Sunday, 28 November 2010


27/11/10, BFI Southbank (NFT as was)

2 hrs 25 mins. Newly-restored and extended print of Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, thanks to the discovery of an exceedingly grainy 16mm print in Buenos Aires containing large amounts of material cut from the original, ranging from the odd cut-away shot to entire scenes. Will and I saw it in the BFI Southbank studio, which is a very small box-like cinema with an enormous screen: almost too big, from where I was sitting in the second row.

I've never seen it, though one has of course seen a good many stills and the odd clip: the robot, the "Frankenstein's monster" scene in which Maria is strapped naked into some sort of transparent box for the transfer of her mind to the robot's, the top shots of the huge city with its trains and cars and biplanes flying between the buildings, the opening sequence of the ranks of identically-clad workers trudging wearily in step to and from their shifts and the nightmare machine halls where they work until they drop.

Visually it's staggering. All subsequent makers of science fiction movies and cinematic dystopias are in Lang's debt, as are the Frankenstein films. The visual effects are remarkable and I'm not clear how he achieved them: the tiny figures running around in the vast city (the city clearly a model, the people apparently real), the lightning bolts and circular rings of energy which pulsate around the model and Maria in the transfer scene.

Plot-wise it's deeply implausible though, even with some of the missing scenes put back in. For instance the motivation of Rotwang, the mad inventor, is never entirely clear. This may be a lack of inter-titles; it may be that Lang was less interested in constructing a plot without holes than simply in getting from one set-piece to another.

Politically it's a curious mish-mash as well. The scenes of the workers' suffering and dehumanisation seem to come straight out of Marx (this was made, of course, just ten years after the October revolution in Russia) and the villain in the first part of the film is the heartless capitalist Joh Fredersen. In their images of hundreds of uniformed figures all marching to the same beat those early scenes also hark forward to the iconography of the Nazis. On the other hand, violent revolution is deprecated, and appears to be deliberately engineered by the villain of the second part of the film, the Jewish Rotwang (we know he's Jewish because his house is liberally decorated with Stars of David), a combination of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism with which Hitler would presumably have agreed.

Some of the bits one hadn't seen were striking too. Early on there's a scene of scantily-clad lovelies in the Garden of Pleasure one of whom is all but topless, a fact we are invited to linger on as she twirls slowly and seductively around for us: pretty daring for 1927. And then there's the orgiastic dance performed by the false Maria, who is topless, except for elaborate pasties. Towards the end there's a scene in which the underground workers' city is flooded and the children (the only ones left after the parents have all gone up to wreck the machines) wade through the rising waters towards their saviour, the (real) Maria: lots of top shots of the crowd converging on her as she wrestles with some kind of alarm bell, intercut with lots of low-level shots of her silhouetted. And then there's a "lost" sequence among the Buenos Aires material of the children trying to escape up a ventilation shaft and finding their way blocked by a grille at the top, with the staircase behind them filling up with panicking kids, which is probably the most genuinely gripping in the film.

Reservations. The plot and the anti-Semitism I've mentioned. Also film-makers were still developing the grammar of the medium, so there are one or two moments that jar, in particular some occasions when the camera crosses the line. The acting is standard-issue silent movie, every emotion telegraphed endlessly in the mime artist's equivalent of CAPITAL LETTERS. And I'm not sure about the music, credited to Gottfried Huppertz, and by the sound if it re-recorded for this reconstruction: what would the film be like without it?

The Wikipedia article here as some interesting material on the special effects, the pioneering architectural styles, Fritz Lang's dislike of the film and the fact that his wife, who co-wrote it, went on to become a fervent Nazi!


8/11/10, Bush

Anything but romantic, as it turns out. A one-night stand/office romance thing turns into a dysfunctional relationship that then becomes something more permanent when she falls pregnant.

A transfer from the Traverse where it was a fringe hit. of a play by DC Jackson.

A three-hander in which the cast play all the parts, with clever use of filing cabinets, desks, document boxes and the like as props (or hiding places for props) and equally clever use of the device of actors addressing the audience in one voice while addressing each other in another. That led to lots of funny jokes about how what we say in a relationship differs, sometimes radically, from what we actually mean. None of it especially original, but wittily written and wittily performed by Iain Robertson, Alison O'Donnell and Rosalind Sydney.

Robertson was sweating copiously. It's a small theatre, granted, and he was working hard but it seemed excessive. They say it's a sign of stage fright but he seemed to be doing ace to me, so can he really have been nervous?

Here's a review:

Thursday, 25 November 2010


24/11/10, ENO

2 hrs 20 mins. Superfluous Smoking alert.

A real cracker, not so much for the music as for Simon McBurney's staggering direction. Never less than enthralling it was theatre with music rather than opera.
A dying dog (a puppet with two voices... a counter-tenor and a raucous contralto belting out animal noises through a megaphone) is rescued by a professor who takes it home, feeds it up, then subjects it to an experiment in which its testicles and heart are replaced with those of a human being. It duly turns into a man, feral and dog-like in his primitive emotions but terrifyingly adept at manipulating the petty politics of Stalinist Moscow, who has to be (bloodily) turned back into an animal.
It's a political satire which might have had few legs were it not for McBurney's numerous interventions. Other theatre directors we've recently seen making their debut at this address failed because they clearly didn't trust the music to do much of the work for them and undermined it or added unnecessary business. Superficially you could level the same charge at McBurney except that everything he does helps rather than hinders the music, and it's all so cleverly and wittily done.
The operations take place in shadow form behind a screen. There are video projections, a square playing area bare to the wings, processions of patients, tenants, political activists and the like. A constant delight. This is written up a couple of weeks after the event, so here are some reviews:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


17/11/10, ENO

3 hrs 10 mins. Superfluous Smoking alert.

This is the third Don Giovanni we've seen (after Don John at BAC and Glyndebourne in the summer) to make Leporello (Brindley Sherratt) a sleazy character with a camera and his list aria into a slide show of Don Giovanni's conquests. Though this version, in Jeremy Sams' exceedingly witty translation, turned the list not into a collection of countries but into a kind of month-by-month sales report ("March to April, 102") complete with bar charts and a gag about a "spreadsheet".

And it's the second (after Glyndebourne) to turn the Commendatore into a zombie emerging from the grave (though ENO's Commendatore was neither as frightening nor as well acted and sung as Glyndebourne's).

But some things about this production were different. I think the order of the numbers in Act 2 was changed so that Don Giovanni's little mandolin aria was no longer sung looking up at Donna Elvira's window but instead became a soliloquy, a reflection on some kind of ideal woman for whom the Don has been searching all his life, a video of her eyes projected onto the set as he sang... which helped provide him with a motive.

Indeed one of the strengths of this production (by Rufus Norris) was the care given to supplying motivation for the characters and the psychological truth of much of the action. At Glyndebourne Zerlina's switch from flirtation to crying rape seemed arbitrary; here it made sense (she was flattered by the Don's interest, then he got her drunk, then she realised what was happening). And her teasing aria to the injured Mazeppo (all about dealing with his "swellings") was again wittily done and beautifully delivered by Sarah Tynan (we've seen her at this address in The Elixir of Love and Jephtha).

But the strengths were undermined by some curious directorial decisions of which the first was the set, a constantly moving set of angular walls and windows and staircases round, through and over which the principals scrambled while they (the walls etc) were wheeled around the stage by stagehands dressed in red and yellow Hallowe'en masks and sweatshirts. Cleverly choreographed, but really annoying and not always helpful.

And there was a very odd St Vitus dance during the second act sextet when they all realise Leporello has duped them: Donna Anna (Katherine Broderick, once a diminutive ENO Brunnhilde, though she's filled out hugely since, alas) did an Irish dance; Don Ottavio (Robert Murray, rather good) took his clothes off to his underwear; Zerlina twisted herself into agonised attitudes. What was all that about? None of us knew.

Don Ottavio had a first act aria I don't recall from the Glyndebourne production, which made him rather less of a cypher and rather more of a proper character. And Mazeppo too (John Molloy) seemed in this production to be taken rather more seriously.

Iain Patterson commanding as the Don; Rebecca Stevens ill and substituted by Sarah Someone who did well. But we had a feeling that, like Rupert Goold the other day with Turandot, this was a case of a tyro opera director who didn't trust the material sufficiently and packed the production with unnecessary business.

The costumes suggested some time in the 1960s. Mazeppo wore a shiny suit and a teddy boy's quiff, Zerlina a white dress with exaggerated pencil skirt and blue polka dots, Leporello a tie and dirty raincoat, Donna Elvira a black dress and Donna Anna a red two piece suit.

The Superfluous Smoking came during the overture when the Don appeared in dumbshow, handed his cigarette to Leporello and then raped a woman his Hallowe'en costume-clad henchmen had caught, before nicking her bright green coat and a wig and putting them on, making him look (briefly) like an 18th century aristo.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


15/11/10, Hampstead

1 hr 20 mins, no interval. Athol Fugard's latest (and directed by him as well), a two-hander set in a graveyard for "the nameless ones", tended by an old man with a spade, Simon, to which comes a white train driver looking for the grave of the young woman with a baby who stepped out in front of his train and killed herself, locking eyes with him briefly as she did so He has been traumatised by the incident.

Inspired by a newspaper cutting Fugard found in 2000, which the train driver carries with him and reads out at one point. Presumably it's the real cutting, though if it is the journalist who wrote it needs to go a few rounds with someone like Harry Evans. (Question: Does it make a difference that the play is set in South Africa ten years ago? Have things got better or worse since?)

It's a bleak fable in which the driver, driven almost mad by PTSD, nightmares and hallucinations, eventually concludes that the young woman killed herself in the absence of hope. In the process he finds a hint of peace but is killed by gangsters in the night while digging a grave with Simon's spade. In an equally bleak Coda Simon tells us that he lost his job as a result... and his spade.

Bleak, but "beautifuly acted" seemed to be consensus. Owen Sejake was Simon, a big slow-moving, taciturn bear of man with some lovely lyrical passages in which he remembered his childhood, though most of the time he just sat and listened. Sean Taylor was the train driver, nervy, voluble, though we thought his accent slipped now and then: he is South African, though now married to an Australian where he spends a lot of time, but perhaps he was brought up as the kind of posh white South African who speaks English RP.

It's mostly in English but with short passages in Afrikaans and occasional snatches of Xhosa.

Good set by Saul Radomsky: a rubbish-strewn sandy waste with humps for the graves and a hole where one is being dug. A primitive wire fence around the back. In one corner a cutaway of the interior of Simon's shack ("boondock"?) where he lives at a level barely above subsistence and where the train driver stays with him. The rubbish -- car hubs, old lamps nameless bits of rusting machinery -- turns out to have a purpose, marking the graves. The driver is shocked by what he sees as a lack of respect for the dead and tried to replace the junk with crosses made from stones and pebbles. Simon tells him the junk is there to make sure he doesn't dig in the same place twice.

What does it say about South Africa? That it is (or was in 2000) still a profoundly unequal, violent and poverty-stricken place where many have no hope. That it is possible for blacks and whites to bond across the divide. But that just when you think you're getting somewhere the violence erupts and it all comes crashing down.

There are shades of Beckett, but like Beckett it's all frustratingly inconclusive and allusive. But my understanding was enriched.

Here's some reviews:

Monday, 15 November 2010


When did it become obligatory for stage presentations to include characters smoking? Perhaps when it became illegal to smoke in the workplace, with the stage the only exception, and directors couldn't resist the urge to exploit their freedom. Or perhaps it's just that the childish show-off which lurks inside most performers, taking delight in contrarian gestures and shocking the grown-ups, is moved to try anything which is so widely condemned.

Either way, we've noticed over the last couple of years a remarkable epidemic of gratuitous smoking sweeping across the London (and Edinburgh and no doubt every other) stage. Sometimes it's justified because it's in the script. In Blasted, which was written in 1995, long before the smoking ban, the journalist smokes (and coughs and has apparently had a lung removed) and the girl keeps telling him to stop because it's bad for him; it is I suppose plausible that a journalist of his age and vintage would smoke, though it doesn't make the character any more believable.

Sometimes it's justified in helping to establish time and place. Serenading Louie at the Donmar was set in suburban Chicago c 1970 and they all smoked furiously; but then in 1970 Chicago they would have done. (At one point a character in need of comfort and contemplation takes a pipe out of a drawer and sucks on it meditatively.)

But what was the plump soprano singing Tiridate in Radamisto doing lighting up (and was the character really using a cigarette-holder)?

Did it add much to Tribes that the son was a smoker? OK, it was authentic, and we were told he used the greenhouse as a smoking room. But did we need to see him and his brother's girlfriend sharing a sneaky fag on stage when the grown-ups were out, then desperately trying to wave the smoke away when they returned?

The actors rarely look comfortable smoking, since few must do it in real life. The cigarettes always seem to burn out in no time (do they have special theatrical cigarettes that light up and then go out instantly, to minimise the risk of fire on stage?). It's become a standing joke.

Henceforth these reviews will note instances of unjustified Token Smoking and make a tally at the year end.


11/11/10, Lyric Hammersmith

1 hr 45 mins. No interval (there was one in the original production at the Royal Court in 1995, someone said, but the audience walked out in droves; this way they lock you in for the duration).

The notorious Sarah Kane shocker, and we've seen it at last. And frankly, none of us much enjoyed it. It owes a big debt to King Lear, to Beckett, to schlock-horror splatter movies and to reports of the war in Bosnia, but lacks the profundity and universal resonance of the first two, or the visceral impact of the third, and imports the fourth unconvincingly to Leeds.

The chief difficulty is that it's impossible to empathise with the characters, who seem drawn from stock and equipped with a repertoire of tics and verbal routines that don't quite add up. Beckettian bafflement and boredom was the result.

Some of the shock moments were pretty shocking. A soldier eats the eyes of a man he's just raped. A dead baby is eaten (truly revolting, that). But we wanted it to end not so much because it was shocking but because the violence made us uncomfortable without justification. And perhaps it's a reminder that the most powerful things are sometimes left unspoken or merely hinted at.

The scene is a hotel room. There are the sounds of civil unrest outside but the hotel seems to function normally, with room service and hot and cold running water. It's quite plush, though one of the first lines is "I've shat in better places than this".

There are just three characters. A middle-aged, alcoholic journalist (Danny Webb) apparently dying of lung cancer, a noisy boor who wears a gun in a shoulder hoslter. A girl (Lydia Wilson, whom we saw in Pains of Youth) of indeterminate age (16? 18? 21?) with whom he seems to have had a (presumably underage) sexual relationship at some point in the past. And a soldier (Aidan Kelly), who bursts in half-way through with a gun, abuses, rapes and mutilates the journalist (the girl having escaped through the bathroom window, apparently) and then lies dead during the last few scenes, though how he died we're not told and we don't see.

The characters have rudimentary backstories. The journalist has a wife and child. The girl has a mother and a younger brother with learning difficulties and, implausibly given the civil war outside and her apparent lack of education, she is hoping to get a job as PA in an advertising agency. The journalist scoffs at this, brtually, as he does virtually everything. We know he's a journaslist because at one point he phones through his story to a copytaker. It's about some tragic death abroad and he has presumably been to see the family, but the story he phones over is the kind of finished piece, including quotes from a Foreign office spokesman, that only a sub in the newsroom would produce, not a reporter on the road. The soldier too has a backstory: a girlfriend or wife who was brutally assaulted and killed. We are given the details though curiously I have forgotten them.

The dialogue, which is interspersed with long periods of silent action, is brutal, allusive and sometimes repetitive. The girls says she loves the journalist though what she means by that, and what we're meant to believe she means, is unclear. At the start he takes all his clothes off, grabs his willy and sasys "Suck on this". She refuses (too disgusted?) though later she does give him a blow-job. In bed overnight it seems he rapes her because she complains next morning of pain, struggles to get dressed and says she can't piss or shit; on the other hand, when they woke uop she was still wearing her bra and knickers. Was the assault imagined? Or does the actress not do nudity?

Halfway through there isd a massive explosion which destroys the hotel room leaving only a dark landscape of beams and struts, and the hotel bed. (Maybe it's this that kills the soldier??).

Towards the end the journalist, blinded, helpless and starving, is visited by the girl (why?) carrying a crying baby she's found. The baby dies and she buries it under the floorboards. At the end he digs the corpse up and starts to eat it, then climbs into the hole so that all that we can see of him is his head. It's immediately beneath a hole in the roof through which rain comes down to soak him. The girl returns (why had she gone? why does she come back?) and sharesd a morsel of food with him. By this stage the lights have gone down, leaving only a spotlight on the journalist's head. He says "Thank you". Blackout.

Redemption of sorts, I suppose, in an otherwise profoundly nihilistic play, though one that nags away at you demanding explanation and elucidation, which may be the mark of an effective piece of theatre.

Friday, 5 November 2010


3/11/10, Royal Court

A play by Nina Raine about deafness, about belonging (to a family, the deaf community or some other "tribe"), about communication and language. Featuring a deaf actor, Jacob Casselden, as the third child in an otherwise noisy, opinionated, argumentative and not wholly-functional hearing family of academics, would-be academics and musicians. It's a measure of her skill that I thought his girlfriend, the hearing child of a deaf family who is herself going deaf, was also played by a deaf actress, Michelle Terry; except that Terry (we saw her in England People Very Nice and London Assurance at the National) isn't deaf, she just gets the slightly false emphases, the dodgy timing of the deaf and hard of hearing bang on.

The early part of the play neatly established the family milieu. Especially the problems of adult children returning home (the rows about nicked socks and smoking in the greenhouse). The characters were neatly sketched in: dominating Dad (Stanley Townsend), full of information and himself, joking, bullying, relishing his reputation for blunt speaking; peace-making Mum (Kika Markham), for ever interceding and mediating. We see them first at table, noisily (that word again) arguing, with the deaf child the oddly silent one.

His sense of exclusion from his talkative family fuels his enthusiasm for belonging to another tribe, that of the deaf. Ironically his girlfriend, as the play progresses, rebels against her position as a member of another (small) tribe, that of the deaf activist.

There is (from memory, three weeks later) more cleverly-written dialogue about tribes and their membership, but I've forgotten it.

There were some good things in this, but it was spoilt by being overly schematic and melodramatised. The son home from university and nominally working on a masters was convincing until he turned out to be a drug addict and reformed stutterer and no longer plausible. The sister (a tyro opera-singer played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who we saw at the Soho in Roaring Trade) was underwritten.

Here are some reviews:


22/10/10, Duchess

Written by Penelope

We all look back. We all look forward. But how much time do we spend in the present? And do we enjoy looking back? That, partly, is what Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, is about. But the Beckett afficionado who accompanied me laughed when I asked, just as the curtain went down, “So, what’s this about then?”. His answer was “Life”.

Michael Gambon plays Krapp – a curmudgeonly fellow, in a scruffy grey suit, with dirty white shoes, and a shirt tail, untucked, with a huge hole in the back. There is a desk on stage, a chair, and biscuit tins with tapes in them. Not much else. Gambon doesn’t speak for about the first 20 minutes but it’s a measure of his acting abilities that you’re not bored. You watch as he rolls his seat on wheels back and forth, opens and closes drawers, eats a banana and looks through tins of tapes. Gambon has enormous, pale hands, which seem to hang in a hopeless, almost useless way at times. He uses his large ungainly frame well.

Box 3, Spool 5. That seems to be the most important tape. He fast forwards the tape and reaches a section that he plays over and over again. Krapp is looking back on a love and we hear the yearning in his voice as he says “I lay over her, my head in her breasts. My hand on her”. Gambon’s Irish lilt and velvety voice make this little speech incredibly poignant. Is this the most significant moment in his life? As he listens to the tape, he seems bitter, he laughs and berates himself for looking back 30 years. He takes this spool off, puts it in a drawer and starts recording a new one, which he says will be the last. But he doesn’t continue. Instead, he gets Spool 5 out again and listens all over again. By now, we can remember the words too.

The play is only 50 minutes long and on first viewing, the structure seems loose. But Beckett was very precise in his plays – writing very detailed stage directions, down to the last gesture and piece of furniture. So it’s not loose at all but very controlled.

Whenever I go to Beckett, I always try to find meaning. He is ruthless, bitterly comic and dark. He is a pessimist's dream. But I think one of the things he’s trying to say here is to enjoy the moment, take the time to sit and stare, to look around you and enjoy what you have. When you look back, as Krapp does, even with nostalgia and longing, you won’t enjoy it as much as you could have done at the time.

A note about the venue – the Duchess Theatre has seen better days, and even though this play is short, it’s still £30 a ticket. Sadly, the evening I went, less than half the seats were occupied. Beckett isn’t easy, but he is rewarding and the theatre could re-think its pricing policy.