Wednesday 25 May 2016

Theatre Review: The Philanderer (Orange Tree)

Rupert Young in The Philanderer (Photo: Richard Davenport)

“This is going to be a cheerful evening…” sighs Leonard Charteris (Rupert Young), the (anti-)hero of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer. Romancing his current lover Grace (Helen Bradbury), Leonard has been interrupted by Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), the clingy paramour he’s very keen to be rid of. It’s (near-)turn-of-the-century London, and these three pride themselves upon being people of “advanced views”, for whom conventional romantic arrangements and stereotypical gender roles are anathema. But through their interactions, and those with Grace and Julia’s fathers, Shaw shows the complexities and contradictions of their stance, which, the play suggests, may be self-serving or self-deluding as much as liberating.
The hipster-friendly poster design for Paul Miller’s production of Shaw’s 1893 play tips us off to its approach: performed in modern-dress, this is a staging that seeks to blow the cobwebs off of Shavian drama, contrasting with the more traditional mode of Miller’s excellent production of Widowers’ Houses, seen at the OT in late 2014.
The loosely modern approach may feel counter-intuitive: The Philanderer is, after all, very much a play of its time, with its ambivalent take on the figure of the “New Woman,” its critique of antiquated divorce laws, its Wildean epigrams, and its wry assimilations of Ibsen’s influence. (In Simon Daw’s characteristically terrific design, a bust of the playwright looks down on the protagonists and the audience in the production central section, replacing the first Act’s glittering chandelier.)
But Miller, always sensitive, doesn’t overdo contemporary parallels, and starting with a kiss, the production feels vibrant and sexy for the most part. Principal among its pleasures are the attractive performances of a fine cast, with Rupert Young making Leonard a charismatic mixture of connivance and candour; Helen Bradbury bringing poise and gravitas to Grace; and Dorothea Myer-Bennett suggesting the pain beneath Julia’s very funny emotional poses.

Michael Lumsden and Mark Tandy contribute a cherishable double act as the patriarchs, and the stylish Paksie Vernon makes the most of her scenes as Julia’s sister. And Christopher Staines gets the production’s funniest moment as the doctor who’s distressed to discover that his cherished new theory has been disproved by better-funded European rivals.    

There’s a slight plunge into tedium in the final stages, partly because Miller has chosen to include both of Shaw’s third Acts, making for a patience-testing conclusion that could have used some judicious editing. It’s far from Shaw’s most perfectly constructed work, and the staging doesn’t have the total assurance of Miller’s perfectly pitched revival of French Without Tears (which is making a welcome return to the OT in July - book now!). Still, The Philanderer is highly enjoyable, offering a marriage of tradition and modernity that makes for a cheerful evening, after all. 

The Philanderer is booking until 25 June.

Cannes 2016: The Verdict of “the Nine-headed Beast” (and the Verdict on the Verdict)

“I called it the nine-headed beast…” – George Miller, on presiding over the 2016 Cannes Film Festival Jury which comprised Valeria Golino, Kirsten Dunst, Arnaud Despleschin, László Nemes, Katayoon Shahabi, Donald Sutherland, and Mads Mikkelsen
Summing up last year’s Cannes (my first time as press at the Festival), I quoted the Un Certain Regard Jury president Isabella Rossellini’s comment that the experience of the festival felt like taking “a flight over our planet” that “any anthropologist” would envy. Rossellini’s description holds good for this year, too, since the global scope of Cannes remains one of its principal attractions, subverting the knee-jerk kvetching about diversity that’s now pretty much de rigueur at any cultural event.

While Cannes 2016 boasted its share of duds and disappointments (including Sean Penn’s thoroughly face-Palmed The Last Face), the overall feeling was that that the festival offered one of the strongest line-ups of recent years.  (“Ah, but think of last year!” one nostalgically-inclined critic said to me on the final day. “Mountains May Depart! Our Little Sister! Son of Saul! Carol!  Now, those were good movies!”) In no particular order, my own favourites of this year’s festival were as follows: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s  quietly searing doc Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy, Jim Jarmusch’s perfectly pitched poem of a movie Paterson, Alain Guiraudie’s superbly confounding Staying Vertical, Hirokazu Kore-eda beautifully tender After The Storm, Spielberg’s supremely loveable The BFG, Park Chan-wook’s dazzling The Handmaiden, Pablo Larrain’s stylish, surprising Neruda, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, and Juho Kuosmanen’s delightful The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, with a bonus point to Jeff Nichols’ flawed but admirably low-key Loving.

These films spanned so many countries and cultures perspectives and languages (including Gobblefunk, yeah) that they sum up, collectively, what remains so great about Cannes: it’s reminder that film is an international medium, a fact that can be too easily forgotten due to continued US dominance of the marketplace.  As Bilge Ebiri noted at The Village Voice:  “It’s touching to see such hubbub over things like three-hour Romanian art films, and to see a new Alain Guiraudie movie on the massive screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere.”

That being said, the uneasy sense that far too many of the Competition films this year were by established Cannes pet auteurs, guaranteed a place at the festival regardless of quality, was reflected in the decisions of the George Miller-headed Jury, with the Palme d’or going to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Grand Prix to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World and the Jury Prize to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.  Mediocre or muddled efforts all, the award of the top prize to Loach looked particularly like a politically rather than an artistically motivated choice:  a privileged Jury demonstrating their sympathy with “the poor”. Strong to start (as a black comedy about bureaucracy) but let down by its sentimental and schematic second half Loach’s movie may have its heart in the right place but it’s far from the director’s finest work.  (The opening salvo from Pauline Kael’s Shoah review - “Probably everyone will agree that the subject of a movie should not place it beyond criticism” - has seldom seemed more relevant. )
Still, for all its shortcomings, I’d rather see I, Daniel Blake take the Palme than Maren Ade’s bizarrely adored father/daughter “comedy” Toni Erdmann, which many thought to be a shoo-in for the top prize but that – thankfully – went away empty-handed.  (In fact, Ade’s film was less favourably received at its second showing than at its first, leading a friend who also disliked it to suggest that the first press audience must have been placed under some kind of collective hypnosis before the screening.)

There were surprises in the directing and acting categories, particularly the win for Olivier Assayas (who shared the former prize with Cristian Mungiu for Graduation) for his enjoyable but divisive Personal Shopper and the Best Actress prize going Jaclyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa rather than to Sonia Braga for her stunning display as the vibrant widow in Aquarius.

While it’s all too easy to complain about favourite films and performances getting overlooked, the fact remains that the competitive element in these events is generally a farce, and responses to the same films differ so much that it’s hard to see how the Jury ever reaches any kind of consensus.  Moreover, in the case of Cannes it feels like the Jury – which Miller likened (affectionately, one hopes...) to a “nine-headed beast” - are being further compromised by their inability to award a film in more than one category.
(Meanwhile, responses to the verdict can seem as weird as the verdicts themselves. Nick James’s theory in Sight & Sound that the amount  of actors on the Jury may have led to “theatre-based films” being honoured is particularly baffling given that only It’s Only the End of the World  and Farhadi's The Salesman which nods at Arthur Miller, have any theatrical roots at all.)

For me, the best antidote to the Cannes hype and hustle came in the shape of the last film I saw at the festival: Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which was the winner of the Un Certain Regard prize. A black-and-white Finnish boxing film, that, in its gentleness and wry humour,  soon establishes itself as the anti-Raging Bull the film’s focus on a fighter (Jarkko Lahti) who’s more concerned with love than the limelight made the movie feel more subversive than any of the brasher, blunter, more overtly “political” efforts presented at Cannes this year. It’s to be hoped that the Festival will continue to open up to more fresh voices and visions such as Kuosmanen’s, rather than falling back on favourite, established names,  when it reaches its milestone 70th year in 2017.

Saturday 21 May 2016

Film Review: Cannes 2016: Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy (Haroun, 2016)

My review of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s documentary Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy (Hissein Habré, une tragédie tchadienne) is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Thursday 19 May 2016

Film Review: Cannes 2016: Julieta (Almodóvar, 2016)

My review of Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Film Review: Cannes 2016: The BFG (Spielberg, 2016)

My review of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The BFG is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Film Review: Cannes 2016: Toni Erdmann (Ade, 2016)

My review of Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Monday 16 May 2016

Film Review: Cannes 2016: American Honey (Arnold, 2016)

My review of Andrea Arnold's Amercian Honey is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Film Review: Cannes 2016: Staying Vertical (Guiraudie, 2016)

My review of Alan Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake follow-up  Staying Vertical is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.

Film Review: Cannes 2016: I, Daniel Blake (Loach, 2016)

First remarks on Cannes Film Festival 2016 and review of I, Daniel Blake are up here at PopMatters.  

Monday 9 May 2016

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Zubin Varla and Meow Meow in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo: Steve Tanner)

In her beautiful note in the brochure to her first season as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice argues for the importance of the preservation of childlike wonder, which she defines as “a deep and immediate relationship to the people we meet and the things that happen to us”. Theatre, Rice writes, can bring us into just such a mindful, intense state of being, creating “a temporary community”, an “army of humanity”, connected by the diverse stories in which we’re absorbed.    

While sometimes succumbing to an overly-larky tone that irritated some audiences, at their best Rice’s productions for her Kneehigh company achieved precisely that sense of immediacy and engagement. This may account for my ability to remember moments from her delectable and wildly underrated adaptation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and even from her much-derided take on Steptoe and Son with particular vividness several years on. The freshness of Rice’s approach, and her ability to draw wholesale on a range of influences and art forms (“I’m not a minimalist girl,” she’s noted recently), makes her appointment as the Globe’s Artistic Director  a particularly exciting one.   

Rice has chosen to open her first season with a production that feels very much like  a statement of intent, at least as far as her self-directed work is concerned, and that even includes (at least) one big, fat self-reflexive joke. Incorporating nods to Beyoncé, Bowie and Bollywood, George Formby and John Donne,  Rice’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is energetic and hugely entertaining from start to finish. With cheeky textual revisions by dramaturg Tanika Gupta that place the play in a fluidly contemporary multicultural London of Hoxton hipsters, Russian brides and gay lovers (Helena becomes Ankur Bahl’s excellent Helenus here, hotly pursing Ncuti Gatwa's Demetrius), the production draws from a grab-bag of inspirations. Oberon's words “Rock the ground” are displayed in neon; Börkur Jónsson supplies a set of floating globes and tubes that suggests nightclub as much as fairy forest; and the proceedings are presided over by sitar player Sheema Mukherjee, whose contributions add pulse and drama throughout.

The approach is highly reminiscent of that of Ed Hall’s Propeller company at its peak: a modern mash-up that nonetheless doesn’t neglect the language, finding mostly ingenious echoes and equivalents, and placing the play vibrantly within a range of traditions and intertexts.
A fine company doesn’t flag (and certainly ticks all the requisite diversity boxes to boot), with enjoyable and inventive turns from Zubin Varla as a swaggering Oberon, Katy Owen’s  punky, water-pistol-toting Puck,  Ewan Wardrop’s endearingly buffoonish Bottom (here a Bankside Health and Safety Officer channeling George Formby and Bruce Willis in Die Hard mode at various points), Lucy Thackeray’s battily officious  Rita Quince and Nandi Bhebhe's bodacious First Fairy.

The stand-out, though, is Meow Meow, reuniting with Rice after their great collaboration on Cherbourg and bringing quirky cabaret spirit to the proceedings once again. Without dominating, Meow Meow is pretty much a show all by herself here: she’s as physically witty and uninhibited as any Titania can ever have been (deliciously deranged when under Oberon’s spell, she pauses at one moment to grab a groundling’s beer) but the real surprise is her verse-speaking, which is commanding and beautiful throughout..

The production’s employment of lights and mics has already proved controversial. But in many ways this doesn’t seem like a staging that’s calculated simply to piss off purists (though apparently it has done just that...) Rather, there’s as much affection as there is irreverence to the show’s shaking up of Shakespeare, and a big-hearted, generous tone that should disarm anyone who goes with an open mind. Rice and her collaborators try out a whole bunch of things here, and while a few of the conceits feel strained and imposed, the end result brings freshness and - yes - wonder  to one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays. The production casts a spell; the space feels transformed. Rock the ground, rock the Globe. 

Booking until 11 September.