Month: September 2017

Romeo & Juliet

 

 

20/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Merely Theatre have a pretty unique approach to staging what they call ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare. Each play they produce features only five actors and the casting is gender-blind. On this tour, for instance, they are performing Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in rep – so the version of R & J I see features four female actors and one male. It all makes for an interesting dynamic and prompts the viewer to examine really familiar scenes with a fresh eye.

I won’t insult readers by outlining the full plot of R & J – only to observe that a play that so many people think of as the ultimate love story is, in fact, pure tragedy – the tale of a flighty, impetuous youth who becomes infatuated with somebody he’s only just met and, in wooing her, unwittingly leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. Some love story! For once, the two lead characters here are young enough to convince us that they could be so impetuous and the pared-down nature of this production means that it moves like the proverbial tiger on vaseline, with characters dashing back and forth through a series of curtained doorways, slipping in and out of costume as they go.

With so few actors to carry so many roles, the danger is always that an audience won’t be entirely sure who is who, but the simple costume changes (where, for instance, the Capulets are always decked out in Bay City Roller-style flourishes of tartan) means that we’re never confused. Almost before I know it, we’ve hit the interval and, after a short break, the second half fairly scampers by. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose make appealing star-crossed lovers and I particularly enjoy Tamara Astor’s performance as the Nurse. Hannah Ellis deftly handles three roles, while Robert Myles manages four.

If you’re trying to encourage reluctant youngsters to embrace a bit of the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, this is a great way to start them off. It’s pacy and exuberant but doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the tragedy.

All-in-all, a very satisfying production.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Wind River

18/09/17

In a moonlit pre-credit sequence, a young native American woman flees across a snowbound landscape, barefoot and gasping for breath. It’s an arresting introduction, one which certainly grabs the viewer’s attention. This bleak and rather melancholic slowburner is based around the resulting investigation into the woman’s death, carried out on the remote Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Inspired by true events, it’s written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (author of Sicario and Hell and High Water). The events unfold in inhospitable mountainous landscapes, which are beautifully captured by Ben Richardson’s sweeping cinematography.

The woman’s body is found by veteran tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), out hunting wolves. He instantly recognises the dead woman as Natalie, the former best friend of his late daughter who herself died in suspicious circumstances, something that Lambert has never fully come to terms with. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to handle the investigation, arriving at the location dressed in high heels and severely ill-equipped to deal with the hostile weather conditions. She wisely enlists Lambert (and his snowmobile) to get her from place to place in order to talk to Natalie’s family and to help her interview the list of potential suspects.

Renner and Olsen submit moving performances and manage to generate some real chemistry between them, and there’s a heartfelt (and never patronising) view of the local Native American’s plight as they struggle to survive in a world that has robbed them of everything they ever valued. There are nice turns from Apesanahkwat as world-weary tribal police chief, Dan Crowheart, and from Graham Greene as the dead girl’s father, Ben, struggling to understand the iniquities of life on a reservation.

A pity, then, that the final third of the movie squanders all these good intentions by making an abrupt detour into much more cliched territory – there’s an extended gunfight, some harsh ‘eye-for-an-eye’ vengeance, a horribly graphic rape scene and men generally a-doin’ what men gotta do – at least in Sheridan’s macho world view. It’s almost as though two quite different movies have been clumsily stitched together. 

Wind River is worth seeing for that ravishing location photography and those appealing performances, but there’s the distinct conviction that it would have been a better film if it had stuck to its guns, rather than firing them off in all directions.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

mother!

17/08/17

Darren Aronofsky is always an interesting filmmaker, but he can be inconsistent. Requiem For a Dream is, in my opinion, a morose and devastating masterpiece, while The Fountain, is clumsy and ineffectual. Black Swan definitely goes onto the ‘good Darren’ pile, while Noah is… er… probably best slipped under the carpet. mother! has polarised audiences like no other film in recent history. I find myself fascinated by the plethora of reports on social media from disgruntled punters claiming that it is the worst film they have ever suffered through – people so incensed, they seem to be on the verge of stringing up the cinema staff for daring to show such guff.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in an octagonal house in the middle of nowhere, with ‘Him’ (Javier Bardem), a celebrated poet, currently suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block. We learn, fairly quickly, that the house has at some unspecified point in time, suffered a devastating fire and Mother is single-handedly attempting to return it to its former glory. While she mucks in with the paintbrushes and wood filler, her poet husband sits around and broods. But then the doorbell rings and we are introduced to ‘Man’ (Ed Harris), a creepy fellow with a consumptive cough who claims to be a doctor. Mother is instantly suspicious of him, but the poet welcomes him in with open arms and invites him to stay. It isn’t long before Man’s surly wife (Michelle Pheiffer) turns up and starts to treat the house like her personal property, smoking cigarettes indoors and snogging her hubby at every opportunity. But the strange visitations don’t end there. Soon, the house looks like the worst Air BNB invasion in history, with people arriving in droves… and then Mother discovers she is pregnant…

Aronofsky’s camera seems to be caught up in a major infatuation with Lawrence. When it’s not looking her straight in the eye, it’s peering voyeuristically over her shoulder, and following her from room to room, as though it can’t bear to be parted from her. I loved the fact that the film takes off at a sprint and barely pauses for breath, as event piles upon event and the whole thing careers headlong into madness.

Look, I appreciate that this won’t be for everyone – but neither do I buy the story that it’s some kind of an insult to the intelligence. In look and tone, the film it most resembles is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – it inhabits a similar world of paranoid speculation, Mother constantly aware of things going on behind her back, against her wishes, but unable to assert her authority. It’s an allegory, for sure, but one that drags in so many potential allusions, that you can literally discuss it for hours. There’s the spectre of fame and what that can do to relationships: the way that some men feed off their partners in order to fuel their creativity. There are biblical references, observations about immigration and the way people selfishly protect their own space. And of course, there’s the subject of birth and what that does to a woman, how much it demands of her and what determination it takes to see it through to fruition.

Maybe what ultimately turns so many viewers off is the fact that all these references are there and all of them are relevant. Perhaps most people prefer to have things cut and dried – to identify exactly what the filmmaker is saying in a movie and then walk away feeling pleased with themselves. But there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to arrive at their own interpretation of what the film is actually about. Everybody will have a different view, and it’s no bad thing. In my opinion, when sorting out Aronofsky’s films, I genuinely feel this one belongs on the ‘good Darren’ pile – and that the term ‘Marmite Movie’ was probably never more apt than it is here.

One thing’s for sure. Watching this, there’s one thing you definitely won’t be. Bored.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cameo Cinema Bar

 

16/09/17

The bar of Edinburgh’s most iconic cinema has long been our favourite place to drink, but lately, what used to be shabby chic was starting to look a bit… well, shabby. So when we heard the place was going to be completely refurbished, we were cautiously optimistic. All too often, an unsympathetic redesign can destroy what attracted you to a venue in the first place.

We needn’t have worried. Though still not quite finished (there are still some stylish drapes to be installed and, any day now,  there will be a new art exhibition on display), the deco-themed interior eloquently echoes the building’s cinematic history. Those sagging couches have gone to be replaced by smart new seating and, over to the right-hand side of the room, there are three cosy little booths, the perfect spot to enjoy a pint and discuss the movie you’ve just watched. More importantly for the charming and friendly staff, there’s a roomier bar area where they actually have space to move.

The Cameo is still going to be our favourite hangout – where else is there, where – once you become a member – every drink you purchase actually earns you points towards watching more movies?

Our idea of heaven? You bet. Maybe we’ll see you there one of these nights.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Oxide Ghosts: the Brass Eye Tapes

16/09/17

It’s hard to believe that it’s twenty years since Brass Eye was first screened on Channel 4. This is something that has not escaped the attention of original director, Michael Cumming. He has been lugging around a suitcase full of VHS tapes of the outtakes ever since and has finally taken the opportunity to show them to the public. Michael is currently touring cinemas all over the UK to show audiences the contents of those tapes. Tonight it’s the Cameo’s turn to grab an eyeful.

Few people would dispute the fact that Chris Morris is a comic genius and even fewer that over the years he has repeatedly gone where few comedians dare to tread. His ‘Paedophile Special’ briefly had him tagged as ‘the most evil man in Britain.’ (I happen to know that he keeps a framed copy of that tabloid cover hanging in his toilet.) More recently, of course, he’s made a successful transition to the big screen with Four Lions. But is Oxide Ghosts really the tribute he deserves?

What we get is an hour of fuzzy, time-coded excerpts thrown together onto the big screen. In some cases what we see is genuinely funny, but more often it’s just glimpses of Morris corpsing, or (whisper it) trying something that doesn’t really come off. There are reasons why many of these clips didn’t make it into the final cut. In the end, it feels rather like watching some DVD ‘extras.’ I can’t help feeling that a ‘best of’ compilation would have been a much more satisfying way to commemorate this anniversary.

There’s a Q & A with Cummings afterwards, where he tells us that he has Chris Morris’s blessing on this project, but like his film, the talk isn’t particularly edifying. This is one for Morris completists, I think. If you have no idea who he is or what Brass Eye was, this really isn’t going to be much help. And the chances are you’ll leave the cinema feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Threepenny Opera

15/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill would doubtless have approved of Attic Collective’s version of their infamous master work. From the faked technical problem in the opening minutes through to the battalions of cast members made to ride exercise bicycles throughout the three hour show (as though attempting to power it up), everything has been done to accentuate the artifice of the production – a key Brechtian device.

But up on the massive stage of the King’s Theatre, the Verfremdungseffekt this produces is perhaps a little too pronounced for the play’s own good. The antics of the performers seem dwarfed in such a setting and the sparse lighting effects employed  make us feel like we’re observing it all from a distance – as though we’re watching through binoculars turned the wrong way around. The moment when the fourth wall is completely shattered and a group of prostitutes install themselves in the King’s famous boxes, exchanging lines over the heads of the audience is, for me at least, a standout scene.

Notorious villain MacHeath (a suitably swaggering performance by Charlie West) marries Polly Peachum (Kirsty Benton), much to the chagrin of her parents (Max Reid and Hannah Bradley), who decide that it’s high time their new son-in-law is taken down a peg or two – by the liberal application of a hangman’s noose. And as it turns out, MacHeath has quite a few embarrassing skeletons in his closet, not least the existence of another bride whom he’s completely forgotten to mention, plus several very close companions up at the local brothel…

There are some lovely performances here. Benton’s turn as Polly is particularly impressive and Reid plays Mr Peachum with bombastic glee. I would love to see this in a more intimate setting, where I might become a bit more swept up in the action (less Brechtian perhaps, but, I suspect, more satisfying for an audience). It’s nonetheless a creditable effort from the enthusiastic young cast, who deliver a raucous and audacious evening’s entertainment. If it’s not quite up there with last production Lysistrata, still they give this everything they’ve got, and it’s definitely worth seeking out.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Angels in America

 

09/09/17 and 14/09/17

Thank heavens for NT Live. The National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America sold out within a few short hours. Of course it did! And, although there’s always the tempting possibility of day tickets (available for same-day performances from 9.30am in person from the box office), they’re only really practical if you’re based in London. We are certainly never going to travel from Scotland on the off-chance we might procure a couple of seats. But NT Live means we can experience this landmark production anyway – even though we’re too busy to see the actual live screening in July, the fact that it’s been committed to film bypasses the ephemeral nature of theatre, and gives us the opportunity to catch up with an encore showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, a short walk from our apartment.

Okay, it’s not as good as actually being there, sharing a space with the actors in real time. There’s none of the intimacy of jeopardy of live theatre, but it’s a pretty decent second best and we’re very grateful for it. The Festival Theatre is an excellent venue for such a venture: I’ve only seen these screenings in cinemas before, but being in a theatre adds a level of authenticity, and the screen is huge, the sound quality excellent.

It’s a bit of a marathon, this play, even spread over two evenings. But, my word, it’s worth it. In just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s script offers us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

The protagonist is Prior Walter, played here by Andrew Garfield in an eye-opening performance: he is, we discover, an actor with real range. Prior is dying and he’s afraid; his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), can’t cope and so he leaves. While Louis weeps and beats his breast with useless, futile public expressions of guilt, Prior begins hallucinating, having visions. He’s visited by an angel and by his long-dead ancestors. And, in his dreams, he collides with another tortured soul, Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the mentally ill Morman whose husband, Joseph (Russell Tovey), is secretly gay. It’s a convoluted, complex plot, difficult to summarise, but eminently watchable: it all makes perfect sense when it unfolds before our eyes.

I’ve read the play, of course (I’m a theatre studies graduate), and I’ve seen the 2003 mini-series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino. But this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is something else: it’s genuinely stupendous. Susan Brown’s performance, for example, is impeccable; she plays six roles with utter conviction. And I find myself especially delighted by Amanda Lawrence’s Angel; she’s mesmerising, and beautifully supported by the Angel Shadows, six black-clad actors, who control her wings as well as performing the lifts and balances that make her seem airborne.

The set is a thing of wonder too, although I’d like to see more long shots in the filming, to help me envisage what the piece looks like as a whole; instead, there are a lot of mid shots and close-ups, which allow me to see the actors clearly but don’t give me a true sense of the space. Still, it’s obviously spectacular, all rotating cogs and zooming rooms, a whole world contained within the confines of the stage.

I’m delighted to have had the chance to see this play; it’s a truly iconic piece, challenging and thought-provoking and entertaining to the end.

5 stars

Susan Singfield