Review: Scenes from a Marriage, St James

“Sometimes it grieves me that I have never loved anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been loved either. It really distresses me”

Trevor Nunn’s revisit of his production of Scenes from a Marriage for the St James Theatre was due to open last week but untimely and persistent illness for one of its leads, Mark Bazeley, meant that a series of early performances were cancelled and its opening postponed until tonight. And we could all probably do with some of whatever he took to get well as alongside the glorious Olivia Williams, there’s some extraordinary work going on here in this adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith of Ingmar Bergman’s timeless classic, first seen at Coventry’s Belgrade back in 2008 with Nunn’s then-wife Imgen Stubbs and Iain Glen.

Over fifteen or so ‘scenes’ spanning a decade, we see the portrayal of Johan and Marianne’s marriage from the opening (dubious) highlight of being interviewed for a magazine on their 10th wedding anniversary through the trials of painful losses and abject betrayals into the battlefield of bitter recriminations, the divorce courts and beyond. It probes into the state of marriage with unblinking precision, peeling away the layers of complacency that settle into long-running relationships and revealing the truth about how people really feel about each other, no matter how messy or raw it becomes.


At its best, this is coruscating, blood-pumping stuff. Its blistering take on the institution of marriage is spell-binding as closeness is corrupted and intimacies become injurious – they say familiarity breeds contempt but it has rarely been so uncompromising as this. Williams cracks open Marianne’s veneer of domesticated bliss to reveal a mass of insecurities, anguished desperation at the prospect of being abandoned that is near-impossible to watch, along with glimmers of razor-sharp wit and intelligence to make her engagingly complex.


And Bazeley is excellent as mid-life-crisis-stricken Johan, never afraid of showing this man’s narcissism and cruelty for what it is as he chases personal desires, a new piece of skirt, at the expense of his wife and (unseen) child, exposing his character’s weaknesses with skill, yet always maintaining a credible lived-in-ness with Williams’ Marianne that makes them utterly believable as a well-worn couple, inextricably connected even as they tear each other apart. The only criticism I could wager comes with a particular jump in time which occurs late on and which exculpates some rather heinous business, Bergman/Murray-Smith ducking the exploration of one key aspect of the deterioration of this partnership. 


Scenes are interspersed with snippets of home videos which are surprisingly effective; Shane Attwooll, Melanie Jessop and Aislinn Sands provide sterling support as a range of peripheral characters; and the piles of furniture that are loaded on either side of the set, ferried on and off by capable stage-hands, neatly suggest the accumulated piles of baggage that weigh us all down. Nunn directs with a surprisingly nifty sense of pace and though he doesn’t specify if we’re in Bergman’s Sweden, his own London or anywhere else for that matter, it never matters –it could be anywhere, anytime, any of us. 

Photos: Nobby Clarke

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Programme cost: £3.50

Booking until 9th November

Short Film Review #17

Mockingbird

Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these films comes from nowhere to just punch in the guts with its downright amazingness yet simultaneously leaving unable to really articulate just why it is so. Joe Tunmer’s Mockingbird is such a film – achingly beautiful, gorgeously shot and infinitely moving. William Houston is extraordinary, Eliza Darby refreshingly appealing and there’s bonus Olivia Williams – what more do you want?!

Farrington

A 7 minute clip from Aneil Karia, Farrington is one of the funnier short films I’ve had the pleasure to watch recently. Robert Bathurst plays an investment banker named Henry who opts to take a wee career break to take part in a reality TV show where he will have 12 days to try and learn a whole new craft and convince a panel at the end that he is indeed a master of said skill. The joy comes from what that thing is and I won’t spoil it here, save to say it is refreshingly un-PC and leads to some cracking lines from the team of ‘experts’ set up to help, including Prasanna Puwanarajah and James Garnon. Definitely recommended.

Rover’s Return

The central idea of Rover’s Return – rich person pays someone to babysit their dearest love, who turns out to be a pet – and something goes horribly wrong – is not a new one – I’ve seen at least two other short films execute something similar. It’s clearly not a bad idea and who knows who had it first but coming in now for me, this version felt a little uninspired. Indira Varma is the high-flyer who is heading to Paris for a nookie-filled break and Andrea Lowe her junior colleague who is looking after the mutt in her absence. She’s inexperienced with dogs and predictably things go pear-shaped – it’s all a bit predictable and lacks any particularly unique facet to hook the attention, either in Oliver Ledwith’s direction or Patrick Ledwith’s script. 

The Honeymoon Suite

Possessed of an utterly gorgeous rasping voice, Alexis Zegerman is one of those actors I could listen to all day, but for her short film debut, The Honeymoon Suite, she opted to remain behind the camera. Lola Zidi-Rénier and Tim Key take on the role of a newly-wed Jewish couple who barely know each other, pushed together in some kind of arranged marriage and as they tumble into their hotel room after the ceremony, they get their first moment of quiet together, but it is the worst kind of awkward silence that fills the room. As they painfully tease out detail after detail about each other that seems to make them increasingly ill-suited together, they eventually find a tiny glimmer of hope that things might not be so bad after all. It is well done and nicely understated by all involved.

Veils

Another film funded by the Jewish Film Council is Dan Susman’s Veils, an insightful look into the Jewish/Palestinian conflict through the eyes of impending marriage for a Jewish girl and a Palestinian man in modern-day North London. As each prepare themselves on the wedding day, we see how the intransigent attitudes of some of their extended families are so strongly held that not even the joy of nuptial bliss can sway them, the difficulties of reconciliation laid bare in front of us as grandfather rejects grandson, family friends finding the most obscure of excuses not to attend. It is well-shot and cleverly structured too in the way that it teases the expectations. 

DVD Review: Dead Babies

“The jokes, the drugs, it all gets so tedious”

If you use Lovefilm, then you might have experienced that moment when you open the packet and you have no earthly clue as to what the film is that they have sent you. Compiling the list of films that you want to watch starts when you first open your account, which in my case was a good couple of years ago and the thought processes that go behind adding things, as you browse through various categories and names, remain a mystery as all sorts of random things end up on there. So I was genuinely intrigued by the prospect of Dead Babies and decided to pop in the DVD without googling it to if it would become clear to me.

And sure enough it soon did and in the most delightful of ways as two of my favourite actresses, Alexandra Gilbreath and Olivia Williams, popped up in the opening scenes. And based on a novel by Martin Amis, my hopes were fairly high. But good Lord they were soon dashed with what was really quite a terrible film. Set in a country house over a long weekend where a group of self-involved old college friends invite some American pals over in anticipation of some hard-core experimental drug taking, but William Marsh’s directorial debut revels far too much in depicting scenes of hedonistic debauchery at the expense of anything else. Continue reading “DVD Review: Dead Babies”

Film Review: Anna Karenina

 

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations.  Continue reading “Film Review: Anna Karenina”

Short film reviews #2

There are so many short films out there featuring so many actors that I like that I found it impossible choose my favourites…so here’s a second set for your delectations, there may well be more to come!

I do

The main reason I started looking at short films was after having been sent this little beauty which was a finalist in the 2010 Electric Shorts competition. I Do stars both Julian Ovenden and Aden Gillett so it should be clear why someone thought it relevant to my interests, but it is actually a really well put together little film by Duncan Cargill. It looks good, it is sexy and fresh and wittily clever all within less than three minutes. If you only watch one of these films, I’d make it this one! Continue reading “Short film reviews #2”

Out-of-Office

I won’t be posting for a few days so I thought I’d leave you an out-of-office message so you’d know nothing was wrong – I have coping strategies in place to manage six days without theatre (though celebrating my birthday in Florence with friends will certainly help…!).

And as a birthday present to you, my readers, I’ve selected some of my favourite current videos for your viewing pleasure.   Continue reading “Out-of-Office”

Review: In A Forest, Dark and Deep, Vaudeville

“How is it possible we shared the same womb”

Neil LaBute’s latest play In A Forest, Dark and Deep, is receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, showing his willingness to mix things up from London to New York, off-West End to West End – his last new play to show here was at the Almeida in 2009, In A Dark, Dark House. The bigger house here might also be a reflection of the bigger anticipated box office as the two-hander features the return to the London stage for Olivia Williams and a rare foray into theatre for Matthew Fox, now released from the purgatory that was Lost. (This was a preview show that I saw, which coincided with a What’s on Stage outing that some friends were attending.)

This is a twisty thriller in which the erudite Betty has called upon her carpenter brother Bobby to help her shift lots of books left by a student tenant in her lakeside chalet, beautifully designed over two storeys by Soutra Gilmour, despite their tetchy relationship. What unfolds, as a storm blows outside, is a tempestuous portrayal of these two completely different siblings who cannot resist baiting each other even as adults, but our preconceptions are then over-turned as pieces of information come to light which throw a whole new light on just what is going on this cabin.

What brings the show to life is the quality of the performances and the way in which the sibling rivalry is brought to vivid life by Williams and Fox as the twists and turns force constant reassessment of these characters. His Bobby is swaggeringly confident, blue collar through-and-through with his questionable attitudes on women, blacks, gays, anything different and seemingly never a hairs-breadth away from exploding with violence. Yet there’s a forceful persuasiveness to the way in which he adheres to his own code and something quite moving in the way in which he decides what is most important to him.

Williams’ emotionally fraught Betty has the tougher job with a much more elusive character who is never quite what she seems, allowing the actress to really work the manipulations and desperation of this well-to-do college lecturer, undone by…well, I can’t tell you what! But she is fantastic throughout and there’s a delicious reality to the way in which these siblings relate to each other, press each other’s buttons and suggest years of familiarity in both easy exchanges about music and uneasy ones confronting the events of their past.

Ultimately, it didn’t feel like there was quite enough here to really make an exceptional piece of drama, even at this late preview. The trail of revelations is somewhat predictable with disappointingly obvious clues being offered up and there’s not quite enough psychological intensity to take us deep or dark enough into the woods as one might have expected. But powerful performances with this tightly-wound family dynamic and some cracking dialogue make this a solidly 3 star entertaining evening.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 4th June
Note #1: lots of bad language, flashing lights and the music that plays before the curtain rises is rather loud (and don’t ask the ushers if they can turn it down, they can’t!)
Note #2: I was lucky enough to sneak into the What’s On Stage conducted Q&A after the show, with Williams, Fox and LaBute which was really good fun. Olivia Williams revealed a wickedly dirty sense of humour, Matthew Fox told of how his experience growing up in Oregon meant he could relate somewhat to the characterisation here and Neil LaBute was brutally and beautifully unapologetic, and rightfully so, about the subject matters for his work, pointing out how little of interest there would be in exploring well-adjusted people. It does seem to me that people label LaBute a little too easily as a misogynist, not separating playwright from his work, and in any case, I’d argue that men don’t come off too brightly in this one either.