Tuesday 31 December 2019

Review of 2019: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions

Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki, Teatr Studyjny

"Nabrzmałe probleeemy!" If you were lucky enough to catch Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza - a rollercoaster ride through Polish culture high and low, historical and contemporary - then it wasn't really necessary to see another show this year. Satire, surrealism, all kinds of song, silliness, seriousness, uproarious humour and deep emotion (plus tap-dancing!)... the marvellous Mebelki had it all - including, in its tirelessly inventive, multitasking ensemble of Łódź Film School graduates, a constellation of stars of the future.  Review here.

The Antipodes, National Theatre
The reception was more lukewarm than it usually is for an Annie Baker play with The Antipodes, suggesting that the appeal of Baker's brand of slightly calculated mumblecore-ish naturalism may be wearing thin. For me, though, this singular exploration of storytelling created a relaxed feeling between rapture and boredom unlike anything I've ever experienced in the theatre. Especially with this cast - Conleth Hill, Sinead Matthews, Arthur Darvill, Fisayo Akinade, and Stuart McQuarrie among them - delivering tales both mundane and fantastic. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes, Orange Tree

Formal and linguistic playfulness bely a serious examination of loss and the relationship of language to experience in Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes in which an inquisitive 9-year-old (terrific Eve Ponsonby) and her memorably foul-mouthed teddy bear embark on an imaginative odyssey across Lisbon, one rendered with hilarity and poignancy in Wiebke Green's breathless, barmy and dazzling production. More Portuguese plays for UK stages, please. 

Death of a Salesman, Young Vic/Picadilly  
Fantastic performances by a cast including Wendell Pierce, Sharon D. Clarke and Joseph Mydell ignited Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's game-changing production.

Po Ptakach, Teatr CHOREA/Earthfall

Co-directed by Tomasz Rodowicz with Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, Po Ptakach takes off from The Birds, using Aristophanes's comedy as the basis for a distinctive and immersive piece of physical theatre that gives the themes of the original fresh potency. One of many highlights of this summer's Retroperspektywy festival

Wife, Kiln Theatre

Placing and tracing queer currents in and around A Doll's House, Samuel Adamson's sharply funny and touching decades-spanning drama offered a generous but unsentimental look at theatre's ability to preserve continuity and inspire change -for actors and audience members alike. Review here

My Mother Said I Never Should (UK touring)

The most frequently performed work by a female playwright worldwide, it's not hard to see the appeal of Charlotte Keatley's My Mother Said I Never Should: the play offers a distilled yet subtly expansive look at British women's lives across the 20th century. Both embracing and subverting "kitchen sink" realism, Michael Cabot's sensitive and beautifully acted production did justice to the play's focus on the sadnesses and pleasures of working- and middle-class lives. 

Śliskie słowa,  Teatr Studyjny

"Harlem River," Żabka meltdowns, slacklining and headstanding... The final Łódź Film School Diploma show of 2019, directed by Artur Urbanski, was a devised experiment, patchy but delivering some unforgettable, powerful moments.

Three Sisters, National Theatre

When not succumbing to heavy-handed blame-the-Brits didacticism, Inua Ellams's relocation of play to the context of the Biafran War made for a sometimes revelatory reimagining of Three Sisters, bringing into focus connections between national and domestic strife.

The Mikvah Project, Orange Tree 

A portrait of desire in conflict with culture, Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. With a design that opens a pool in the OT floor, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production sustains a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging in some broad humour, especially in a manic Alicante interlude. Nice news that the  production is returning to the Orange Tree next year

Photos: Mariusz Grzegorzek, Johan Persson,  Tristram Kenton, Alistair Muir, Rami Shaya, Geraint Lewis, Manuel Harlan, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg, Robert Day, Aleksandra Pawlowska 

Friday 20 December 2019

Review of 2019: Cinema - 12 Favourite Films

Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)

Several acclaimed 2019 films indulged in simple revenge fantasies (Rose Plays Julie, The Other LambBacurau) or got praised just for taking fashionable political positions. Mati Diop's Atlantics flirts with those tendencies but does so with so much vision and idiosyncrasy that it touches the sublime. With the exception of Jonas Carpignano's great Mediterranea, recent films on the topic of African migration experience (such as Phillippe Faucon's Amin or Mahamat Saleh Haroun's A Season in France) have tended to be low-key, slightly underwhelming affairs that have turned out more worthy than insightful. Diop's innovation in Atlantics lies in twisting social realism into the realm of the supernatural, mobilising elements of folktale, fable, Ghost-ly romance and horror to create a poetic, intoxicating work that gets under the skin.

Synonyms (dir. Nadav Lapid)

An Israeli's attempt at integration in the City of Light is the subject of Nadav Lapid's Berlinale-awarded latest, a by turns cerebral, sexy, unsettling and ludic take on immigrant experience that has something of the philosophical smarts and energy of Christophe Honoré at his most exhilaratingly freewheeling; you never know where this journey's going to go. Holding the strands together is a fiercely charismatic, star-making performance from Tom Mercier, as captivating in his covetable mustard coloured coat as he is out of it. Pump up the Jam!

The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)

God of the Piano (dir. Itay Tal)

Two exceptional films about female characters reckoning with the talents of children. Itay Tal's drama focuses on a mother (excellent Naama Preis) and the boy she wants to follow in the family footsteps as a piano prodigy; this brisk and gripping film is another standout in the vibrant new Israeli cinema. Sara Colangelo's remake of  Nadav (him again!) Lapid's 2014 work The Kindergarten Teacher is strictly speaking a 2018 release, but I can't let the year pass without highlighting the brilliance of the central performance here, one that proved conclusively that there are few better reasons to persist with American cinema than the opportunity to see Maggie Gyllenhaal acting. As Lisa, the aspiring writer and dedicated teacher who identifies a young boy in her class as a budding poetry genius, Gyllenhaal pulls us deeply into the obsessiveness of a likeable, intelligent woman in a haunting, empathetic performance. Gyllenhaal describes the film as being about "the consequences of starving a vibrant woman's mind" and part of what's great about this deceptively modest movie is the clear-eyed attention it pays to the ways that contemporary culture can disillusion and disable. 

Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper)
"There's nothin' that a little time and Patsy Cline couldn't fix..." So it proves in Tom Harper's drama about a ne'er-do-well Glasgow girl trying to realise her abiding dream to become a country music star. Wild Rose is insightful, huge-hearted, crowd-pleasing but mature in its perspective, with Jessie Buckley's dynamic performance connecting the Brit grit of a Margi Clarke with the real-life US country heroines that Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek played so memorably in Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner's Daughter. Lovely entertainment. 

By the Grace of God (dir. François Ozon)

As sober and soulful as his previous film - the bad-fun Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Double Lover - was perverse and hilarious, Ozon's dramatisation of the Preynat case eschewed shouty Spotlight-isms for a more nuanced, character-rich look at the effects of the abuses covered up the Catholic Church. By the Grace of God attends to each protagonists' personality with scrupulous sensitivity, aided by beautiful performances from Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet and Swann Arlaud as the central trio. Interview with Ozon here

Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

 The Souvenir (dir. Joanna Hogg) 

Almodóvar and Hogg's exceptionally sensitive, complementary self-portraits of directors - one male, established and jaded, one female, tentative and starting out - proved that films about filmmakers needn't be exercises in solipsism or tiresome meta game-playing but can instead forge a hotline to the heart of the viewer. 

An Officer and a Spy (dir. Roman Polański) 

Adapting Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair, Roman Polański managed to deliver one of his finest recent films (by far), an intelligent, handsome historical drama with a thriller's grip, as fine-tuned and compelling as Jean Dujardin's immaculate lead performance. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Celine Sciamma)
At times suggesting a lost Henry James story adapted by Jacques Rivette, Sciamma's film is a love story at once austere and rapturous: cinematic écriture féminine.

Diagnosis (dir. Ewa Podgórska)

I Was Here (dir. Nathalie Biancheri 
and Ola Jankowska)

Anne Tyler once wrote "that there is no ordinary person, anywhere." If further proof of that were needed, these two superb documentaries offer it, as they unfold stories of violence, caring, compromise and resilience in the experiences related by their uncelebrated protagonists. Both experimental in their own particular ways, the films are linked by their confessional form and their very moving revelations of the durability of childhood wounds. More meta, Biancheri and Jankowska's I Was Here presents its British protagonists with the question of why they would make a good documentary subject. More mobile (indeed, the film's attention to how a city moves is peerless), Diagnosis draws on urban psychoanalysis theory, as it presents a range of questions to its Łódź-born participants. Podgórska captures the city's singular strangeness through a visionary stylistic approach that incorporates slow zooms, a haunting sound design, associative editing, and some stunning overhead shots - of the human face and the cityscape. Interview with Podgórska here

Bonus: Chambre 212 (dir. Honoré), Where'd You Go, Bernadette?(dir. Linklater), Ja Teraz Kłamię (dir. Borowski), Boże Ciało (dir. Komasa), Mr. Jones (dir. Holland), Young Ahmed (dir. Dardennes), Moments (dir. Beata Parkanova), In Fabric (dir. Strickland), Ibiza: The Silent Movie (dir. Temple)Us (dir. Peele), Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood), Cat in the Wall (dir. Mileva and Kazakova),  The Guest (dir. Chiarini), The Irishman (dir. Scorsese), Nic Nie Ginie (dir. Alabrudzinska), The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Nilson and Schwartz)Ordinary Love (dir. Barros D'Sa and Leyburn), System Crasher (dir. Fingscheidt), At Eternity's Gate (dir. Schnabel), Little Monsters (dir. Forsythe)

Worst:  Liberté (dir. Serra), The Laundromat (dir. Soderbergh), The King  (dir. Michôd), A Rainy Day in New York (dir. Allen), Red Joan (dir. Nunn)

Review of 2019: Music - 12 Favourite Albums

"I took a trip, it set me free," lilts Madonna on "Medillin" the delicious duet with Maluma which opens her 14th album Madame X. The record itself offers listeners just such a liberating journey. 2015's Rebel Heart already indicated that Madonna had become interested in making music beyond forgettable floor-fillers again, but relocation to Lisbon fired up the artist in unexpected ways, inspiring an album that's equal parts introspective and expansive, looking out, wonderfully, to the world beyond the States. Combining touches of morna, fado and reggaeton with off-kilter experimenta and the pop bliss of Madonna at her best, Madame X was for me the year's most powerful (and surprising) release. 

Thursday 19 December 2019

Favourites of the Decade: Theatre - 10 Productions

The Light Princess 
(National Theatre; dir. Marianne Elliott)


Richard III 
(Propeller; dir. Ed Hall)


 Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki 
(Teatr Studyjny; 
dir. Mariusz Grzegorzek)


The Rolling Stone
(Orange Tree; dir. Ellen  McDougall)


Les Blancs 
(National Theatre; dir. Yaël Farber)


(National Theatre; dir. Mike Leigh)


Caroline, or Change 
dir. Michael Longhurst)

A Time to Reap 
(Royal Court; dir. Caroline Steinbeis)


A Delicate Balance
(Almeida; dir. James Mcdonald) 


A Midsummer Night's Dream 
(Globe; dir. Emma Rice)



Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Almeida)  

Anna Christie (Donmar) 
Play Mas (Orange Tree)
Armstrong's War (Finborough) 
Salt, Root and Roe (Trafalgar)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Pinter)
Merrily We Roll Along (Menier/Pinter)
Festival (Orange Tree)
All That Fall (Jermyn Street) 
Made in Dagenham (Adelphi)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Curve/Gielgud)  
Hamlet (National Theatre)
The Death of Ivan Ilych (Merton Arts Space) 
Broken Glass (Tricycle)
The Middlemarch Trilogy (Orange Tree)
JOAN (BAC/Ovalhouse) 
Yours for the Asking (Orange Tree)
The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester) 
Richard III (Almeida)
The Nether (Otchłań) (Teatr Jaracz)

Photos: Mariusz Grzegorzek, Johan Persson,  Tristram Kenton, Alistair Muir, Geraint Lewis, Manuel Harlan, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg 

Monday 16 December 2019

Favourites of the Decade: Cinema - 10 Films

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)

Frantz (dir. François Ozon)

The Last Family (dir. Jan P. Matuszyński)

Mediterranea (dir. Jonas Carpignano)

Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan)

Radiator (dir. Tom Browne)

Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies)

11 Minutes (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski)

Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhangke)


Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
Amigo (dir. John Sayles)
Fugue (dir. Agnieszka Smoczyńska)
Exhibition (dir. Joanna Hogg)
Little Men (dir. Ira Sachs)
Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) 
Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh)
Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)
Essential Killing (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski)
Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh)
45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh)
Beloved (dir. Christophe Honoré)
Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
James White (dir. Josh Mond)
Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh)
mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)