Saturday, 18 July 2015

Preachers and other wind machines

Jenny on Everyman

Sometimes what the National Theatre does is so flawless, so utterly perfect that you watch feeling you scarcely dare draw breath. Nicholas Hytner’s Othello was like this: a story unfolding into tragedy so raw and so believable with such perfect casting, such naturalistic acting and direction that you saw the whole familiar play in a new light. But sometimes it all seems to go horribly wrong on a scale only the NT can aspire to.  

There is a special style of NT over-the-topness: machinery clunking its way out of the depths of the stage, howling wind, thunderclaps, flashing lights, huge objects descending unexpectedly, unpleasant music, scenes involving refuse and trash, people tearing their clothes off for no very good reason. And, oh, that shouty, gurning, spitting style of performing: why? why? All their actors have learnt pro-jec-tion from their time at RADA or Central; their attractively articulated whispers would be heard perfectly at the back of the stalls.

Everyman is a 15th century morality play that has been rewritten in strange doggerel, maybe intended to be amusing, by Carol Ann Duffy and given a contemporary setting. The message: curb your wicked ways you hedonistic sinners clubbing your way through cocaine and booze and spending stupidly with your Mastercards in temples of consumerism like John Lewis. Even you nice middle class people in the Olivier auditorium with your glasses of prosecco are not exempt. Death is coming for you anyway and you will have to account for yourselves before God – in this case a cleaner who keeps her Marigolds on at all times, perhaps to avoid accidentally touching any disgustingly contaminated human.

But yes, it has been thoroughly National-Theatre-ised: high level noise throughout, a wind machine trundled around the stage, gaudy persons (inspired by Star Wars perhaps, but dressed in gold), objects and people flown in, flown out, jerky music, debauchery and dancing, and something embarrassingly ostentatious about the whole concept. The trouble is: where is the story? Answer: there isn’t one, it’s a morality play, silly, you don’t look for emotional engagement, you come to be improved.

One of my companions fell asleep during the noisiest scene, despite having tried vainly to keep herself awake with salted popcorn and despite knowing that salt is very bad for her blood pressure. Her main worry on being jogged discreetly awake was to ask whether she had been snoring, not what she had missed in the plot. The performances are wonderful; Chiwetel Ejiofor is especially brilliant but what can even the best actor do with such insubstantial material?

So the question is, did this morality play improve us? Sadly not. We went straight out to a noisy tapas bar and consumed a lot of wine in double quick time, paying for it with our Mastercards.

Joe's heckle

You’re right about the tapas and the wine, Jenny. At least we resisted the jug of sangria, which we might have had free with my loyalty card. But you’re wrong about the play. I’d call the National’s Everyman bold, brash and innovative, though riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. 
Our companion fell asleep too soon. She was nodding off during the domestic scene, poignant and comic, in which Everyman calls unexpectedly on his neglected family – sick mother, senile father, resentful sister left holding it all together. Startled to see the oxygen cylinder his mother pulls behind her, Everyman asks, “What’s that?” And his sister replies, “Well it’s not a Dyson.” The mad old man keeps making a break for the door – “somebody knocked” – to be steered back to his chair by the sister. Yes, she explains, increasingly exasperated, it was your son, your son knocked, he’s here. Until at last the knocking comes again and it’s death, still in pursuit. A brilliantly paced interlude, full of sadness, laughter and menace.

She snored her way through the powerful scene where Everyman meets Knowledge in the person of a homeless drunk and is confronted with his own selfishness and the impact of his self-indulgence on the planet: “I thought it was a coin I could spend every day”. And with impressive dedication, she even slept through the simulated tsunami that followed, and so missed Duffy’s  rhyming of tsunami with “You and whose army?” You see, Jenny, I’m a sucker for a rhyme. I’m also a sucker for a wind machine, particularly one that’s dragged about the stage by the cast and has the force to tear people’s clothes off. And I’m conscious that climate change is the most important danger we face – more important than Grexit, more important than the defunding of the BBC, more important even than ISIS – and yet the hardest to dramatize. Did they pull it off? Not really, but they gave it some welly.

And of course it was preachy. To no effect, in our case. As you say, we didn’t mend our ways. In fact the whole project was inherently absurd – to take a 600-year-old text with the title “A treatyse how the hye fader of heven sendeth dethe to somon every creature to come and gyve a counte for theyr lyves inthis worlde”, without any characters as we understand them but only allegorical representations of abstractions such as Fellowship, Good-deeds and Discretion, and whose original purpose was to promote a strange medieval notion of debt-bondage to God that hardly any of us, performers or watchers, can still actually believe in, and to turn this into a vehicle for exploring contemporary concerns – utterly absurd and yet madly, gloriously so. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A strangely thin vision of the West

Joe on Slow West

There’s a spare, fable-like quality to Slow West that I found initially impressive.  We meet Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smitt-McPhee), an earnest wide-eyed teenager, alone somewhere in the middle of the vast north American continent and heading west in pursuit of the girl he loves. 

The dangers of this environment are starkly illustrated when Jay runs into a group of renegade soldiers on a brutal hunt for Native Americans. The boy is rescued by a taciturn, cigar-chewing outlaw, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). And you know that these two, the moonstruck innocent and the cynical gunslinger, are destined to complete a journey together – a journey with a moral dimension, no doubt.

The acting is great, the photography’s beautiful, the pace nicely controlled, and for a while I bought the dreamlike oddity of the journey. I enjoyed the three Congolese buskers, singing of love by the side of the path, though their laidback performance is incongruous in this savage place where no one is safe and white men shoot Indians for sport, and though their portentous significance is rather too obviously signposted by Jay’s observation that ‘love, like death, is universal’.

In its own way, the general goods store seemed equally unlikely, plonked somewhere on the road, apparently unconnected to any kind of human settlement. The fact that the place is shot up by desperate travellers within minutes of our first encountering it seemed rather too convenient in dramatic terms. But the wonder, I couldn’t help thinking, was that it hadn’t happened years before.

After a while it was this lack of context that began to bother me. Early on we see Jay finding his way with a compass. He’s going west – what other guide would he need? Everyone else is going west as well, including an outlaw gang, of which Silas was once a member, and a lone bounty-hunter armed with a hi-tech rifle and a clerical collar – except, of course, the ones who are going east. At one point Jay and Silas briefly debate the possibility of shaking off the gang by going north instead. But west it has to be because that’s where the girl is. And so somehow it’s not surprising that when they come across a corn field with a farmhouse in the middle Jay is in no doubt that it’s where the girl lives, and he’s right – not surprising in terms of the film’s internal logic, but bafflingly random in terms of American geography.

Perhaps this is meant to suggest the fabulous nature of Jay’s quest – the quiet simplicity of the farmhouse has already been weirdly anticipated in a dream he has on the road. Perhaps it’s meant to be funny. If so, the joke fatally weakened my sense of engagement. It was around this time that it occurred to me that the West evoked in this film is not unlike Ambridge – a long thin Ambridge running across a continent, where there’s a farm and a shop and a vicar making house-calls and everyone knows everyone else, and family values finally assert themselves, though only after some bouts of very un-Ambridge-like carnage. 

Jenny's heckle

Oh Joe, Joe. You are so kind and so moderate. You recognize that directors and producers mostly don’t set out to make bad films and that they are doing their best. You liked this film. I found it unbearable.

The great Philip French, wonderful film critic now retired, more wonderful even than the also wonderful late Roger Ebert, did have one weakness in his writing career. He could not disguise his boyish love for action films, including Westerns. Even when he recommended them, I passed up on the opportunity to see what it was that he liked so much, though usually I was docile in following his lead and rarely disagreed with his majestic judgements. This time, lured by the plaudits of the (95% male) critics, I decided to swallow my scepticism.

The movie is faithful to the Western genre. The actors don’t need to bother much with learning lines because there are so few to learn. The hero communicates in grunts, in looks - or through silence. He likes his horse more than he likes people. In the Wild West world, people actually cannot speak in multi-clause sentences. All disputes, even when trivial, are resolved by shooting. This is because the genre depends on the characters having a very poor grasp of influencing skills. It’s either give in or fight to the death – literally. The idea of maybe – umm - negotiating and discussing, occurs to no one. Women do not feature in Westerns except as steamy temptresses or as coinage for possession: in this film, literally as bounty.

Slow West has a peculiar plot. A teenager in 19th c Scotland is so fixed on a na├»ve first love that somehow he can get himself to America to follow her. Then, he is miraculously able to track down this love. Why would an obscure incident in Scotland attract bounty hunters many thousands of miles away? None of this is ever explained. Yes, as Joe says, it’s just like Ambridge: a vicar, a shop, a farm, families and some implausible dramas. I noticed that, even in this primitive and violent society, young women were apparently able to buy eyeliner and mascara. Perhaps there was more in that village store than seemed to be suggested by the production designer.
You should go to see this film if you like horses, guns, close-ups of guns, random meaningless violence, Coen Brothers films (see above), attempts at black humour that are not funny, New Zealand, Michael Fassbender. If none of these interests you then don’t bother.