Monday, August 26, 2013

Long Live The Little Knife: Authentic Drama About Fakes

With humor and pathos a con man and woman tell their tale...or well perhaps a playwright who met them in a pub is telling their tale--changing their words and accents to make things more dramatic.
"Meta narrative. Get it up ye," says one of the cons.  Meta narrative indeed.  With con artists you never quite know what you are to believe (and maybe with playwrights for that matter).  This play may lay its cards on the table up front...but know this, you're playing three card monte.  Nothing is to be trusted.

Authorship, reality, integrity, love, and honor are all blended into this funny, dark, and yet totally human story involving art forgery, mediums, brothels, and East End heavies.  For the joie de vivre of con artists on the rise, and the giddy glee that the audience might take from being in on the con, there will be serious consequences and some will be enacted upon the couple and their labradoodle who is "not real."

"Well real dog...not real pedigree."

David (Neil McCormack) and Liz (Wendy Seager) were "just trying to make an honest living selling fake handbags" when they got into a turf war with a criminal element.  They then concoct an elaborate plan to steal a painting, sell forgeries of the painting, and then reveal their derring-do so they become famous and can get a "reality TV show about fakes."

In a room covered in drop cloths and paint spatter, and with occasional projections to visualize the art being forged, I was immediately charmed by Long Live the Little Knife, written and directed by David Leddy.  And the material is helped immensely by his cast who shape shift throughout the play yet maintain an unwavering integrity of their characters.  Neil McCormack and Wendy Seager, as the cons, are never not persuasive, whether they are showing off, totally sloshed, or losing their edge. Reminding me that acting is a really successful con, isn't it. Seager in particular races round the stage with a series of put on personas, emotional setbacks, and is reborn onstage over and over again with each personal defeat.  Watching her be torn down and rebuilt, over and over again, is both fascinating and heartbreaking.  

Theater may be the best place to talk about authenticity and truth as the immediacy of the artificiality of it all is within arm's reach.  And a con involving art forgery is a great way to layer further questions of authenticity on top of that (and as someone who has spent more time reading the Art Forger's Handbook than most, I will admit to being the exact right audience member for this show).  But the payoff has to work, otherwise you can stretch your contract with the audience too thin.  For me, it did.  For all the twists and turns, Leddy has most importantly created characters who are flawed, human, and vulnerable.  The play may be coy at times, and give the illusion of an easy-peasy, lemon squeezy lark, but you feel its heft.  

A dark and delicious triumph and one of my favorites at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

It's Dark Outside: A Bittersweet Journey

Perth Theatre Photo by Richard Jefferson

An old man reaches for a light and fluffy cloud in his kitchen. The cloud drifts beyond his reach and he starts on a journey to follow it.

Through a forest of gnarled trees, across a desert, past memories of war, and under the sparkling night sky, he is followed by a man with a butterfly net who has started to collect bits of cloud in his net. We do not know why the man with the net is there but he seems to be chasing the old man who has stumbled across a WANTED poster with his face on it.

Live action clowning, gives way to animated sequences, followed by elaborate shadow play and puppets. It’s Dark Outside is a production of the Perth Theatre Company from Australia and a trio of creators, Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs (their previous work was The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer). Here they have produced a dream-like world with haunting music (by Rachael Dease) and imaginative imagery.

It can be at times sparkly and beautiful and at other times a little dull and repetitive. But when the show finished and one of the cast-puppeteers offered audience members hugs I nearly took him up on his offer. You will need one.

This quiet and ambling story builds to a painful and beautiful conclusion. I don’t want to spoil the discovery but trust me, the wordless adventure of this old man speaks volumes. Even someone like me, with a heart of stone, who rolled her eyes a little at the opening bit of clowning, was broken in the end. Perth Theatre Company, you got me and got me good. I thought to myself during the show that it reminded me of UP—but without the boy, the balloons, or the jungle. And in the end that was a fair comparison. It’s a delicate show with its heart in the right place.

It could be a tick shorter overall, but no matter, the message was worth the meandering journey.  Bring your tissues.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

Photo from the Production
A woman and a child sit under a glitter tree in what looks like faux medieval garb. The child is on a leash and skips around the mildly irritated woman. This is certainly not the usual forest primeval and this is by no means a typical fringe show.

Starring performance artist Bryony Kimmings and her nine-year-old niece, Taylor Houchen, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is about what kind of world we are creating for young girls like Taylor.

A show for adults (Taylor is at times told to put on noise-cancelling headphones) this is a call to arms by Kimmings who was startled to see the world as it is, through Taylor’s eyes. Through dress-up, dance, physical theater, ridiculous skits, inventive characters, grotesque fairy tale fantasy, foregrounded artificiality and a lot of playful childlike silliness we get a picture of our own adulthood by refracting things through Crayola-colored lenses.

As adults, we think we have a handle on our world. But as Bridget Christie pointed out in her award-winning stand-up show about feminism, A Bic For Her, we have become incredibly casual and comfortable with sexism and female objectification in the world. We don’t even notice it anymore and that tacit acceptance has made Christie feel sick. Kimmings seems to be building off the same concern but with a performance art twist that makes the two works wonderful companion pieces but very different experiences. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model becomes a conversation about feminism but focused on the impact on young girls.

Watching Taylor and Kimmings in identical outfits, sometimes performing identical routines, you become acutely aware of Kimmings adult body and Taylor’s child’s body. Listening and dancing to Katy Perry's fluffy, summery songs about sex stops being innocuous or casual when watching Kimmings and Taylor do the same routine. A child’s mimicry of what she does not know or understand is highlighted here to make it clear that by constantly saying “it’s no big deal” it starts to add up to a monumental problem.

Kimmings, known for more avant-garde and sexual material herself, wonders “What can I offer [Taylor]?” Kimmings finds she wants to protect Taylor.  At one point she "plucks out" Taylor’s eyeballs with graphic sound effects to match--for the record, the eyeballs are glittery.  Possibly the eyeball plucking is a nod to the dark and violent world of Grimm's fairy tales or more likely our comfort with violent imagery around children.  Perhaps the only way to protect her from seeing the horrors the world throws at her is to pluck her eyes out.  Kimmings wants to teach Taylor to “fight” and they dress like knights and eventually pick up machine guns--a jarring image in an intimate theater, but pretty run of the mill if you play video games. 

Ultimately, she says “I was looking for a role model for [Taylor]" and none suitable can be found.  So Kimmings proceeds to create a role model for Taylor in her friends (with Taylor’s input of course). Knowing the role models of children tend to be sports and media stars, Kimmings creates Catherine Bennett. CB is a paleontologist-pop star with a dinosaur bone necklace and a dog named Cookie. She speaks at schools, she’s been invited to chat shows, she’s been interviewed on the radio, and she will release a song. Spreading the word about Catherine Bennett becomes the responsibility of the audience. And already one little girl has approached Bennett/Kimmings saying she wants to be a paleontologist too.

It is hard not to fall for Kimmings and Taylor here. They are a winsome duo with sass. The premise is liberated from some level of gooey sentimentality by it being an aunt and niece (and maybe the glittery graphic eyeball plucking scene won’t leave you with the warm and fuzzies). But Kimmings conclusion is that even as non-parents we are not off the hook. We are all contributing to the world that these children absorb. For the serious and tough message, it is delivered with caring, love, affection, mordant wit, and glee.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Quietly: A Conjuring of the Past

"Kids can do more damage than you think."

A confrontation driven by silence. A confession that holds few surprises yet I could barely breathe as the scene unfolded. 

The Abbey Theatre's production of Owen McCafferty's play about two men in a bar in Belfast has none of the usual trappings of Irish theatre set in a bar. There is no banter, joviality, or mucking about. Two men, with an agenda, are here to speak to each other and listen to each other.  Such a simple act is nothing of the kind when one is a Protestant and one a Catholic and this is Northern Ireland.  And that conversation/confrontation becomes the basis for the explosive drama of this play.

Recent Polish immigrant and barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki) is watching the Northern Ireland v. Poland match on TV. His one customer, Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane), comes in and warns him that a man, Ian (Declan Conlon), is coming and there will be a bit of trouble. What kind and over what we don't know. But the two men have a history and we will learn their history parallels Belfast's history. 

Jimmy sets the tone and course of action. He demands that Ian speak.  Ian tells his story.  But we already know how the story will end, even so, the intensity of the story gives a release to Jimmy and the audience to hear it spoken aloud. The anticipation and tension are palpable. I did not even want to shift in my seat for fear of setting off the tinderbox of the situation.

I reveled in McCafferty's writing skill. With a sure hand, the writing managed to steer clear of sentimentality, yet had me openly weeping.   The rituals of rembrance are presented simply and quietly.  It surprised me with its clarity of vision when it is a tricky subject to negotiate. Much of the political theater I saw at Edinburgh Fringe struggled to commit to its subject.  Here, I felt no hesitation.  

McCafferty's play also foregrounds the power of words.  Jimmy says, "There's more to the truth than facts."  Putting the "truth" into words and speaking them into the world changes us.   The past becomes present in the room.  Like a conjuring, Ian has taken an amorphous conflict and turned it into flesh. It becomes Jimmy and his life.  Yet it is Ian and his life too.  It is not just the day that changed their lives when they were 16. It's the intervening 30 years as well.  Through terrific performances and strong writing the men standing before us become children in front of our eyes.  McCafferty's script shows us the fork in the road of their lives--the moment of confronting it and the path they have been on ever since. We feel their regret, the weight of their deep and painful reflections, and we see them as they were, as they are, and as they could never be again.  

Pure magic and it was one of the most transformative moments of the 2013 Fringe festival for me.

And the cast makes this all seem effortless.  O'Kane is wiry and raw.  He finds gradations in his anger and brings pain and loss to life.  Conlon's understated Ian provides the right balance of strength and sadness.  

One of the strongest pieces I saw at the Fringe and one I hope tours to New York.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From Where I Am Standing: Papa Was a Rolling Stone

Identity, absent parents, terrorism, and false assumptions are all in the mix in Delirium's production of From Where I Am Standing. But a slight and tender story is crushed under the weight of an overindulgent soundtrack and excess theatricality.

Meg's father (Oliver Kaderbhai) left her and her mother when Meg was a child. She (Shamaya Blake) is called to India when he becomes a person of interest in a terrorist attack on the British Embassy. Her troubled relationship with her father holds her back for years after he has passed and it is only when she reopens the past that she learns the truth about who her father really was.

With flashbacks to her father and mother (Miranda Menzies) as teens to flash forwards to Meg and her partner (William Hartley), a visionary of reconnection in an age of social media disconnection, the production is ambitious. The company appears to be trying to take on global issues, over an extended period of time, and find the personal in them. But ultimately that overreaching ambition crushes what could be an affecting piece about personal journeys and communication.

Each scene and moment is directed with equal weight and everything comes off like it's a critical key to a mystery but the scenes do not live up to this unfortunate tone and expectation. And not all the scenes ARE in fact necessary--either as plot or character development (in particular the heavy political talk in the Dad's teenage years doesn't set the stage for him later leaving and living the nomadic lifestyle he adopts).  And without emotional ebbs and flows the story has no room to breathe. 

Using tablet computers and text and image projections on a series of antique suitcases, the production mixed old and new in an interesting way. But sadly the music in the show dripped a heavy emotional syrup over all the actions. Rather than letting performances (which were great across the board) or direction (which was here too heavy-handed) lead the audience to the emotional moments, the music was oppressive and made for some eye-rolling moments that un-scored may have been poignant.  Similarly, adding another unnecessary layer was the use of physical theater.  Some of these elements, if handled deftly, could have built up the narrative.  But instead it comes across as a jumble--energetic and well-meaning--but too much. 

The final scene between Oliver Kaderbhai and Michelle Luther (another nomad he encounters in the Embassy) was flirty, emotional, and powerful.  It showed that this is a talented company but their over-reliance on their theatrical grab-bag actually got in the way of drama.  Their storytelling suffered for it.

The production happened to suffer a lighting board meltdown right before the show started but I found the lighting operation was largely seamless and did not take away from the show at all. So bravo to the tech crew under these circumstances.

Dumbstruck: Reaching Out for Connection

Fine Chisel's production of Dumbstruck, a play devised by the company--where the actors double as musicians-is a meditation on communication, isolation, and connection.  Like it's main character, the show and company valiantly try to reach out and connect with the audience through storytelling and song.  But it feels like a chapter or two of a captivating, but ultimately unfinished, book.

Ted (Robin McLoughlin) is alone.  "He is always alone."  Stationed a remote research facility in Alaska and listening to recordings of whales, Ted has removed himself from the world.  But when Ted comes across a whale which sings at 52-Hertz, an unexpected octave for a whale, Ted finds himself speaking to the whale, which he dubs 52.  For the first time in years Ted is compelled to communicate and he choose 52 as an apt partner in conversation.  Ted proceeds to tell his stories to the whale: memories of his uncle Mal (George Williams) and the intriguing research student Ted once helped, Fiona (Holly Beasley-Garrigan).  But something is wrong with Ted and it's not just that he's talking to whales.

Inspired by the company's fascination with the true story of the 52-Hertz whale, Fine Chisel creates portraits of three characters who are all searching for something.  Ted is trying to reconnect with the world but his mind is rebelling against him.  Mal, a vicar, has started to lose his faith.  Fiona, launches a rebellion against authority through a pirate radio station and is trying to find her voice.  Ted is telling us these stories about these influential and important characters in his life, and  he is a different person when he's transported back in time.

In this hour long show, the company packs in songs (Carolyn Goodwin and Tom Spencer round out the cast and the band), lo-fi effects, smart convertible props (a ukulele is Ted as a small boy, and then when he grows a guitar), and solid performances.  It's a fine accomplishment.  I could have spent more time with Ted as he mused over the mystery of 52--speculating about the whale's unusual song he queries "Maybe it's just the effort to be heard over the noise.  Maybe something is broken."  There is a reason it is this whale that Ted reaches out to.  An anomaly like he is.  A loner in a vast ocean. It's a compelling concept and what gives the piece it's heart.  But as we drifted from Ted into the other characters' stories I was not as engaged.  As fun as the rockabilly tunes were, the pirate radio station bit seemed a touch overlong at the expense of the primary emotional resonance.  Nevertheless a wonderful start to my Edinburgh Fringe Fest 2013 and a company to keep an eye out for.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Too Many Dicks in the Kitchen: Creative Team Gender Mandates

I came across a Tumblr post questioning the appropriateness of the all-male creative team of the opera, Anna Nicole, which will be playing at BAM this fall.  The show is ostensibly about Anna Nicole Smith.  The writer, Jeffrey Cranor, complains:
So the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the NYC Opera are putting on ANNA NICOLE the opera this September. It features a male composer, a male librettist, a male director, and a male conductor artistically exhuming the body of a strange, complicated, and ultimately tragic woman. Good to know we gave so few shits that no one thought a woman should be involved in creating this show.

I dunno. As a man, I feel weird complaining about that, like it’s not my place. But, look, I find it boring at best (dudes riffing on famous blondes!) and misogynist at worst (dudes thinking dudes are better at making art than ladies).
Maybe it feels to you like tokenism to seek out a woman specifically to work with. Maybe you feel weird bypassing a talented man to say “let’s see if there are talented women to work on this show about a woman,” but that isn’t tokenism. It’s logic. You wouldn’t hire four white guys to write a Flava Flav opera. You wouldn’t hire four straight guys to do an opera about Divine. Why would you write a show about a woman, and have no women in the primary creative credits?

Instead you have an opera about a woman who began her career being judged and stared at and by men, and whose death will apparently be spent in the same way on the stage at BAM.
I have not seen Anna Nicole yet. I did see Jerry Springer: The Opera (by the Anna Nicole librettist Richard Thomas, twice--once at the Edinburgh Fringe and once on the West End) which I found very impressive.  In any event, I'm not terribly comfortable with the idea of "requiring" men or women on creative teams.*  I think you can certainly criticize the actual content of the work if you think the perspective was abusive or weak because the creative team failed to consider other perspectives which you thought would be critical to the subject matter.  But as a "rule" for creativity I'm a little troubled by this. I'd like to think we have the creative freedom to express things outside our immediate life experience. 
I recall thinking that Chacun Cherche Son Chat (When the Cat's Away), a film directed and written by a straight French man (Cédric Klapisch), was one of the best executions of the female gaze I had seen in cinema.  I thought Klapisch's work was akin to Jane Campion who I think happens to excel at that (see recently her miniseries Top of the Lake or previously Portrait of a Lady for a feminine perspective on filmmaking that is subtle, powerful and unsettling because of how rare we actually see it in cinema--or at least until 2002 when I stopped going to the movies). Not all female filmmakers concern themselves with it. Nor should they HAVE to if they aren't interested in it. 
Some men write great female characters. Some don't.  Some women write great male characters.  Some don't.  Some people might connect to this public figure, Anna Nicole Smith--men, women, gay, straight, white, black--based on the work as it is.   Or they might find it lacking.
Price Walden, having seen the opera, has criticized the work based on reasons other than those that Cantor raised.  But at this point I have not seen the show. And I reserve the right to criticize the final work when I see it for what angle they take on this material and how Anna Nicole is portrayed.  But I'm not particularly troubled at this juncture.  My pitchfork remains in the closet and I'm not practicing my "storming the castle" routine anytime soon.
I'm not going to boycott a work because the creative team is all men and I sure as hell don't believe in just seeing works because a female creative team is employed by it. 

The work has to be good regardless of what's happening in your nether-regions.  I will criticize Diane Paulus when I don't like her work.  I will celebrate Annie Baker when I do.  I will not just be happy when a female playwright writes a bad play about feminism.  I want women to have voices in the theater but when we start setting mandates for who is "entitled" to make art based on gender I feel like the "problem" and the "solution" are misguided and we are focused on the wrong thing.
*Are we talking about the institutional lack of women in opera? Sorry theater is more my field and I statistically there are fewer female directors and composers in theater.  Certainly an overall lack of women in opera is worth pointing out.  And a discussion of the lack of women in the field and the institutional problems that that engenders is a worthwhile discussion topic.  If we cannot create viable pipeline for female artists to work, get support for their work, and get their work out there, we won't have the diversity of perspectives we want to see BUT again not sure how that impacts this particular work until we see it.  Cantor did not seem to be focused on institutional sexism but that this team should not have had the right to make this work merely because of the all penises.  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Analog.Ue at St. Ann's Warehouse

Daniel Kitson's previously announced fall theater piece now has a title and a description.

Called Analog.Ue  it is described as:

mess of cables. A mound of electronic junk. A single cassette player. And then —

Lights. Power Sockets. Audio Tape. Televisions. Vinyl. Neon Words. VCR Machines. Speaker cables. Amplifiers. At least one Ladder. Video Tape. Speakers. Super 8. Microphones. Projectors. And running.

Lots and lots of running.

Daniel Kitson returns to St Ann's with a new show about a pre-recorded story.
Since his recent sit-down stand-up show also played with a pre-recorded story I'm curious where this one is going.  Also, I'm a sucker for the analog in the world.

The show runs from November 22-December 21 and tickets are $25.  Member tickets are on sale now.  Public tickets go on sale September 17. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

I'm Getting My Act Together: Feminist Postcards from the Edge

"Honey, can you get me a ginger ale"--Joe
With that question and a pat of a woman's ass we are smacked back to 1978 for the feminist musical, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.  It was the final segment of the summer Encores! series at City Center (The Cradle Will Rock, Violet).  Expecting incense and bra-burning arcana, I was surprised to find that despite the bits of period language the sentiments of trying to forge workable relationships between men and women did not feel dated at all to me. 

Heather Jones (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a soap opera actress with a singing career and she's
getting a new cabaret act off the ground. Her manager Joe (Frederick Weller) flies in from
the coast and she introduces him to the new material she's been working on with the help of her back-up singers (Christina Sajous, Jennifer Sanchez).  She strips away the falseness of some of her earlier more pop-friendly work and writes songs and skits that are raw with honesty and emotion.  Singing about her parents bad marriage and her own that didn't work out, Heather has put together a line-up of songs which reflect her love of singing, her hope to be loved for who she is, and a genuine affection for Joe which she hopes might be something he reciprocates.  Joe's just had a row with his wife and Heather's unexpected new material is a little too much for him.

Despite bell bottoms, batik curtains, and 70's guitar orchestrations, I felt much of Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford's (music) show rang true today.  Maybe it's because I grew up in the 70's and 80's and this musical spoke to my mother's generation of feminism which I could not help but absorb.  Maybe it's because the cabaret format and brisk story was an articulate attempt to get the world to pay attention to real issues facing women then, and now.  It seems to me we remain in a time and place where how men and women communicate and relate to each other still creates friction.  For every person who says there's no issue there are a thousand anonymous internet comments that say otherwise.

If anyone has been following the travails of @EverydaySexisim or the issues written about by Caitlin Moran, then Heather's complaints and Joe's attitude become all the more relevant to today's discussion. The word choice and language employed in IGMATATIOTR might be a little out of sync with current vernacular, and the conversation more direct and foregrounded than we are apt to have today but I found the sentiments and frustrations all too real.  For both parties.  Thankfully despite certain aspects of Joe's chauvinism* being put to the forefront I was relieved that he is a full person.  A man stuck between how he was raised and who he wants to be.  Thinking he's hip and forward-looking, but still falling behind the expectations of the women around him who are demanding change (because waiting, politely for change is not actually going to yield change).  Single-minded and driven by her mission, with some self-awareness but with her blind spots as well, Heather is flawed too.  Coming out of the show I felt like I got to see fully-formed characters in conversation with one another--raw, uncensored, broken, and trying.  Kathleen Marshall's production of this musical acts as a dialogue between these two factions and offers no easy answers and no quick fixes. But the sincerity of the emotion came through clearly.

Renée Elise Goldsberry is fiery as Heather. She manages to be sassy, funny, heart-broken and full of yearning. Her rendition of Old Friends is shaded not only by her beautiful voice but her stunning
performance.  Her pleading eyes and her gentle touch say almost as much as the song. If not even more.  After seeing Goldsberry in a supporting role in Good People, it was great to see her carrying this show.  She is helped by the always riveting Christina Sajous, the affable Jason Rabinowitz (One Man, Two Guvnors) as the much younger band member who's got a thing for Heather, and Weller as the multi-dimensional Joe.  Joe could easily have fallen into cartoon but Weller conveys all sides of Joe.  The dutiful husband, macho guy of his era, and Heather's former paramour who can't quite understand what is happening around him.  Weller's Joe made me think of those lost, befuddled men of the movies of the 1970's, puzzled by a world that has somehow slipped past them and has left them behind (Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger or Art Carney in Harry and Tonto).

Strangely I came away from the musical thinking of Heather's strength and that she'd be fine. Or perhaps it was wish-fulfillment.  2013 me wanted her to keep fighting so that I would have the choices I have today.

In 1978, her strength was part of the problem for her.  Men would appreciate her strength because they knew she could handle them leaving her and they would stay with women who were not as strong--a dependency which Heather called out as a tactic that women employed to manipulate the men in their lives.  But I'd like to think that time would prove her right.  Her anger, her desires, her fight for independence and yet affection was the right path, but the men in her world would sadly be lagging behind.  She might as well date the twenty-something guy who had only known a world in upheaval and might not subscribe to the strict 1950's worldview that Heather and her generation had come out of.  Maybe dating the younger guy in 1978 was just crazy talk, but seemed like such a reasonable proposal to me.  I guess times have changed a bit.

If the rumors of a revival of this musical are true, I'd recommend seeking it out. Hopefully it will come back in a small venue so that the delicateness of Goldsberry's performance can be appreciated and the intimacy of the relationship with Joe can be quietly expressed.

I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is a testament to another era but it is also an echo from the past that continues to reverberate today.  An echo we need to listen to.

*It has left me wondering why we don't really use the word chauvinism anymore.  Now misogyny has seemingly replaced it.  But misogyny is a word which suggests a deeper level of animosity and anger.  Perhaps it is not the fact that we use a different word but that the actual active dialogue today about feminism today stirs up a stronger, more vitriolic response.  There's no question that when you talk about feminism and someone responds that you deserve to be raped, well, the landscape has changed.

Of course we still have chauvinism today.  But maybe today chauvinism is so subtle, so expected and ingrained, we do not even label it or call it out as such.  As often as not it feels we have on the surface "accepted" the changes in the dynamics between men and women post-1978.  I wonder if we have only just buried the misapprehension, confusion, and anger beneath the surface such that it explodes from time to time in bursts of misogyny.   Was it easier when it was all out in the open?  I was in a work situation and a man made a particularly offensive comment about women and his expectation for their roles as wives and mothers--chauvinism no doubt.  But I wondered if he was just saying out loud what many men feel and don't express openly.  Have we just gagged the dialogue and not changed the attitudes.  I at least knew where I stood with that jerk.  I'm not so sure about many others. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth: A Guest Review

Guest reviewer Abbi Roberts weighs in on Kenneth Branagh's recent return to the stage...via screen with the NT Live broadcast of the Manchester International Festival production.  

Macbeth (Kenneth Branagh) by Johan Persson
One thing’s for sure: the only person at Dunsinane who’s busier than the gravedigger is the laundry guy, and none more so than in this production.  Britain has gone Macbeth mad in recent months, with Jamie Lloyd’s production starring James McAvoy at Trafalgar Studios, and a radical one-man version at the National Theatre of Scotland starring Alan Cumming . This production at the Manchester International Festival, co-directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, makes the third retelling of the story and sees Branagh’s long-awaited return to live Shakespeare.

Unlike the other two, this production plants itself firmly in kilt and claymore territory and, as is usual for this particular play, blood and grime is integral to its aesthetic. The difference here is that designer Christopher Oram has taken the earth and grit of the blasted heath and battlefield inside the castle and into (sometimes onto) the audience. The stage is a deconsecrated Victorian church in the heart of Manchester. The audience sit, like a congregation turned inwards, either side of an aisle of spongy, splattered earth. A huge cross hangs at the alter end, a dark wall of wood (from which the witches will later emerge) stands at the other. The overall impression is of a holy place battened down and overrun with decay and darkness.

There is a raw, elemental feel to the staging. As the play starts we are confronted with rain, flashing swords and howling men, immediately putting me in mind of Branagh’s precocious and equally muddy 1989 film version of Henry V. The witches too are grimy, swivel-eyed, screeching black apparitions, displaying themselves in wooden alcoves like macabre religious icons. Candles burn on the raised alter, dripping wax tendrils onto the stones which themselves will burst into flames later. As the play progresses, darkness and dirt invade the space, slowly. The mud is joined with rain, blood, wine, vomit and tears, and clods of it are grasped and hurled into the air.

As you would expect, the earthy floor dominates everything, so much that it quite overwhelms the other themes of the play. When Macbeth becomes King, the only place out of the mud for him to enthrone himself is the small altar. He sits in a simple wooden chair, draping his cloak over it seemingly in an attempt to make it look more regal. Gradually, the dirt makes its way up cloaks and the hems of dresses, up the wooden walls and rails as they become flecked and marked with grubby handprints. Far from blood being the main motif, it’s the dirt which becomes the metaphor for guilt.

As ever, Branagh takes the Bard’s words and puts them in context, but there is very little feel of the evolution of the characters. It’s all dark, right from the beginning, with the naked ambition of the Macbeths existing in a moral and literal sewer right from the start. The “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is heartfelt but a little weary, and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking a little too manic. It all has the atmosphere of futility. Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford stated that they wanted to depict Macbeth and his wife (here played by Alex Kingston) as a team, working together, which may have been why there is little feel of Lady Macbeth’s dominating influence. Both she and Macbeth are in the dirt to begin with and that’s where they stay. Consequently, the play felt a little depressing, which perhaps was the point.

There were some genuinely creepy and haunting moments – Fleance first appears playing a strange, soft melody on a flute; the wyrd sisters gibber and whisper in the shadows, and nameless figures flit in and out of each entrance like something from a horror film. Sometimes, however, the dramatic devices are strangely overdone. In the apparition scene, zombie-like figures of dead soldiers lurch from the earth beneath a black, pentacle-daubed shroud, whilst the face of each apparition appears and contorts at its centre. This was all very visually arresting, but felt a little trite, and the action did overwhelm the plot at this point, with much of the dialogue inaudible over the chanting.

Reviewers have described this production as “visceral”, “full-blooded” and, most interestingly, “cinematic”, a description which perhaps implicitly acknowledges that it was exactly designed to be filmed as part of the NT Live series. This is how I saw the production, and it was certainly clear that this was to be as much a filmed experience as a live one. Of course, watching the action on a screen is not the same as being there, nether should it be, but I took solace in the fact that I was considerably more comfortable than many of the real audience. You could see some people moving out of the way as grappling Scots came hurtling towards them, and by the end of the 135 minutes (with no interval) some audience members were looking genuinely shell-shocked by all the carnage.

For me, watching in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room, this was a production at one remove, with the glimpses of cameras and shots of the audience behind the actors’ heads as much a part of it as the play itself. Yet, there were times when we saw things that the conventional audience couldn’t. When a long shaft of light forms the image of the dagger on the ground in front of Macbeth, we are privy to an impressive view of it from above Branagh’s head. Likewise, at the end of the play Malcolm raises his sword in the air directly towards us to mark his victory. Clearly the blocking of the action was designed to play equally to those watching through the camera lens as to those present.

The camerawork was excellent, with very few shots missing their mark or being obstructed by the action. Having said that, it is emphatically not a theatre experience and therefore the theatrical style of acting did at times come across as forced or over the top, since you forget that you’re watching a play and not a movie (though this production did sometimes veer a little too sharply into ‘shouty’ territory anyway). There is also the occasional frustration of having your view chosen for you, denying you the ability to get a sense of a scene as a whole or focus on one performer. These points aside, this is certainly an imaginative and laudable way of allowing more people to get to see a staging of the play, with the emphasis on inclusion. (A preamble before the play calls upon the audience to applaud just as they would at the real performance, as “the actors will feel it”!)

The ticket prices for NT Live perhaps reflect the hybrid nature of the experience – more expensive than an average cinema visit, but far cheaper than a theatre seat. The National Theatre is planning screenings of other works, such as Othello (with Adrian Lester) and Coriolanus (with Tom Hiddleston), and I would be interested to see how these are handled, to get a feel of how much influence the theatre directors have over the filming.

There are several encore screenings of Macbeth taking place around the UK in August (and later in the year for the US). Details of these and other NT Live productions can be found at