Monday 31 August 2020

Body / Memory/ History - A Report on Retroperspektywy Festival 2020, Łódź

The organisation of a theatre festival - particularly one as audience-inclusive and interactive as Teatr CHOREA's Retroperspektywy was when I attended it for the first time last year - seems a challenging, not to say a foolhardy, endeavour in the current climate. 

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

"Social distance" is the antithesis of the ethos of most live events. And it's certainly so at this festival, where performers make close contact with audience members not just during the intense, highly physical shows, but also at Q&A discussion panels, and other events held at the converted factory buildings that make up the great Fabryka Sztuki complex in Łódź.

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

But this most creative of companies pulled off the daunting challenge of this year's Festival in a grand manner, with a rich and diverse programme made up of a mixture of online events, recorded shows, film screenings, VR spectacles and live performances. Audience contact details were taken before each event; masks were mandatory; hand sanitiser provided; and if social distancing was not strictly adhered to at every moment, the Festival still provided a solid model for how to go about the creation and execution of such an event in the disturbing, disruptive times of Coronavirus. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The title of this year's edition - Body, Memory, History - set the tone. The body is always central to the work of the Grotowski-influenced CHOREA, which mobilises the physicality of the performers on stage in totally distinctive, dynamic ways. Teamwork is key to the group's process and output, which seeks to draw on the power of collective expression while never sacrificing each performer's individuality. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The premiere of the company's Schulz: Skrawki (Schulz: Scraps) proved a superb opener. The writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is probably best known outside of Poland for Street of Crocodiles (itself adapted for the stage to much acclaim by Complicite and the NT in 1992), and a selection of his stories provide the inspiration for this new work. A combination of installation and physical theatre, the piece presents its six performers - Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, Joanna Chmielecka, Michał Jóźwik, Majka Justyna, Małgorzata Lipczyńska, and Tomasz Rodowicz - occupying separate spaces (including a bath, a chair, and a table) as the audience enters a silent, darkened auditorium. In stillness to start, the six gradually stir into movement, each engaged in a separate task or overlapping action, as director Konrad Dworakowski intones Schulz's prose live. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A thematic concern with the transgression of matter and the human body emerged, and was vividly evoked thanks to Dworakowski's background in puppet theatre, with strings, wires and sticks integrated into the performers' movements. Enhanced by a perfectly tailored score composed by Paweł Odorowicz, the effect was thrilling and hypnotic: all the more so for being the first encounter with live performance for many months for most audience members.  

In a generous gesture, Schulz: Skrawki was filmed by Hollybaba / Rami Shaya and made available on YouTube for some days after the live premiere. The same was true for all the other shows, including Warsaw STUDIO Teatrgaleria's Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (More than One Animal), a hilarious parody of the anthropomorphising tendencies of certain nature documentaries. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

At times coming off as a wryly avant garde take on Cats, the show presented the antics and behaviour patterns of its indeterminate creatures with the aid of a deadpan voiceover delievered by Agnieszka Podsiadlik (the tricky matriarch of Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump) and wonderful physical work by the cast: Sonia Roszczuk, Vira Hres, Błażej Stencel, and Agata Tragarz. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A ludic, absurdist tone - accentuated by some brilliantly funny songs delivered by the duo of Robert Wasiewicz and Marcin Miętus - was sustained. But the show also makes serious and subversive points on issues from community to climate change, while a poetic visual flourish at the mid-point was a beautiful surprise.

iGeneration? (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Also exploring the issue of community, but within the context of young people's engagement with online culture, was iGeneration?, directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, which was presented in a filmed version. The influence of Mariusz Grzegorzek's unforgettable student-developed extravaganza Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever) was felt here, with dance, direct address, phantasmagoric sci fi elements, and songs by the band Mojo Pin incorporated into the show. 

iGeneration? discussion (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Like the Biedrzycki-directed recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life")iGeneration? doesn't fear didacticism in its explicit critique of over-consumption and technology's detrimental effects on human connection. But the messages are conveyed via theatrical means that are exciting and surprising, such as the presentation of the web as a seething mass of bodies and masks called "the Great Tangle." In defiance of the numbing and dehumanising effects of the Internet, the show ends with a vivid and invigorating defence of emotion delivered by its excellent young cast. 

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Mortality was a theme in several shows, including Ukrainian company Golden Gate Theatre's Did You Love Me, Dad?, which was presented in a video performance, and the dynamic dance piece Salto Mortale by Majka Justyna and Joanna Jaworska-Maciaszek. Another powerful solo female production on the topic was Monika Wachowicz and Arti Grabowski's W zawieszeniu (Suspended), in which Wachowicz gave an astonishing, exposing emotional and physical performance as a cancer sufferer coming to terms (or not) with her prognosis. The apparent effortlessness with which Wachowicz moved from heightened emotional states - one minute crawling across the stage, gurning and grimacing - to casual, relaxed audience address was prodigious.

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Based on the words and real life experience of theatre practitioner Marta Paradecka, who died of cancer in 2018, age just 39, and also taking inspiration from Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, the show was an unsettlingly intimate experience, with some haunting sequences. One such made use of Full Metal Jacket's version of the "Mickey Mouse March" on repeat, as the protagonist, caught in shafts of light, used a baton as a series of weapons, first to combat the illness and then to turn against herself. Yet, for all its demanding intensity, the piece was not, finally, a depressing experience. Ending with a toast, and with an angelic apparition scored to the sounds of David Bowie's "Blackstar," this show that looks dying squarely in the face proved a genuinely cathartic experience.

William's Things (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Two outdoor concerts also stood out in the Festival's diverse programme. On the first night, the trio William's Things, comprising Sean Palmer on vocals, Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet and Tomasz Wiracki on piano, transformed poetry by William Blake and Henry David Thoreau into a set of stunning jazz punk jams that captivated and confounded in equal measure in their creative approach to the original texts.

Combining folk troubadour sensitivity with theatrical, jazzman attitude and, at times, a Tom Waits-ish growl, charismatic vocalist Palmer also unleashed the most spectacular array of animal noises since Percy Edwards while still keeping every single word he sang crystal clear. From the moment he leapt up to initiate an audience singalong during the band's take on Blake's "The Blossom," the show sustained a great, cleansing energy.


Meanwhile, on the penultimate evening of the Festival, the band NeoKlez - Stanisław Leszczyński (violin)Damian Szymczak (clarinet), Piotr Tomala (accordion / guitar), Kacper Bardzki (bass guitar / double bass), and Kamil Wróblewski (drums, percussion) - delivered a similarly exhilarating set combining Klezmer tradition with rock, funk and techno modernity. A moving moment came when Leszczyński and Szymczak spontaneously wrapped their arms around each other as they paused briefly to watch their colleagues play, transported by the magic of the music. For the audience, the entire Festival felt like just such an embrace, and a vibrant reminder of the power of performance to transform, unite, challenge and enlighten.

Body / Memory / History - Retroperspektywy Festival 2020 took place at Fabryka Sztuki, Łódź, between 21-30 August. Full details of the Festival programme can be found here

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Film Review: Tenet (dir. Nolan, 2020)

There may not be a great deal of competition for the title in this oddest, most disturbing of years, but the status of Christopher Nolan's Tenet as the most anticipated film of 2020 is pretty much assured. If ever there was a film that already had an inflated sense of its own significance it's this one, and, as the first major studio release to emerge, with much delay, in this period, Tenet seems particularly transparent - flagrant, even - in its intention to dazzle the viewer and make a visit to a multiplex a must. Can Nolan be the saviour of cinema-going? (If you view "saving cinema" as being contingent upon Hollywood continuing to produce $200 million blockbusters involving massive amounts of waste, that is.) Well, we'll see.

Like Inception (2010), Tenet - from its palindromic moniker onwards - means to dazzle not only with expensive, high-tech thrills, but also with ideas. Nolan, whose second film Memento (2000) already explored issues of time and memory (in a decidedly more modest mode), has now latched onto the concept of temporal inversion. John David Washington's Protagonist (yeah) is an agent assigned to prevent World War III, no less, as he comes into conflict with Kenneth Branagh's Andrei Sator, a powerful Russian arms dealer out to destroy the world through manipulations of temporality. 

I know we're meant to be grateful that Tenet isn't a franchise film. But beneath its pretentious veneer it's still as derivative as hell, offering swanky James Bond globe-trotting thrills filtered through the lens of a first-year physics student sci fi fan (minor: philosophy), with bits of Terminator, Minority Report and John Le Carré thrown into the mix. Here we're in a "temporal Cold War" with characters charged with "saving the world from what might be." 

The concept of entropic reversion leads to some exciting sequences, as bullets fly back into guns and blown up buildings reassemble themselves, while Ludwig Göransson's unforgiving score twitches and pounds. But the ideas and much of the plot are a tangled jumble, and, when not succumbing to incomprehensibility, are delivered in a flat, expository manner. Again, Nolan corners the market in being both obvious and evasive. "Don't try to understand it; just feel it," is the dumbly meta advice delivered by a character at one point. 

The filmmaker's decreasing finesse with actors is evident in Washington's lack of spark here, in all the scenes with Dimple Kapadia as an arms dealer spelling out various plot points in Mumbai, and in a stilted cameo for Nolan fave Michael Caine, playing  a character called... Sir Michael. (Caine has been quoted as saying that he had no idea what the film was about while making it; from the awkwardness of his delivery, that much is clear.) 

Branagh is effective enough as a Soviet-era boy turned power-crazy oligarch, as brutal on the geopolitical front as he is on the domestic, and such a narcissistic meglomaniac that, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he's determined to take the rest of the world out with him (!). But the characterisation seems such a sop to paranoid anti-Russian American sensibilities. Honestly, could there be a safer villian? Slyly, Nolan also gives this bad boy a nugget of a lecture on climate change.

As his oppressed, abused spouse, Elizabeth Debicki - you might think of her in the adaptation of Le Carré's The Night Manager (2016) as you watch - stalks through the action with her godessy height, her captivating physique holding your attention more than her acting, perhaps. (A rare witty moment finds her stretching out her legs to open a car door with her feet during a backwards chase.) If there are too many Damsel in Distress tropes to the characterisation, Debicki gets her due at the end and manages to use her character's concern about her son (undeveloped as this relationship is) to give the picture a smidgeon of human feeling. 

Indeed, Tenet didn't really start clicking in any significant way for me until its finale, in which a spectacular city attack is intercut with a marital confrontation on a boat. And the coda that Nolan has cooked up is both punchy and poignant. Passing the viewer through initial intrigue, then boredom, then frustration, the film offers these belated rewards - not deep ones, to be sure, but just enough, perhaps, to lure me back - or forwards? - into a second viewing of the picture. 

Tenet is released in European cinemas now.

Monday 24 August 2020

Sight & Sound September 2020 Issue

The September 2020 issue of Sight & Sound is out now. I wrote a tribute to Earl Cameron and a review of Shannon Murphy's film Babyteeth for this issue. You can buy a copy here

Thursday 13 August 2020

Film Review: Summerland (dir. Swale, 2020)

Two Nell Gwynns for the price of one...? It's such a lovely touch that, making her film debut as writer director, the playwright Jessica Swale has brought together both of the actresses who played "pretty witty Nellie" in her 2015 play: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who originated the role in the play at the Globe) and Gemma Arterton, who took over the part in the following year's West End transfer of the production.

In Summerland, which was to have been the Closing Night film of this year's BFI Flare, Mbatha-Raw and Arterton are cast as lovers: Vera and Alice, who meet at a classical concert in 1920s London and start a secret affair. Their love story is told in fragmentary broadstrokes flashbacks - Charlestoning, driving, snuggling, tearful separation - from Alice's perspective. These colourful scenes contrast with the character's situation 20 years later. Here, during wartime, the previously open, emotional and curious Alice has morphed into an abrupt, self-sufficient solitary who's holed up in a Kent cottage beavering away at a thesis on the subject of pagan myths.

Nursing hurt feelings, and with no time or inclination to suffer fools, the uningratiating Alice is variously viewed by the community (Tom Courtenay's headmaster and Sian Phillips' Grandma are among its representatives) as a curiosity, a witch or a spy. A cig between her lips and bashing away at her typewriter, Arterton sketches taciturn, tunnel-visioned writerly obsession broadly but amusingly in these brisk early scenes. But she gets more notes to play when Alice is reluctantly charged with the caretaking of an evacuee from London, 11 year old Frank, whose amenable demeanour and questions about Alice's past gradually prize open her tough exterior.

Summerland is at best functional in terms of technique (and at times shaky both literally and figuratively); it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine it as a BBC TV drama circa 1987. That's not meant as a knock, though, and I found myself rooting for the film, even when its contrivances and melodramatic swerves started piling up.

Maybe part of that response was simply the joy of being back in a cinema for the first time in five months, but it also has to do with the intimate ambience that Swale creates - especially in the film's first half. Arterton and Lucas Bond, who is absolutely lovely as Frank, strike up a compelling rapport, leading to a deeply moving scene in which Alice's confession of her past love is not met with the expected response from the boy.

With its title suggesting a nod to another lesbian love story, Catherine Corsini's superb Summertime, Summerland also wins bonus points from me for evoking one of my all-time favourite films, Mary Agnes Donoghue's Paradise (1991), in its presentation of the effects of a sensitive child's presence on adults haunted by loss. (In addition Frank's friendship with the tough-talking tomboy Edie (Dixie Egerickx) also suggests the Willard (Elijah Wood) / Billie (Thora Birch) dynamic in Donoghue's film.) Summerland can't be said to sustain itself in the same way; the film starts sharp and ends soppy, and Mbatha-Raw's role is not as satisfyingly developed as Arterton's. But if the happy ending that Swale has contrived feels more than a bit like wish fulfilment, it also encapsulates the film's generous focus on the opening up of a shut-down, cynical character to the possibility of magic.

Summerland is in cinemas and available on Curzon Home Cinema.