The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Turning Table

If you were going to write one literary work to leave your mark on the world, then Reginald Rose certainly nailed it with Twelve Angry Men.  He wrote far more of course, but alone this play is an impressive legacy.

Many are familiar with the script from the film starring Henry Fonda, but like a well interpreted Hamlet this play bears regular revisiting.  What struck me first in Bill Kenwright's West End transfer to the Garrick Theatre was how contemporary the conflict seems despite 1950s dress and décor.  What struck me next was the insightfulness of the language and Rose’s deft carving of character. Then I was just plain jealous: green with envy such a strong line-up of actors had gathered in a rehearsal room for x weeks with a sensitive director to crack open this hard-edged, variegated puzzle; sharing their hunger and talent on a text, and with colleagues, worthy of their best work.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to witness the combination of testosterone and craftsmanship put to good use; no doubt with a healthy splash of humour.  Better still I’d like to work on a female equivalent - if only such a piece existed!

There is not a weak link in Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Twelve Angry Men.  In an increasingly hot room their individual and collective assumptions, intelligence and morals are tested - as each man’s prejudices are peeled back and held up for examination.  My excitement was enhanced by knowing the quality of the production means the same careful stripping and building went on in the rehearsal room amongst acting peers as much as it did for the characters in live performance.  And the result is that the play, in all its complexity, truly lives with this volatile and energetic company; every ugly, courageous, amusing, shocking, suffocating and illuminating element of it.  Bang, bang, bang swing the arguments, clash, clash, clash collide the personalities… as all the time the pressure of responsibility to find ‘truth beyond reasonable doubt’ in a murder trial builds because one man dares to swim against the tide; one man kick-starts a more subtle evaluation of the facts and a brave reflection upon our emotional baggage and socialisation. 

Since, I’ve been wondering about the experiences people have on a jury.  I wonder if it is often that tough.  And one can only hope in important cases that it is, if our system is to work as designed.  I won’t be the first to remark that Twelve Angry Men finds echoes in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both concern the trial of someone disadvantaged.  Both show that one gentle, ordinary man can set himself apart by his integrity and ability to remove ego from a debate – and in doing so, display the qualities of greatness we equate with the likes of Schindler or Mandela.  This man is also a positive influence on the group or community so that others locate their own potential for greater honesty and generosity of spirit.  One story has a happier result, but the point is well made in both that the pursuit of honour requires a step by step effort, however challenging the odds. 

When I saw Twelve Angry Men last Saturday evening I had only just returned to London from Prague – carrying with me a shamefully vivid image of the list of names of the 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews who perished in the holocaust, eerily painted on the Pinkas Synagogue walls.  Heartbreakingly poignant, too, were the children’s drawings done by the innocents confined to the concentration camp in Terezin; most of whom didn’t survive.  I could not help but be reminded of the famous maxim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.  It seems Rose understood this operates as much for individual cases as it does for society in general and, come to think of it, crudely applied political ideology.  So despite a thoroughly riveting and engaging evening of theatre, I suspect it would be a rare individual who left the auditorium without feeling personally challenged to remain aware of the blocks, presumptions or resentments which threaten at any time to cloud judgements of our fellow-man.  And the ‘lesson’ runs all the deeper because Rose doesn’t lecture, he simply shows fallible humans in action.

A particularly beguiling feature of the production is the excellent design by Michael Pavelka.  The action takes place in one room, the centrepiece a large wooden table.  As the debate progresses the table literally turns – providing jurors and director with new perspectives and opportunities for focus, and simultaneously creating a powerful metaphor… a metaphor which highlights fairness and respect for others (the defendant included) requires adjustments to our first impressions, involves reconsideration of judgements which, if more wisely examined, will reveal broader truths and less shallow relationships.  In the ‘table turning’ the audience sees a movement from blandness to detail, from negativity to optimism, from denial to acknowledgement, from dismissive irresponsibility and intolerance to moral and human consciousness and, ultimately, justice.  This piece of design is the simplest, yet the most effective, dramatic tool I have seen in a long time.

The splendid team who have created this enriching experience include:

Director:        Christopher Haydon

Designers:    Michael Pavelka, David Harris, Jan Bench, Mark Howland and Dan Hoole

Crew:            Erin Gilley, Mary Howland, Terry King, Martin Rodges, Matthew Cullum, Jessica Alice McGloin and Tim Henshaw

Cast:             Martin Shaw, Robert Vaughn, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran, Luke Shaw, David Calvitto, Paul Antony-Barber, Edward Franklin, Robert Blythe, Miles Richardson, Martin Turner, Owen O’Neill, Jason Riddington (and understudy, Jon Carver).

You can’t be an actor and a critic so it’s true I only write arts blogs about productions I largely admire.  Yet in a London landscape where there’s always so much to see and appreciate, it is an immense pleasure to chance upon a dramatic piece which is satisfying and compelling in every conceivable respect. 
And if that’s a bias judgement, I challenge you to look for yourself and get back to me!



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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fear, Films & Fiona

I don't usually put the same post on multiple blogs, but today is an exception for an arts/life crossover story. 
I have a way of seeing connections between things which some think odd.  But it’s not my issue if people’s brains work differently.

The last two movies I’ve seen at the cinema have reminded me hugely of two dear friends called Fiona and of our experiences around fear.  Your loved ones don’t often know when you are thinking of them and missing them on the other side of the world – ‘little Fiona’ in Brisbane and ‘the other Fiona’ in LA – so I figure I may as well write a blog about them as anyone else.

The films I’m referring to were superbly made and highly recommended: Rush directed by Ron Howard, and Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass.  Both these craftsmen know how to make a great movie which girls as well as guys love, because they have human nuance and compelling narrative as well as thrilling action and speed.  I don’t even like Formula One and I was engaged by Rush from the earliest frames.  And anyone connected with the making of the brilliant Bourne Trilogy and I’m hooked. So Howard and Greengrass: in your enormous fields of achievement these were exceptional efforts.  Thank you!

As it happens I’ve never taken speed.  Apart from health or legal concerns I have absolutely no need.  It’d be like giving uppers to the Eveready Bunny.  But these films made my blood pump.  Glued to the seat, all other realities evaporated as I utterly suspended my disbelief and sank into the drama.  At the end I felt like I’d been running a marathon and was desperate to get outside into London’s chilly Autumn air, walking home with wind blowing in my face and image after image replaying in my head.  I dreamt about them too – Tom Hanks’ final scenes exquisitely moving.

So what is it about fear which is so simultaneously frightening and compelling?  I’ve sky-dived, scuba-dived, heli-skied and fallen out of a white-water raft in a most inconvenient rocky river… but I wouldn’t class myself as a high-risk sportsperson.  I never go to horror films.  Yet these movies frightened the hell out of me and I loved it.  Perhaps the characters and story-telling won me over to the extent I endured the fear as an inescapable bi-product?  Yet I suspect Howard and Greengrass are so clever they understand how to take an audience to the brink of their coping threshold - dangling us in a metaphorical bungee-jump, where a collective addiction to narrative unites with a carnal hunger for wildness and beyond-our-boundaries experiences. 

The element which really made my heart pound in Captain Phillips is the lifeboat.  That small capsule with a lid was far more frightening to me than the pirates or the prospect of a bullet.  I could intensely feel the heat and lack of air, to the point that I had to repeatedly concentrate on slowing my own breathing.  How can one survive such a long journey so confined?  It was torture.  How do people in prison cope with four close walls, especially those thrown into dark dungeons without trial or justice?  All through the film I kept thanking God for Amnesty International and promising I’d give them some more money. (Can someone please hold me to that so I don’t forget?) 

Of course, Hanks’ brilliant performance and the director’s intense building of tension are sufficient provocateurs, but my projected fears enlarged the experience.  I am a little claustrophobic.  For years I’ve had a recurring dream I am trapped in a box or a cupboard.  And time and again I’ve woken up banging the wall behind the bed trying to get out. 

In life I do whatever I can to avoid peak-hour public transport, especially undergrounds.  On planes it isn’t crashing which freaks me out, but rather waking up in an overheated cabin with insufficient oxygen.  Occasionally this has threatened a mini panic-attack, but thankfully it only seems to happen in economy; which is great incentive to fly at the front of the bus. 

Anyway thoughts about “facing one’s fears” brings me to my friend, Fiona.

When we flatted together in Bondi in our fun-filled, wonderfully courageous, it’s-all-ahead-of-you 20s, Fiona would confront any hesitance or fear she felt, by saying “there’s nothing to fear except fear itself”.  I’m inclined to forget Franklin D. Roosevelt and attribute this phrase to Fiona, for I never hear it without thinking fondly of her.

Now fast-forward to the Mediterranean in 2009 when I’m showing ‘little Fiona’ around the Cinque Terre.  Setting out on the coastal walk from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, I call out: “Walk at your own pace, Fifi, you can’t get lost, there’s only one path… I’ll wait for you somewhere on a rock”.   The wind is whistling, a delightful breeze tickles the pre-midday leaves, and hundreds of metres below steep cliffs I find the sound of crashing waves utterly invigorating.  Various parts of the path are infamously narrow and rocky but I’m in my element – out in the world, fit and free, luxuriating in the sights and smells of my beloved Italy. 

Some time later I am perched in shade admiring the infamous blues of this great sea, and I hear footsteps approach.  Turning around with my lemonade (a treat offered by neighbours on route made from delicious local lemons) my sweet but somewhat pale-looking friend walks slowly toward me.  “What’s the matter?” I ask, bewildered.  “It’s really high, Julie” she says with more shock than malice.  She then adds quietly: “I think you’ve forgotten I’m afraid of heights.”  OMG, I had COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.  What a dreadful friend – a most awful thing to do to someone who has travelled half way across the world to visit you!

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” followed, but the girl with the most generous nature in the world would hear none of it: “But I did it” she said humbly.  “I was scared.  Especially the difficult parts when I thought I was going to slip off the edge.  But I did it.  I took my time and I was fine”   What can you do but hug a girl like that?!  I love her to bits, then and now.  And after a refreshing glass of lemonade we continued the walk to Vernazza, wandering quietly and contentedly together – the making of a very precious memory.

Now I’m thinking of ‘the other Fiona’, which is how I distinguished my L.A. friend from ‘little Fiona’ who my Tuscan mates had met and taken to their hearts.  I am sitting on a bar stool near San Gimignano recounting an extraordinary adventure to the Ice Hotel in Sweden with ‘the other Fiona’.  I have the whole room’s attention for this story, something I clearly enjoy, and the audience should be praised for accepting its meagre delivery in a mix of English and hand-waving Italian with conspicuously dodgy grammar.  I’m making my point anyway, sometimes jumping off the high-stool to act out various parts. But this Ferrari-loving race is hooked.  I skim over the details of meeting the chiefs of Audi while swigging vodka in the Ice Bar – a compulsory part of the Ice Hotel experience – and I’m up to the part where this divine group of ‘strangers’ have taken Fiona and I, and assorted journalists, out into the middle of a frozen lake in Lapland for the launch of a new Audi Sports Car.  (Don’t ask me which model. Not my thing.)  The sun is setting and in the far distance six spotlights cut through the haze.  Lights race toward us across a wide expanse of ice, until we recognise there are three pairs - three very fast pairs on bright red cars.  Audi has arranged for their European Racing Team to arrive… and arrive they do like James Bond or Jason Bourne… pulsing hot-rods soon inches from our twitching toes.  You’ll have to buy my book to get a full description, but suffice it to say the experience was nothing short of spectacular. 

The point about fear is this: Fiona and I were taken by each of these hot, racing-car drivers out for a spin on the enormous lake.  Scream?  Are you kidding – it’s a wonder you didn’t hear us in London!  These guys were out to give us the ride of our lives and the more we spun, the more we screamed, the faster they went… with an ocean of slippery ice between us and the nearest tree they played those cars like a Stradivarius… the little sports-steering-wheel so small yet powerful in the hands of truly great drivers.

Adrenalin pumped.  Curiosity peaked.  So much so I had to stop screaming and ask questions – while still the car spun, sped, reversed and raced while the driver calmly informed me about things I previously never thought interesting.  In love with everything Audi, everything fast, and everything stimulating, we returned to the Ice Bar for more vodka.  The anecdote has followed me around the world never failing to amuse.  And this fond and familiar sensation tugged at my heart during every scene of Ron Howard’s brilliantly rendered, Rush. 

OK, my thrilling European Rally Car had a proper roof.  I am still terrified of the risk Formula One drivers face with burns and injuries and the sheer insane noise of it.  But if my racing-car story is not about overcoming fear, it is certainly about embracing it. 

Rewards are all the richer, whatever the activity or goal, if we face the risks and do it anyway.  So thank God for friends, for my pals Fiona, and for films and experiences which take us out and beyond ourselves.


            Captain Phillips:             http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535109/ 

Rush:                            http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1979320/     



Sunday, 8 September 2013

Always So Much To See

I’ve said it before, no doubt I’ll say it again, but I agree with the millions who agree with Samuel Johnson who famously said in 1777 “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.

The weather and the cement may sometimes get me down (I need extended doses of sunshine and the great outdoors) but if one is ever bored in London it really is entirely their own fault. 

Putting aside for the moment the brilliant array of museums, exhibitions and historic houses, even the most committed cultural-addict simply can not keep up with all the theatre and music London has to offer.  I try.  I really do.  But lately I’ve been busy and my batting average has gone down.  I have seen and enjoyed these events in the last couple of months but haven’t had time to blog about them:

à        La Rondine with Charles Castronovo and Angela Gheorghiu in Trafalgar Square for the Royal Opera House and BP Big Screens

à        Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter Theatre

à        The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House

à        The Night Alive at the Donmar

à        Othello at the National

à        The three plays of Henry VI at the Globe (in one day)

à        The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre

à        The Cripple of Inishman from the Michael Grandage Company

à        The Last Ever Musical on the fringe

à        Assorted musical gigs including an opera concert by Opera Alegria in Kensington

Coming up in the next fortnight I have tickets for:

à        Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford

à        A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Apollo Theatre

à        Turandot at the Royal Opera House

à        A Tale of Two Cities at the Kings Head (the play, not the opera)

I may yet slot other performances in between.  Ah, the choice.  And compared to many countries (including Australia) the tickets are so cheap.  Theatre is very affordable in this country, if you know where and when to book, or there’s no way I could have gone to these events while waiting for my next contract to begin.  It’s one of the upsides of a larger population. 

I’m not a critic, so unless I’m writing a broader commentary on the impact a show has particularly had on me or the resonances it has with other aspects of life - as I did in my last few blogs - I don’t need to say too much.  I can, however, say many were a treat.

If you put good actors with Conor McPherson dialogue, as the Donmar has clearly done in The Night Alive, you can put money on the likelihood of a good giggle.  The same came be said for Martin Mc Donagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.  I’ve seen the play several times around the world and it never fails to make me laugh.  The real gift these writer’s have, however, is that, when least expected, they flip their audience from laughter to tears; or if not tears, certainly great empathy and appreciation for the scene’s poignancy.  Where would the world be without the Irish, eh?!  And I thought Daniel Radcliffe held his ground very well in a talented cast.

There’s a lot of Elizabethan material around at the moment.  Many of us are  anticipating Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic and the Donmar’s Coriolanus and Julius Caesar; the latter directed by Phyllida Lloyd.  Even Christopher Marlowe is getting his turn with Edward II at the National.

The Globe regularly satisfies my appetite for Shakespeare and with Henry VI parts one, two and three, I was pleasantly surprised to find plays I have generally considered at the pedestrian-end of the Bard’s achievements – little more than an abridged history lesson - came alive with vigour and believable competitiveness between the Houses of York and Lancaster.  Most of that was due to clever staging, committed characterisation, and sheer energy, reminding me that stage texts can only ever provide a blue-print to inspire creative development. 

If you’re talking about substantial, eloquent plays – yes, I declare my bias - I have never enjoyed an Othello more than Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear.  The contemporary setting and dynamic cast drew every nuance from every couplet and (with the exception of only one scene) the production was thrilling and terrifying; terrifying with respect to the destructive effects of manipulation and jealousy.  It is very exciting when you think you know a play but then the piece before you is all made new… when themes you thought you’d considered are suddenly emblazoned with original truth and social challenge.  I said it on the night from the front row and I’ll say it again: Bravo!  Productions like that – the ones which stay with you for weeks, months and years - are what every serious, dedicated artist is striving toward.  Bravo!

On the music front I’ve also been spoiled, though the context has been more frivolous.  Sondheim was at his best in the Chocolate Factory’s transfer of Merrily We Roll Along.  I saw a supremely silly musical about Mormons which somehow manages to navigate offensive insults and university-review spoofs with slickness, wit, and character and circumstance so hysterically ridiculous (yet polished) you can’t resist.  And I enjoyed a live telecast of Puccini’s opera La Rondine while sitting and eating with a friend in Trafalgar Square.  If you don’t know Charles Castronovo yet, you will, for his tenor voice is as rich and seamless as honey, his looks and acting ability to match.  I had liked him as Tamino in The Magic Flute, noting his stage presence from the top balcony last Spring, but it was a bonus to enjoy his arias with a film close-up, and a glorious public event for a summer evening. 

Of course I can’t mention everything, but suffice it to say that this summer has been rich in more ways than sunshine – alleluia -  none of which I take for granted and all of which I am now ready to do again. 

It’s just as well the new season of Downton Abbey is soon to come to air, for that will give me a solid excuse to sit at home some nights with my feet up in front of the television.  



Thursday, 25 July 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth

I am the first to confess I indulge a healthy cultural appetite.  This week I’m seeing four plays, one musical and attending a Literature seminar.  That’s above average but not greatly unusual.

I can’t possibly comment on all I see, but sometimes I simply must: a recent visit to The Old Vic a case in point. 

Academics and practitioners argue ad infinitum about what the most important ingredients are in a satisfying theatrical experience.  Yet you don’t have to be well informed to know it when you see it.  Layers of meaning help the director, actors and designers bring a work to life, and for audiences it is the imaginative meshing of factors such as text, sub-text, interpretation and talent which create the overall impression.  When it comes to Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams currently playing at The Old Vic, the collective impact of elements is so strong I would advise anyone with an interest in London theatre to pay whatever you have to pay, do whatever you have to do, to clear your diary and get a ticket. 

“Wow, wow, wow” was all I could put on Twitter as the curtain came down on this powerful and moving production, but days later it is still with me provoking all sorts of feeling and reflection.  Can you ask for more from a night out?

Let me declare my hand.  For various reasons I had high expectations:
  1. I like the play and Williams’ style of heightened reality;
  2. I saw Lauren Bacall playing “the Princess Kosmonopolis” when I was too young to understand what ‘aging’ meant but knew I’d seen something special;
  3. I am a fan of Kim Cattrall’s;
  4. And even before Marianne Elliott won Olivier Awards for A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time I had been impressed by her strong direction of Port, revived in the spring for The National.
Even still, my expectations have been superseded. 

Balancing this great play, this great production, are significant driving forces: age and youth; success and failure; desire and despair; hope and hopelessness; conformity and individuality; trust and betrayal; courage and fear; power and powerlessness; wealth and poverty; love and hate.  It’s big stuff.  Much hangs on a tightrope.  The director, cast and crew need to rise to the challenge Williams throws up.  And rise they do – bringing empathy and insight to the creative process to create an authentic interpretation. 

Trusting a text layered with social and political meaning, the team have mined this dramatic piece for every ounce of humanity.  It screams of 1950s American culture - of Hollywood, of the deep South, of the worst of capitalism – but by being fiercely respectful of these themes it finds a modern and universal resonance.  Carefully controlled by Marianne Elliott the team dig deep for nuance without losing key threads in an increasingly complex weave. 

The play begins with a heightened scenario: a worse-for-wear couple wake up in a hotel room with a) assorted threats re eviction or worse if they don’t willingly leave town, and b) the woman completely at a loss to remember how she got there or with whom she is travelling/sleeping.  The audience immediately understand this story might exaggerate to make its point but the needs of the subjects are sufficiently real (and interesting) to make them relevant and accessible.  To those who complain Williams is inclined to melodrama, I’d ask, compared to what?  Even Greek Tragedies have humour and a longing for resolution.  Williams’ canvass is Van Gogh, bright and broad brushstrokes against an early Impressionist’s pastels, and for that it’s all the more memorable.  

Scene upon scene, situations at first thought a little outlandish become more believable, more gripping.  Step by step characters become so vivid you love them as much for their flaws as their tender desires, or you hate them for their cruelty and narrow-mindedness.  You are quickly hooked.  Their risks are felt deeply.  Their passions understood.  And as principal characters like Alexandra Del Lago (played by Kim Cattrall) and Chance Wayne (played by Seth Numrich) approach a precipice of destruction, you are painfully aware of the judgements and inequalities which have contributed to their likely fall.

That’s not to say Williams lays all blame at society’s feet, his characters are too well drawn for that; their strengths and weaknesses, good and bad choices (of which there’s a lot).  But it is through rich and colourful characterisation, and a plot packed with threat and conflict, that Williams criticises the exclusionary, survival-of-the-fittest nature of American Capitalism - what Annette Saddik in the programme notes describes as “the hypocrisy inherent in the promise of individual freedom and the celebration of difference, as the American culture of ‘success’ simultaneously insist(s) on allegiance and conformity”.  

The tugging heart of Sweet Bird of Youth, for me, is an exploration of the loss and marginalisation associated with ageing, and the real, or perceived, loss of our ‘prime’.  The political message is that the price paid by Chance in his struggle to meet the expectations of others, to make the grade, to chase the dream and make sufficient money to ‘deserve’ the woman he loves, is that this is too high a price to demand of many; in the worst case, a bargain made with the devil.  And the spiritual question we are left with is the question haunting Chance: doesn’t it all have to mean something?   If not, what is the point of his life, his individuality, his striving after success, his love for Heavenly?  And if meaning is crucial, how can he leave town, run away from his mistakes and his sins, no matter how brutal his fate if he remain?

Williams, I think, hints at a feminist sympathy by allowing “the Princess Kosmonopolis”, aka the movie-star Alexandra Del Lago, to climb back from the ignominy and invisibility of age (drugs and alcohol) to enjoy her Hollywood return.  It isn’t what we expect.  Instead the weighty finale is the threat of castration and death hanging over the beautiful gigolo played superbly by the talented (and beautiful) Seth Numrich – whose character, Chance, has squandered his youth chasing his tail to turn himself into something he shouldn’t feel so pressured to be.  In this we see Williams’ sympathy for men, as well as a comment on America’s demand that members of society conform to expectations of politics, success, sexuality and conservatism or else be damned as an outsider, as an ever-perceived threat to the ‘natural’ order of things. 

Williams gives Chance a venereal disease to drive home his point about the threat of decay, to heighten the tragedy as it applies to his child-hood sweetheart, Heavenly (sensitively played by Louise Dylan)… but the real issue is that her father, Boss Finley (gruesomely well presented by Own Roe), is outraged this non-compliant, non-educated, non-wealthy cheek of a boy should dare to have made love to her at all.  In this, and Finley’s bigoted justification of violence toward a black youth for pairing with a white girl, Williams gives us a revenge tragedy: Chance Wayne, from the beginning, out of luck and destined for destruction.

I felt moved and challenged by this poignant and gut-wrenchingly honest and energetic production.  I felt, too, enormously entertained and invigorated.  Some one-liners are so perfectly pitched I wouldn’t dare spoil their priceless delivery by quoting, but these are icing on the cake in a work founded firmly in character and narrative peeling.  I laughed and I cried.  I admired Kim Cattrall for the exceptionally good actress that she is - as brave, sharp and gutsy as she is vulnerable, available and well-considered - and for bringing in just the right amount of Norma Desmond. To a cast and crew of talent and faultless taste, I felt lucky to be in the audience to experience, and be changed by, the slice of life they conjure.

Strangely, I also felt comforted: comforted by Williams’ keen observation that ‘prime’ is a relative concept… that any of us can be challenged by the business of aging… whether 22, 32, 52 or 72… just as any of us can be challenged by an economic system which shows little sympathy for those on the bottom end of the curve… for with aging, and money, transitions and stages are inevitable… what is more important than ‘a number’ or a ‘bank balance’ is the quality in our time… is the meaning and satisfaction in our relationships… is the respect we give to our individual natures and style. 

For a gay, liberal, bohemian man in a post-war-McCarthy-America to articulate such things honestly, shows courage and integrity indeed. 

I’m sure Tennessee Williams would be well pleased with The Old Vic.





Saturday, 29 June 2013

Selfishness & Revenge

Two post-war plays.  Two key themes.  Two examples of human-beings at their worst.

Both productions are impressive.  The first, Strange Interlude, is currently playing at the National. The second, Titus Andronicus, is a Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Eugene O’ Neill’s setting is attractive, on the surface refined.  Shakespeare’s is as violent and bloody as a Tarantino.  Neither story is redemptive.  They make you feel uncomfortable.  And though packing punches in different ways, both are designed to shock. 

The American story of grief and manipulation is gripping because you wonder how far the characters will go to prolong a litany of lies and half-truths.  O’Neill utilises a theatrical device where at regular intervals the characters speak directly to the audience about their true feelings.  This is as informative as it is entertaining, but ultimately leaves the audience feeling no-one in this narrative (and by implication the greater world) can be trusted to be genuine or better than selfish.  Indeed it is the extent of their self-absorption and selfishness which is most shocking. 

Strange Interlude shares with Titus Andronicus questions about self-sacrifice.  Did society gain from Nina’s devotion to the soldiers in hospital or was her obsession negative and manipulative?  Why was it easier, or thought more honourable, to be self-sacrificial rather than honest about Gordon’s parentage and Nina’s long-term love affair with the Doctor?  And having lived a lie for so many years, do the choices made by Nina, Charles and Edmund after Sam’s funeral prolong the deception for selfish or non-selfish reasons?  Perhaps a little of both, for only in the character of grown-up Gordon (played well by Wilf Scolding) is there any real sense of redemption – in that he changes his attitude to set his mother free from her obligations as he sees it. 

These foible-filled character’s are played so impressively well by Anne-Marie Duff (as Nina), Darren Pettie (as Edmund Darrell), Jason Watkins (as Sam Evans) and Charles Edwards (as “Uncle Charlie” Marsden) that though you continue to wish them well… even relishing the humour in the world’s worst suitor finally getting the girl… you know so much of their behaviour has been a cop-out.  And it leaves you feeling entertained but inexplicably restless.

In a reading of Titus Andronicus we tend to like, or at least admire, the lead warrior, because he has sacrificed years of his life and family to fight for Rome with patriotic pride and dedication.  Our heart goes out to Titus when he sacrifices his hand genuinely believing the trade for his sons’ lives is worthwhile.  And we even get a glint of softness in Aaron when he's prepared to sacrifice his life for love of his infant son; such is Shakespeare’s capacity for shades of morality even in the most obstinately vile of characters.

Yet on balance Shakespeare and O’Neill seem to be saying the business of self sacrifice is less than it’s cracked up to be – in the former case probably a comment on Rome being heavily controlled by the Vatican.  Their problem may be one of degree, motivation or sincerity, but neither present self sacrifice as appealing or particularly noble.

A key difference in presentational styles between the two plays – as you might expect written so many hundreds of years apart - is that Shakespeare doesn’t pretend for a moment his characters are anything other than brutal and vengeful.  Even on the page Titus Andronicus shocks by its cruelty. 

I recall being completely savaged by the relentless brutality of “No Country For Old Men” because I’d fallen for the Cohen Brother’s black comedies.   Perhaps my love of Shakespeare’s lighter folios is going to leave me similarly exposed?

So even before arriving at Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday night, I wonder how the designer, Colin Richmond, and the RSC’s technical staff are going to manage the sleight of hand required to present convincing decapitations?  The Swan Theatre is an intimate thrust stage with audience on three sides, so there’s no proscenium to hide the tricks.   And the more I think about it the more I fear the likely quantities of blood. 

Nevertheless approaching the theatre with an invitation to attend a Blogger’s Event, I am excited to see how Michael Fentiman is going to realize this challenging play and satisfy his RSC directorial debut. 

In short, I am not disappointed.  In Fentiman’s hands this difficult play suddenly makes more sense.  Rome is the epitome of civilisation, but is it?  The Goths are our enemies so we can treat them however we wish, but can we?  And what are the relative costs and risks of a relentless pursuit of revenge? 

By setting the play in a timeless world with stylistic statements of past, present, future, East and West, Fentiman and Richmond force us to acknowledge the human trap of revenge is universal.  However extreme some specific behaviour remains, and however distanced a modern audience might feel from the context, the danger of humanity losing its principles and perspective when driven by hatred and revenge is undeniable.  The result is bloody in more ways than one.

Yet herein was a pleasant surprise.  Titus Andronicus is known, even avoided, for its blood lust.  The RSC’s internet trailer hypes the violence – as if tattooed, drug-crazed Sweeney Todds have escaped the musical to be recast in a futuristic, gothic-style horror film, where cannibalism is normalised and human entrails are worn as jewellery.  I thought immediately it was meant to appeal to an audience much younger than myself; perhaps to people who play gruesome video games, or who can sit through a Tarantino without closing their eyes? 

On stage, however, what Fentiman manages to do with the violence is to stop it being gratuitous.  Each ‘assault’ is handled differently, uniquely.  I knew what was coming but still gasped at the sudden and effective slaying of Mutius.  Richard Pinner, the Illusionist, coached the cast well; particularly in the scene where Titus is tricked by Aaron to sacrifice his hand in exchange for his sons’ freedom.  The fight scenes are powerfully choreographed by Kate Waters and Ann Yee so focus is held on character conflict.   And when the sons’ severed heads are swiftly returned to their stunned and wounded father, the choice to put their heads into tied plastic bags had several benefits. 

Firstly, in a stroke of genius from Stephen Boxer - who it must be said sucks inspiration and belief from Shakespeare’s verses the way a bee sucks honey - these bags can be picked up and used as stimulus for Titus’s subsequent monologue... where in talking to, and listening to, the disembodied heads, we empathise with his Lear-like descent into grief-stricken madness.   

This choice also allows Fentiman to contain the flow of blood (so he’s got somewhere to go later), and show that Shakespeare fully intends his audience to be aghast at this point but also to see the situation’s ludicrousness.  For things are deteriorating, they can only get worse, and the tragedy is that no-one appears willing or able to do anything about the rapid decline into lawlessness and carnage.  

That’s not to say Fentiman or Boxer foresaw the multiple advantages of heads in a bag as opposed to heads on a pogo stick, for example, they likely didn’t.  It is to say that when a creative director gets with insightful actors, their collaboration accrues to more than the sum of their parts.  And that is another beauty of this production: the cast and crew have been chosen very well; several making their RSC debut and quickly proving they are worth the trust Fentiman has placed in them.  Nuances abound in this production which make the play all the more palatable and relevant. 

I include in this the imaginative use of the RSC’s enormous technical capability: able to fly villains and corpses over tens of metres while tied by the ankles like stuck pigs; platforms which rise and fall to create pits of despair one minute and exotic bathing arrangements the next; challenging costume developments, and lighting, sound and visual effects so dramatic you feel the entire crew should take an onstage bow; beautiful musical scoring and enough live musicians to make the producers of low budget productions weep; and then there’s simply the intimate beauty of the Swan Theatre, whose uncommonly comfortable seats provide an unusual juxtaposition to a starkly uncomfortable narrative.

As always, however, most memorable in a sea of features are the precious moments when actors find life on the stage you simply can not find on the page.   Suddenly in the walk and attitude of Stephen Boxer did I understand why Titus doesn’t bother to contest the Emperor’s Crown.  He’d had enough.  After ten years of war he was coming back to Rome, so he thinks, for an easier life.   In a cocky glance and grin from Ben Deery I suddenly understand the sibling rivalry and competitiveness between Saturninus and Bassianus.  The new Emperor doesn’t really want Lavinia, he simply wants to establish he’s now top dog.  Ego sets him up.  And ego lets him fall into the manipulative hands of Tamora who steers him, like all the others, into gruesome betrayal.

In a relatively short time on stage Richard Goulding as Bassianus makes an impressive impact.  Ben Deery as Saturninus deserves special mention as he stepped up as understudy into a key role due to the indisposition of John Hopkins.  Happily he was fully on top of it and convincing – not easy at short notice when the play has so many technical demands – and scene by scene he swelled to fill some rather big shoes.  If there were nerves they were absorbed into a play packed with high adrenalin and his fellow cast members supported him well; perhaps even feeding off an inevitable freshness of interpretation. It was a night for Deery to feel proud.

The infamous ‘kill a fly’ scene between Titus and Young Lucius (played variously by school boys Hal Hewetson and George David) was delightful.  Apart from much needed light relief, this exchange provided an opportunity to explore the impressionability of youth - setting up important echoes for the final moments of the play. 

Katy Stephens as Tamora and Kevin Harvey as Aaron made for a frightening pair of shit-stirrers.  Their stage status and their grounded clarity of vision make the fire in their resentment of the Romans all the more dangerous.  And though we accept the murder of Tamora’s oldest son at the hands of Titus has given her some cause, the lengths to which they will both go for revenge leaves all before them breathless and vulnerable.   Something in Katy’s performance in particular reminded me of some interpretations of fascist history – where a determination to remake the world is so tightly bound with rigid concepts of good and evil (Aryan or Jewish) that step by deliberate step the oxygen which feeds compassion or doubt is squeezed out and replaced by non-questioning purpose.  It may not be rational but Katy captures this utilitarianism well, especially when she strides around Saturninus naked in the bath, a babe in the woods to her tattooed wolf.  

By contrast, the scene following Lavinia’s abuse in the forest is a phenomenally difficult one.  I realise it is brave or foolish to criticise the Bard but I’m not entirely convinced Shakespeare got it right here - giving Marcus Andronicus a load of poetic verses to describe an atrocity which is so vile in proportions the “very stones” would surely be “struck dumb”.  The audience is so bitterly uncomfortable at this point that, if not silence, then more in line with expectations would be a tirade like “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”   As such this particular scene is hard for actor and audience alike.  One appreciates Shakespeare is looking for a bridge between the act of Lavinia’s unspeakable molestation and the scene where Marcus presents what is left of his niece to her father, Titus; the appropriate place for the peaking of our empathy.  Yet still it’s hard in the immediate wake of the event for a modern audience to accept a plethora of classical references in gently woven phrases when Chiron and Demetrius have been so atrociously flippant about their lustful destruction and we know it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. 

Having said that, in the wake of Lavinia’s tragic transformation Richard Durden’s portrayal is eloquent and tender, if a little underplayed, and Rose Reynolds’ appearance on the floor, her achingly-fragile back to the audience as she rises from a pit of horror with sharply-drawn breaths and a body gripped by involuntary spasms, is all the more heart-breaking for its subtlety.  So when the ravished Lavinia finally turns to face us and the reality of her torn limbs becomes apparent, it’s all we can do to keep our own breathing under control.  Then cleverly again Fentiman allows the full horror of Lavinia’s ripped tongue to be revealed only when facing her beloved father, using this rush of blood to build step by step toward the play’s dramatic climax.   

In this Fentiman has done well to focus on the play’s complete trajectory of violence, so as to save his big-gun blood and fireworks until the end.  He and the cast have dug deeply into the text to find and follow Shakespeare’s clues about each character’s individual truths and needs.  And by relentlessly trusting this, their director has led them through difficult terrain, conflict by conflict, assault by assault, to the near final scene where everyone, yet no-one, gets their revenge.

In this black and crazy scene there is all the relief you’d expect from an episode of Black Adder.  Titus turns up in a kitchen maid’s outfit, tights and apron ‘n all, running around with a serving trolley ah la Fawlty Towers or a Michael Frayn farce, and dishing up his pies to the befuddled Emperor Saturninus and his grossly-manipulative wife, Tamora, thoroughly enjoying the macabre opportunity to watch his nemesis eat the flesh and blood of her own (hateful) sons which he has relished slaughtering like hogs and packing into said pies. 

After some lines of shock, horror and what-the-hell… the not insignificant smothering of his daughter, Lavinia, which Titus believes will put her out of her misery… all hell does break loose.  In a couple of concentrated minutes - to a brilliantly farcical musical score by John Woolf and exceptionally clever choreography - the entire cast then leap, gallivant, slash, stab, kill, hang, choke, murder and make bleed every other possible candidate on the stage.  From the sudden action and caterwauling there is then numb, dumb, gobsmacked silence.   Actors and audience are satiated and spent.  It’s been quite a journey.

After the stillness and a brief tribute to Titus, the only surviving Andronicus takes command; a role robustly handled by a confident Matthew Needham as Lucius.  The play is then effectively wrapped up with an innovative epilogue: where Aaron the unrepentant dastardly Moor is buried up to the neck in the ground to suffer as despicably as he’s made others suffer.  And the Young Lucius, a boy of barely ten, comes onto the stage carrying the illegitimate baby son of Aaron and Tamora. 

Will he follow the example of his grandfather and uncles, and kill this loathsome little Goth?  Does evil derive from nature or nurture?  Is revenge a non-ending condition?  Or do the young have a future upon which they can write their own destiny? 

While we wonder, Young Lucius holds above the baby a shining and sharp-edged object.  Is it a mirror or a sword?  Both have meaning.   

What is his choice?   What is ours?   Lights out. 


Thursday, 6 June 2013

Made in Belfast (part 2)

After completing a full circuit on the Belfast City Sightseeing Bus, the next time round there were places I simply had to get off: the Botanic Gardens, the Ulster and Titanic Museums, and the Crumlin Road Gaol. 

Typically you get out of these things as much as you put in, so I found the experiences extremely rich.  First I alighted in the Botanic Gardens during a window of sunshine.  The timing was perfect for fresh air and the enjoyment of delightful spring flowers, and then the hot-house smelt so divine I could have happily closed my eyes and stayed in there forever.  Eventually, however, the Ulster Museum called to me across the neatly mown grass and generously bursting daffodils, and it was well worth the crossing.

The Ulster Museum has a series of wide mezzanines which wrap around a deep and open atrium.  It is beautifully laid out with lots of natural light and divided in a user-friendly, topic-delineated fashion.  Indeed you couldn’t be in a better place to walk through the key periods of Irish history, coming out with an enriched understanding and a hunger to know more.  I highly recommend it as an introduction to Northern Ireland, as this learning will put you in a good place for much of what’s to follow in Belfast.

Of the many rooms in the Ulster Museum devoted to artistic themes, I enjoyed a special exhibition called Revealed: Government Art Collection.  Many people were invited to take part as assistant curators in this project and hundreds of art works have been gathered temporarily from government offices and embassies across the globe.  Such logistics alone warrant special mention.  Yet it tickled me that one of the curators, Cornelia Parker, went left-field and set her measuring stick at the feet of… a rainbow.  That is, she arranged seventy-eight works according to the colour spectrum of Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.  

Having fallen in love with Mark Garry’s rainbow sculpture, The Permanent Present, in Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre (the MAC, as already reported in another blog post), how could I not enjoy this recognizable, if somewhat random, choice of theme? 

Amongst the ‘reds’ I especially liked the Portrait of Angelica Kauffmann by Daniel Gardner (circa 1773 and usually hung at 10 Downing Street).  On the ‘blue-indigo-violet’ spectrum it was a Boy with Parrot (circa 1720 by an unknown artist) which grabbed my attention, and a vibrant piece from Andy Warhol’s series on Queen Elizabeth II (circa 1985 and usually hung in the British Consul-General’s residence in New York).  It was interesting to see works ordinarily reserved for people of political and diplomatic distinction.  For unless I’m invited to dinner at these places, how else would I ever get to see them?!

Another stand-out in the Government Art Collection was found in the section called Commissions: Now and Then.  In 2012 a quite extraordinary piece (to eye and ear) was commissioned from Mel Brimfield to commemorate the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The work entitled 4’33’’ - Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister - tracks the 1952 race in the Helsinki Olympics in which so many world-records were broken and competition so fierce that even a great time couldn’t deliver Bannister a medal.  You can follow the flow and choreography of the race in a series of two-dimensional frames while listening to an automated pianola playing a piece of music reflecting the rhythm, tensions and timing of the race in real time.  Complete with bells, whistles and odd snippets of national anthems, people tended to stay and play it more than once in hopes of better following the detail.  Or they gave it up quickly because of its complexity.  Either way, this mixed-media work was extremely different and memorable. 

If the Ulster Museum is a good way to start any trip to Northern Ireland then a perfect book-end has to be the Titanic Museum.  Equally expansive, informative and original, it focuses on Belfast’s labour market and social scene around the shipyards and linen manufacturing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This new museum is also highly interactive and dynamic, bringing visitors piece by piece into the detail of the planning, construction, launch and ultimately tragic loss of the infamously ill-fated ship.  I never imagined engineering details could be so interesting.  And you don’t have to work hard to appreciate the subtleties. 

For example, if you’re energetic you can jump on a construction blue-print magnified onto the floor to see how many bolts or rivets you can ‘nail’ within a certain time-frame.  Of course I did that; dancing around from foot to foot, one adult amongst a sea of children.  You can also sit in a mobile car (of sorts) and be taken up and down, in and around, the bow of the ship, as they explain to you how hard these chaps had to work to bash in the thousands and thousands of rivets.  You can see too, without leaving your seat, the layers of steel in the Titanic as it is built up one layer at a time – every moment making you ever more incredulous that a ship built with such precision and care could come to such an end.  Then you can position yourself in a three-sided ‘room’ and watch a surround of images moving up and down as if you were actually standing in a glass elevator of the fully-fitted-out Titanic, admiring the different floors and cabins styled according to class of passage.  Again of course this leaves you wondering… how?… why?… your fascination with the voyage, and subsequent disaster, further provoked.

I felt quite melancholy by the time I got to the rooms telling the story of the sinking; impressed, but melancholy.  And it was as much for this reason, as other appointments, that after some hours in the Titanic Museum I left it for another day. 

Little did I know that after a couple of hours in the Crumlin Road Gaol I would be re-evaluating the whole concept of sad!  Knowing something of the political history of Ireland, and this prison in particular, adds significant weight to the experience.  However even the social story for most, if not all, of the prisoners who occupied this harsh prison until as recently as 1996 is so forlorn it gets increasingly hard to drag your legs around.  It is very cold in there too, which only adds to your sense of human suffering.  And that’s not to say some people didn’t deserve to be incarcerated… but there are ways and there are ways and the Crumlin Road Gaol put such a fear in me I’ll now think twice before tasting a naughty grape in Sainsburys.  (For since adolescence when stealing food from the Nun’s canteen was common, that’s the extent of my theft if you don’t count hotel toiletries.) 

The prison makes you sharply aware of all those people who have been driven to petty-crime by poverty and famine… families in the Troubles who suffered horrifically on both sides… all those nineteenth-century prisoners who must have thought deportation to Australia a relief after being cramped in freezing, tiny cells.  And what of those who were innocent?  Or justified?  Actors are trained to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and develop their empathy and imagination, so by the time our little group got to the execution chamber… and the chilling story of a ten year old boy who was waiting in a cell to be punished and upon hearing adjacent screams was so terrified of being placed on the rack that he took his own life… I had to ask to have the door unlocked so I could leave. 

Too cruel.  Too recent.  Too many ghosts.

But it was important to see.  And you won’t be surprised to hear I blessed myself all the way to the pub while saying “there but for the Grace of God go I”, before downing a G and T, quickly followed by a Guinness.

All in all though, my visit to Belfast was extremely educational and satisfying.  I stayed comfortably with a friend and his lovely family.  l listened to cracking yarns and musicians in an endless choice of classic pubs; some, like the Crown Liquor Saloon, with beautifully carved woodwork.  I even saw the headland which provided Jonathan Swift with inspiration for his giant in Gulliver’s Travels… reminding me, if ever I needed reminding, that the Irish have an unmatchable rich history of great artists, thinkers, travellers, battlers, jokers, story-tellers and people who have, in large and small ways, changed and enriched the world.

I love Ireland.  It’s in the ancestral blood of many Australians.  But it’s also fabulous just to spend time in a place where it’s normal to talk to strangers and no-one looks at you funny for being open or overtly curious.  And that’s the case whichever side of the border you’re on.

Bring it on Belfast.  I think you’re brilliant.  And there are few cities with an equal depth of history, culture, cheek and charm wrapped into such an intimate and accessible location. 

Well, except of course Dublin