Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

A starry Mary Queen of Scots proves an intriguing if a little frustrating film debut for Josie Rourke

“The world will decide for itself”

An intriguing, if a little frustrating one this. Josie Rourke is a titan in the world of theatre and Mary Queen of Scots marks her cinematic debut. But despite a classy pair of lead performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as diametrically opposed queens Mary and Elizabeth, an ensemble consisting of the cream of British acting talent, and the sweeping beauty of the Highlands to frame every other shot, the film never really quite sparks into life.

Beau Willimon’s screenplay, based on John Guy’s book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, dances around historical accuracy with its own determination, building in a climactic meeting between the two which although visually striking, dramatically brings precious little. Before then, the film is plotted as a strategic confrontation between two monarchs, two women, who are battling the worlds around them as much as each other. Continue reading “Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)”

Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare

I have a mixed time with some shaken-up Shakespeares – othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith; Twelfth Night at the Young Vic; Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace; and Measure for Measure at the Donmar

“Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?”

I’m the first to say that modern adaptations of Shakespeare need to do something different to justify their place in today’s theatre ecology. Lord knows there’s been enough traditional renditions of his work, and still they come, and even if there are always going to be people coming for the first time, there’s also a real need to make his plays speak to contemporary society in a way that is unafraid to challenge his reputation. It is perhaps no surprise that it is female directors and directors of colour who are at the forefront of doing just that and there have been four key examples in London most recently – Jude Christian’s othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, Brigid Larmour’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Watford Palace and Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure at the Donmar.

And of course, having demanded that this is what directors do, I found myself disappointed at the majority of these, for some of the same reasons and some different ones too. Perhaps the most formally daring is Christian’s othellomacbeth which smashes together the two tragedies to create something which ends up less than the sum of its constituent parts. Its intentions are certainly noble, seeking to highlight the female voices in these plays and give them prominence. But the reality is that in the two substantially reduced treatments here, everything becomes diminished, not least narrative clarity. There’s one cracking idea which connects the two, which you suspect might have inspired the whole production, but ultimately, it is not enough to hang the whole thing on. Continue reading “Blogged: shaking up Shakespeare”

Casting news aplenty!

I round up some of the recent casting news, including Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange, Wasted at the Southwark Playhouse, Measure for Measure at the Donmar and The Woods at the Royal Court.

Shakespeare wrote more lines for Queen Margaret than he did for King Lear yet we know very little of her. Jeanie O’Hare re-acquaints us with one of Shakespeare’s major but rarely performed characters in her new play Queen Margaret. In a production that draws on original language from Shakespeare, director Elizabeth Freestone and Jade Anouka as Margaret, retell an iconic moment in British History through the eyes of the extraordinary Margaret of Anjou. This captivating exploration of The Wars of the Roses seen through the eyes of this astonishing, dangerous and thrilling woman opens the Royal Exchange’s Autumn Winter 2018/19 Season.

Anouka is joined by Islam Bouakkaz (Prince Edward/Rutland), Lorraine Bruce (York), Samuel Edward-Cook (Suffolk/Clifford), Dexter Flanders (Edward IV), Helena Lymbery (Hume), Lucy Mangan (Joan of Arc), Roger Morlidge (Gloucester), Kwami Odoom (Somerset/Richard), Bridgitta Roy (Warwick) and Max Runham (Henry VI). Continue reading “Casting news aplenty!”

News: Casting for 2018 Donmar season

It looks like Josie Rourke is getting a little demob happy at the Donmar, as her penultimate season as artistic director sees a fresh twist on gender swapping that feels like a genuine first. Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden will star in a new production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in which they will alternate the roles of Isabella and Angelo, midway through the show. Heaven knows how it will work but Lord knows I can’t wait to find out.

Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, directed by Lyndsey Turner, is also added to the slate, and this will be Turner’s fourth staging of a Friel play after Faith Healer, Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Fathers and Sons. The cast includes Elaine Cassidy, Daniel Dawson, David Ganley, Emmet Kirwan, Aisling Loftus, Ciaran McIntyre and Eileen Walsh. Continue reading “News: Casting for 2018 Donmar season”

Oscar Week Film Review: Dunkirk

Nominated for 8 Oscars, can Chrstopher Nolan’s Dunkirk change my mind about war films…?

“The tide’s turning now.
‘How can you tell?’
The bodies are coming back.”

I’m not really a fan of war films, hence having avoided Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk until now. ‘It’s not a war film’ they said, tempting me to overcome my natural antipathy but they lied. It may not be a conventional war film but it remains a punishing film with a whole lot of war in it and so really not my thing at all.

Nolan is a bravura film-maker, that much is true. And this is an audacious take on a much-filmed, much-explored moment in world history. Free from context, meaningful dialogue, narrative thrust, this becomes a study in the desperate struggle for survival of the Allied forces on that beach in Northern France. And all the waiting they did. Continue reading “Oscar Week Film Review: Dunkirk”

DVD Review: Wolf Hall

“By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus”
 

Peter Straughan’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies into a six-part TV serial has no right to be this good but somehow, it manages the extraordinary feat of being genuinely excellent. I didn’t watch it at the time and so caught up with its complexities and nuances over a binge-watch at Christmas. And though I’m no real fan of his acting on stage, there’s no doubting the titanic performance of Mark Rylance as the almighty Thomas Cromwell.

Mantel charts the rise of this lowly-born blacksmith’s boy through service as lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (a brilliant Jonathan Pryce) to the heights of the Tudor court as Henry VII’s (Damian Lewis on fine form) chief fixer, predominantly in the matter of securing the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to enable him to wed Anne Boleyn. Rylance really is very good, subtler than he is onstage as he negotiates the world of ‘gentlemen’ – in which he is constantly underestimated – from the sidelines, wielding increasing amounts of power, though with it fewer and fewer scruples. Continue reading “DVD Review: Wolf Hall”

DVD Review: uwantme2killhim (2013)

“Everyone is being followed”

A rather successful foray into the world of internet chatrooms, somewhat akin to Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, Mike Walsh’s uwantme2killhim invites descriptors such as darkly compelling and timely as it follows two teenagers sucked into a morass of online deception. Directed by Andrew Douglas, it takes a fairly traditional approach to representing digital communication – they speak as they type, which let’s face it, a lot of us do anyway – but the complications thrown up by their actions are thoroughly modern.

Based loosely on a true story, the film opens with Joanne Froggatt’s fervent Detective Inspector trying to work out why Mark has stabbed John, a schoolmate supposed to be his friend. We then loop back to the beginnings of Mark’s venturing into chatrooms and in particular with his friendship with Rachel, who turns out to John’s older sister. She’s in a witness protection program and has a violent boyfriend but Mark has fallen head over heels and will do anything for her. And ultimately he does do anything for her. Continue reading “DVD Review: uwantme2killhim (2013)”

Review: Ghosts via Digital Theatre (plus thoughts on the filming of theatre more generally)

“You have no idea what this has cost me”

There’s something a little ironic about the fact that many of the people who write about the filming of theatre shows are precisely those who need it the least, myself included. I am in the fortunate position that all the shows I’ve wanted to see that have been broadcast in cinemas through NT Live or captured on Digital Theatre have been shows I was able to see live. To poke at too easy a target, Shenton’s assertion that these are for people who are “not organised enough or connected enough or rich enough to get your hands on a ticket” feels misguided in light of the news that the recent live showing of Billy Elliot topped the UK box office; the audience is clearly there, just not necessarily in London’s IMAX screens.

It can be easy to forget that for people who do not live in London, the expense incurred in sorting out a trip to the theatre, especially for a high-demand show, verges on the ridiculous. Train timetables now work against anyone hoping to catch an evening show, the steady rise in ticket prices means taking a family to see something is increasingly expensive, etc etc. So the option of going to the local picturehouse offers something of a solution, not a replacement but a widening of the opportunity (as Shenton does acknowledge before the above quote).

As for those of us who more habitually spend most evenings in theatres, the gnashing of the teeth about filmed versions replacing the live experience of sitting in a playhouse equally feels wrong. I don’t think anyone is suggesting at all that these innovations are in place of the ‘real thing’ but rather an accompaniment, something to enrich that very experience. I’ve always felt this – having seen many a show from the cheap seats in the larger West End theatres, the chance to see things up close offers a completely new take on the show as well as the joy of revisiting something you enjoyed that otherwise would just live in the memory.

These thoughts ran through my head again as I watched Digital Theatre’s production of the multi award-winning Ghosts, recorded during the show’s transfer to the Trafalgar Studios after an extraordinary run at the Almeida where Richard Eyre’s adaptation completely won me over. The Trafalgar is a notoriously uncomfortable theatre and you can end up paying a ton to still be far away so I didn’t go back to the show there but now, one has the opportunity to watch it again from the comfort of, well, wherever one chooses.

And yes, there are aspects that are lost in viewing it this way. The majesty of Tim Hatley’s translucent design never really comes across and the perspective is always dictated by the camera crew. But trusting them to make good decisions, it is easy to turn that frown upside down as the frequent close-ups on Lesley Manville’s Mrs Alving offer a unique opportunity to observe the finer details of a truly magnificent performance – the way the word “whoring” catches in her mouth, the trembles as she speaks of “the right thing to do”, the agony on her face as she hears that her son has not escaped “the sins of the father”.

The thought that this performance has been captured for posterity if nothing else is a thrilling one and I was recently pointed to the 1987 film (that can be seen on YouTube here) which features Judi Dench in a stunning, if slightly more stagey production. And this feeds into the idea of a rich theatrical archive being built up, in far more democratic a fashion than usual, so that maybe in another 25 years we’ll be able to compare and contrast another spell-binding turn from an actor in her fifties (Phoebe Fox or Vanessa Kirby would be my prediction).

There’s also the other pleasures contained here, the chance to see the late lamented Natasha Richardson work for one and the freshness of a youthful Kenneth Branagh for another, he probably comes out about equal with the excellent Jack Lowden for my money, as the ailing Oswald. Really, I can’t see why people get so het up about the idea of filmed theatre.

Ghosts, along with five other shows on Digital Theatre, is now available with the option of StageText captioning; that’s the sound of another barrier being broken down as the choices open to those who rely on captioning in theatres are limited and being able to make the precious few performances that are covered often requires planning of military precision. Adding this option here is therefore a real boon and shows that this is a company thoughtfully considering what their role in the capturing of live theatre really means. Well worth the investigation.

Review: Electra, Old Vic

“They took his life. They took MY life”

There’s something fiercely elemental about Kristin Scott Thomas’ extraordinary performance as Electra that makes it the perfect choice for the in-the-round setting that the Old Vic has wisely kept for a season of work. The sheer depth of feeling she generates like a vortex that sucks us all in, with her at its dark heart, hollowed out by grief and howling through the floor at Persephone to unleash the power of the underworld or perhaps just swallow her whole to release her from the torment of her existence.

Why so sad? Well, her father Agamemnon sacrificed her sister Iphigenia which annoyed her mother Clytemnestra (along with his schtupping Cassandra) who then murdered Agamemnon with her new lover (and his cousin) Aegisthus. Electra thus swore to avenge her father’s death, sending away her young brother Orestes to return when he was old to enough to fulfil the deed, and remaining rebelliously in court with her sister as an almost impossibly embittered soul. Continue reading “Review: Electra, Old Vic”

The 2013 Ian Charleson Awards

First prize

Jack Lowden, for Oswald in Ghosts (Almeida Theatre)

Second prize

Jessie Buckley, for Miranda in The Tempest (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Princess Katharine in Henry V (Noël Coward Theatre)

Third prize

Graham Butler, for Henry VI in Henry VI, Parts I, II & III (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Commendations

Fisayo Akinade, for Adam, Silvius, and William in As You Like It (Transport Theatre on tour)
Elliot Barnes-Worrell, for the Groom in Richard II (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Nari Blair-Mangat, for Caithness in Macbeth (Manchester International Festival)
Gavin Fowler, for Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Noël Coward Theatre) and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Kim Hardy, for Konstantin in The Seagull (The White Bear)
Brian Markey, for Hugh in Mixed Marriage (Lyric Theatre, Belfast)
Charlene McKenna, for Regina in Ghosts (Almeida Theatre)
Rose Reynolds, for Lavinia in Titus Andronicus (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Gemma Soul, for Rose in The Recruiting Officer (Salisbury Playhouse)
Luke Thompson, for Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare’s Globe)
Olivia Vinall, for Desdemona in Othello (National Theatre)