Oscar Week Film Review: Victoria and Abdul

Not even Judi Dench can save this irresponsible look at the British colonial legacy, Victoria and Abdul nevertheless takes two Oscar nominations into the ceremony.

“It is imperative that the royal colon receives a little roughage”

AKA The Other V&A. You can see the rationale behind Victoria and Abdul, allowing Dame Judi Dench to reprise her much-loved role from Mrs Brown with another 20 years under her belt. And directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Lee Hall, hopes were reasonably high.

What results though, is a film that indulges in an irresponsible kind of historical revisionism, a refusal to engage with and interrogate the reality of British colonial rule. Hall’s version of Victoria is allowed to be coyly ignorant of the looting of Indian treasure, a champion of diversity too in an improbable twist. Continue reading “Oscar Week Film Review: Victoria and Abdul”

News: Old Vic bicentenary ambassadors announced

How do you mark a significant birthday? My parents are currently (jointly) turning 140 and are celebrating the occasion with a six month program of events, peaking with an all-day party happening very soon. But if you’re the Old Vic and you’re turning 200, you open your contacts and see who is free.

Turns out a fair few people are, and so their list currently includes Nikki Amuka-Bird, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Cate Blanchett, Bertie Carvel, Kim Cattrall, Lily Cole, Alan Cumming, Judi Dench, Michelle Dockery, Rupert Everett, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, David Harewood, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Cush Jumbo, Ben Kingsley, Pearl Mackie, Helen McCrory, Ian McKellen, Bill Nighy, Anika Noni Rose, Maxine Peake, Mark Rylance, Andrew Scott, Tom Stoppard, Stanley Tucci and Julie Walters.

Continue reading “News: Old Vic bicentenary ambassadors announced”

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”

 

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox

 

 

Sir Peter Hall: 1930-2017 – a photo retrospective

In sad news, the death of Sir Peter Hall, one of the great names in British theatre, has been announced today. Sir Peter died on 11 September at University College Hospital, at the age of 86, surrounded by his family.
As the below statement from the National Theatre reminds us, his achievements were unparalleled, his devotion to the arts undoubtable. And in this selection of photos from some of his productions for the NT, his was a rare artistic vision indeed.

Peter Hall was an internationally celebrated stage director and theatre impresario, whose influence on the artistic life of Britain in the 20th century was unparalleled. His extraordinary career spanned more than half a century: in his mid-20s he staged the English language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In 1960, aged 29, Peter Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company which he led until 1968. The RSC realised his pioneering vision of a resident ensemble of actors, directors and designers producing both classic and modern texts with a clear house style in both Stratford and London.
Appointed Director of the National Theatre in 1973, Peter Hall was responsible for the move from the Old Vic to the purpose-built complex on the South Bank. He successfully established the company in its new home in spite of union unrest and widespread scepticism. After leaving the National Theatre in 1988, he formed the Peter Hall Company (1988 – 2011) and in 2003 became the founding director of the Rose Theatre Kingston. Throughout his career, Sir Peter was a vociferous champion of public funding for the arts.

Peter Hall’s prolific work as a theatre director included the world premieres of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), John Barton’s nine-hour epic Tantalus (2000); and the London and Broadway premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (1977). Other landmark productions included Hamlet (1965, with David Warner), The Wars of the Roses (1963), The Oresteia (1981), Animal Farm (1984), Antony and Cleopatra (1987, with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins), The Merchant of Venice (1989, with Dustin Hoffman), As You Like It (2003, with his daughter Rebecca Hall) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010, with Judi Dench). Peter’s last production at the National Theatre was Twelfth Night in 2011.
Sir Peter was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. He is survived by his wife, Nicki, and children Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca and Emma and nine grandchildren. His former wives, Leslie Caron, Jacqueline Taylor and Maria Ewing also survive him.


No Man’s Land – 1975

Photos by Anthony Crickmay

John Gielgud as Spooner,Ralph Richardson as Hirst,Michael Feast as Foster

Michael Feast as Foster,John Gielgud as Spooner,Ralph Richardson as Hirst,Terence Rigby as Briggs

Ralph Richardson as Hirst,John Gielgud as Spooner

Betrayal – 1978

Photos by Michael Mayhew

Michael Gambon as Jerry,Penelope Wilton as Emma

Daniel Massey as Robert,Michael Gambon as Jerry,Penelope Wilton as Emma

Penelope Wilton as Emma,Michael Gambon as Jerry

Amadeus – 1979 

Photos by Nobby Clark

Paul Scofield as Antonio,Simon Callow as Mozart

Dermot Crowley as The Venticelli,Paul Scofield as Antonio,Donald Gee as The Venticelli

Felicity Kendal as Constanze Weber,Paul Scofield as Antonio

The Oresteia – 1981

Photos by Nobby Clark

The Importance of Being Earnest – 1982

Photos by Zoe Dominic

Zoe Wanamaker as Gwendolen Fairfax,Martin Jarvis as John Worthing,Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell

Nigel Havers as Algernon Moncrieff,Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell

Martin Jarvis as John Worthing,Elizabeth Garvie as Cecily Cardew,Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell,Zoe Wanamaker as Gwendolen Fairfax

Anna Massey as Miss Prism,Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell

Animal Farm – 1984

Photos by Nobby Clark

Barrie Rutter as Napoleon,David Ryall as Squealer,Judith Paris as Muriel,Greg Hicks as Snowball

Twelfth Night – 2011

Photos by Nobby Clark

Tony Haygarth as Sea Captain,Rebecca Hall as Viola

Marton Csokas as Orsino,Rebecca Hall as Viola

David Ryall as Feste,Marton Csokas as Orsino,Rebecca Hall as Viola

Samuel James as Fabian,Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch,Charles Edwards as Sir Andrew Aguecheek,Simon Paisley Day as Malvolio

Amanda Drew as Olivia,Rebecca Hall as Viola

Review: Songs and Solidarity, Trafalgar Studios

“We could see this was a bad one immediately. The sky was glowing.”
Touted as an evening of song, dance and poetry, Songs and Solidarity was a remarkable event indeed. A fundraising gala evening pulled together in the space of a week by the superhuman efforts of actor Giles Terera and producer Danielle Tarento, it was a concert for the hundreds of families made homeless and the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Hosted by Claire Sweeney, musically directed by the enormously talented Tim Sutton, 
The balance of the programme was just right too. From pure musical loveliness like the gentle harmonies of Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ and the simplicity of Rachel Tucker’s acapella take on ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, to the more intense emotion of Terera’s own ‘Ol’ Man River’ and a visibly moved Clare Foster’s ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ (a song with which I wasn’t familiar but rather destroyed me). From the much-needed comic relief of Stiles & Drewe skipping through ‘A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate’ to the soul-warming ‘Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness’ performed by the ever excellent Julie Atherton.
The more stirring emotional moments came from those performers talking about their more personal connection to the tragedy. Musician Earl Okin spoke movingly about living in the shadow of the tower itself before a stunning version of Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, polymath Rikki Beadle-Blair turned his experience of being evicted from his own tower block into something akin to performance art before an impassioned ‘Change Is Gonna Come’, Mark Thomas had us in tears of laughter with his comedy set before expertly twisting the knife with his fervent defence of public servants, particularly the firefighters whom he had visited just to say thank you.
Musical numbers were interspersed with powerful extracts of verbatim testimony from some of the survivors of the fire, read by the likes of Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rakhee Thakrar and Vikesh Bhai, even Dame Judi Dench got in on the action with a recording. But for me, the most memorable part of the evening came with Noma Dumezweni’s recital of this Facebook post from a firefighter who attended Grenfell. Gently asking us to close our eyes and to consider this a radio play, it was a sobering reminder of exactly what we ask of our much beleaguered emergency services and of the scale of the tragedy which should not, can not, must not be forgotten.
It was also instructive and inspirational to hear from Eartha Pond, the Queens Park councillor who set up this GoFundMe page to help provide a focal point for support and whose tireless efforts on the ground to help those affected by the fire are being fitted around the responsibilities of her day job. In the words of Heather Small, a surprise addition to the bill, ‘what have you done today to make yourself feel proud?’ Well, you can still donate money and if you are quick, you can also still participate in the silent auction (entries close on Friday 30th). 

Programme
Had I A Golden Thread – Alexia Khadime
Total Praise – West End Gospel Choir
We’ve Lost Everything – Vikesh Bhai
True Colors – Tyrone Huntley and Jon Robyns
I Said Listen, We Have To Go Back – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Natural Woman – Cassidy Janson
Extract from The Hotel Cerise and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou – Bonnie Greer 
God Bless The Child – Earl Okin
Your Face – The Olai Collier Company feat. Caitlin Taylor and Ayden Morgan
Mark Thomas
Change Is Gonna Come – Rikki Beadle-Blair, accompanied by Jami Reid Quarrell
Ol’ Man River – Giles Terera
She Moved Through The Fair – Rachel Tucker
Wind Beneath My Wings – Rachel Tucker

A Little Bit of Nothing On A Big White Plate – Stiles & Drewe
One Thing I’ll Say, I’m Proud Of The Young People – Rakhee Thakrar
Don’t Worry About Me – Clare Foster
It’s Not About Muslim Or Christian – Nikki Amuka-Bird
Redemption Song – Tyrone Huntley
Indiscriminate Acts Of Kindness – Julie Atherton, accompanied by Curtis Volp
The Fire Fighter – Noma Dumezweni
Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries – Claire Sweeney
Sweet Thing – David McAlmont accompanied by Curtis Slapper
Proud – Heather Small
You’ve Got A Friend – Cassidy Janson and Company

TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III

“The king’s name is a tower of strength”

The Hollow Crown reaches its climax with a solid and occasionally very strong Richard III which once again shimmers with quality and hints of artistic innovation. And for all the lauding of Benedict Cumberbatch’s starring role, it is pleasing to see Dominic Cooke and Ben Power give Sophie Okonedo’s excoriating Margaret of Anjou her due as one of the real pleasures of running these plays together is to trace her complete arc (for she’s the only character to appear in them all) and root her enmity – alongside that of so many others – in something most palpable.
Cooke’s direction also benefits from loosening its representational restraints, Richard III’s monologues and asides make this a different type of play and Cooke responds with a series of interesting choices (though the surfeit of nervy finger-tapping was a touch too much for me) making great use of both gloomy interiors and hauntingly effective exteriors. Playing so many scenes in woodlands was an inspired decision as it leant a real eeriness to proceedings, whether Margaret or Richard bursting from the bushes to disrupt the private mourning of Elizabeth or Anne.

And has been the case for all of these films, it was the women who made it for me. Phoebe Fox’s exquisite Lady Anne just made me long for her return to the London stage, Keeley Hawes muted some of Elizabeth’s rage with interesting results and Judi Dench was impressively restrained as the embittered Duchess of York. I liked that the Princess Elizabeth got a physical presence (she is rarely seen on stage as she gets no lines) and Okonedo’s Margaret remains one of the strongest performances on television this year.
Cumberbatch wisely underplays the despotic extremes of the titular monarch to make him a more pathetic being, a reading that worked well throughout, and it was good to see the likes of Al Weaver (Rivers), Matthew Needham (Basset) and Ivanno Jeremiah (Blunt) in smaller supporting roles. Truth be told I was a little underwhelmed by Luke Treadaway’s Richmond and Ben Daniels’ Buckingham, neither really standing out as interesting takes on the characters but then I’m picky like that. Still, a worthy finale to a strong second cycle (reviews of Part I and Part II) which might well be the last if Whittingdale gets his way (though I hear rumours that the Roman plays are being considered next).
Photos: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd

TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“I am a spirit of no common rate”
The culmination of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don’t care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn’t do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion.

There were of course moments of brilliance, some recalling previous productions and others tempting the possibilities of the future. Who now doesn’t want to see Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear do Macbeth, or Roger Allam’s King Lear. And as pleased as I was to be reminded of Dame Judi Dench’s flirtatious Titania, Alexandra Gilbreath’s glorious Olivia and Meera Syal’s melancholy Beatrice (though sad to be reminded of the untimely passing of her Benedick, Paul Bhattacharjee), there was even more pleasure in seeing the likes of Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra and Henry Goodman’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, classic performances I have not seen before.
A comic highlight was the Hamlet sketch, current Hamlet Paapa Essiedu arriving onstage to deliver ‘To be or not to be’ only to be interrupted by a series of well-meaning folk with notes. That those people were Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and then Prince Charles made it a memorable moment indeed, transformed into a superlative one by Essiedu then re-composing himself to deliver a stunning rendition of the speech. How that Hamlet isn’t transferring to London I do not know.
Personally I wasn’t much of a fan of the Joseph Fiennes-narrated historical video clips, though I appreciate they were probably needed to cover set changes, but the musical interludes were lovely, Alison Moyet, The Shires and Ian Bostridge standing out for me. I could have done without an extended look at Antony Sher’s Falstaff too, though again I appreciate that he is part of the package deal these days, I took that opportunity to refresh my gin and bitter lemon. 
The majority of the finale was excellent though, Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More, making the argument for the humane treatment of those forced to seek asylum; Helen Mirren reprising her Prospera all too briefly, and David Suchet joining Dench as her Oberon. Yes, it would have been nice to see a little more adventure in the casting – Harriet Walter’s ‘not yet’ in response to being asked whether she’d played the Dane was cute but telling – though perhaps this wasn’t the time or place. A varied celebration of varying strengths then.

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior. 

There’s a keen sense of cinematic vision that really works here too. Derek Jacobi’s modern-dress Chorus is an almost David Attenborough-like figure as he takes us thrillingly through soundstages and locations to reveal the players within. And there’s effective dramatic license in incorporating brief flashbacks to Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 pays off beautifully in emphasising the role of Falstaff who, though he’d be highly familiar to theatregoers, would be something of a mystery to any newcomers to this film. The repurposing of “do not, when thou art King, hang a thief” equally works wonderfully.


From the sturm und drang of the battlefield, shot beautifully by Kenneth MacMillan, to the quiet wonder of the night before as the King wanders the encampment in disguise, this is a truly gripping piece of cinema and a fabulous adaptation of a play that I’m now hungry to see again…so thank the Lord that it is the glorious Michelle Terry who will be taking on the title role at the Open Air Theatre in the summer!

DVD Review: Macbeth (1979)

“Round about the cauldron go”

Who’d’ve thought that it would be a production from 1979 that would be one of the most enduringly successful translations from stage to screen. It helps immensely of course that this RSC production of Macbeth features a couple by the name of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as its central lovebirds, with a young gentleman named Trevor Nunn on directorial duties at a point when playfulness didn’t seem like a dirty word to him.

The original production from 1976 played in the round to small audiences at The Other Place and Nunn recreates that intimacy by keeping his company on a circular set and keeping (mostly, one imagines) to the theatrical devices used, rather than employing anything too cinematic. So we’re left with what feels like pure Shakespeare, exceptional actors doing little else but acting as if their lives depended on it and holding the audience utterly in the palms of their hands.

McKellen is magnificent as Macbeth, his slicked-back hair and smooth presentation unable to mask the slow descent into madness that comes from his own appalledness, and Dench makes an astonishing Lady Macbeth, gripped by her own psychosis which manifests shockingly and yet still affectingly. Around them, the gloomy darkness hides a multitude of sins and haunts with a trio of genuinely creepy witches.

It’s so good you even forgive Angus and Ross being a frightful looking Duncan Preston and Ian McDiarmid, the latter doing excellent double duty as the Porter, and a youthful Greg Hicks is around as Donalbain and Seyton. The DVD was given away free with a newspaper to celebrate another Shakespearean anniversary or somesuch so you should be able to pick it up in any charity shop and I’d highly recommend doing so.