a Mars a day helps you work rest and lay”) to the crass (a running joke about Brian Jones’s death crosses the line into tastelessness).

Alongside the Bootleg Beatles, The Counterfeit Stones are counted among the most successful tribute bands on the circuit; they’ve been on the scene since the 1990s, and have developed quite a substantial following in that time, judging by the amount of fans enthusiastically braving the cold for Saturday night’s gig at Richmond Theatre. Fittingly, the tone of the evening is quite different to that of The Beatles tribute show, Let It Be, which is currently (and, in the opinion of this reviewer, undeservedly) doing very good business in the West End. A tackier and livelier proposition, The Counterfeit Stones present themselves openly as “a cartoon version” of rock’s best bad boys, an approach that’s evident even in the choice of names, the current line-up comprising Steve Elson as (yup) Nick Dagger, Bill Lennon as Keef Rickard, John Prynn as Charlie Mott, Alan Mian as Bill Hymen, by Holger Skepeneit as Nicky Popkiss and the very versatile David Birnie tripling up as Byron Jones, Mick Taylor-Made and Ronnie B Goode.

It’s quickly apparent that The Counterfeit Stones certainly aren’t afraid of silliness, then. But what redeems the evening from being an unadulterated exercise in kitsch and camp is the fact that the group are actually accomplished musicians capable of performing a wide range of Stones material with verve and panache. Highlights of the set include a crisp “Not Fade Away,” a jangling, percussive “Out of Time,” a punchy, cutting “Paint it Black,” a surprisingly emotive “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a dynamic “Sympathy For The Devil,” and a blistering “Gimme Shelter.”

The endlessly preening, prancing and pouting Elson has the moves like Jagger, all right, and pulls off the singing, the outfits and the cheeky banter with equal aplomb. Album cover parodies and pastiche film footage clips – including a memorably surreal appearance on The Sooty and Sweep Show that ends with Nick and Keef crooning “As Tears Go By” as the puppets get stoned – add to the fun, while the Richmond audience reveled in some well-judged local refs, including an inevitable Jerry Hall mention.

With the Rolling Stones still very much on the touring circuit, The Counterfeit Stones offer a very pleasing evening for those disinclined – or simply unable – to stump up the inflated ticket prices demanded by Mick and co these days, making this irreverent yet accomplished act a good-value and entertaining alternative to the real thing. You get what you need.

Tour dates and details here.

Being Between Borders: The Cinema of Claire Denis


At the end of last year I wrote a piece on immigration in Claire Denis's work for the Kubrick on the Guillotine website. You can read it here.   

Thursday 3 January 2013

Film Review: Quartet (Hoffman, 2012)

“This isn’t a retirement home - it’s a madhouse!” quavers Maggie Smith, inimitably, as her character observes a Salsa class full of gyrating geriatrics in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play. Playing Jean Horton - one-time opera icon and now reluctant resident to Beecham House, home for retired singers and musicians - Smith delivers her most varied and vibrant screen performance since My House in Umbria almost ten years ago. Yes, the role still permits Smith to retain her crown as Queen of the Bitchy Put-down, but it also goes beyond this familiarity, allowing her to play vulnerability, regret, self-doubt, and, ultimately, radiance. It’s a truly delightful performance, one of several that light up Hoffman’s slight but warm and engaging film, a work whose very subject is performance itself.

The eminent Jean’s arrival stirs things up at Beecham House because it reunites her with some old rivals and, also, some old cronies, namely the caring, muddled Cissy (Pauline Collins), the bawdy Wilf (Billy Connolly) and the taciturn Reg (Tom Courtenay), to whom Jean was briefly hitched before the marriage foundered after her confession of infidelity. Years before, these four performed together in a legendary production of Rigoletto. And with the home facing closure, and - wouldn’t you know? - a fundraising concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday on the horizon, it’s not long before Cissy, Wilf and Reg are trying to persuade the resistant Jean to join them in performing the “Bella figlia dell’amore” quartet from the opera once again.

Making his directorial debut, Hoffman has done a pretty admirable job on Quartet. The movie is a much more handsome, elegant piece of work than was John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the “grey pound” phenomenon whose success it looks very likely to repeat. (Here, as there, Maggie Smith is cast as a woman in need of a hip replacement.) Harwood’s material is equally thin and unsubtle and his setting up of narrative dilemmas - will the home close? will Reg forgive Jean? will Jean join the quartet? - is basic to say the least. I imagine that the piece could be fairly excruciating on stage (and the movie itself plays the "isn't-it-hilarious-when-old-people-talk-about-sex?" card at least once too often for my taste), but Hoffman keeps it fluid here, cutting down on the obviousness a little. Harwood’s adaptation opens things up simply but effectively (there’s a preponderance of scenes set outside, in the attractive grounds of Hedsor House, Buckinghamshire) and the director shows wit in his framing of the action. The residents’ routines are briskly established in wry, rhythmic scenes scored to classical pieces, and the movie conveys a sense of the day-to-day life of the home, overseen by - yes - a jolly “ethnic” staff and run by one Dr. Cogan (the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, very charming).

What makes Quartet especially pleasurable, though, is the respect and love that Hoffman clearly feels for those on screen. He’s filled the movie with veteran performers, not only actors but also “real” opera singers and musicians, and each makes a vivid impression no matter how limited their screen time. The cast interact superbly, from Collins’s sweetly optimistic Cissy - who’s given depth in the movie’s most moving moment - to a fabulously costumed Michael Gambon, who barks ferociously and preens gloriously as the home’s self-satisfied musical director. The affectionate tone is established from the lovely opening shot of Patricia Loveland at her piano and it’s sustained to the end: a truly touching closing credit sequence which matches all the performers with pictures of their younger selves. Quartet is about as predictable and as precious as a film can be, but the wit and spirit of its cast - and their director's fond gaze upon them - manage to turn it into something more: an actors’ symphony.