Denise Gough

Colette

13/01/19

Imagine this scenario, if you will. A celebrity decides he wants to write a novel. He can’t actually write fiction himself so he gets somebody else to write it for him, but insists that his name goes on the published book. When the book is a huge success, he gets the writer to turn out more stories on the same theme and resolutely refuses to give their creator any credit whatsoever. Shocking, right? And yes, I know, it’s a depressingly familiar occurrence in this day and age. But Colette is proof that it’s by no means a new phenomenon.

When we first meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly), she’s a young woman living in the Burgundy countryside, carrying on a secret romance with trusted family friend Willy (Dominic West). He lives in Paris, where he is carving out a precarious career as an ‘author,’ many of his books ghost-written for him by more talented acquaintances. Pretty soon, he and Gabrielle are married, and she moves in to his apartment in the city, where she realises that her new husband is not exactly trustworthy. When she discovers he has been unfaithful to her, he protests that it’s not really his fault: he’s a man and he needs stimulation!

On hearing Gabrielle’s stories about her childhood, Willy decides that there just might be a book in it. He encourages her to write, mostly by locking her in her room for hours on end. The resulting book, Claudine à L’école, becomes an instant hit, selling millions of copies and necessitating sequels. Colette, as she now calls herself, is only just beginning to realize her own powers. She agrees to continue the deception but warns Willy that she is attracted to other people too…

Colette feels weirdly prescient, yet another example of a talented woman being subjugated to the will of a manipulative man – and then fighting back. Knightly, who often faces accusations that she ‘cannot act’ is on splendid form here, giving a nuanced and thoroughly believable performance in the lead role, while West somehow manages the impossible, making the repellant Willy oddly charming, so that I understand how this man can bend so many people to his will.

Of course, vital to this biopic is the subject of intellectual property, and anyone who has published any sort of written work will doubtless share my horror at the scene where Willy callously instructs an employee to burn the original handwritten copies of the Claudine novels. It’s all I can do not to shout at the screen.

But at the heart of this tale is Colette herself, and – even if this were a contemporary tale – it would still feel pretty sensational, what with her (partially) open marriage, lesbian affairs and long-term relationship with the (probably) transgender ‘Missy’ de Morny (Denise Gough). The fact that it all happened back in the 1890s is the real eye-opener. Gough and Knightly imbue the latter partnership with real warmth, and it’s fascinating to see the contemporary reactions to their public intimacy.

I’m currently working my way through Colette’s short stories, which are rather fey and whimsical, it must be said. But I’m planning to read the novels soon, and hoping to find some of what made her so beloved, and eventually won her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Meanwhile, do catch this sumptuous, witty evocation of Parisian life at the turn of the century. It’s really very good.

4.6 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 or 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