Sunday, 31 March 2013

"Lenten entertainment": the RSC's Hamlet

It's been a while since Greg Hicks' last RSC production - clearly he's been busy Hollywooding around lately in the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman. This Spring, however, saw him resurrected as the ghost of Old Hamlet and his murderous brother, Claudius. It was a very welcome return - however short a time, it's definitely been long enough for me to miss his talents.

As Hicks' "cousin and son", Jonathan Slinger took up the play's title role with great energy and vivacity. At times, his madness did verge on being a little too extreme for my liking - this was an exceptionally loud rendition of both Hamlet (the character) and Hamlet (the play), featuring all manner of bangs and explosions (which, I fear, very nearly induced a heart attack in the poor woman sat beside me). The tone of Slinger's performance was made to match this, and sometimes risked disregarding his character's own advice:
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Overall, however, these heightened mood swings and exaggerated instability actually made for a highly accessible Hamlet, whose every emotional and intellectual turnaround was laid brutally bare to the audience.

Perhaps my favourite performance in this play came from Alex Waldmann as Horatio: a magnificently subtle performance from a highly skilled young actor. Last year, I saw Waldmann in a new play at the RSC, A Soldier in Every Son. Though that play's pedestrian dialogue completely failed to do justice to the abilities of any of its actors, Waldmann's talent even then couldn't pass unnoticed. Seeing him now in a much more interesting role served to confirm my initial feeling, that we can expect great things of him. I'll be very surprised indeed if we don't see see him crop up in some glossy TV drama very soon.

Unfortunately less impressive was Pippa Nixon as the long-suffering Ophelia. I did feel this role was for her a vast improvement on that of Lady Anne in Richard III, which saw her rather awkwardly upstaged by the fantastic Jonjo O'Neill in all of their scenes together. Here, at least, she displayed a little more passion. But ultimately, she still seemed unable to meet the demands made of her in a production determined to bring her character into centre stage and much closer to the audience - sometimes literally. I must be fair and take my hat off to Nixon that she was able to sustain her deathly stillness, mere inches from the faces of front-row audience members, for the entirety of the play's final act - though quite why this was required of her at all remained largely unclear. Overall, though, one couldn't help but wonder why she'd been chosen for the part over the considerably more compelling and charismatic Natalie Klamar, who was sadly wasted on the few bit parts she was given.

There were some interesting, if not all entirely successful, things done with Ophelia in this production. The first unusual choice was dressing her up like a student. Along with the play's setting - in what looked like a school gymnasium, with its wooden chairs and balance benches, and Horatio's similar garb, this helped to make Ophelia blend in better with Hamlet and his friends, seeming to elevate her to their status by making her, too, a scholar. This was also the first production of Hamlet I've seen where the "Get thee to a nunnery" bit seemed to be genuinely about her and their relationship - he did seem angry that she'd blown him off with no explanation, rather than just making her the victim of his frustration with her father and his uncle. Yet, for some reason this didn't hold out. Later, as Hamlet watches Ophelia being laid in her grave - typically a fairly emotional moment, in which Hamlet seems genuinely aggreived and remorseful about his earlier behaviour - he instead came across as cold and distant, jumping into the grave only out of a desire to compete with Laertes. I can't be sure if either or both were deliberate choices or just the impressions that I happened to come away with, but if it's the former, then it was certainly an odd way round of doing things, portraying a wholly erratic Hamlet, rather lacking in the supposed method behind his madness. Perhaps more problematic than this, however, was Ophelia's (lack of) relationship with her father. Undeniably, Robin Soans made a great Polonius, but Ophelia neither seemed to be bitter, over-controlled and abused by him in the usual way, nor, if you were looking for a more unusual interpretation, to have much in the way of loving or amicable feelings towards him. This had the effect of making her eventual madness seem bizarrely inexplicable, unless you assume that she's more upset about the fact that Hamlet killed someone than that her father has been killed.

For all its problems though, this was an extremely well-directed Hamlet, with a lightning-fast pace that never once flagged, despite the show's going on for over three and a half hours. Actors entered for the next scene before the current one was ended, shifting us along and, like the ghost, constantly driving us onwards and reminding us that there must be further action. This was a very kinetic Hamlet - people were always moving and doing, except during monologues, where everything seemed to sharply and suddenly stop, including the audience. I had a young girl sitting behind me who was quite chattery-whispery for much of the show, but even she seemed to feel the weight of these extended mental excursions, falling utterly silent whenever the characters spoke alone. Time flew past us at the same time as it slipped through the ever procrastinating Hamlet's hands - a fact we were reminded of right from the start by the skulls around the edges of the stage. Later, the gymnasium's floorboards would be lifted and carried away by soldiers, revealing the graves that had been all along concealed beneath the actors' feet, ready and waiting to swallow them up. "If it be not now, yet it will come..."

Much of the set was brilliantly designed in this way. The flourescent tubes that framed the stage, eerily lighting up whenever the ghost appeared, were amazing, as were the strange sound effects that accompanied their ethereal glow. However, as interesting and convincing as it all looked, the school sports hall appearance - used, presumably to emphasise the director's interest in fencing and swordfighting in Hamlet - added very little, in the end, to our understanding of the play. I didn't really understand the deal with all the fencing gear constantly shoved in our faces, and I know that this is a feeling that other reviewers have shared. Sure, duelling was a significant thing in Shakespeare's time, and there's nothing inherently wrong with either the essay in the programme describing it, nor the take on the play itself. But it did feel rather like a molehill had been made into a mountain, and the whole thing was somewhat distracting from more important and exciting elements of the play.

Nevertheless, this was overall a thoroughly enjoyable Hamlet - clear, bold, full of spectacle, and perfect for RSC newcomers. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

We've Been To See The Wizard... [SPOILER ALERT - THERE ARE LOTS]

Rather like Dorothy, I'd been looking forward to seeing Oz the Great and Powerful for so long that I suppose it was almost inevitable that the actual event would bring some disappointments. Some of these were predictable - I'd had my doubts all along about James Franco's ability to lead a film, and these proved far from unfounded - but what ended up bothering me most wasn't something I'd anticipated at all.

Worse than the film's failure to meet my too-high expectations, was the feeling, even as I was watching, of how great it ought to have been - how great it could easily have been. To start with, it opened with a breathtaking title sequence, which is probably still my favourite thing about the film. The dark, carnivalesque animation, accompanied by a creepy Danny Elfman score, made this look like it was really meant to be the latest Tim Burton flick. In many ways, this Burtonish quality continued throughout, with a setting and characters akin to what we find in his Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That said, I couldn't help but think that Burton would have made a much better job of it: once the story actually got going, there was something very shallow and lacking about the whole thing which a director like Burton wouldn't have allowed to happen. It was a bit like Sam Raimi had picked up a Tim Burton style guide, robbed it of most of its charm, humour and essential morality, and in their place injected a dangerously large dose of his own outdated sexual politics.

One of the first things that Wizard of Oz fans will notice is that Raimi has allowed himself a very liberal licence with the characters from that film, who are completely different personalities in his own. Oz in particular is startlingly far-removed from the fast-talking, funny, charming, pseudo-intellectual old man we know as the Wizard, having been transformed into a lying, cheating, greedy, sleazy scumbag that you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw him. Although the film's supporting characters continually put their faith in him and constantly insist on his "goodness", we as an audience see very little reason or evidence for this. Even right at the end of the film, he seems barely to have changed: his priorities are all the same, and he actually has the cheek to "reward" Glinda with a snog from him during the gift-giving scene.

Of course, none of this would have been quite so problematic if the film had fairly portrayed him for what he was, and made some attempt to show his actions having negative consequences, but instead, he seems to be offered to us, along with the simple people of Oz, as our unchallenged hero, and is given everything that his heart desires, including the one woman who can supposedly see through him. The women in this film are consistently portrayed as naive and easily conquerable - Oz may not get his wicked way with Evanora, but she's still a little too easy to beat. The essential passivity of all of the female characters, coupled with the camera's lascivious gaze, betrayed an inherent misogyny in this film that seemed to exist independently of Oz himself.

This is most apparent in the treatment of Theodora, who first appears in a pair of ridiculous skin-tight trousers and makes it instantly clear that she is not just a bit naive, but actually stupid beyond belief. Not only does she accept everything that Oz says without question, but we subsequently learn that she's been doing the same thing with her sister for years. Later, Theodora is tempted, Eve-like, by her wicked, serpentine sister, accepting the apple of knowledge and enlightenment that serves to make her evil and "ugly" in one fell swoop. Yet, even here, Raimi manages to have his cake and eat it, because in spite of her green skin and theoretical ugliness, the camera continues to subject her to its gaze, in her tight corset and black PVC. Not to suggest that there's anything wrong with sexy clothing per se, but you can't insist upon someone's ugliness whilst presenting them as attractive, and what's more, this is just one small part of the persistent and pervasive objectification of a character that actually does - well, nothing. Her naivety and her appearance are basically all we know about this character, and are presumably all the director thinks we need to know. Much like the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, this witch never actually harms anyone, in spite of her threats, and so is punished disproportionately. Now, I know that, in fairness, she actually gets killed in The Wizard of Oz, but in in that film, at least, we're only eavesdropping on a child's fantasies about getting rid of the woman who has tried to kill her dog. It's quite another thing when a grown man wants to punish a girl for falling for him after he's seduced her. No serious attempt is made on Oz's part to make Theodora amends. He is every bit as culpable for her transformation as Evanora, yet the closest our "hero" comes to showing any kind of remorse is an unbearably patronising and inadequate concession to her banishment, called after her like an afterthought as she flies away. Oz tells her that if she can find it in her heart to be good again, then she will be allowed to return.

Ranting aside, there were loads of really good things about this film, enough to make me actually like it in spite of its ethical dodginess. As suggested above, it was visually spectacular, with some of the best special effects I've seen. The design of the world of Oz was beautiful, and the CGI on the water, flowers, and especially the little china girl were just jaw-dropping. It may not quite have compared with the incredible make-up and costumes in The Wizard of Oz, but I did think costume was a strong-point (aside from my quibbles about Theodora). I loved the styling of Oz himself, and the folks back in Kansas, and both Glinda and Evanora had some brilliant dresses. I also really liked Theodora's red coat, and her big pre-wicked hat was a very clever touch. I liked the score - but then you can always rely on Danny Elfman to deliver - and I do think that, despite the limitations on their characters, both Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams gave excellent performances. Finally, I enjoyed all the sciencey stuff, and the sense it gave of real technology as something wonderful and magical.

Unfortunately, overall, it just didn't quite hang together, with its unsatisfactory character arcs and its failure to keep consistency with the film to which it was supposedly acting as a prequel (Why, for example, wouldn't Oz have shown any kind of emotion upon learning of Theodora's death in The Wizard of Oz if they'd had this kind of history?). Whilst it might have captured some of the magic of the original film, in the end it was all charm and no substance (though better than its protagonist, who was lacking in both). Worst of all, it's sexism was irredeemable, and felt to me like an insult to the legacy of great female heroines like Alice and Dorothy.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"Out of this wood do not desire to go": A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Institute

Prior to Friday night, my last visit to the Shakespeare Institute had been about a month ago, catching up with an Institute friend after an interview elsewhere in Stratford. At that point, the set for this week's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was just being put together. Consequently, I found myself sitting in on the construction of a huge and bizarre object out of odds and ends of wood. As interesting as things looked, however, I could never have anticipated how well the finished set would come together.

The Shakespeare Institute Players' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which finished yesterday evening, was a complete design triumph. Though the company's previous performance of Edward II in November featured some impressive acting, it was the additional attention to detail in this production – the time and care taken over the look and feel of the show - that lent it a more professional edge. Even before I'd seen the play, the very pretty poster design had already promised much, and the show itself did not disappoint. The wooden skeleton I had watched grow from the roots up had now been transformed into a beautiful tree, hung about with shimmery ribbons for an extra fairy-like, magical look. The woodland set indoors seemed almost to merge organically with the Institute's gardens - the back doors, through which players made many of their exits and their entrances, opening straight onto these. As the audience came into the room, frogs croaked and crickets chirped behind us, transforming the room into a forest alive with activity. And perhaps most impressive of all were the beautiful make-up and costumes designed, respectively, by Laura Nicklin and Red Smucker, the Fairy Queen.

Hair and Make-Up: Laura Nicklin
and Red Smucker

Midsummer Night's Dream is definitely one of Shakespeare's most straightforwardly entertaining plays, a comic fairy tale with an almost Disneyesque quality. This production got fully into that light-hearted spirit, excelling in the timing and execution of its comedy. The mechanicals were, quite rightly, laugh-out-loud funny, the actors' tireless energy betraying their genuine enjoyment of their roles. José A. Pérez Díez in particular was hilarious as the hapless, hopeless Bottom, and matching his enthusiasm was Laura Young as Snug the Joiner, who took to her lion's part with an almost child-like pleasure. Louis Osborne also made a very pretty Thisbe, hamming it up with lots of girly shrieking and swishing of his long, flowing locks. On the less flamboyant side of the party, I really enjoyed John Curtis' attempts to flatter and conciliate as Quince, the Prologue, and Thea Buckley's wonderfully dry “Wall”.

Laura Young as Snug
the Joiner
Almost as funny were the four lovers, especially Kat Twigg as the miserable, spurned Helena. Michael James' fight choreography was fantastic, playing up the slapstick as both he (as Demetrius) and Tudor Reece (as Lysander) ran around in and out of the room, crashing into doors and giggling gleefully at each others' mishaps, before dropping like flies as they were put to sleep by Puck.

Despite all the comedy elsewhere, a more unusual directorial decision had been made with regards to the fairies, and Puck in particular. Cecilia Kendall White presented us with a much darker and more sinister version of this character than we're perhaps accustomed to seeing – less happy-go-lucky trickster and more powerful, moody and malevolent force. I was reminded a little of the take on the character of Loki in the recent Thor and Avengers Assemble films, a similar kind of mischievous figure turned into something more serious and threatening. I'm told that one of the directors (the programme insists there were many), has a particular interest in mortality and magic, and it's from this that the production's darker interpretation of fairyland stems. It was an interesting take, though one I'm not sure entirely fitted in with the lighter tone of the rest of the production. Nevertheless, the fairies' performances were consistently strong. As Oberon, Peter M. Smith was the play's most commanding stage presence, really convincing us of his power to control and manipulate mortal lives.

Taken as a whole, the quality of this production exceeds anything I've yet seen at the Shakespeare Institute, seeming to fly by in a matter of minutes, the pace slowing only slightly right at the very end, as the monologues became longer. The show has really set a standard that won't be easy for future productions to follow, and both cast and crew should be very proud of themselves. I look forward to seeing what the SIP do next! 

Titania and Bottom: Red Smucker and José A. Peréz Díez

Special thanks to Louis Osborne for help with the photographs.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse: Dominic Mitchell and Jonny Campbell In The Flesh

First, there was AMC's TV adaptation of the recent US comic book series, The Walking Dead. Next came Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies, a teen zombie romance novel, quickly snapped up by Mandeville Films for a big screen adaptation. The latest in this line of rejigged zombie horror is Dominic Mitchell's new BBC drama, In The Flesh, coming on Sunday to a television near you.

Just as Warm Bodies has lurched in to pick the bones of Twilight fandom, so In The Flesh is set to take over the Sunday night drama slot on BBC Three, relinquished yesterday by another vampire/werewolf fantasy/horror series, Being Human. So zombies, it seems, are the new vampires.

Not that Mitchell could reasonably have been influenced by any of these other zombie stories: In The Flesh, he explained in the Q&A I attended on Thursday, has now been in development for five years. That's three years before The Waking Dead was first broadcast in the States, and three years before Atria Books acquired the publishing rights to the Warm Bodies novel. It's really interesting how these things seem to run in cycles almost completely coincidentally - though of course, what's already selling will naturally influence what gets commissioned. But then, neither is In The Flesh in any way unoriginal or faddy: far from it, in fact. Mitchell approaches this fantasy/horror genre from a completely novel angle, describing his work as a kind of kitchen-sink-zombie-apocalypse story, inspired as much by the likes of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows as by gory horror B-movies. Having been treated to a special preview showing of the first episode I can tell you that all of these influences definitely show.

At its heart, In the Flesh is a domestic drama, telling the tale of a teenage boy returning to his family after an extremely traumatic experience. In the Q&A session, Mitchell explained that the idea for a zombie series had come to him whilst working on another script about a boy's experience of returning home after a psychotic episode. During this episode, terrible things were done, so naturally, not everyone in the local community is altogether enthusiastic about his homecoming. Thus, in In The Flesh, this theme of mental illness is conveyed through the metaphor of zombie-ism (or Partially Deceased Syndrome) and surfaces repeatedly in a variety of ways. Before his reintegration into society, Kieren must first go through a period of extensive counselling and observation in a heavily guarded medical institution. For the rest of his life thereafter, he must take strong medication through painful injection every single day. Intermittently wracked with guilt about what he has done, filled with fear about how his family and community will react to his return, and cut-up with resentment about what he must now endure on a daily basis, Kieren is briefly tempted by a friend to seek escape through the use of powerful, mind-altering drugs, only effective on PDS sufferers. PDS is not, however, the only form of mental illness that features in the show: pay close attention to hints at the initial cause of Kieren's death.

In spite of this central focus on family experience, however, Kieren's return - and the reintegration of PDS sufferers into society more broadly - has much wider repercussions for his local community. Kieren's home town of Roarton is an isolated, rural working class society, highly conservative and fearful of change and otherness. It's also a stronghold of the Human Volunteer Force, an anti-"rotter" organisation, set up to "protect" the human community from the partially deceased, clearly mirroring anti-immigration organisations such as the National Front or EDL. The series resonates powerfully with gritty realist dramas like This Is England, not only in subject matter, but also visually, having been filmed on-location in similarly desolate, run-down areas. In comparison to its otherwise most kindred drama, Being Human, In The Flesh tackles socio-political and religious issues with much greater sophistication, integrity and maturity. Where Being Human's second series showed a disappointing a lack of real interest in or sensitivity towards the Catholic elements it incorporated largely for effect, In The Flesh's right-wing, evangelical Christian community is central to the story and entirely convincing, showing the damage caused by bigotry and prejudice, yet still managing to remain, to some degree, sympathetic and just to all of its characters.

Aside from zombie apocalypse movies and kitchen-sink dramas, I did notice some other unacknowledged influences, most obviously Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and various film adaptations thereof. Like In The Flesh, Shelley's novel details the quest of a reanimated corpse to become accepted into human society, and the difficulties he encounters in his ultimately fruitless attempts. Particularly striking for me was the similarity between the zombie make-up in this series and that used on Christopher Lee in the 1957 Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein, with characteristic pasty faces and glassy, inhuman eyes, though of course a greater degree of subtlety in make-up is achievable today. It's brilliantly done, even down to the make-up actually used within the story by PDS sufferers: Kieren returns home a little orange, having apparently gone slightly overboard with his foundation, prescribed to allow him to blend in better with other people, in much the same way as wigs are currently provided for cancer sufferers. 

Not only is In The Flesh penned by an exciting, innovative new screenwriter, who has just made the transition from theatre to television, but it also features a whole host of brilliant young actors like Luke Newberry (Kieren Walker) and Harriet Cains (Kieren's sister, Jem). Even the series' more established and better known cast members are not, as Mitchell and Campbell themselves pointed out, the sort of people that "you see in everything". It's always good to see fresh talent being actively sourced in this way, and really encouraging to anyone just starting out themselves. One great piece of advice for aspiring scriptwriters that I gleaned from Mitchell's talk is to create a series bible: even if this includes lots of information you don't actually use in the show itself, it helps you to know your characters thoroughly, and to judge how they might react in different situations, as well as setting clear parameters for the world that you're creating. This is particularly important in a fantasy series: one must set firm rules and be aware of what is and isn't possible in order to maintain an internal logic and keep up the audience's suspension of disbelief.

In The Flesh airs Sunday 17th March at 10pm, and from what I've seen so far, it's gonna be fantastic! Don't miss it!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Further Thoughts on Dancing on the Edge

Because second thoughts are never a bad thing.

I'll be honest - I was pretty wrong about Dancing on the Edge. Not only did the series get considerably darker as it progressed, but the writing quality also got considerably worse, with the exception of the final episode. In the interests of fairness, I'll start with the good and concentrate on that last and best episode first.

It is true to say that the plot got stronger and more gripping towards the end of the series, with the final part being properly edge-of-your-seat exciting. It was much more plot driven, dispensing with all the standing around saying inane and pointless things that had got in the way of the story earlier on. It also saw some of the series' best acting (though that was a consistent strong point throughout): there were fantastic performances from Anthony Head as the cold and dangerous Donaldson, and from Tom Hughes as the increasingly disturbed and disturbing Julian.

More than any other, this seemed like Julian's episode. For much of the story, he is pretty far gone, dancing on the edge of madness. He carries a gun around with him, and in one fantastically creepy moment, we're afraid that he's about to murder two little girls in cold blood. Yet, there are several moments of clarity, and it is in these that we really get an insight into Julian's world, and start to understand what has made him the way he is. Alone and miserable in his loveless family home, he discovers a gun inside a huge chest (a chest that could almost be an old-fashioned toybox) prompting comments on how the house is "full of guns" and perhaps hinting at the threat of violence with which he grew up. Later, he expresses his disgust at his inability to effect a change in his life. He sees that his actions, along with those of the rich men with whom he socialises, are not allowed to have consequences - at least not consequences that directly affect them. Appearances must be kept up, and these people have the power to weather any storm, even when they are the cause of it. For Julian, this means not a carefree life but a powerless one, plagued by feelings of guilt, disgust, and a strong sense of how little he deserves the life he has.

Despite a brillaint and poignant finale, however, the rest of the series mostly got worse as things went on. The quality of the acting and strength of the plot were the two things that kept this series afloat and watchable in a sea of bad writing and mediocre direction. Stephen Poliakoff has shown he can tell a good story, but I suspect that what he really needs to help him make a great TV series is a good editor. The most striking indication of this was the clumsy dialogue. Some things were said far too often, becoming repetitive and irritating ("since my sons died", "my son would have loved this", "it can't have been Julian" "it's weird doing this being watched by photgraphs"), some things were said in unconvincingly direct ways ("I need to do something to really impress her", "this is part of my grieving process"), and others just didn't really need to be said at all ("they had sex on the train, you know").

In addition to this, there was also an issue with "staging". Though perhaps not so obvious a problem as what was spoken, the way certain scenes were set gave the impression that Poliakoff doesn't fully understand television as a medium. Occasionally, there were some great little bits of TV direction, such as the cut from the car carrying the fugitive Louis to the one arriving to collect Julian - it's often this focus on striking visual images and editing that really makes a film or TV show stand out. Unfortunately, there were far more scenes which felt as though they had been written for the stage. For example, the scene in which Rosie and Mr Masterson are shouting across a room at each other, and earlier the scene in which everyone is dancing outside in the hailstorm together both seemed to require more space than a television screen could possibly afford them. Further, not one of the sex scenes was remotely convincing. As such, they seemed unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure that this means that they were terrible pieces of writing. As a theatre-goer, I could easily visualise how certain moments might look performed live, and how effective they might be under different circumstances, with a different kind of connection to their audience. In theatre, we naturally accept a more heightened tone and a greater degree of artificiality. On stage, certain kinds of artifice can actually help us to become more involved, because they allow actors to reach out to an audience that is present with them. But in forcing things into a television serial format that didn't really belong there, Poliakoff squeezed out much of their impact. The subtlety and naturalism of television as a medium simply leaves very little room for self-conscious theatricality.

As a final thought, it would have been nice to have had some closure with regards to Wesley's deportation, which was left annoyingly open-ended. It seemed strange that in the last episode, they should think to remind us of Wesley with a shot of him in Louis's flashback, but still not think to conclude his story properly.

All told though, I still enjoyed it, even if it was mostly the actors that made it. It still beats a lot of other TV drama I've seen lately. I'm also really looking forward to seeing the chameleon-like Matthew Goode go on to star in Stoker, alongside the wonderful Mia Wasikowska. If that film's not amazing, I'll eat my hat:

Mmmm...hat cake.