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July 23, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91rf

It remains to Thea Sharrock to steer the BBC's Hollow Crown series to a dignified and lavish conclusion with Henry V, which brings Tom Hiddleston's young king to worldly maturity and sees the return of most of the actors whose parts have transcended individual films (although not York/Aumerle nor, curiously, Falstaff's Boy). As was the case with Richard Eyre's Henry IV films, this production is defined by its sincerity and seriousness, unfortunately to a fault. In its depiction of war, Sharrock steers away from politics and consequence to offer a more superficial overview of the war experience that concentrates in micro-close-up indiscriminately on the suffering of all individuals, taking the easy route of demonstrating that War Is Bad through the earnestly agonised faces and pathos-laden deaths of name characters, rather than critiquing the processes that created the situation in the first place.

That's not to say that there isn't a great deal to like about this film, particularly in the performances. Anton Lesser is a weary, quiet Exeter, rivetting in his tired glare at Jeremie Covillaut's Montjoy and a calm presence who stalks the edges of the battlefield and the king's chambers alike. Owen Teale is a serious-minded Fluellen, brusque but fair, and with a propensity to help his struggling underlings. Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin allow their dignity to dissolve into giggling during the French-speaking scene, and Lambert Wilson offers an austere reading of the King of France, framed by a huge faded tapestry (which the pedant in me thinks would probaby have been much more brightly coloured at the time, but I digress).

In this version of history, everyone is a human being and everyone is individually characterised. This means that we see on every face the pain of war, the slog and tiredness experienced whether by kings or the lowest footsoldier. It becomes somewhat relentless; Paul Ritter's Pistol sobs into his hands at the side of the battlefield, pulled up short by the carnage he sees; Fluellen dismounts from his horse to help a stumbling soldier through the mud while another soldier struggles to hold up a tattered St. George's flag; and the French nobles cradle their dying partners while promising to report back to the King. Most notably, Paterson Joseph's York is foregrounded early on as a particularly close friend of Henry V, picked out for special attention during the "band of brothers" speech and seen helping rescue the beleagured king on the battlefield in slow motion. His death occurs as he comes to the aid of the Boy, shot unawares by a French soldier who is subsequently shot by Exeter's man. York dies in the arms of the sobbing boy in a moment emblematic of the production's overall intentions - to emphasise war as the individual experience of tragedy.

Henry V

This is entirely valid as a reading but, as with Henry IV Part 2, it becomes rather monotonous, a montage of individual moments of sadness that don't coalesce in a coherent way. It looks and sounds stunning, but it doesn't offer much beyond the presentation of the material in a fairly superficial way. That is perhaps most true of the Chorus. John Hurt offers a clear, erudite reading of the speeches, but as a voiceover while scenes - the funeral of Henry V that opens the film, the sight of a majestic English ship crossing the channel - are fully visualised. Surely the purpose of the Chorus, however, is to evoke what cannot be realised, to articulate the performativity of the actors, rather than to act as the narration to literal depictions of events. The film's priorities are to emphasise grand speeches and the pain of war rather than engage with the play's more complex issues.

This is made apparent in the choice of cuts and interpretations. The opening involvement of the bishops in inciting Henry to war is cut to reduce their agency, and Henry's rationale for attacking France is accepted as just. The sequence of the traitors is entirely excised, preserving the English army as unfactionalised; a decision aided by the removal of the scene of the four captains. With the exception of Montjoy, the French get very little screen time other than what is necessary to establish them as opponents and imply the selfish motivations that allow Henry to make tough decisions. Most bizarrely, however, the killing of the boys is omitted, and Henry's decision to have the French prisoners killed comes as an outburst following the report of York's death.

Similarly, humour is mitigated at every turn. Any mention of leeks is studiously avoided, Falstaff's death is illustrated with a brief picture of a fading Simon Russell Beale, and the touching scene that remains between Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly and the other Eastcheap survivors is full of tears and serious recrimination, as well as a few laughs through tears. Bardolph's final situation is, however, played out at full length - York catches him running away with a crucifix, and Henry is brought to the tree where Bardolph has already been hanged, only to be greeted with a series of misty flashbacks of their prior connections. The fact that he is already dead, of course, relieves Henry of individual responsibility for his death, and thus Bardolph becomes simply another burden for the troubled king to bear.

Tom Hiddleston

Yet there is a great deal to love here. The battle scenes are extremely well done on the relatively small budget, drawing on Gladiator (a counterattack led from the trees by Fluellen), Braveheart (the massing soldiers) and Lord of the Rings (the storming of Harfleur smacks of Helm's Deep). The extreme cuts to the text allow the battles to contain their own miniature storylines and characteristics, from the boiling water poured on the English at Harfleur to the repeated digging-in and raising of defences at Agincourt. Sharrock's direction and emphasis on individual experience means that we see these battles through individual eyes, and Hiddleston is absolutely the right Henry for this approach. The two set-piece speeches are delivered naturally to small groups rather than as rhetorical announcements to an entire army. For "Once more unto the breach", he finds individual yeomen, including one cowering in panic next to the walls, and whispers his lines quietly to him, drawing the terrified soldier out of his foetal position with soothing blue eyes and calm words. "Band of brothers", meanwhile, takes the situation of the text literally and sees Henry speak as an individual to the small group of nobles (York, Westmorland, Erpingham, Exeter etc.) who are already in conversation, rather than opening up his promises to address the crowds. It's a distinctive and unusual arrangement of the speeches which works well in this context.

Hiddleston is a fine Henry V, troubled throughout by the pain of his soldiers and keen to engage with them. He's exemplary of the caring monarch, murmuring under his hood about how well Pistol's name suits him as the aggrieved soldier stomps away, and bursting into fury at Montjoy's last appearance. He is pious, spending considerable time on his knees either side of the battle, and charming in his encounter with Katherine. It's a solid, conventional reading of the king, but the camera allows Hiddleston to make the most of his facial expressions, emphasising the emotional reach in a way made more difficult on stage.

In an interesting final gambit, we see the face of the Boy who survived this version of the story come to Henry V's funeral and then, in a jump cut, transform into John Hurt, who wanders around an empty throne room clutching a tattered piece of an English flag. Interestingly, part of the penultimate line, "which oft our stage hath shown" is cut, presumably in honest reference to the fact that the BBC has not repeatedly shown the Henry VI trilogy. Yet the ethos of the series is disrupted in a final direct-to-camera address, asking the audience to accept the telling; followed by a historical message explaining that Henry died of dysentry. The shift to an odd docu-drama approach in the last moments fits oddly; it is the first time the audience is asked to accept a real king rather than a performed one. It's a moment which, again, sacrifices tonal consistency in favour of the quick emotional connection, the grown-up Boy gazing at the camera and asking the audience to remember them.

The Hollow Crown has created four accessible, straightforward Shakespeare films that are conservative in their readings, rich in production value and push the history plays as mood pieces, with individual emotion wrung out of every character. They will be hugely useful as teaching resources, and they are eminently watchable television. I wish the BBC had had the guts to do something more interesting with them though; make use of the format (Rupert Goold was the most inventive in this respect, but this was far more restrained technically than, say, his Macbeth) or take the opportunity to challenge the narratives of nationalism and conflict that were raised but not addressed in this series. The films are beautiful, but smack to me of Shakespeare to be seen and appreciated rather than to be engaged with or provoke conversation. While they are in many ways a resounding success, creating a Shakespeare that will reach the broadest possible audience and latch onto public mood broadly celebratory of individual achievement and ideas of the home nation in an Olympic year, it's perhaps also a missed opportunity for the exact same reasons.


July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91qj

Part Three of the BBC's Hollow Crown series, again directed by Richard Eyre, concludes the Henry IV plays. Once again it is a lavish, visually rich, sensitively acted interpretation, with a great deal to recommend it. But where 1 Henry IV was full of life, variety, powerhouse acting and intelligent use of televisual conventions, 2 Henry IV is quite frankly very, very dull.

It's not the fault of any of the performers. Tom Hiddleston is melancholy and brooding as an increasingly conflicted Hal; Simon Russell Beale is moving as the wounded, desperate Falstaff; and the rest of the company are uniformly game in following Eyre's interpretation. The difficult with this version is that everyone seems depressed. All humour has been stripped out of the scenes, replaced by sentimental music and the overwhelming sense of age and decrepitude approaching. Yet even Chimes at Midnight, which popularised this as a reading of the Henry IV plays, had some fun along the way. Considering that so much of Henry IV is funny - Hal and Poins disguised as servants (cut), Shallow and Silence providing country nostalgia (here located in a frozen, wintry setting), the recruitment of the soldiers, the bickering between Falstaff and the Justice - Eyre seems determined to wrench Meaning from every glance, a tear from every encounter. In this world, everyone knows what is coming and is not looking forward to a world of change.

The recruitment scene is a case in point. It's very difficult not to play this as comedy, and there are clear attempts to draw a laugh as the reluctant soldiers push each other, bark loudly or are simply cast very small (Wart). But the scene is so quiet and sober that the laughs simply don't come across. Instead, the climax is Feeble stepping forward to be pricked, making a stand for stoic acceptance while violins begin stirring underneath. The point is made - that there is nobility in the pathetic attempts of the amateur soldier to find courage. But the lack of comedic contrast deprives it of its force, and instead the scene seems simply to be attempting to get to this point.

Similarly, Eastcheap is tainted throughout by sadness. The opening arrest of Falstaff by Julie Walters's excellent Mistress Quickly begins promisingly, with two amusing constables attempting to draw sword and Falstaff defending himself, while Tom Georgeson's Bardolph flaps and Quickly hangs on Falstaff's shoulder, finally pulling them all down into the mud. But as Geoffrey Palmer's austere Lord Chief Justice demands to know the cause, the scene becomes all sincerity, with Quickly genuinely pleading and Falstaff defending himself, before talking her back into his grace. Beale's Falstaff is wonderful at suggesting the desperate sadness that underpins a man who knows he is far past his prime, but he lacks the sparkle of wit that makes his manipulation of the hostess so sharp. His liaison with Maxine Peake's relatively lively Doll Tearsheet sees her rolling on top of him, but he quickly getting to a point of tiredness, murmuring "I'm old" as she rolls off him, leaving even this scene in a mood of morbid reflection. Hal and Poins, listening above, burst through the ceiling and thoroughly castigate the old man before marching out in anger, leaving Falstaff and the two women sat sorrowfully on the bed. There is no banter, no engagement, nothing to come down from - it is as if Falstaff's rejection hda already occurred, and the two hours of this film is merely playing out an already established fact.

The mood is, of course, not entirely inappropriate to the whole of the play. Jeremy Irons is, once again, riveting as the fading King. In an early scene, he rolls dice compulsively as he tells his sons to make peace with their brother, playing out his anxiety in a telling gesture. The highlight of the film is his midnight stroll around the castle, walking past silent guards and speaking his troubles out loud, before grandly opening the doors to the throne room and announcing "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". His illness is apparent throughout, and he enters convulsions immediately after the report of John's victory is received. As he moves towards his end, his reconciliation with Hal is deeply felt and moving as he finally succumbs and falls into his son's arms.

Hiddleston's admirers are served by a faintly homoerotic first appearance in a bathing room, as he and Poins (David Dawson) lounge in towels and receive Bardolph. Yet from the start, there is no fun left in Hal, no relapse into enjoyment of prodigality. He tells Poins in all sincerity of his sadness for his father, and after taking the crown from his father's bedside he moves to the throne, sits in it and weeps openly. Elsewhere, everything is tears. Alun Armstrong's Northumberland weeps next to a lake. The three younger sons of Henry stand heads bowed before the Lord Chief Justice. The rebels accept their defeat in a mood of initial shock but ultimate acceptance. And the "chimes at midnight" moment sees Falstaff gazing into the middle distance of his own mortality, while even Shallow doesn't see the humour in the memories he evokes.

A bit of life is found in a kinetic chase scene as horsemen track down the fleeing soldiers who make up the remanants of the rebels, cutting them down along the way and sending Dominic Rowan's Coleville rolling down a bank into the sword of the straggling Falstaff. Henry Faber offers a sincere and earnest John, who takes great pains to convince the rebels first before James Laurenson's Westmoreland delivers the crushing order in a tent as soldiers surround the rebels. This breath of fresh air helps alleviate the monotony of tone, albeit even the normally amusing capture of Coleville is played dead straight.

The scourging of Eastcheap is intercut with Falstaff's disgrace, the women pullled away by their hair, and again the jokes omitted. Paul Ritter's Pistol is poorly served throughout by heavily cut scenes and a refusal to allow him to dominate the scene in the way the early records suggest, rendering his scenes relatively without impact, though he puts up a spirited fight in the final scene as the soldiers press in. However, the turning away of Falstaff is quite wonderful. Falstaff pushes through the crowds and past the soldiers creating a corridor to stand centrally with Hal. Hiddleston is utterly straight-faced, speaking down at the tiny knight and whispering harshly to him before raising his voice to ensure all the onlookers get the benefit of his renouncement. Yet it is Beale who shines here. He desperately tries to retain some hope, preparing a joke which is quashed before he opens his mouth, and ends the interview weeping openly before staggering away, leaning heavily on a cane, and finally being picked up by a rush of guards. The scene - and film - closes on Falstaff as he is dragged out into the open, the time slowing to a halt as Falstaff's face freezes in a look of utter sorrow.

Eyre's refusal to find variety or humour in the film works to its detriment. While the film does its essential job - demonstrate the mechanisms by which Hal casts off his fellows and becomes a sober king - the journey feels as if it has already been completed, and instead these are the final tickings of Falstaff's life, the slow drawing out of an inevitable conclusion. Beautifully shot and well performed, and often deeply moving (especially Beale) - but it's not enough to perform this play at one note.


July 08, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV @ BBC

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91pm

The second episode in the BBC's Hollow Crown series offers a stand-alone, prudently cut version of Henry IV Part 1, and immediately it is clear that the central plays of the second tetralogy are in good hands with Richard Eyre. One of my complaints in my review of Rupert Goold's Richard II was that production's rather 'clean' medieval world, which couldn't quite shake the studio-set feel for much of its length and seemed surprisingly sparsely populated. Eyre's film, conversely, begins in an Eastcheap filled to bursting with prostitutes, drunks, servants, shopkeepers and beggars, richly detailed and thoroughly evocative. The sprawling Boar's Head Tavern establishes this play a world away from the crisp backgrounds of Richard II, with a lived-in world providing genuine depth and colour to the central plot.

The visual quotation of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight is apparent throughout, from Jeremy Irons's Henry's central raised dais to the nooks and crannies of the inn, to the arrangement of bodies for the play extempore. Yet Eyre's use of the film is homage rather than plagiarism, drawing on what makes Welles's film so evocative (the bustle and neat characterisation) but creating something distinctive.

Key to this is a quite exceptional cast, headed up by Tom Hiddleston's Hal. Striding through the Board's Head as if bathed in a constant halo, Hiddleston exudes easy charm and handsome cool, taller than almost everyone else by a head and wearing a leather jacket a cut finer than anyone else's. His willingness to be part of this world - playing football with passing children, winking at prostitutes - is constantly undercut by his clear distinction from everyone else, even the slightly unshaven and grinning Poins. Beautifully, his "I know you all" soliloquy is spoken in voiceover as he walks through the tavern away from his friend, nodding and smiling at the patrons while sad eyes reflect his thoughts.

He appears in direct contrast to Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff. Beale is an inspired and unique choice. Shorter than most of his companions, and effete in his manners, Beale plays Falstaff with an earnest and ingratiating insecurity, his confidence alternating with moments of nervousness. The play extempore is suggested with some desperation as Falstaff notes Hal's pained reaction to the news of Worcester's flight; as the young Prince rubs his forehead and begins falling back towards a resumption of his responsibility, Falstaff pulls at his elbow and pleads for a play, attempting to cling onto the Prince a little longer. The play is uproarious and beautifully entertaining, with lively crowd responses and Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly toing and froing. Hiddleston and Beale have a whale of a time impersonating Irons and Hiddleston respectively; Hiddleston apes Irons's distinctive accent, and is trumped by Beale affecting a poncey version of Hiddleston's swagger. Yet as Falstaff concludes his defence, he drops his accent and swagger, and the little man looks up at his Prince with appealing eyes, begging for acceptance. Crucially, Hal pauses for a long time and then, finally, averts his eyes in shame as he admits "I do. I will". Played as an admission rather than an attack, Eyre's versions of the characters are set apart as affectionate and emotionally tied. This is a Falstaff that we are prepared, from very early on, to see wounded.

The detail of the tavern scenes is delicious, with bowling, dancing and drinking happening in corners. Hal's mockery of Hotspur's valiance is played out in a corner as a sideshow while Falstaff enters; the impression is of a full environment which we only follow parts of. Characters emerge in tiny points: Mistress Quickly nervously running back and forth from the door; Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet entering into a pre-practised routine with Hal for winding up the sheriff by sitting astride him and shoving his hand up her skirts, and then later passing Falstaff's bill to him with the clear implication of her inability to read (to Hal's sympathetic gaze); and the always exceptional John Heffernan as a gurning and nodding Francis, achingly moving in a cruel instant as Poins and Hal roared with laughter in his face at a final "Anon, anon sir".

In contrast, the court scenes are deeply formal and played as high drama. Irons draws on Falstaff's reference to the king as a lion, constantly coiled or springing from his throne to pace his chamber and snarl in his underlings' faces. He is a deeply troubled king - although the film opens in Eastcheap, the scene is interspersed with Henry receiving reports of war and musing on his son, presenting Eastcheap almost as the nightmarish realisation of his fears regarding Hal. His choler is quick to rise, but he is not entirely in control. Confronting David Hayman's Worcester on the battlefield, Henry is overcome and forced to stagger to the side and vomit while Hal steps up to deliver his own challenge. The dynamic between the two is visceral; in their first meeting, Hal wears an informal cap and stands with a half smile on his face; until Henry dashes away the hat and, following a smirk on "I shall be more myself", slaps his son hard across the face. It is this point of violence that brings Hal to a realisation of the severity of his father's disappointment, causing him to ascent to the dais in protestation of his own worth.

Henry is similarly violent with the Northerners, played here with Northumbrian accents. Alun Armstrong is a background presence as Northumberland, but Hayman seethes with malice as a forward Worcester, stepping forward and shouting at his king very quickly with entirely inappropriate rage, causing his immediate banishment. Both men are overshadowed, however, by a fine and nunaced performance by Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. Hotspur is, here, almost entirely without guile, building into a full-blooded rant as he describes the fop who demanded his prisoners, much to Henry's amusement. It is only, however, as Henry notices him exchange a non-too-subtle glance with his father, intended to be private, that he snarls defiance at the young man. Hotspur's rage bursts out in defiance before the doors of the hall have even closed behind him, to Henry's clear consternation. The subsequent scene between the three Northern relations, played in a splendid corridor, is one of the most gripping sections of the film, as they attempt to keep Hotspur quiet and their conversation concealed from the surrounding guards, ending up making a whispered agreement in an alcove.

The younger Armstrong continues to be impressive throughout, initially in a complex scene with Michelle Dockery's Kate that presents the couple as deeply in love yet bound by abuse; he troublingly covers her mouth, pushes her violently to the bed and talks down to her, yet she presents a formidable match and refuses to bow to him. The sense of an unequal relationship is stressed further in the appearance of a servant who openly sneaks peeks at Kate's naked back while she puts on a dressing gown, unchecked by Hotspur; the evenness of their relationship is qualified by a sense of Kate's objectification. Their united front is shown more clearly in the Welsh singing scene, as while the rest close their eyes and listen to Alex Clatworthy's beautiful song, the two begin groping each other and sneak off giggling to conduct their own farewell. In the final duel with Hal, Hotspur has the better of the battle throughout, but takes too much vaunting pleasure in anticipation of his victory, taking time to raise his sword to finish him and allowing Hal to thrust a dagger into his side.

If the film has a real weakness, it is one of sentiment. Falstaff's 'honour' soliloquy is played as a rather melancholy voiceover as Falstaff wanders through the battlefield preparations, stumbling and sad. It is an evocative reading but robs the speech of all its humour. The music acts as too much of a pointer, signposting with a heavy-handed lack of ambiguity when the audience is meant to really start listening to the words and ensuring that nothing is missed. Better are the battle scenes, cleverly shot to make the most of the television budget and giving a surprisingly impressive sense of scale; but also demonstrating the brutality of war commented on by Falstaff, as men pummel each other in the mud and grind weapons into faces.

As the film draws to its close, the shift in allegiances is clear; a wounded Hal is escorted through a field littered wth bodies by his brother, on whom he leans strongly, walking away from Falstaff, who shrugs with an indication of wounded pride. Yet the two brothers look aghast at their father as he stumbles over his closing lines, clearly in pain and already fading (another nod to Welles). A burning battlefield, a sober Falstaff (who mourns the loss of his bottle when Hal angrily smashes it in the middle of the battle) and a Prince beginning to realise the weight of his own participation in state affairs - it's not a groundbreaking rendition of the play, but a richly detailed, beautifully presented and intelligently performed one. One only hopes that Part II can live up to it.


June 30, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II @ BBC HD

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s90j1

The most exciting element of the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked is off to a storming start. Rupert Goold's film of Richard II, divorced of the gimmickry and attention deficit lack of focus that characterises his stage work (sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes disastrously) is a slick, subtle, well acted and creative adaptation of a rarely filmed play that manages the tricky feat of providing something that will be of use to educators for years to come, while also matching perfectly the BBC's current aesthetic requirements for big budget primetime period drama.

Initially, the film looks as if it has borrowed its sets and costume from Merlin, but while it never quite shakes its studio feel in the bulk of the interior scenes (it simply looks a little too clean), the misty exteriors and stunning use of beach locations give this film a sense of breadth, if not scale - the gesture towards a Welsh army is a welcome visual flourish, but these lanscapes are otherwise sparsely populated. The kinetic camerawork, however, keeps attention throughout, and visually this is a varied feast, with Goold digging into his bag of cinematic tricks (flashbacks, slow motion, montage) to fit a wordy play to a fast medium.

With that said, this is a traditional looking film, aiming (with the exception of the BBC's now-standard colour-blind casting) for period accuracy, including the retention of faintly ridiculous medieval hats. The advantage of the setting is that it creates plausible settings for scenes that might otherwise be hard to imagine, such as the temporary lists set up in a field for Mowbray and Bolingbroke's duel, or the narrow corridors down which Richard makes his descent, the camera spinning dizzyingly as it evokes Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Ben Whishaw in the title role is excellent. Softly spoken and high-pitched, Whishaw's Richard is a gentle king, with undertones (never made explicit) of homosexuality in his lingering touches of male servants in his tent. His extravagances are manifest - a monkey cackles in the temporary tent set up behind the Coventry lists, and he rides to his final arraignment on a miniature pony. He goes through numerous costume changes throughout the film, his pale pinks and yellows contrasting with Bolingbroke's dark robes. Yet while this Richard is in love with ritual and ceremony, he is frequently out of control; such as the moment in which he pulls Aumerle aside atop the battlements to ask if he has done the right thing, or in his flashes of panic immediately before he halts the opening duel. There is power in him, demonstrated particularly as he shows unexpected prowess against a murderer in his final scene.

Richard is strongest in his uncertainty. The lengthy beach scene, played against a gorgeous Welsh backdrop, gives full weight to a range of characters including Tom Goodman-Hill's wearied bearer of bad news and Tom Hughes's painfully young Aumerle, who are led by Richard even in his weakness, drooping alongside him as he sits in the sand. Richard veers from euphoria to rage in an instant, casting Aumerle into the waves on hearing of York's treachery only seconds after laughing in careless confidence. We get to see less of him in his happy state, but the impression is one of peace; he sits with his retainers, swinging his legs from a country bridge; and after Gaunt's death, carelessly fingers golden goblets even as York rails at him. Yet he is equally fabulous in his darker moments, as when he stands in golden armour on the battlements in the deposition scene flanked by outlines of angels.

Opposed to him is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, supported by the gruff and deliciously cold David Morrissey as Northumberland (Hotspur is one of the casualties necessary in order to ensure a 2 hours 20 minutes running time). Kinnear's conflicted, measured antihero is compelling throughout, whether glaring at James Purefoy's grizzled Mowbray, standing at the back of the invading crowd looking up at Richard or sobbing as he grabbed a handful of sand before marching into the waves to the ship that would carry him to banishment. His attempts to retain control during Richard's tour de force performance in the arraignment scene (including lying full-length on the floor) will bear multiple rewatched, as king and soldier conflict with cousin and subject in one face. Later, flashbacks of their intimacy continue to haunt him.

I very much feel the series has missed a trick, however, by not cross-casting the roles that continue into the next film. While I'm sure Jeremy Irons and Alun Armstrong will do fantastic jobs as Henry IV and Northumberland, a little grey make-up to Kinnear and Morrissey would surely have done the required work, and I would have loved to see them continue their subtle explorations of the characters. And it would have been an interesting connection to see Hotspur introduced here before stepping up to a major role in the next film.

The other performances are too numerous to discuss in detail, but the quality is consistent throughout. I was particularly moved by David Bradley's brief appearance - practically a cameo - as the Gardener. While the Northern accent perhaps unnecessarily suggests an attempt at comic relief, what stands out in Bradley's performance is the haunted look in his eyes as he kneels before the Queen in a carefully topiaried garden and sets her world crumbling about her; in one brief gaze of the camera, we see a synecdoche of the entire human cost of the play's political shifts. And unsurprisingly, Patrick Stewart is outstanding as Gaunt. The "This sceptr'd isle" speech is performed in close-up, Stewart's forehead clammy with sweat and his shirt opened. Weak in body but powerful in voice, Gaunt offers a genuine threat to Richard, a threat acknowledged by the King as he grabs the dying man's lapels and hoists him up in rage. Next to these, David Suchet's York makes less of an impact, but steadies the film throughout, a voice of at least partial integrity.

My one complaint about the film is that it perhaps takes itself slightly too seriously, particularly in the final betrayal subplot which is played po-faced, losing the inherent comedy of the conflict between the Yorks, and much of the sardonic humour that can be found in the earlier interactions between Richard and his favourites. I confess that, instead, I found the beheadings of Bushy and Green - their heads plunging straight into a river from the bloodied stumps left behind on the bridge - funnier than they were presumably intended to be, the gore contrasting wildly with the cleanness elsewhere. This is compensated for, however, by the intelligent decision to expand Aumerle's role. Aumerle is approached with the offer of money and status in a tavern, and subsequently joins the murder party who come to Richard. Whishaw languishes in a dank cave, and it is Aumerle who, while Richard struggles with a goon, fires the crossbow that transfixes his former liege. Bolingbroke's bitterness towards the young man who drags in the coffin completes the scene played ten minutes earlier when Aumerle is granted his reprieve.

Only right at the end does the director make his presence strongly felt. Nobles arrive spilling bags of bloodied heads over the the floor, and the camera cuts to Bolingbroke's face, sweating as he stammers out thanks. Lucian Msamati's Carlisle is thrown to the floor, bloodied and barely able to see out of one eye. And when Richard's coffin is broken open, he is naked except for a loincloth, arms spread as far from the body as the coffin will allow and legs bent together to one side in the traditional crucifixion pose (made unnecessarily explicit by a slow pan up to a hanging crucifix in the eaves). Invited here to reflect on the necessity of Richard's sacrifice, the audience is left with the impression of sympathy for Richard, even as we reflect on the loss of control that Bolingbroke is already experiencing; a fitting platform to move on to 1 Henry IV.

Interestingly, Derek Jacobi's documentary on the play which started immediately after this broadcast, started with the same speech as Goold's film "Let us sit upon the ground". This is, apparently, the play of reflection, and despair. Realised wonderfully here, Goold has reclaimed the play as a modern and fascinating one, which Jacobi pursued in his choice of images of Berlusconi, Hussain and Gaddafi. Jacobi's documentary (until it got to the De Vere rubbish) was also the best yet of the series in terms of its use of performance history and archives; hopefully, the pairings of new films and documentaries are going to keep providing the richest material. It's a wonderful contribution to the season, and roll on 1 Henry IV.


June 28, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/the-duchess-of-malfi.php

A much briefer review to accompany my earlier piece on Stage on Screen's production of Doctor Faustus, this time of Elizabeth Freestone's The Duchess of Malfi. Cross-cast with the same company's Volpone, Freestone's take on Malfi is more straightforward than either, treating the play as a chamber piece in a lengthy full text (2hrs 40 mins) that will appeal to teachers looking for a solid recording of the play to use in classes, but never quite grips in its own right as a piece of theatre.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with the production. Set in a 1930s Europe, the production captures the tension of an approaching war and the politicking going on behind the scenes as a nation attempts to deal with its internal squabbles while simultaneously preparing itself to face the world. This is most clear as Mark Hadfield's Cardinal prepares himself to take on an active role in the conflict, adopting a uniform reminiscent of Italian fascists and wearing it with ease.

Freestone's production is centred around three fine performances. Aislin McGuckin's Duchess is a complex and inviting figure, seductive in her early scenes with Antonio and independent throughout. With Antonio she shows a confidence and allure that is entertaining even as it illustrates her immediate dominance over her environment; her recourse to mockery of her social status only serves to reaffirm it, to Antonio's pleasure. Her gradual unravelling at the hands of her brothers is realised extremely effectively, particularly in the scene of the madmen torturing her. Surrounded by singing, staring men in straitjackets, some of whom escape their confines and run straight at her, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck, yet still with a strained dignity that allows us to see her resolve even as it is tested to breaking point. Her final death, stretched out on the floor as two men pull long cords around her neck, leaving her splayed centrestage, is particularly traumatic.

Tim Steed gives an intense performance as Ferdinand, brooding and internalised, but lashing out at those around him. As the lycanthropia takes over, he becomes ever more dissociated from those around him, culminating in a fascinating image as he lies splayed across the floor promising that he will escort snails. Without moving into full animalistic performance, Steed's take on Ferdinand served to gradually dehumanise the character, turning him into a physical being barely capable of relating to those around him.

The play is dominated, however, by Tim Treloar's Bosola. Always active, Bosola's busy industry keeps him the centre of attention whenever he is on stage. Treloar kept a delicate balance throughout between the self-interested confidence that allows the character to be so useful to the play's sundry villains, and a compelling personal integrity that emerges particularly in his emotional breakdown over the Duchess's body. Physically formidable, and with a confidence of voice that enhanced his presence, the battle becomes almost one of equals as he takes on his superiors.

In some ways, that is perhaps the problem. With so many dominant men throughout the play, there is less range and variety of pace and tone than there could have been. This is perhaps one of the rare times when the screen aspect of Stage on Screen does not lend itself to nuance; with the actors performing to the live audience, the stage projection of their voices and gestures neuters the variation on the more intimate medium, giving an impression of uniform confidence and volume when clearer arcs for the characters would be desirable.

Nonetheless there is a great deal to enjoy here. The messy deaths of the Duchess's children, including one stabbed in a pram, are particularly disquieting; but the Echo scene, as Edmund Kingsley defies superstition and then shivers at the pertinent replies of the Duchess-like Echo, manages to both chill and move. Brigid Zengeni's Julia was also strong, barely able to keep her hands of Bosola as she ripped his shirt off during their love scene, and shocked as she tasted something unfortunate on the Cardinal's Bible before he shoved the book into her face and practically smothered her with it.

My disappointment with the production as a whole comes from its entirely predictable nature; it's a faithful, straightforward and fairly obvious interpretation. That is also its strength; we lack a good teaching resource for Malfi, and Stage on Screen's production fills a necessary gap. The formality of its setting and the consistent quality of the performances make this a slightly earnest enterprise, but thoroughly worthwhile in its scope, and the production works as a tragedy of intrigue and coiled tension.

Compared to Faustus, the interview material here is exceptional, with a much wider range of creatives interviewed, and individual interviews with the cast which make it much easier to select material. Where Freestone primarily described her own directorial career in the other interview, here she offers fantastic insights into the structure of the play and Webster's treatment of women, pointing out that the women are sidelined early on in the play, leaving the final scenes focused on the male characters (her entire male company were required for the final scene). The many crew interviews give insights into a range of roles within the production, though there is still sometimes a sense of this acting as careers advice for would-be stage mangers (for example). It's remarkable, however, that even the DSM and ASM get screentime, and telling about the essentially collaborative nature of this project. What elevates this set of DVDs, however, is the general attention to the play in the interview material, which makes the education packs well worth the extra expense.


June 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (RSC/Illuminations) @ BBC4

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01k7lv5/Julius_Caesar/

I've not yet had a chance to see the RSC's new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems - an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company "doing" Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.

The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran's own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside - rather than subsequent to - the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.

What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the 'real' locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.

This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage - the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar's body were unpleasantly fleshy.

The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph's Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar's ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus' guilt.

Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon's Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar's body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.

The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar's body.

In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of 'happy slapping'. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony's prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes - moving away from the lively noise of the stage - were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter's tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus's shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production's strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell's Casca in a men's washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.

The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.

For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.


June 24, 2012

Doctor Faustus (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/doctor-faustus.php

The Stage on Screen project is a simple idea; so simple, perhaps, that one wonders why the market hasn't already been cornered. Four productions of early canonical plays (Volpone, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi and The School for Scandal) were specially commissioned, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and performed to live audiences at Greenwich Theatre. High-quality recordings of the productions were made during the live run and subsequently released on DVD with extensive bonus discs offering behind-the-scenes information, educational resources and contributor interviews. The project's remit is educational; yet the productions stand alone as entertaining, professional versions of the plays. The care and attention taken to recording means that the plays suffer none of the editing problems that occasionally interrupt the live broadcast series such as NT Live, yet the audible presence of an audience retains the sense of liveness and coherence that keeps a production distinctly theatrical.

Faustus is a play particularly in need of a good screen version, as the Burton/Taylor Oxford University version still only available on Region 1 DVD. Freestone's production is a stylish take on the play's A-text, drawing on visual tropes of gothic literature to create an air of foreboding and, on occasion, out-and-out terror.

The production's aesthetic evokes late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with Frankenstein the most obvious point of reference. Imagining Faustus as Victor Frankenstein works well; here, Gareth Kennerley's Faustus is a nervy over-reacher, a young man whose own arrogance blinds him to the destruction he is bringing down on his own head. The circular stage is partially surrounded by wooden library shelves, full of books and charts, and a ladder allows access to an upper level where a telescope stands mounted. Faustus is the new man of science, rendering his laughing scorn of Mephistopholes' 'old wives' tales' all the more pointed; it is not that he does not believe in the creature he is speaking to, but rather is inclined to rational, ordered explanations. It is to science that he is drawn, as in Mephistopholes' conjuration of an astrological map to explain the cosmos.

Shelley's life and work pervade the production. Right from the start, Faustus is besieged by overconfident young men, throwing their books and ideas at him and drowning him in words. Valdes and Cornelius (Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore) evoke the 'Young Romantics', appearing with ruffled hair and louche manners, swaggering through Faustus's study and pulling out his assorted bottles. The supernatural elements, meanwhile, move in a stiff, unskilled way, their zombified physicality exaggerated by white make-up and slow, shouted speech. The notable exception to this is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins - descending the ladder into his own study, robed figures grab at him and pull him under, writhing and squirming about the stage as they await their turn to claw at Faustus. As soon as Faustus scrambles back up the ladder, a simple hand movement from Guy Burgess's Lucifer snaps the writhing bodies back into rigid order. Interestingly, there is a sense of visual repetition as the 'invisible' Faustus later moves among the monks and cardinals in the Pope's presence, surrounded by bodies that he is unable to fully engage with.

The near-human is thrown into relief by the more overtly horrific throughout. As Faustus begins his conjuring, his companions retreat into the shadows and then flee altogether. Freestone allows the tension to build after each mention of Mephistopholes, the lights focused entirely in a tight circle on the magician with the rest of the stage in black. Eventually, after a long pause and Faustus's own sigh of nervous relief, lightning flashes and thunder rolls as the silhouette of a horned monster appears on the top level. Faustus screams from his prostrate position on the floor before the apparition finally disappears. Later, Lucifer appears in the same position; rigid and dominant, the impression of monstrosity is maintained by Beelzebub's realisation as a mask on the back of Lucifer's own head.

In this context, of course, Tim Treloar's Mephistopholes evokes Lewis in his monk costume. Treloar is an uncomfortable presence throughout the production. Where other recent actors of the role have played up the more ingratiating aspects of the character, Treloar is prickly throughout. Following the first monstrous appearance of the character, he enters hooded and barking lines at full volume from under his cowl. Faustus kneels before the furious spirit, cowed by his bile. Treloar moves throughout with rigidity and purpose, making measured turns and pointed, deliberate gestures. Once he has the bloody paper of Faustus's contract he loosens up, but maintains the otherworldly attitude throughout, allowing him to move between the occasional moment of silliness (puppeteering a skull to reply to one of Faustus's relentless questions) immediately to terrifying rage, as when asked to explain who made the world.

The film insists throughout that its audience pay attention to the controlling nature of the devils. Things that a stage audience may miss, such as Lucifer's gestures of control, are here focused on in extreme close-up, foregrounding the framers of the action rather than their object. In particular, the first sensual parade of spirits offered to Faustus saw three spirits appear and circle him, treating him as a puppet and iconicising him as a Christ-figure. The fast jump-cutting, however, keeps returning to a close-up on Mephistopholes as he hinted at a smile, showing the spirit in control even at this early stage.

The comedy is less successful, although the recorded laughter suggests that it came across better in live performance. The subtler humour works best, as in the moment where Mephistopholes allows his ranting at the summons from Robin and Rafe to drop for a moment as he and the Vintner nod 'Alright' to each other; or in his forgetting to make himself invisible before the Horse-Course sees him, to which he mutters "Oh, for fu...". The scenes of the comedians feel tired and drawn out, however; particularly as Robin and Rafe turn slowly into an ape and dog in a Jekyll-and-Hyde style energetic transformation sequence, ending with the ape riding the dog and attempting to hump him. The jokes played on the Pope are simply done, but their tiredness here feels deliberate, emphasising the pettiness of the tricks played by the smug, invisible Faustus.

The quieter battle between Joanna Christie's young, scantily-clad Evil Angel and Jonathan Battersby's slow-moving Good Angel pervades the production, including in one interpolated scene where the Evil Angel smilingly empties a box of sand from the raised space into Faustus's study; the fact that this is a battle against time is always clear. The apparent shared identity of the two with, respectively, Helen of Troy and the Old Man helps keep the battle polarised; Faustus is pulled continually between two forces. Kennerley is a nervous, self-doubting figure throughout, attempting to persuade himself as much as the audience of his confidence in his own control. His moments of terror are quickly trampled down by the myriad devils, and it is only in the play's closing moments that he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Mephistopholes grabs Faustus by the face, promising him that all shall be done that can be done, and Faustus's attraction to Helen sees the two of them kiss repeatedly as the Good Angel/Old Man enters and looks on; the battle, in this image, is won.

A striking follow-up scene sees the Old Man attacked and killed by jumping spirits that slash him mercilessly until he falls into a lonely spotlight. Yet the lights shift to a stream coming in from the upstage door, and the music changes from an eerie whistle to choral chanting, as the Old Man gets to his feet and walks into the light. As the positions polarise, the stage is set for the final scene. An isolated Faustus begins tearing apart his study, sobbing and throwing books and papers to the floor. Once more, the production returns to the image of the disillusioned young scientist, drinking hard and babbling about the Monster coming for him. Faustus's pleas that he has been a student here for many years sound poignant coming from a younger man, casting his actions as those of reckless youth rather than informed evil. Yet Mephistopholes' final vaunts are not just those of victory over an impressionable mind, but also of a victory against God; he becomes to weep, and conquers his tears by shaking a fist at the Heaven that he knows he will never see again. Faustus's end pleasingly mirrors the initial dance of the spirits that entertained Faustus; the same spirits emerge and dance around him, dragging him to the upstage door as Lucifer appears above. In a final moment of pause, Faustus reaches out for Mephistopholes before being pulled out offstage, to Mephistopholes' wide-eyed expression of something not quite clear - shock? Surprise? Horror? Whichever it is, the sense is one of unfitness; this damnation is neither easy nor straightforward.

One of the strongest moments, however, comes very early on, as the two masters of the university shiver in the cold outside Faustus's study and hear, from Wagner, how Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. The two react with shock, and whisper in fear to one another. In this short sequence, Freestone captures something of the wider society within which Faustus operates; the terror of a world threatened by the horrors he is creating. Returning to Frankenstein, this Faustus warns of the dangers of over-reaching, of personal arrogance in the thirst for knowledge. The evocation of the 19th century battles between science and faith, religious fervour and rationalism, creates a meaningful context for the battle over an arrogant soul.

DVD Extras

The education pack I was sent for review contains three discs. One, the 'Mastershot' DVD, shows the entire production from a fixed, wide shot camera angle, which isn't a great deal of fun to watch but which I can see value in for teaching purposes. The other disc includes oddly fuzzy direct-to-camera interviews with cast and creatives. Freestone's own contains rather too much personal anecdote considering the length (does it really matter how she became a director?) but she makes some useful comments about the search for textual evidence and her desire to make the play about the conflict between Man and Devil, rather than Man and Man (explaining something of Treloar's performance). Production and Costume Designer Neil Irish offers some practical notes on how to recycle materials, but is so brief as to be fairly unhelpful. Wayne Dowdeswell offers some of the best material as the lighting designer, walking through his process and giving some fantastic notes on how set and light combine to create thematic effects. This interview also includes lighting plots and diagrams, making it a genuinely exciting resource, especially for practical theatre courses.

The most impressive aspect, in terms of value, is a half hour interview with cast members, which offer personal insights into verse speaking and approaches to character. These are interesting and yield some individual points of interest, but a little basic overall for the level at which I teach; more about what it's like to be an actor then on the specifics of the production. I can't help but feel that some academic insight would have been a really invaluable addition to this disc, or perhaps an 'outside' perspective on what this production brings to the play's performance history.

The main value of the package is all in the first disc, and given the step up in pricing for the education packs (+£10 RRP, +£30 on Amazon), I'd only recommend the basic DVD for most - it's the edited film that is most useful.


March 01, 2012

The Comedy of Errors (NT Live) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/67933/productions/the-comedy-of-errors.html

The NT Live juggernaut rolls on. Now well-established as a theatrical/cinematic event, it was a pleasure to see the enormous Screen 1 of Nottingham's Broadway cinema packed out with a lively audience for the latest offering, a broadcast of Dominic Cooke's hugely successful The Comedy of Errors, which I missed in London. Even more of a pleasure was the realisation that NT Live has finally (apparently) realised that the extensive framing that I've complained about in previous offerings is unnecessary. A quick three minute interview preceded the show, with Cooke explaining the rationale behind this Errors in relation to previous productions - that instead of examining the experience of men arriving on a foreign shore, this production was set in an Ephesus recognisable as modern London, allowing the production to reflect on how "we" view new arrivals on "our" shores.

I've never seen an Errors that has fallen flat onstage, and this was no exception. Cooke's production was busy, lively, musical and energetic, reducing both its live and distance audiences to tears. Not everything was entirely successful in the cinema: the difficulty of watching a production staged in such an enormous theatre is that the projected voices were too shouty for cinema speakers, and much of the slapstick that clearly worked on stage played too broadly in close-up on a big screen. It's an unavoidable dilemma, but points to some of the drawbacks of the live broadcast.

The contemporary setting aimed to expose something of London's seedier underbelly. Egeon was dragged on at gunpoint for the play's opening with a bag over his head, while Solinus, a suited gangster, clicked his fingers at his lackeys. Later, the Syracusian twins found themselves in a red light district with prostitutes, gimps and transvestites, culminating in a red-lit sequence where the locals became grotesque and began mauling the two horrified visitors. The busy revolving stage of the National ensured an ever-changing series of locales - the pool bar in which Adriana confronted the Syracusian Antipholus, the modern apartment building where Adriana and Luciana lounged on a balcony sipping afternoon martinis, the cafe bar where the newly-arrived twins had their first "disagreement".

Particularly fascinating was the way in which these fully-realised locations forced a sense of spectatorship and disruption. Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati as the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio had thick West African accents that differentiated them from the identically dressed, but thoroughly London-based, Ephesian twins; and their newness was marked in behavioural as well as aural terms. S.Antipholus had a disconcertingly violent approach to his servant - poking him in the eye, beating him over the head with trays and kicking him hard in the backside, behaviour which was reacted to with shock in their initial fight, as cafe customers scarpered to get out of their way. In the pool room, on the other hand, other patrons stood around wolf-whistling and catcalling as Adriana prowled the room, castigaging Antipholus for his behaviour towards her. In this version of London, easy entertainment was found in foreigners being loud and ridiculous.

The foreignness of the Syracusian twins was not unproblematic, however. In particular, Henry’s thick accent, squeaks of indignation and quizzical moans turned him, at times, into a caricature of the “funny foreigner”. When he and Dromio identified the Ephesians as witches, they began clicking their fingers and crossing themselves in a panicked superstitious ritual, which provoked laughter from both the onstage and offstage audiences. While part of the production’s point was clearly to highlight problems of spectatorship and our enjoyment of the incongruous other, there was also something uncritical and disquieting about sitting in an all-white audience that was laughing hysterically at two caricatures of superstitious Africans stranded in the city. For a production that appeared at times to want to confront issues of racism and cultural conflict, there was to my mind too much reliance on easy cultural stereotyping and not enough reflection to reinforce a critique.

The encounter between the new arrivals and a multicultural city was interesting, however. Chris Jarman’s Ephesian Antipholus and Daniel Poyser’s Dromio had fully acclimatised and become successful, but still laughter was drawn as Antipholus was referred to as “pale”. A mix of Indian goldsmiths, Italian gangsters and Romanian musicians roamed the streets, the musicians playing wonderful folksy covers of songs touching on madness: Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Tears for Fears’ Mad World. This chaotic, colourful world fleshed out the scene changes and wordless sequences, including a spectacular revolve scene as both sets of twins were chased through the streets by Pinch and his white-coated minions, while the scene shifted around them.

The highlights of the show, however, were the tremendous performances by Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as Luciana. Drawing on the WAG stereotype, both women wore improbably high heels (Adriana drawing an audible gasp as she managed to stand upright on top of a pool table), clinging dresses and a permanently disaffected air. Their London drawl, alternately pleading and sarcastic, kept the characters on the knife edge of parody, particularly as Terry allowed every syllable to hang as she hesitantly dealt with Antipholus’s wooing. The sense of entitlement and bitchiness that united and divided the pair was realised in simple hair tosses and shrugs, and Adriana in particular relied throughout on a combination of aggressive sexuality and indignant rage. In her first encounter with Antipholus she choreographed an entire vignette for herself, striding around the pool room, manoeuvring across the tables, clinging to Antipholus’s leg and more. As the Ephesian twins knocked to get into their house, we saw the two emerge for a post-coital cigarette on the top balcony of her apartment.

Not all of the humour worked well. The choice to play the ‘porter’ scene through a doorbell and intercom rendered the scene static, and a running gag with Luce appearing on the balcony just as the others were out of view went on for too long. The reduction of the scene to an exchange of farting showed a production that had, at this point, run out of ideas. The Luce set-piece speeches for the Syracusian Dromio were also more muted than I’ve seen elsewhere, despite Msamati’s impeccable comic timing in his final mention of her. Interestingly, where the final confusions before the revelation of the twins’ identity is usually played as the climax of the noise and chaos, Jarman delivered his final defence to Solinus in a serious vein, preparing us for the more sober tone of the conclusion rather than allowing for the usual sudden turn.

The production’s interest in the serious nature of the play was most evident in Joseph Mydell’s Aegeon and Pamela Nomvete’s Aemilia. Mydell’s initial recounting of his history was not helped by an overly fussy and confusing (for a cinema audience who saw only fragments of it) full-scale depiction of the wreck and separation behind the characters; but Mydell’s sober, sad Aegeon provided a point of gravity for the play, and the final scene lingered on the tender embrace between reunited husband and wife, far beyond the point of dramatic pace, in order to entirely readjust the tone – a moment repeated shortly after with the two Antipholi. Similarly, the closing scene allowed the camera to linger on the Ephesian Dromio’s proffered hand, occasioning audience sympathy as the two took hands and left the stage together.

Errors, despite its reputation, is actually an excellent play, and Cook’s production did it full justice. The immigration angle genuinely offered a new insight into the play’s imagining of dislocation and cross-cultural encounter and, while some of the humour occasioned by this was unnecessarily reductive, the production did successfully depict the implicit prejudices and assumptions that inevitably dog a multicultural society. With a combination of bravura set-pieces, entertaining performances and fantastic music, the play proved itself once again one of the strongest Shakespearean vehicles for invention and amusement.


January 22, 2012

Coriolanus @ The Broadway Cinema, Nottingham

The best thing about the poster for Ralph Fiennes's new film of Coriolanus (and his directorial debut) is the contrast between the streams of red blood and those ice-cold eyes. In a single image we see the entire film - a steady, chilling gaze framed by horrific images and the messy reality of war.

Coriolanus poster

For those of us who saw it, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Roman Tragedies, which similarly updated Coriolanus to the boardrooms and corridors of power, and turned the play into a critique of media involvement in politics and the machinations of state. Fiennes's movie takes the concept but integrates it deeply into a setting that evokes the Yugoslav wars and Arab Spring (fortuitously, as filming had been mostly completed by the middle of last year). The blurring between the fictional world of "A Place Calling Itself Rome" and the real world was most apparent in the appearance of Jon Snow, reporting from the comfortable sofas of the Fidelius News network and grilling guests about the political ambitions of Caius Martius.

Televisions featured throughout, from the opening speeches of Menenius listened to by a fuming protest cell to the carefully staged presentation of Martius to the consulate. In the marketplace, surrounded by Eastern European stallkeepers, Martius blinked in the glare of a dozen cameraphones; and a microphone damningly picked up his hissed complaints to Brian Cox's Menenius in the senate room. For his final aborted apology, senators James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson convened a tacky TV studio set-up, and riled up the crowds to call for his banishment with chants of "It shall be so!" More movingly, Virgilia (an excellent Jessica Chastain) twitched uncomfortably in front of lagging news reports of the fighting in Corioles while her son heedlessly shot cans with an airgun outside.

Fiennes's Martius was ill at ease in this constantly recorded world. In the opening sequence, a mob waving protest banners advanced on Rome's central grain store, and he faced down protesters while snarling at the watching cameras, which kept rolling as the riot police advanced. The messiness of adhoc recording translated to the excellent camerawork, particularly as Martius lashed out at the tribunes, pushing one to the floor while police attempted to keep a roaring mob at bay. In the chaos, the camera came detached, focusing on details - an eye, a phone, a hand, a slogan - as Menenius finally lost control of the situation.

The gritty feel showcased a stunning environment. As a grizzled Martius left Rome for banishment, he marched through wartorn ruins and bleak countryside, a world of roads that stretched to nowhere and roaming wild dogs. Yet emerging at Antium, a Mediterranean coastal town, we saw the peaceful beauty of the country desolated elsewhere by fighting. The soldiers of both armies were rowdy skinheads, tattooing each other and drinking to their respective iconic leaders. As unthinking as the masses incited by the tribunes, the soldiers were fiercely loyal to whoever commanded them, transferring as easily to Coriolanus as they did back to Lartius in the final moments.

The war scenes were expertly shot, making good sense of the text as Martius ran off alone after an explosion to wreak havoc. A shocking sequence saw him touring a burnt out apartment block, kicking down doors (a nod was made here to the old man who gave Shakespeare's hero assistance, as one elderly man offered a bottle of water from his sofa) and shooting civilians, whose bodies we were reminded of throughout. Aufidius (Gerard Butler) himself found the bodies of his wife and children left bleeding in a car following the fall of Corioles. Yet while this was a war conducted primarily with bombs and guns, the cultish followings of both leaders allowed them to strip themselves of their heavy weaponry when finally meeting and engage in a knife fight, the two holding each other in a death embrace that found more intimacy than anything else in this cold environment.

Crucially, Fiennes only laughed in the company of his soldiers. With his mother, the excellent Vanessa Redgrave, he could only humble himself, occasionally crying out in frustration at the constricting nature of their relationship. Yet Virgilia and Volumnia made an impressive team, whether tussling with the tribunes after Martius's banishment or kneeling together before Martius's army. In an extended and fantastically played scene, Virgilia's steady gaze and Volumnia's no-nonsense appeals finally reduced the soldier to tears, helped by a genuinely surprising intervention from his otherwise silent son. Yet even more moving was Cox's Menenius, tasked with the impossible. Facing Martius at night, he was stunned to be cut off by his former friend, and looked around the rest of the Volscian army before leaving, silently. In a short sequence following, he sat by a canal and took of his watch. Quietly, he slit his wrist and bled to death, another neglected body lying alone at the side of the road.

There was great support from John Kani as Cominius and a fine group of morally ambivalent rebels, but this was ultimately Fiennes and Butler's show. As Aufidius shaved Martius's head, his hand lingered on his skull, reminding us of his deeply conflicted relationship with his new ally. Fittingly, the final scene played out not in the Volscian camp, but at a roadside checkpoint. Surrounded by Aufidius's men, Martius killed two before finally falling into Aufidius's arms. As the latter's dagger slipped into Martius, the two men embraced more tightly than ever before, lowering themselves together to the ground. There was no final eulogy or second thought from Aufidius - just the final image of Coriolanus's body, thrown onto a bare platform. This was raw, gripping Shakespeare for the twenty-first century, and an impressive turn from Fiennes both in front of and behind the camera.


November 06, 2011

Anonymous

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/anonymous/

This is a reprint of my article "Much Ado about Anonymous", written for the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre and published here.

Shakespeare scholars have been outraged about Roland Emmerich’s new film since filming first began. Anonymous tells the story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who the film contends was the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. This highly vocal fringe theory has been the bane of Shakespeareans for decades, and the fear was that the film would bring the “Question” into the mainstream. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust co-ordinated a concerted counter-campaign, and the media lapped up the controversy as public debates were staged over Shakespeare’s true identity. Stephen Marche warns in his New York Times article that “Professors of Shakespeare . . . are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives”. Now that the film itself has arrived, however, it seems that academic fears may have been extremely premature.

Most importantly, the film theatricalises its own story. Derek Jacobi (a prominent “anti-Stratfordian”) arrives at a theatre by taxi, marches through the wings and stands before a curtain, which opens to reveal a hushed audience. As Jacobi explains that he is to tell them a new story, a story that undoes the myth of Shakespeare, the scene dissolves into a (finely-realised) period depiction of Elizabethan London, with Ben Jonson clutching an armful of manuscripts and running into the empty Globe theatre to escape a troupe of pursuing soldiers.

Academic outrage has stemmed from the impression that the film will strengthen the belief that Oxford genuinely wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Theatricalised in this way, however, it never feels as if the film is supposed to be “truthful”. Critics will point to the plethora of historical inaccuracies – Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, not 1599, and the Globe burned down in 1613, not 1604. Romeo and Juliet had been performed, and Venus and Adonis published, long before the events depicted here; and the play performed at the Globe prior to the Essex rebellion was Richard II, not Richard III. These are only the most obvious of many inaccuracies.

Gleeful scholars will doubtless read the sheer volume of historical “mistakes” as a sign of the film-makers’ ignorance, but this is beside the point. Quite simply, this isn’t a film that is interested in “fact” in the sense of historical accuracy, but “truth” in the manner employed by Shakespeare himself in writing his history plays. Emmerich and his team rewrite history freely in order to advance a specific agenda: the rehabilitation of Oxford’s character and a reading of Shakespeare’s plays as political and personal analogies for a courtly life.

In this sense, the film is not a threat to mainstream scholarship, as it doesn’t attempt to compete on scholarly grounds. It is also, despite studio publicity materials, not a polemic: the authorship question is one of the film’s several strands, and at times feels trivial compared to the more sensational court story.

The film is, however, designed to offend anyone who thinks William Shakespeare should only be treated with respect. Here, Will (Rafe Spall) is a drunken comic actor who seizes an opportunity when Jonson refuses Oxford’s commission to take credit for his plays. Shakespeare’s fame and ego inflate throughout the play, and he begins demanding more money and power. His only moment of uncertainty comes when Jonson attempts to prove Shakespeare’s illiteracy, thwarted only by a fortuitous lack of ink.

This is the real issue, implicit in response articles such as James Shapiro’s “Hollywood Dishonors the Bard”. The film irreverently sends up notions of dignity and shows Shakespeare falling over, struggling for words and crowd-surfing at the Globe, while his fellow dramatists – Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, Kit Marlowe and Jonson – look on in disgust. It’s an ugly and comic portrait; but it is no more of a threat to Shakespeare’s reputation than Blackadder II was to Elizabeth I’s. The performance actually evokes the Shakespeare of John Manningham’s famous anecdote, which recalls Shakespeare racing Burbage to an assignation with a female audience member. The comic treatment of the character is self-consciously parodic, rather than a serious attempt at character assassination.

However, the fact that Anonymous isn’t a threat to scholarship doesn’t make it a good film. Emmerich’s plot construction is a mess, jumping across 40 years of history with little coherence. There is too much going on: Oxford’s romance with Elizabeth, his feud with the Cecil family, his relationship to Essex and Southampton and their rebellion, and the lives of the dramatists. Most damningly, the political and theatrical stories never quite marry up, apart from in performances where Polonius and Richard III become transparent representations of the Cecils. The power and influence of the theatre is too rarely seen. Instead, the real theatre comes from the climactic revelation delivered by Cecil to Oxford, the ludicrousness of which leaves an audience in no doubt of the film’s status as fiction.

There’s much to like here, regardless. Edward Hogg makes for a troubled (and hunchbacked) Robert Cecil; Vanessa Redgrave gives her all as a doting Elizabeth; and Trystan Gravelle practically twirls his moustache as the unscrupulous and flamboyantly gay Marlowe. The real standout, however, is Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, whose story frames the action. As he watches his illiterate fellow achieve the literary celebrity he desires for himself, and is taken into Oxford’s confidence, Armesto finds a human story as the eternal runner-up, bitter yet maintaining something approaching integrity.

The film is flawed, but its flaws are also its charm. It is not an anti-Stratfordian tract but an anti-Stratfordian fantasy, and should be watched and interpreted as such. As with any blockbuster take on history, there is a responsibility on the part of educators to explain the inaccuracies (see also: King Arthur, Braveheart), but those in the mood for a more literary episode of The Tudors will be well served here. The more sober lesson to draw is that knee-jerk reactions to an unorthodox story are unprofessional and unnecessary, and rather serve to legitimise the object of scorn. The film as presented is a fiction, framed within Jacobi’s theatre, and as such harms the serious anti-Stratfordian cause far more than helps it.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


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