Wednesday 30 October 2019

Theatre Review: The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

The National Theatre's Dorfman has become the de facto British home to Annie Baker's plays over the last couple of years. Co-directed by the author with designer Chloe Lamford, The Antipodes becomes the third of Baker's works to premiere there following Sam Gold's production of the Pulitzer-awarded The Flick in 2016 and James MacDonald's staging of John last year. I missed John but quite admired The Flick, which, across a generous (for some, much too generous) three hour running time, highlights changing patterns of cinema presentation and consumption via the interactions of three employees in a small Massachusetts movie-house, as they mop floors, chat about films, and make ill-advised passes at one another. 

The Antipodes continues The Flick's concern with workplace dynamics - up to a point. The play presents a group of characters involved in a series of vaguely defined creative brainstorming sessions overseen by the slippery Sandy (Conleth Hill) in a corporate room that Lamford's design renders in all its swirly carpeted hideousness. Among the participants (who are played as an Anglo American crew here) are Arthur Darvill's Dave and Matt Bardock's Danny, for whom this project isn't their first rodeo with Sandy, and newbies Eleanor (Sinead Matthews), Adam (Fisayo Akinade), Josh (Hadley Fraser) and another (very different) Danny (Stuart McQuarrie) - plus note-taker Brian (Bill Milner)  and Sandy's endlessly sunshiney secretary Sarah (Imogen Doel).

Sandy's "method" is to get the group to tell personal stories, on topics ranging from loss of virginity to their biggest regret. As such, the dynamics of the group are again the focus - watch out for Darvill's Dave sidling up to Matthews's Eleanor to gleefully point out a phone-related faux pas she's just made - and suggestions of exploitation and inequality percolate within the interactions; witness the unceremonious removal of a participant who dares to raise questions about the whole premise of the endeavour by articulating the ways that personal "revelation" can mislead. 

But Baker twists the play into stranger, more surreal territory this time around. This is a piece concerned not just with storytelling and communication but with time, which gets not only discussed in the dialogue but dramatically distorted, for protagonists and audience alike. As always in Lamford's clever designs, details such as a circular light fixture and that swirly carpet function as expressions of the themes, and the thrust-staged production makes us complicit as observers around the conference table, as the tone shifts from relatable, awkward-funny revelation to a night-time sequence that digs into mythic and ritualistic aspects of story-telling. ("This is a sacred space," Sandy tells the group at the beginning, with his suspicious earnestness.)

The weirdness here, like Baker's mumblecore-influenced naturalism itself, can feel self-concious and calculated. But at their best her plays achieve effects that other writers don't get near. Though much shorter than The Flick, The Antipodes challenges and, with its increasingly apocalyptic undertone, unsettles at times. Yet watching the production I felt drawn into a state of relaxed, quite benign immersion that's somehow different from my experience at any other drama: a combined, overlapping sensation of boredom and rapture. 

This has to do with the particular mood that Baker creates, the absence of conventional dramatic tension, and, here, with the qualities that the actors bring "to the table." The company is much more assured than the cast of The Flick was, filling out the somewhat sketchy characters with details that, along with a marvellous late flourish which literally alters our perspective on them, variously complement or contradict their story-telling.

As Dave, Darvill pops his mustard coloured socks up on the table in a way that encapsulates male confidence and entitlement. Burly Matt Bardock pipes up with an excruciatingly graphic, finally moralising STD story, while Hadley Fraser plays Josh as buzzing and animated when he gets philosophical and touchingly apologetic when asking why, umm, he hasn't been paid for three months. 

Fisayo Akinade delivers the most challenging speech - a bizarre, elaborate creation myth for stories - beautifully, while Stuart McQuarrie makes a reminiscence involving a chicken a centrepiece of the show. Conleth Hill suggests a ruthless streak under Sandy's geniality, and Sinead Matthews, always a glory, delights as Eleanor recounts her first sexual experience, curls up on a pile of boxes to sleep, and takes to knitting - a detail that provides a supreme punchline. As the assistants, Bill Milner moves from unassuming note-taker to disturbing participant while Imogen Doel's Sarah loses not an ounce of her perkiness as she recounts a childhood experience that's apparently straight out of a Gothic fairytale. A primary pleasure of the evening is watching these actors interact.

Some bits of physical business don't feel fluid enough yet and Baker's writing has a random air at times, the relay of narratives sometimes smacking of research that feels half-digested. But the conclusion - which juxtaposes one character's loss of faith with another's reconnection with their first foray into creativity - blindsides you with its understated beauty, delivering a memorable, humane ending to this enigmatic exploration of the multiple stories we tell.

The Antipodes is booking at the National Theatre until 23 November.

Photos: Manuel Harlan. 

Thursday 17 October 2019

Film Review: Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood, 2019)

From the superb (Tom Browne's sensitive, profound Radiator [2014]) to the dire (Ben Wheatley's entirely bogus Dogme derivative Happy New Year, Colin Burstead [2018]), the rural family film has started to become a staple of independent British cinema in recent years. Director D.R Hood already made a contribution in 2011 with Wreckers, a Kent-set tale of brotherly tension and marital secrets starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and she returns to the form with Us Among the Stones, her complementarily themed, but formally more radical, second feature. 

The premise may be perfectly conventional: the clan of a dying matriarch (Anna Calder-Marshall), including sons (Laurence Fox, Jethro Skinner), spouse (Oliver Cotton), his two brothers (Greg Hicks, Bill Thomas), partners and assorted grandchildren - gather for a celebration that unearths family resentments and deceptions. But the telling isn't. Hood mobilises a range of different formats in Us Among the Stones, combining pinhole camera, 35mm stills camera and iPhone footage, expertly edited by Claire Pringle, to give an exciting visual dissonance to the piece.

Nature shots combine with intense close-ups, placing place and protagonists in dialogue. The ramshackle Dartmoor farmhouse itself becomes a character, full of the history and personality of its inhabitants. Most evocative of all is the use of photographs - a device employed to dazzling effect in a single sequence of Christophe Honoré's great Making Plans for Lena (2009) - but one that here forms a consistent, integral part of the film's fabric. As pictures of the past are presented - and the present-day scenes are occasionally freeze-framed, becoming memories in the making - a sense of the family's history is made tangible, while also prompting the viewer's own reminiscences.

What's pleasing, too, is that, while the film explores the generational divide between a Bohemian 60s group - ones too stoned to make a family visit to Stonehenge a smooth trip - and their fractious offspring, that conflict avoids the obviousness that accusatory Boomer-baiting plays like Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love and Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia succumbed to. Hood's characters are too idiosyncratic to be mere representatives of their era, and the actors' inventiveness further ensures that this pitfall is avoided. 

The younger cast members come up with less that's fresh (though Sinead Matthews, who featured in Wreckers, brings her customary vibrancy to her scenes as a disparaged step-mum, brandishing a doll for a baby). But Hicks, Cotton and Thomas vividly inhabit brother characters as different as real-life brothers can be. Best of all is Calder-Marshall as the mother. Always a magical stage actress, Calder-Marshall hasn't necessarily had film roles to do her talent justice. But with her mesmerising vocal rhythms, plaintive looks and sudden, surprising humour, she seizes on all the opportunities offered here.

I'd be hard-pressed to say why her first scene with Hicks - it involves him quoting Tennyson and she responding with a rasped "They've locked me up! Save me!"  - gives me such pleasure, but it has something to do with the theatrical gusto that both actors bring to the moment. The party scene, which finds Calder-Marshall singing the prime piece of bawdy "Blow the Candles Out," achieves a similar effect: a deep English eccentricity that draws on our literary, folk and theatre heritage. (In a lovely touch, the film concludes with a shanty as the credits roll.) It's a shame that, as in Wreckers, Hood sees fit to take the proceedings in a somewhat shrill, melodramatic direction towards the close, with a spot of fisticuffs that doesn't add much. Still, ultimately it's not the soapy revelations but rather the fine performances, experimental elements and distinctive texture that make this family portrait resonate. 

Us Among the Stones premiered at the 2019 London Film Festival. Further information here

Monday 14 October 2019

Interview with François Ozon

My interview with François Ozon about By the Grace of God is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Theatre Review: Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

Bravo, bravo, bravissimo! If I had to choose one theatre production, of those that I've seen so far this year in the UK and Poland, to watch again now, today, tonight, my choice, without a shadow of a doubt, would be Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever), Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza which was the first of the Diploma Shows to feature the 2018/19 contingent of Łódź Film School graduating actors. Leaping from gaiety to the grotesque, gleeful reality TV parody ("Nabrzmiałe probleeemy!") to haunting folk ballad expressionism, the show offered a rollercoaster ride through contemporary culture (and Polish history) that essentially provided all the shows you could require in one gorgeously baggy, unruly and inclusive package - one held together by the talent, commitment and energy of the young performers and by Grzegorzek's visionary genius. 

The first of this year's three Diploma shows starring the 2019/20 graduating group, Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Don't Eat That, It's For Christmas!) continues the precedent set by Mebelki. Constructed without a text, through improvisation, research and an exchange of ideas with the actors, and including some of the same creative team - Tomasz Armada (costumes), Iza Połońska (vocal coaching) and Leszek Kołodziejski (music supervision) - Grzegorzek's latest provocation again mobilises a collage structure that mixes diverse dramatic scenes, song and dance interludes, the silly and the (very) serious.

The show is audience-inclusive from its opening moments, in which dynamic Dominik Mironiuk ushers us into the auditorium, where he serves as a magical combination of MC, cabaret artiste, preacher and hypnotist, first introducing us to his colleagues: Sylwia Gajdemska, Irmina Liszkowska (who also serves as the show's assistant director), Janek Napieralski, Wiktor Piechowski, Dorota Ptaszek, Aleksander Rudziński, Julia Szczepańska, Dominika Walo, and Michał Włodarczyk. As was the case in Mebelki, this 10-strong collective switch up and share roles throughout the performance, with identities helpfully indicated by velcro labels attached to Armada's marvellous white costumes, which variously suggest hazmat or space suit, straight jacket or hospital uniform.

If a distinctive feature of the previous show was its Polishness, with Czesław Niemen songs rubbing up against Disco Polo parody, then Nie jedz tego! - though somewhat more distilled - casts its net wider for its main reference point. Sure, Polish songs are sung and Prez Duda get namechecked (in a hilariously mournful dirge delivered by Włodarczyk) but the principal inspiration here comes from Skye Borgman's 2017 documentary Kidnapped in Plain Sight, about the abduction of Idaho 12-year-old Jan Broberg in the 1970s. 

Grzegorzek and company use this text as a jumping-off point for an exploration of family dynamics (look how easily those "Matka" and "Ojciec" labels can be peeled off, after all) and social breakdown through the experiences of the kidnapped girl (Suzi, here), her siblings and manipulatable parents and the perpetrator (one Brajan - seldom a name to be trusted). Described as "too strange to seem real," the most sensational aspects of the Broberg case - from the culprit's Theorem-ish seduction of both of his victim's parents, to his convincing Jan that they were meant to marry and have a child who was prophesied to be the saviour of an alien planet - are preserved; indeed, a principal fascination of the show is the way it transforms real-life, documentary-derived material into theatrical phantasmagoria, mixing up genres from sci-fi to detective story under the wryly-deployed "Documentary Film" banner. 

Grzegorzek is the kind of director who can get a mood to shift lightening fast, and here abrupt lighting changes and surprising musical cues whisk us from the playful to the deeply disturbing. Bringing different facets to the character, the actresses convey Suzi's confusion, trauma and fortitude; from Szczepańska's confrontation with alien apparitions pitched somewhere between Dr. Who and the Ku Klux Klan to a touching, simply staged moment in which Gajdemska beautifully performs YouTube "bathtub ukulele singer-songwriter" Abbey Glover's "Please Don't Go". 

Around this through-line, the show throws several other elements into the mix, whether developing its concern with the mediatisation of crime through a very funny parody of a "Traffic Cops" TV series ("National Roads") or offering a memorable moment for Piechowski with his wonderfully rude accordion rendition of "Cipuleńka." Meanwhile, Daria Szymańska's distinctive choreography is at its most amazing in a powerful atomic interlude. 

The actors modulate brilliantly, whether offering heightened physical clowning - dig Janek Napieralski's epic drunk display! - or achieving subtle, sensitive effects. If the end result is not so all encompassingly great, nor as galvanising in its transitions, as Mebelki, there are still more perverse pleasures and terrors here than can be taken in on one viewing. As the actors gather close to the audience for a cathartic and bewitchingly sung finale, you may find yourself reflecting that, while winter holidays come but once a year, Grzegorzek and company have produced a show that's for life, not just for Christmas. 

The next performances of Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! take place from the 3rd to 17th October. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:
The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)