Film Review: The Danish Girl

“Is there something you’d like to tell me?
‘Is there something you’d like to know'”

Though it is the striking image of Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe that dominates the publicity for this film, it is actually Alicia Vikander who emerges as the star of The Danish Girl. As Gerda Wegener, a mildly successful painter in mid-1920s Copenhagen, her emotional journey as a woman coming to terms with her husband’s Einar’s realisation that she’s a transgender woman offers the film’s most fully rounded character and in Vikander’s hands, a sense of raw, unpredictable emotion that is gorgeous to watch as the very limits of her tolerance and understanding are tested.

After a year where transgender issues came to the fore, it seems only natural that a film about Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, should be an apparent front-runner for this year’s award season. At the same time though, one can’t help but wish that Tom Hooper’s film hadn’t been made with two eyes fixed on the Academy Awards. His glossy and ultimately quite superficial approach – based on David Ebershoff’s novel which is a fictionalised version of Lili’s life – thus feels like a missed opportunity, as artificial an image as Caitlyn Jenner’s Annie Leibovitz-assisted cover.  Continue reading “Film Review: The Danish Girl”

Review: Wind in the Willows, Vaudeville

“Let my creatures rise again”

Adding to the diversity of festive offerings on the stage, The Wind in the Willows was the Royal Opera House’s first venture into the West End last December and now returns for a second year of adventuring through the riverbank, the Wild Wood and beyond. It might not be the instinctive choice for a Christmas show – a dance version of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel – but it has a gently persuasive charm that ought to appeal to all ages.

A wonderfully charismatic performance from Cris Penfold brings Toad to manic attention-seeking life – likewise Sonya Cullingford’s meek myopic Mole, Martin Harvey’s rakish rowing Ratty and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s bonny bright Badger – and through Will Tuckett’s expressive choreography and direction, their stories come to life. Solely through the medium of dance, all four offer a wonderful sense of character and camaraderie through their series of jocular japes and journeys.

They’re aided by a really rather nifty design from The Quay Brothers that feels like it might have fallen out of a pop-up storybook as rivers tumble from wardrobe doors, giant chairs are upended into prison cells, butterflies float through the air on gloves. With imaginative puppetry from the inspired Toby Olié and an evocative score that runs through the breadth of English folk music from Martin Ward, there is much that can captivate here.

A rather prosaic narration from Alan Titchmarsh, playing the role of Kenneth Grahame as storyteller, does sap the magic at times though, he never settles into a performative role and so always give the impression of just delivering his lines. It is left to the likes of Ewan Wardrop to lift the theatrical mood as the bawdy Gaoler’s Daughter (as well as Otter and Chief Weasel) and celebrate the playful spirit of this sometimes delightful production.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th January

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas