Tuesday 23 October 2018

Film Review: Suspiria (dir. Guadagnino, 2018)

From the Senso-referencing illicit romance of I Am Love (2009) to the enjoyably gaudy La Piscine remake A Bigger Splash (2015) there's no denying that Luca Guadagnino is a filmmaker who displays his Eurocentric cinephilia proudly in his work. The critical (over-)acclaim for Guadagnino's last feature, Call Me By Your Name (2017), must have emboldened him further, for with his new film, Suspiria, Guadagnino turns to his compatriot Dario Argento's giallo classic to fashion his most decadent piece of Euro art/trash yet.

Suspiria announces itself as no mere "remake" of Argento's film; rather, Guadagnino styles it "a cover version." At 2 hours 30 minutes, the film is almost an hour longer than its source, and often feels like an elaborately-orchestrated tone poem on selected aspects of the original, with a number of Guadagnino's own socio-political and historical concerns added into the mix, to questionable effect.

Ostentatiously structured in "Six Acts and an Epilogue," the film is set in 1977, the year that the original film was released, and that context is made central. Argento's basic premise is retained, the film focusing on the arrival of a young American girl, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, here), at a dance academy in Berlin, where she soon finds that her fellow students are disappearing under mysterious circumstances.

However, Guadagnino incorporates many digressions and additions into this simple scenario. Among them is the context of Baader-Meinhof terrorist activity, which the disappearing student whom we meet in the opening scenes, Chloé Grace Moretz's Patricia, has possibly been involved in. The film begins with Patricia seeking the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, unrecognisable and amusingly credited as one "Lutz Ebersdorf"), and then juxtaposes Klemperer's investigations into the strange activity at the school with Susie's experiences there. Susie comes under the tutelage of Madame Blanc (Swinton, again), a formidable figure who both welcomes and challenges the American abroad as a potential star dancer.

As a case study in creative adaptation, Suspiria undoubtedly has elements of interest. Notably, Guadagnino and his collaborators entirely re-think the visual scheme of the original, replacing Argento's luminously freaky colour palette (bright red walls to match the blood of victims) with an altogether muddier and more muted approach. Thom Yorke's whining, piano-led score is also a subtler, more insidious affair than the clanging, drill-to-the-skull music composed by Goblin for Argento.

Some sequences in the first half are shockingly effective, in particular one that intercuts Susie's dancing with the supernatural torture of another student. With its Pina Bausch-esque routines, the film is certainly more successful than the original in conveying a hallucinatory sense of dance and/as body horror throughout.

As the film progresses, though, Guadagnino's struggle to satisfactorily integrate the various strands becomes more apparent. Flashbacks to Susie's past in a repressive religious community add little to the overall design, while hints at Old World/New World tension are undeveloped. More problematic still is the use of WWII trauma, as the film takes a swerve into the area of Holocaust guilt that seems superficial, unilluminating, and even offensive. Elements of Lacanian psychoanalysis and references to art-horror classics like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) (similarly set "by the wall" in a divided Berlin) also feel like garnishes on the material rather than integrated parts of the whole.

The casting of the film is canny and allusive. Following David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s The Deep End (2001), this is the second time that Swinton has taken on a role originated by Joan Bennett and, as always, she's a distinguished presence, even if lines like "When you dance the dance of another, you have to remake yourself in the image of its creator" might benefit from a campier delivery than she seems prepared to give them. Also reuniting with Guadagnino from A Bigger Splash, Johnson works hard in her demanding role, presenting a more complex heroine than the American innocent played by Jessica Harper in the original version. (Harper herself is given a cameo as Klemperer's wife here.)

Through these and the other female characters, Guadagnino appears to be making a statement of some sort about women's power as a malevolent or benevolent force, one that mobilises maternal archetypes. As such, it's easy to imagine the film in a Midnight Movie double-bill with Darren Aronofsky's mother! (2017), last year's similarly art- and gender-conscious horror extravaganza that polarised audiences as much as Suspiria is certain to. But the power dynamics here are much less absorbing, and while the ending seems intended to be cathartic and empowering, the film still leaves us with the anti-feminist image of older women as parasitic, diabolical creatures. An indulgence that comes close to being a folly, this new Suspiria ends up considerably less than the sum of its body parts.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

"Acting Is My Outlet": An Interview with Mark Umbers (October 2018)

"Acting is my outlet where I pretend to be gregarious for a few hours": An Interview with Mark Umbers

Acclaimed for his stage performances across dramas (The Vortex, The Browning Version, The Glass Menagerie) and musicals (Sweet Charity, Merrily We Roll Along, She Loves Me), as well as his work on TV and film, Mark Umbers is currently playing Robert Walpole and David Garrick in Nick Dear's Hogarth's Progress, a double-bill of plays focusing on William Hogarth and his circle at Kingston's Rose Theatre, directed by Anthony Banks and co-starring Bryan Dick, Keith Allen, Susannah Harker, Ruby Bentall, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Jasmine Jones, Ben Deery, Ian Ballard and Jack Derges. Here Mark shares his thoughts about playing historical figures, what we can learn from Hogarth these days, the joy of revisiting Merrily, and a candlelit memory from The Glass Menagerie.

It looks like you and the whole company are having a great time with Hogarth's Progress. What initially attracted you to the project?

Two things attracted me to this production - firstly the brilliant cast, some of whom were attached at that point, and secondly the part of Robert Walpole in the first play, which would never normally come my way except in a cross-cast situation. Nick Dear described him as a cartoon when I first met him - and I’ve had enormous fun playing him. He’s rather become the company mascot. A lot of the cast spend a lot of time impersonating his creepy voice.

How familiar were you with Hogarth's work and the periods that the plays present before embarking on the productions?

I wasn’t at all familiar with the eighteenth century - more so with the nineteenth, after the novel was introduced - but Hogarth’s work is a very helpful and very immediate way of introducing yourself to it. He doesn’t paint London in the most flattering of lights. You get a palpable sense of the stench, of the excessive indulgence and disease. The onset of the Victorians attempted to wipe the surface clean - so it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of what Britons were like before having a moral compass foisted on them.

One Saturday morning in August, I was walking to rehearsals through Soho and Fitzrovia.  On the way, I stepped over two pools of blood, three piles of vomit and the air was heavy with the stink of urine. Nothing changes, really!

How does playing historical figures change your approach to a role and your shaping of a character? Are you an actor who enjoys research and, if so, what kinds of research on Walpole and Garrick did you undertake? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

I’m not a fan of research unless there are holes in the script that have to be filled by the actor. The writer has usually thought of everything. Walpole was all there on the page as a character. Garrick was a bit more elusive as a character, because he is always being disingenuous - and it’s not as if there is any footage of him at work - so I was lucky to meet with Michael Caines at the Times Literary Supplement, who is a Garrick expert.  He kindly talked me through the background to the man and what made him tick. I don’t know how close Nick’s Garrick is to the real man - and it is a play about Hogarth, not Garrick - so ultimately, I’m honouring the script, not the man. The one thing I learned about Garrick which really tickled me was that he invented a special fright-wig for Hamlet, so that his hair would slowly stand on end when he saw the ghost of his father.

In the case of Garrick, is it enjoyable or particularly challenging to play an actor?

It’s a bit of both. He is very amusing to play, but I am in no way an extrovert. I’m very introverted - and acting is my outlet where I pretend to be gregarious for a few hours.  People assume, if you’re an actor, that you enjoy being a show-off. Not me. With Garrick, it’s more about playing a show-off, about cultivating a sense of confidence and entitlement for the evening.

What is it about Hogarth and his struggles that speaks to a contemporary audience, do you think? Are there any particular themes in the plays that resonate strongly for us today, or indeed that resonate for you personally?

The argument that resonated most strongly for me is the one voiced by young Hogarth and Henry Fielding. Nick’s Hogarth seems to believe that agitprop is a waste of time, particularly in the theatre. What is it that you think you’re achieving? Do you honestly think that an angry play will change governmental policy? Of course it won’t. The audience is too rarefied to begin with. Hogarth’s point is that your reach, your sphere of influence, is far greater when you slip your message in under the radar - camouflaged by an affecting story or, in his case, apparently comedic caricatures. He can mass-produce his prints and have his 'modern moral subjects’ on the walls of every home in London - and slowly, the message sinks in. A real story can change someone’s heart and mind more readily than some angry rhetoric.

It's a significant year for the Rose (the theatre's tenth anniversary) and this is your first time working at this venue. Had you attended as an audience member before? What do you find to be some of the challenges and pleasures of performing in the space?

I had not been to the Rose before. It’s a very large space to fill vocally. Luckily, both my characters are quite loudly spoken so I was already bellowing for six weeks in rehearsals.

Have you had time to explore Kingston or the surrounding area? Any outings to Strawberry Hill?

I haven’t had time yet, no. We’ve made it as far as Woody’s - the bar next door to the theatre! It’s a beautiful setting to work in, right on the river. Like the National, except the waterfront’s quieter. Knowing a little about Horace Walpole now, I’d be tentative about visiting Strawberry Hill unless I was armed with a lot of garlic and sage leaves.

How was the experience of performing Merrily We Roll Along last year in Boston, a few years after the production's great success in London?

Merrily in Boston last Autumn was completely joyous. Jenna [Russell] wasn’t available, but Damian [Humbley], who is now essentially my annoying younger brother, and I had a blast. It was such a pleasure to revisit something you thought you knew and have another go without all the anxiety and stress of doing it for the first time. Maria [Friedman] was on incredible form, too. It really cemented our friendships. It’s a piece that grows in depth, the older you get. I was shocked to discover how much I had changed in the intervening four years. Almost a different person. Life and love had been throwing a lot of curve balls at me in 2017, so it was almost like therapy to play Frank again and exorcise a whole lot of grief in the process.

A production that I remember very fondly is Rupert Goold's staging of The Glass Menagerie in 2007, in which you played Jim, alongside Jessica Lange as Amanda, Amanda Hale as Laura, and Ed Stoppard as Tom. I can't imagine seeing the play done better. Do you have any particular memories of being in that show?

Talking of emotional grief! Thank you. That experience was incredibly special. The candlelight scene is one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s poetry, really - and a total privilege to do. I had been away filming for the first two weeks of rehearsal so I was off-book when I got there. We were in a rehearsal room somewhere under the Westway, in January. Rupert turned all the lights off and Amanda and I ran the whole scene just with a candelabra. It was incredibly moving - and so dark that we both lost ourselves entirely (which is always helpful). We carried that intimacy through to the stage and, luckily, managed to keep it as delicate and immediate as the writing. There was always total silence in the theatre as their relationship briefly blossomed and died.

Is theatre the most satisfying medium for you, or do you enjoy working in film and TV equally?

I love all three in different ways. To practise acting, I would say that theatre is the only place you can do that, as it’s the only place where you are in control of your own performance. Then again, nothing beats a good location job with a happy cast.  Unfortunately, the money in theatre is abysmal. Soon - if it isn’t happening already - only people with private incomes will be able to afford to do it and live in London at the same time. And that won’t be good for our talent base...

Tell me about a book, a theatre production, and an album that you liked or that inspired you recently.

I recently read Justin Pollard and Howard Reid’s book about ancient Alexandria.  Fascinating to see how multi-faith societies seemed to function relatively freely in the ancient world. Though, of course, in Alexandria, religion played second fiddle to the pursuit of knowledge. Always helpful.

My friend Eden [Espinosa], who played Mary in Merrily in Boston, was over in the summer to do West Side Story at the Proms. I don’t think I’ll ever see it acted, sung or played better. I was hearing lyrics in it for the first time. I went with Maria. There was a moment when the young lovers saw each other for the first time but felt unable to reach one another. It was quite profound. I remember saying to Maria, it was everything wrong with the world and everything right with the world in one look. It surprised me how much it affected me.

I recently rediscovered In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs, which was on a loop in my car when I was a teenager. It travels with me on the commute to Kingston each day.

And finally, what are your plans after the run of Hogarth's Progress is over?

Now that would be telling...

Hogarth's Progress runs at the Rose Theatre until 21st October. 

Friday 12 October 2018

Theatre Review: Wise Children (Old Vic)

"What a joy it is to dance and sing!" Those words form a refrain throughout Angela Carter's last novel Wise Children (1991) in which the teeming, complicated, theatrical family history of two 75-year-old Brixton-based twins, Dora and Nora Chance, the deserted illegitimate offspring of the Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, unfolds with the dizzying inventiveness and in the exuberant prose for which Carter was justly celebrated.

Stage-struck and Shakespeare-soaked, Carter's novel is both an ideal candidate for theatrical adaptation, and a challenging one. Still, there seem few directors better suited to the task than Emma Rice, who not only writes and directs this new version at the Old Vic but who has also named her new theatre company for the novel. "No one opens a book by Angela Carter in search of restraint," wrote Carol Shields, and no one goes to a Rice production in search of restraint, either. (Rice's great self-description - "I'm not a minimalist girl" - works equally well for Carter.) And following the tumult of her too-brief time at the Globe, it's heartening to find Rice already back in the saddle, and with her signature style very much intact.

Image: Steve Tanner 

That being said, I wouldn't rank Wise Children as one of Rice's best productions. The unabashed glee of her Midsummer Night's Dream or the charm of last year's lovely chocolate box musical Romantics Anonymous are not quite achieved here. Like Kneehigh's take on Steptoe and Son, Wise Children is a patchier effort and its seams sometimes show. Rice originally intended this production for the Globe, and I think it would have worked better there: various conceits and bits of audience interaction that might have made the show soar come off somewhat awkwardly in this staging. Too often - an animated flight over London is a case in point - the production seems to be signposting "enchantment" rather than actually creating it.

A lot of the comedy is strenous and forced, too. The great Katy Owen - previously Rice's water-pistol-toting Puck and pillar-rubbing Malvolio - certainly makes her mark as the twins' assertive adopted Mum, but some of the comic business she's given - saggy boobs, urination and all - is just plain crass. And does a mention of going to buy some clobber at Brixton Market really have to come complete with a dance interlude to Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue"? At such heavy-handed moments, Rice's recent essay about reading and adapting Carter seems, um, wiser than what's actually ended up on stage.

Still, there are some lovely touches throughout: charming puppetry, lively contributions from the on-stage musicians. The moments when the three sets of actors playing the twins at different ages - Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud, Omari Douglas and Melissa James, Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt - share the stage together have a magical Three Tall Women quality. While some plot elements and a number of characters have inevitably been snipped, a great deal of Carter's language has been retained and its extravagance enlivens the evening.

And what does come through vibrantly here is the case that the piece makes for 'illegitimacy," both in terms of family relations and theatrical form. While posh, declaiming Shakespeareans are lightly satirised (and, given Rice's recent Globe experiences, make of that "what you will"), entertainments such as music hall, panto, revue, and end-of-the-pier comedy are warmly celebrated. Rice's affection for those British traditions is palable, and the show's undoing of cultural hierarchy is as subversive as its insistence that our true families are those we choose for ourselves. The production's perspective is boldly matriarchal in a way that makes the final tableau (set to a song I won't reveal) both a hokey and a truly touching conclusion to the evening.

What a joy it is...? Well, some of the time.

Wise Children is booking at the Old Vic until 10 November. 

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Festival Report: 43rd Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, 2018

My report on the 43rd Polish Film Festival in Gdynia is up at PopMatters. You can read it here

Monday 1 October 2018

Theatre Review: Pinter at the Pinter: 1 + 2 (Harold Pinter Theatre)

My reviews of the first two sets of productions in the Pinter at the Pinter season are up at The Reviews Hub. You can read them here and here