Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Theatre Review: Devilish delights at the Globe.

Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. With Paul Hilton, Arthur Darvill, Felix Scott, et al. Directed by Matthew Dunster. At Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, London. Viewed on 4th September, 2011; running until 2nd October, 2011.

According to the Puritan William Prynne, during one of the earliest performances of “Doctor Faustus,” real devils suddenly appeared in the theatre, causing shrieks from the huddled audience at the “fearful sight.” While this is probably just a piece of what we would now call tabloid sensationalism, such myths as were propagated about Marlowe’s celebrated play serve to remind us how Renaissance audiences thought they could see, and really did see, dark forces doing their work among them. Witchcraft was not the stuff of bestselling children’s fiction, but had tangible effects on the known world: a belief that is still held today among certain religious quarters, and a belief that would manifest itself most explosively and infamously in the Salem and Pendle witch trials, of course.

“Faustus” is partly a response to the problem of evil, but also it is partly a response to what the trailer for this production succinctly describes as “want[ing] what we can’t have.” Tempted by the prospect of omnipotence, the titular Faustus agrees to sell his soul to the Devil after twenty-four years in exchange for absolute power in the intervening period – with more than a little assistance from Lucifer’s right-hand man, Mephistopheles. The scholar from Wittenberg dreams of securing all the knowledge there is in the world, having exhausted what he can from – to quote another play – words, words, words, and yet his ambitions are eluded: instead he plays tricks on the Pope, conjures pretty females from thin air and generally wastes his time. Tellingly, when Faustus asks Mephistopheles about the nature of Hell, he glibly refuses to answer: it is only when his time is almost up that Faustus sees the abyss of hell, revealed from behind the stage in all its horror.

But the experience begins as soon as you enter the theatre. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the recreated Globe was not designed in keeping with today’s theatregoing conventions; the fact of just being inside the so-called “wooden O” thus gives you some insight into the Renaissance mindset. Our performance took place on a clear evening when the threat of rain (let alone fire or plague!) thankfully failed to materialise, and lines were interrupted several times by the roar of helicopters high above us, an echo of the background noise the original spectators must have had to endure. It was more like seeing a gig at Reading fest than a highlight of Renaissance drama, as we watched while standing, in the Yard, the area immediately surrounding the acting space (the best place to be to get the full effect of any Globe staging in my view). The open-air format really collapses the barrier between actor and audience – participation is actively, some might say wilfully, encouraged – and can even lend a show an atmosphere you wouldn’t be able to achieve with the artifice of an indoor playhouse, as on this particular occasion. The night closing in around us became a very visible reminder of the predicament facing Faustus: that he is always bending to time’s will and not the other way around. The giving up of his soul is the ultimate kind of ultimatum. Indeed, perhaps the bitterest irony of the play is that for all of the power ostensibly attributed to Faustus, he forgets to write a ‘get-out’ clause into the bargain: the power to save himself from his own damnation.

Arthur Darvill on paper seems as though he’d be better suited to the role of Faustus, but here is absolutely convincing as Mephistopheles, with a wicked balance of charisma, charm and sarcasm. Such is the sheer theatricality of the character that you forget for an instant that this is an actor we see week in and week out on Saturday evenings as an altogether different sort of companion. Paul Hilton’s Faustus gives “Marlowe’s mighty line” a rich expressiveness, doing more than enough justice to the dramatist’s verse, particularly in the climactic scenes. As the comic interlopers, Felix Scott (as Wagner) and are excellent relief, as does the presence of the Seven Deadly Sins, who clearly relished the potential of their roles to only add to the mayhem.

And yet it is Dunster’s direction that is the true marvel here, skilfully conflating elements from both the A- and B-texts, playing to the advantages of both: the economy of the A’s earlier scenes mixed with the B’s grander speeches, slapstick and more overtly anti-Catholic satire. If anything a bit too much emphasis is given to the farce, although it nicely counterbalances the much more sinister tone the play takes later on. His decision to opt for sixteenth-century costumes and staging practices, however, is spot on, and the drama is thrillingly enhanced by some awesome set pieces. This is one diabolical production you wouldn’t want to miss.

Rating: ****1/2 out of 5

This critical essay was previously published on 'The Student Journals' at:

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Film Review: The carnival of protest.

Chronicle of Protest: A Video Diary. Produced and directed by Michael Chanan, in collaboration with the New Statesman and Roehampton University.

In his study “Rabelais and His World,” literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes of carnival as a “temporary suspension... of hierarchical rank [which creates] a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.” Bahktin’s influential theory of the carnivalesque seems to leave traces all over the very public demonstrations against cuts to government spending, as painstakingly catalogued in this film by Michael Chanan, which took place throughout late 2010 and early 2011. The overturning of the established order and the cry for democracy that spurred these protests, as well as utopian demands for a just society manifested in the realism of ordered chaos inflicted on urban centres, seems to be a replay of the same ideas a Russian thinker was writing about some sixty years ago.

In its own carnivalesque way, “Chronicle of Protest” too eschews some of the expectations of a documentary film. The finished project has no voice-over narrator: instead it is essentially a montage of newsreel, police footage, activist home video and vox-pops, all strung together with words that occasionally flash across the screen. The narrative, at once disjointed and yet unified by the sung refrain of “Society is too big to fail” (a mockingly ironical reworking of the now-clich├ęd phrase applied to bloated banks), suggests the simultaneous unity and disunity that characterised the protests: all those involved shared a common message, but there were distinct ways of communicating that message. Clips of the few students who tarnished the image of millions of peaceful protestors through their actions, and who yet came to symbolise the apparent degeneracy of the entirety of modern British youth, are an eerie precursor to the much more magnified destruction that would occur in the same city a few months later. Indeed, the vociferous but coolly measured way that the vast majority of the people captured in this film address their concerns is in striking contrast to the relentless annihilation of communities, both socially and physically, this August. One student, who will forever remain anonymous, declaims: “Protest is saying that I disagree with something; resistance is saying that I will not let this happen.” Equally arresting is the colourful multitude of non-violent protest methods: a young woman’s stand-up routine in a Barclays bank; the call-and-response chants of a group on the street; the beating of drums on the civilian warpath.

Chanan’s real achievement in this film, though, is to situate these students’ era of discontent within wider contexts, both past and present. Another literary academic, Terry Eagleton, draws parallels to the unrest in the 1960s when “the academia became the catalyst for a much wider social movement,” while other connections are made to the credit crisis, Egypt, Bahrain and Bristol, and from the rather triumphantly named University of Strategic Optimism to an ordinary library on the fringes of London. Through a collection of interviews, you get the sense that right-wing politics as symbolised in this country by the Conservative Party is increasingly being associated with “ignorance of the reality of the situation [the electorate] is in,” and that the Liberal Democrat contingent, far from being a moderating force, have simply accepted the new status quo: students who voted Lib Dem in the last election constantly speak of being “betrayed” by the party. One older woman complains about the “dishonesty” of the government’s commissioned research into people’s happiness when “the sort of things that make people happy [are merely] being able to go to your library and get some books and CDs.” Though ostensibly Chanan tries to include a variety of voices, I did notice when I watched the film that most of the interviewees were white: besides some black singers, only the impassioned Mehdi Hasan stands out as an important commentator of ethnic origin; Hasan, to his credit, shows thought and restraint for a man whose unnecessarily violent assault on Michael Heseltine on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ infuriated this viewer.

From a technical standpoint, the soundtrack is a bit iffy at times, and the lack of subtitles is occasionally frustrating. But judging the film alone, as a catalogue of the various schemes that took place to combat the threats to higher education in the coming decades, it largely works. Where it fails, however, is to say anything really new or challenging: Chanan does not develop his thesis to include meaningful debate around its implications. How can we really reconcile the threat of sovereign debt default and the need to balance our budgets with the imperative to preserve a system of higher education that is equitable, accessible and – above all – adequately fulfilling? Have the demonstrations – in the context of a wider post-credit crunch culture where economics has become a political football – achieved anything at all? Maybe I’m expecting too much from a “chronicle of protest,” not an “essay on protest.”

Regardless, the ultimate power of “Chronicle of Protest” lies at its climax, when the images of millions of chanting, waving, placard-holding citizens that throng the capital resemble a gigantic literal carnival. The mostly silent crowd come to speak for themselves, so much so that you really do want to stand up and join them. Unfettered by narrative intrusion, the film perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its period. At that ‘Question Time’ debate shortly after the new coalition government was elected, Michael Heseltine warned the incumbent administration would be “deeply unpopular”. Chanan’s timely work reaffirms how wrong I wish he could have been.

This essay was previously published at 'The Student Journals': <>

Sunday, 10 July 2011

TV Review: London's finest are back in order.

Law & Order: UK. Series 5 Episode 1, "The Wrong Man". Teleplay by Debbie O'Malley, from "Prescription for Death" by David Black & Ed Zuckerman. Directed by Marisol Adler. Starring Bradley Walsh, Jamie Bamber, Harriet Walter, Dominic Rowan, Freema Agyeman, Peter Davison. Aired on ITV1, 10th July 2011, 9pm.

It's not really fair to call "Law & Order: UK" a 'spinoff' from the American "Law & Order", considering that all the scripts are reworked from those written for the original show. It has more the feel of a 'remake'. Yet writer Debbie O'Malley manages to turn "Prescription for Death", the very first episode broadcasted on NBC all those years ago on 13th September 1990, into a story that's highly relevant to 2010s Britain, taking in hospital jargon, NHS bureaucracy and good old mistaken identity.

Marisol Adler, having worked on the original show as a director on the later seasons, has the franchise's trademark shaky camerawork down pat - and it shows. This series five opener begins with a chaotic tracking shot of hospital beds crashing through the double doors at Accident & Emergency, in a fashion as reminiscent of Dick Wolf's brainchild as of that other NBC long-runner, "ER". We soon focus in on a lone case, Suzanne Morton, who is quickly dispatched and declared dead in the typical "Law & Order" way, even though her dad protests she was only admitted with a sore throat. The concerns of a nurse over the alarming rate of suspicious deaths at this particular ward prompt her to consult DI Natalie Chandler (Harriet Walter), who in turn calls on DS Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh) and DS Matt Devlin (Jamie Bamber) to investigate. Medical malpractice, a doctor drunk on the job and incompetent interns are soon uncovered.

I criticised the first series of "Law & Order: UK" for its terribly treacly pacing, and I'm pleased to say this edition is much slicker, better capturing the sense of grittiness that seemed lost from the Manhattan show in the first few British translations. Bamber and Walsh's repartee is a treat as ever, in the tradition of great detective pairings like Briscoe and Logan, while Walter is a comfortable centre of gravity, nicely holding the proceedings together; Freema Agyeman is capable but not given an awful lot to do - her character could be a little more forthright and opinionated as we've seen on previous occasions but not such that it drags the show down into heavy moralising. London locations are used well, without having to resort to the seemingly irrelevant practice on "Law & Order: LA" of naming entire episodes after locales or neighbourhoods: a chase scene through the concourse of St. Pancras International rail station is a standout moment.

As with any "Law & Order" show, we should expect a 'revolving door' of cast changes - on the mothership, police and prosecutors changed hands with alarming efficiency - and so it is with the British incarnation, which sees its first batch of replacements this season. I'm not really sure what to make of Peter Davison as Henry Sharpe at this point. He seems avuncular enough as befits a CPS director presiding over his underlings' prosecutions - even a little witty - but of course the same could be said of his predecessor, Bill Paterson, or Steven Hill on the original. But I do prefer Dominic Rowan over Ben Daniels. While Daniels frequently recalled the on-edge, maverick and emotionally-involved Jack McCoy (and seemed as though he was trying too hard to imitate Sam Waterston with his melodrama), Rowan more closely resembles the practical Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) in his prosecutorial methods, interrogating Dr. Edward Auster (James Fox) on the stand with calculating precision and coolness. I'd like him to have more of Stone's authoritative presence in the courtroom and combine that with some of the rogueish intensity Linus Roache had as Michael Cutter.

This is indeed a significant improvement on previous outings of "Law & Order: UK", and I'm looking forward to see how the show develops with the new regulars to contend with. Now, if only the producers could really realise its potential by offering us completely new stories instead of relying on old American scripts, no matter how well re-interpreted they are.

Rating: ****/5

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Theatre Review: A play worth killing for.

Deathtrap. By Ira Levin. At the Noel Coward Theatre, London. Directed by Matthew Warchus. With Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Groff, Claire Skinner. As seen on 15th January 2011.

Ira Levin is probably best known for his thrillers "The Boys from Brazil" and "The Stepford Wives", but as Matthew Warchus' revival proves, his stage play "Deathtrap" deserves greater recognition as a darkly comic classic of the genre.

Sidney Bruhl (Russell Beale) is an ageing playwright with a string of hits to his name, but whose best years have passed him by. After he gives a lecture at a university, he is contacted by one of the students, thriller obsessive Clifford Anderson (Groff), but inviting the aspiring writer to his home to help with his new play - entitled "Deathtrap", no less - could prove to be his undoing. Wife Myra (Skinner) is driven to near hysterics by her suspicion that her husband intends to kill off his talented protege and take the credit for what could be the next stage sensation, and a clairvoyant's (Jane Lambert) ominous appearance only serves to heighten her anxiety that there are evil forces at work. As murder and mayhem descend on the Bruhl residence, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues between Sidney and Anderson, with the young writer determined to write for himself the perfect denouement to the perfect crime, exactly as he planned...

Levin's script is gleefully Hitchcockian, sending the audience reeling with laughter and gasping with fright in equal proportions, and it is well served by an ensemble cast who clearly look as though they're enjoying themselves, despite their shortcomings. Simon Russell Beale is intensely compelling in his portrait of a man eaten up with jealousy and self-loathing; Jonathan Groff, making his West End debut, excels as Anderson, his character's ruthless ambition lurking behind his natural, twinkly-eyed charisma. While Claire Skinner's American accent leaves something to be desired, she capably pulls off Myra's histrionics, though this gives her little chance to show her real versatility as an actress. Terry Beaver pulls in a fine performance as Sidney's lawyer, Porter Milgrim, but is underutilised; Jane Lambert as clairvoyant Helga ten Dorp suffers from the opposite problem.

"Deathtrap" works on several levels: as a metafictional feast for thriller fans with tongue placed firmly in cheek (nodding to other writers in the canon, such as Frederick Knott, and mischievously messing with genre conventions); as a comment on the cynicism of luckless writers; as a wickedly black comedy. But most of all, it's terrific fun from start to finish; it's a shame the play did not stay for much longer. The West End needs more than its fair share of classy murder stories to kill for these days.

Rating: **** 1/2 out of 5

Age recommendation: 12+, some violence, sex references.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Theatre Review: An early Miller masterpiece makes a welcome return.

All My Sons. By Arthur Miller. At the Apollo Theatre, London. With David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker. Booking until 2 October 2010.

"All My Sons" may not be traditionally the most well-known of Arthur Miller's plays, but this terrific revival proves why it was the piece that made his name in 1947.

A stormy overture sets an ominous tone for this mid-20th-century morality tale. Joe Keller (David Suchet) is a successful air parts manufacturer, who is living with his wife and one of his sons - we learn that the other, an air serviceman, is still missing in action after the upheaval of the Second World War. His business partner has been imprisoned for allegedly supplying faulty machinery that caused the deaths of several pilots in the war, and when his suspicious family come to Keller for answers, the man is forced to account for his own part in the decision to place material gain over social responsibility.

The first act may be necessary to introduce the neighbourhood's complex relations, as well as to contrast the trivial domestic trifles with the more destructive events to come, but it is a very slow burner. When the plot finally accelerates towards the middle of the second half, it explodes with the inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Director Howard Davies, who oversaw the last major production, expertly piles on the tension again here and coaxes some superb performances. Zoe Wanamaker may be more adept at stricken mothers in serious drama than TV comedy, so convincing is her Kate Keller, who is unwavering in her belief that her vanished son is still alive; Wanamaker generates the right amount of pathos as she becomes entangled in her husband's web of betrayal and deceit. As the surviving son, Chris, Stephen Campbell Moore contributes an equally heavyweight turn in the difficult role of the moral centre of the play, modulating from angered to anguished as he comes to question his father's decency. Naturalistic set and lighting designs add gritty realism to an already volatile atmosphere of blame and guilt, which pervades right up until the devastating climax. The final revelations provide the proof that this early masterpiece from a great American dramatist should be counted among his best work.

Verdict: **** 1/2 out of 5

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Film Review: A blockbuster with brains.

Inception. Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, et al. Legendary Pictures, 2010. On general release. Certificate 12A (moderate violence).

Ever since he shot to fame with his reverse-chronological psychological thriller, 'Memento,' back in 2000, director Christopher Nolan's star has continued to rise. He has garnered both critical and commercial success with 'Insomnia,' a remake of a Norwegian suspense film which relocates the action to the frozen wastes of Alaska, and 'Batman Begins,' a dark reboot of the DC Comics franchise, along with the latter's sequel, 'The Dark Knight.'

Audiences should be waiting excitedly for Nolan's next Batman installment, scheduled for release in 2012. And with very good reason, judging by his latest picture, 'Inception,' which is perhaps the Brit's most ambitious project to date. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a master thief who uses the power of dreams to invade his marks' subconscious and steal information their conscious selves would normally prevent from disclosing. In one last mission, he is hired by a Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to convince the son of a wealthy oil baron and Saito's corporate rival to break up his father's empire. It's an original premise, but as anyone who has seen the clunky Michael Jackson 'musical' "Thriller - Live" in the West End can tell you, a good idea badly executed sounds like a bad idea.

Fortunately, Nolan manages to assemble a believable cast around DiCaprio. Ellen Page in particular excels as the inexperienced but impassioned rookie in the gang, delivering an impressive turn when she confronts Cobb about the skeletons in his closet, which threaten to derail the entire operation. The dream sequences are visually striking, filled with projections (images of the subconscious), Penrose stairs and dizzying mirrors; at one point characters engage in a 360-degree tussle in an imaginary hotel corridor. But what really makes this film a winner is the plot: absorbing and genuinely suspenseful, it convinces as an update on the heist thriller, but its true power lies in the way Nolan exploits the most primal of human abilities - the capacity to dream - for subversive intentions. The ambiguous end may be a logical leap too far, but nevertheless the director's vision of a morally-fractured, heightened sense of reality within what is ostensibly an imagined world is so fully realised in this film, you may be hard-pressed to find another blockbuster this summer as rich, pacey and imaginative as this one.

Verdict: *****/5

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Theatre Review: What a triumphant night!

Jersey Boys: the Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. At the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Viewed on 14th July 2010. Running until 22nd August 2010.

The Toronto iteration of the global musical phenomenon, "Jersey Boys," became the longest-running show to play at its venue on 30th April, entertained its millionth customer less than a month later, and will have played to packed houses for more than two years by the end of its Canadian season. And little wonder.

Not only does the iconic music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons translate extremely well to the stage, the musical's writers were ingenious enough to combine an enlightening Hollywood biopic, as narrated by the Seasons themselves, with spiffed-up theatrical replays of their back catalogue. The potted history of the band may have been simplified somewhat to make room for the Broadway numbers - two groups of characters represent an ever-revolving cast of artists - but the result is still a sophisticated, modern drama. The script modulates perfectly from zestful wit to dark seriousness, humanely addressing some of the more unglamorous aspects of the Seasons' lives, such as Frankie Valli's troubled family relationship and the band members' dropout lifestyles before they hit the big time.

The Four Seasons convince in their roles, having all honed that New Jersey drawl: Quinn VanAntwerp injects passion into a Bob Gaudio determined to champion songwriting as an art and not commercial business, refusing to cave into the interests of producers unwilling to pick up his next composition. (In a stark irony, the piece would become the runaway success and much-covered "Can't Take My Eyes Off You.") The resemblance between Jeff Madden's falsetto and Valli's own is chilling. But the real stars of the show are the songs, which are exhilaratingly performed. Classic hits, such as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and of course, "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," are consciously designed to recreate the live Seasons concert experience, complete with horn section at one point, to stunning effect. There are some neat stylistic touches too: when the band makes their TV debut, a screen broadcasts the images shot in real time on the stage in faux black-and-white, seemingly in nostalgia for an era when MTV videos were yet to choke our living-room sets.

Television and music may have moved on since that first appearance, but the sounds of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons continue to endure beyond the transience of modern pop, symbolising an age when your integrity to songmaking was all that counted. The winning ensemble of "Jersey Boys" prove the group's timeless appeal; you will probably leave the theatre with a Sixties swing in your step.

Rating: *****/5

Age Recommendation: 15+ for moderately frequent strong language.