Sunday, May 21, 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Photo by Joey Demczuk

Ensemble Theatre presents WHO'S AFRAID OF THE VIRGINIA WOOLF?, by Edward Albee, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 11May - 18 June.



From the 1999 biography: Edward Albee - Singular Journey, by Mel Gussow: 
(the scene is] the living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college." Act One: the Fun and Games begin. "Set in darkness. Crash against front door. MARTHA's laughter heard. Front door opens, lights are switched on. MARTHA enters, followed by GEORGE." Martha is "a large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshy." George, "her husband, 46. Thin; hair going gray.
Uta Hagen, as Martha, delivered the first words of the play, "Jesus H. Christ," followed by laughter from the audience. Later, the play was to become legendary, make several fortunes, and establish Edward Albee as the first playwright since Eugene O'Neill to break through from Off-Broadway to Broadway and continue his exhilarating ride into theatrical history.

At the Ensemble Theatre a new production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, Directed by Iain Sinclair, has opened and ought not to be missed, continuing Mr Gussow's predicted ride into history for Mr Albee and this play.

Entering the Ensemble theatre one meets a wonderful Design, by Michael Hankin, of the room of the house inhabited by George (Darren Gilshenan) and Martha (Genevieve Lemon), where they will entertain in a long journey into day - to the rise of a new dawn - Nick (Brandon McClelland) and Honey (Claire Lovering), a young married couple, new to the faculty of this New England university college. It is set in 1962. The architectural solutions and the handsome and detailed 'dressing' of this Design by Mr Hankin is extraordinarily impressive, and along with a meticulous and a similarly detailed Lighting Design, both naturalistic and 'mood atmospheric', by Sian James-Holland, creates an expectant sense for the quality of the production (no Belvoir glass-box installation art, here).

What follows is an explosively hilarious and harrowing performance from Genevieve Lemon, as Martha, balanced and equalled by Darren Gilshenan, as her husband, George. The play looks at the compromises and commitments that a marriage must take to survive when it is sprung from a deep and passionate love, and thence must endure through the long passing of time all of its lessons of disappointments and tragedy. Where time has unravelled relentlessly, and enough, to allow the participants to experience, vitally, the thwarting of the ambitions and hopes of their youth - of career and children. It tells us of a relationship that refuses to allow the passionate depths of love to be extinguished with the passing of 'lust-filled' time, to ever, even, waver to the crushing cruelties/habits of the bourgeois world's usual method of 'animal' containment. Martha and George have invented a way to lash out at the conventions/obstacles of their world/society despite their 'failures' and still maintain a respect and electric pulse to stay and 'celebrate' being together. Albeit, being in a savage world, savage means may be required - will be employed.

We have seen the institution of marriage, many times, savagely examined in dramatic literature before, and for me, Strindberg's DANCE OF DEATH, resonates as I watch Albee's play, although, unlike the Strindberg there seems to me, as the new dawn rises at the end of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, a light of optimism for this joined couple, 'bleeding' though they may be, shining forth - for, as a new day begins, there has been created a new context for survival as partners.

Martha and George are no ordinary couple, they are a couple of brilliantly erudite wits, sensitive and over sensitised to their predicament, and their means to continue to exhalt and not surrender to mediocrity are not in any way ordinary. In middle-age they are in the bewilderment of how to continue to live/survive together, and they have found a modus operandi that sparks from a loving savagery and education - a knowledge of the history of mankind, of historical inevitability. It seems they have adopted the 'All's Fair in Love and War' apparatus to their interactions and everything and everybody are grist to their enlivenment. Enter Nick and Honey.

This play is 34 years old but is a classic that still survives and mirrors the modernity of our present spiralling morality with frightening power in a recognisable comic-tragic set of truths. This play opened on Broadway, in 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis loomed to threaten a nuclear war. In 2017, our world  feels just as threatened and the effect on the cornerstone of our societal structure, the family, feels, with this production of the play, just as cynically exposed, vulnerable. Our chromosomal 'soups' fragile in the evolving movement of time and history.

This meeting we sit to watch begins at 2am after a long and boring faculty party. Tired and drunk Martha and George arrive in taunting form and prepare to entertain two youngsters at the beginning of their marriage and careers. During the course of the play they become more tired and more drunk and the verbal fun and games of a true and false history - with agreed rules of engagement - funny and ugly, combust improvisationally into situations called Get the Guest, Hump the Hostess and Bringing Up Baby, employing excoriating comedy and outrageous confrontations. Nick and Honey, toys for this exploit, limp off home, at its end, injured but surviving.

WHO'S AFARID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was Albee's first full length play, written at the age of 34. It is in length some three hours long. The stimulating content matter of this play with its startling linguistics and controlled musical 'symphonic' shape - this is no chamber music piece, despite the small number of 'instruments' involved - conjured and crafted by Mr Albee, combined with four brilliantly courageous and sustained performances, tempered with a Directorial hand of such sureness in a Design of such pleasing assurance, has the literal time in the theatre flit by, be of no consequence. Quality engrosses one and invigorates one. You will not feel exhaustion when you leave the Ensemble.

Truthfully, you might be disturbed but you will know you have been alive. Originally, the play offended its audience with its language and frank sexual conversations, the play content baffled its audiences and some critics of its time took the play as an absurdist exercise, but with the passing of time, the content matter and its psychological underpinnings are now readable and appreciated as a heightened naturalism. Time has given us a knowledge that gives us easy access to what is going on, just as we now can make 'sense' of the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Both in their time challenging to comprehension.

Ms Lemon is having a stellar year (THE HOMOSEXUALS OR THE FAGGOTS) and is now crowning her illustrious career with a great performance as Martha, plumbing its grief, its fury, its comedy and its white hot acts of love with the surety of an identification to the sophisticated complexities of being in a love-bound marriage. Mr Gilshenan, well known to most as a comic actor, shows the breadth of his talent with this well-honed and constructed artistry, carrying George's bombardment from Martha with a resilient wit and tireless love, no matter its exhausting demands. Mr McClelland, at the beginning of his career (THE PRESENT, THE GOLDEN AGE) under the guidance of Mr Sinclair calibrates his Nick with wise and delicate surety, while Ms Lovering ensures that Honey brings enlightenment to the intricacies of the dramaturgical structures of Mr Albee's intentions.

All praise to the writer, Edward Albee, one of the greats of the theatre, and to Iain Sinclair who manages this great text with insight and masterful control. All elements of this production are finely thought and wrought. Following on from his work on OF MICE AND MEN, for Sport For Jove, a year or so ago, here is a talent that ought to be continued to be vigorously nurtured.

Sydney has had two great productions this year of two extraordinary pieces of playwriting: BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, by Rajiv Joseph, at the Old FitzTheatre, and now, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, by Edward Albee, at the Ensemble Theatre.

This production is not to be missed if you savour the theatre.

P.S. History in the foyer again: It was wonderful to see Iain Sinclair, the present Director of this play, talking animatedly with John Clark, who had Directed the original Australian production for the Old Tote Theatre Company, in 1964, with Alexander Hay, Jacqueline Kott, Kevin Miles and Wendy Blacklock. The production that controversially launched the burgeoning Australian theatre practice into the modern era with protests against led by church and the press. I was a schoolboy and was not allowed to see the play, but I remember reading the Sydney Daily Mirror and its front page stories of shock and condemnation. Imagine a theatre play production, today, hitting our newspapers front pages?














Friday, May 19, 2017

Doubt

Photo by Robert Catto

Apocalypse Theatre Company in association with Red Line, present DOUBT. A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. 10 May - 3 June.

DOUBT. A Parable, the play by John Patrick Shanley, won the Pulitzer prize and the Tony Award in 2005. All four of the actors were nominated for the Tony, too. The actors, Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Bryne won. It was made into a film, directed by Mr Shanley, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis - all were nominated for Academy Awards (they didn't win). So, history tells us that this is a well written play with great acting opportunities.

For me, the writing, though worthy of all the praise it has received, is just a little too 'neat', 'tidy' - oddly, too contrived in its blunt focused storytelling and treatment of its issues. It is sub-titled A Parable - which by definition is a short allegorical story designed to convey some truth or moral lesson, and so, I should just get over it, I guess. And, generally, I have.

Set In a Catholic school, St Nicholas, in the Bronx, in 1964, during the great changes of the Second Ecumenical Council, set up by Pope John XXIII, in Rome, in 1962, and completed by Pope Paul VI in 1965, a strictly conventional head mistress of the 'old guard', Sister Aloysius (Belinda Giblin), is confronted with information from a younger nun, Sister James (Matilda Ridgeway), who is infused (confused?) with the 'loosening spirit' of the new Ecumenical church age, of a suspicion of improper behaviour between the young 'hip' priest, Father Flynn (Damian de Montemas), and their only African-American student, Donald Muller. Aloysius, who entered the nunnery, late, after marriage, has been chaffing under the patriarchal control of the church and following her instincts manufactures a circumstance to confront Flynn, knowing she cannot expect support from the senior men of her church, and achieves a 'victory' with the voluntary transfer by Flynn away from her school. That victory, however, was achieved through a 'blackmail' based on a deceit, a lie. Sister Aloysius had, has, no evidence, only instinct, and though in action is victorious, is punished with a conscience of Doubt as to the possibilities of the actual 'truth'.

We, the audience, are left with a Doubt, as well. Although, what with the Abuse Scandals uncovered worldwide that are still an on-going confrontation and issue, we may enter this play with prejudices galore. There will be discussion, afterwards, in the bar, for sure.

All the performances are 'good'. However, Belinda Giblin, as Sister Aloysius, inhabits the responsibility of this role with a frightening possession and gives a performance, that registers a wide range of genuine emotional choices - with ironic humour, too, blessedly, as a part of her armoury. Her theatrical power, presence, is the superlative energy of this production - it must be so, for this play to make its mark. There is not a moment of doubt from any of us in surrendering to the vacillating truths of this nun/woman, in this production.

Matilda Ridgeway, gives a 'knowing' performance, and is generally convincing, but has her Sister James, weeping, streaming tears in every scene (it reminded me of Ms Ridgeway's work, as Ophelia, in the Bell HAMLET). It is hard to read this tear-filled choice by the actor (that is not signified by the writer), to be able to make sense of her character - for this Sister James is clearly emotionally unstable, maybe, even unsuitable for her job. Why the vigilant Aloysius makes no comment, or demand a justification for this behaviour, along with the showing of her hair from under her headdress - clearly breaking the 'rules' of her order - is, too, a problem. If Aloysius rants after the use of the ballpoint pen in class, or the number of sugar cubes in a cup of tea, I feel sure she would reprimand James on her risqué, dishabille of uniform. It is an odd lack of logical 'continuity' in this production.

Damian de Montemas as Flynn, is impeccable in his naturalistic 'filmic/television' detailing of his character, and is certainly an attractive physical presence to win the attention of his congregation, but lacks the charismatic energy to continue to entrance us, to capture us, with his sermonising - there are two significant sermons in the play and both fail to hold us to rapt attention - which dramaturgically is a necessary. As well, Mr Montemas' performance lacks the theatrical fire power to countermand the force of Ms Giblin, so that their verbal 'duels' are uneven in affect (check the work between Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the 2009 film version - especially the last great confrontation, to see what I mean).

In the small but pivotal role and scene, Charmaine Bingwa, sat tightly on a chair, by the Director, throws a moral spanner into the debate, as Mrs Muller argues for her child's welfare, with conviction.

The simple, spare Design, with two separate spaces coloured, I supposed, in a 'metaphoric' Grey, avoiding the dogmatic declaration of Black and White, by Jonathan Hindmarsh, is attractively lit, by Alexander Berlage.

Dino Dimitriades, has Directed this production with dramatic skill and it is a suspenseful and taut 8o odd minutes in the theatre. It is the writing that he honours clearly, and the magnificent performance by Ms Giblin, that makes this experience in the theatre of interest.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Between The Street Light and The Moon

Photo by Clare Hawley

Mophead Productions in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co presents, BETWEEN THE STREETLIGHT AND THE MOON, by Melita Rowston. 5 - 27 May.

BETWEEN THE STREETLIGHT AND THE MOON, is a new Australian play by, Melita Rowston. It was shortlisted for both the STC Patrick White Award and The Silver Gull Award.

Zadie (Lucy Miller) is an art academic/curator and PHD candidate, the Phd concerning the Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and her possible illicit relationship with her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet, has been six years in the preparation. Her supervisor and supporter, Janet (Suzanne Pereira), under pressure from the Academic Board, is pressing for the completion of the work - not a word has been cited. That completion is hinged upon the finding of suspected letters that would substantiate Zadie's theories. This section of the play becomes the dramatic spine of all else that transpires and has the familiar academic quibbling and propositioning -'detective work' - that 'greases' the dramatically suspenseful wheels of other works, for instance, Tom Stoppard's play, ARCADIA, or A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel, POSSESSION.

Intermixed is some familiar feminist discussion/politics concerned with the oppression and 'disappearing' of the female artist from history and, as we discover, is, perhaps, an active agency, still, in the contemporary scene. For, we find that Zadie herself has allowed her own art work to be forgotten and appropriated by an ex-lover, now dead artist, Jeff (Lani Tupu), whilst, in the present tense of the play she is, seemingly, caught in another sexual/work conflict with contemporary spunk/artist, Barry (Ben McIvor), and his aspiration/inspiration, who is now in the thrall, of one of her own students, Dominique (Joanna Downing). A lot is going on in the 110 minutes, no-interval play.

The 'intellectual' gambits of the writing from Ms Rowston has some substantiality to keep us intrigued, and the florid speeches from the 'ghost' memory of Jeff are alluring in their profligate 'wealth' of language. And, if sometimes the ordinary interactions between characters in the modern time sound banal and or stilted, especially, in their comic throw aways, one wonders if it is in the writing, or the quality of the acting? The text sometimes sounds if it is 'impersonated' - spoken, recited - rather than personalised with a highly-staked 'back-story' and need from the characters, by the actors. The truest moments, when the actor and character melted, each into the other, came with the last Jeff-ghost speech from Mr Tupu. One was urged to listen and imagine, to endow the sounds with a vivid reality and a grasp of inspiration.

I remember having seen RED, the play by John Logan, a play about art, too, filled with similar heightened discussion of art philosophy and aspiration. I was enormously thrilled. Later, I read the play, and worked on it in scene work, and found the actual text so 'simple' in its expression that it felt underworked and poorly written. On reflection, maybe, it was the acting by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, that was of such a high calibre, that they had embodied the 'stilted' writing with character conviction, beyond the mere actor's presence, to make it believable, and not drawing attention to itself, in action. Unfortunately, in this production of Ms Rowston's play, led by Anthony Skuse, that does not happen often enough to permit a fully subjective identification with all that goes on.

The Design, by Jeremy Allen, is a contemporary, slatted wooden 'gallery' floor, with a hidden pool of reflected water (presumably, symbolic of the River Seine of Paris), with spare furniture, and two white walls, one used for projection of art and quotations from Berthe Morisot to acclimate us to the world of the 'hunted' relationship. Chris Page manages the Lighting with a crisp modern arid galley affect. Benjamin Freeman, has composed a score for piano which he plays live, which sometimes is over obvious in its intent and has an unexpected 'kitsch' affect.

This production of this play, BETWEEN THE STREETLIGHT AND THE MOON, feels overlong and disengaged from the passion of the writer's impulse that grew from a mission to view Edouard Manet's Olympia, in the Musee D'Orsay, and, instead, been aesthetically arrested by a tiny painting of a woman viewed through the spokes of a fan: a painting by Edouard Manet of Berthe Morisot. One of eleven portraits, of her by him, that left, subsequently, Ms Rowston with no doubt in her mind that these paintings charted a turbulent affair. Ipso facto, Ms Rowton's Zadie's obsession and pre-occupation for her Phd - the 'grease' to the wheels of this play.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Perhaps, Perhaps …Quizas.

Photo by Pili Pala

Old 505 Theatre presents, PERHAPS, PERHAPS ... QUIZAS, by Gabriela Muñoz, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St., Newtown. 5 may - 13 May.

PERHAPS, PERHAPS .., QUIZAS, Written, Directed and Starring Gabriela Muñoz is a 'clown' work concerning the need of her character, Greta, for romantic marriage. Ms Muñoz finished her studies at the London International School of Performing Arts (LIPSA) based on Jacques Lecoq pedagogy, a two-year postgraduate course and a year course at the School of Physical Theatre in London. Her career has had an enormous international trajectory and it is, certainly, a grateful curatorial gift from the Artistic Directors of the Old 505 Theatre to see this work in Sydney.

Beginning with a charming silent movie introduction where we watch Greta pursuing a love-interest and being disappointed, Greta, is revealed in a cocoon of curtain where she seems to be writing. To an operatic tune, Greta, emerges, and we observe her in the remnants of a 'period' wedding paraphernalia. She acknowledges us and invites us to interact in an attempt to bring her urgent fantasy to fruition.

Using only a 'gibberish' language and occasionally singing sounds, Greta, with an astonishing  physical 'language', that includes, especially, a white make-up face of incredible subtlety (with an endearing left eye-brow) inveigles members of the audience to participate in the world of her desires.

The work is both hilarious and amazingly moving. Ms Muñoz's ability to 'command' participation, and elicit from us both empathetic comedy and melodramatic identification, beat by beating heart beat, is a wonderful experience of gentle 'genius' to be part of.

Ms Muñoz's PERHAPS, PERHAPS ... QUIZAS is a small show with a big heart and delightful skill. Its ability to transport us into a willing imaginative participatory game, and to gain a friendship-trust between the artist and ourselves - the audience - reveals the strength and unique pleasures that the theatre can sometimes evoke.

Especially recommended for those of us looking for refuge from the 'ugly' buffets of our present demanding world - it is, a truly, transporting hour of relative innocence.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Smurf in Wanderland

Photo by Brett Boardman

National Theatre of Parramatta and Griffin Theatre Company present SMURF IN WANDERLAND, by David Williams, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 2 May - 13 May.

SMURF IN WANDERLAND, a new Australian play, is the result of the enthusiasm of Lee Lewis, the Griffin Theatre Artistic Director's promise to program a play about Soccer, that was thrown into the discussion mix at the closing session of the Australian Theatre Forum held in Canberra, in 2013, by Playwright and Performer, David Williams. Four years later, and as a resultant of Mr Williams further engagement as a member of the 2015 Griffin Studio: " .. here we are.", says Mr Williams, in his program notes.

Mr Williams was a major contributor (and founder) to the performance group known as Version 1.0 (e.g. THIS KIND OF RUCKUS; THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE.) The works were deeply researched verbatim theatre performances. Since, after that company's demise: "Under the banner DW Projects, David Williams creates theatre works of social relevance, aesthetic rigour and emotional impact from research, interviews, transcripts and public documents." SMURF IN WANDERLAND is one of three current DW Projects in development or performance. It is the first work, from Mr Williams, for the National Theatre of Parramatta.

Over the past fifteen years, I've built a professional reputation around crafting theatre works from the words of other people - from public inquiries, parliamentary proceedings, and interviews. I had genuinely believed that SMURF IN WANDERLAND would be a work of a similar ilk. But I found that the show only came alive when I placed myself in the narrative. And the result is the show you see tonight - a very personal account of football and Sydney.
In deed Mr Williams is both the Writer and the Actor, a one person show - aided dramaturgically, by Kate Worsley and Directed, by Lee Lewis. Set and Costume Design, by Charles Davis, Lighting Design, by Luiz Pampolha, and a mostly atmospheric Sound Design and Composition, by James Brown.

The work is constructed in two 45 minute halves (the football game time lengths) from a 'Kick-off' to a "Half Time" to a "Full Time" signal. Mr Williams after an introductory explanation and audience organisational orchestration (there is some lame audience 'inclusion'), and several invitations to exit the theatre, if we want, gives us a history of his Western Suburban credentials/roots to help justify his divided self, as an attendee at both the Soccer games of Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney Football Club (FC), in the franchise, sky blue, Sydney FC clothing-gear, most of the time.

Says Ms Lewis in her program notes, SMURF IN WANDERLAND
Coming to you in the disarming guise of a one man show, what may look like a simple love letter to the idea of 'fans' is actually a revealing analysis of modern culture identity and a passionate artist's refusal to blithely accept governmental agenda and media laziness collaborating to denigrate the sport, the people and the city he loves.

If, only.

For me, in experience, in the SBW Stables, what evolved was a telling of a personal gradual 'addiction' to a sport form that reveals our narrator, cumulatively, viewing the world around him through the personal lens and prejudices of a spiralling and focused "Fan-actic" - suffering from a kind of soccer vertigo (remember the Alfred Hitchcock publicity images for the film VERTIGO?) This growing 'illness' was 'horribly' symptomatic in the confessed personal interweaving of the 'game' versus 'birth' demands of this Smurf's time allocation and sense of responsibility. I feel sure, if, you have been disarmed by the 'story', you may think it a gently amusing dilemma, if not, otherwise, it may be, slightly, socially alarming. This is when, perhaps, the narrator's voice, truly came alive for me - engendering a very concerned human empathy for 'Smurf' and for his circle of relationships.

The forensic dating of events and the many accessed details of 'pivotal' match moments, the side-'wise' passion of criticisms of the press, the police and the corporation management of his sport (whilst, I thought, ironically, wearing several Sydney FC shirts and caps - he telling us of his spending $145 on a franchised corporate shirt and having it personalised, at further expense), all reveal the 'fanatic' who is no longer just a simple fan of a sport, but is an 'obsessed' (as he admits), and may need some interventionary counselling.

For those of us who know not the sport or, much of sport fanaticism, this work fails to engage us to disarm our ignorance or trepidation to fully participate and enthuse in the body of this long performance. Neither the group chanting, we are taught, or, the static video images, of, mostly, newspaper articles and photographs we are shown on the side screens (what? no video recordings available, to show us the 'magic' of soccer in action?), or the deadening time consuming reveal of  banners in the auditorium - which only half the audience at any one time can read - can ignite us to disarmed enthusiasm, no matter how much I wished I could do so, so as to support the creative artists, in the demanded 'moments'. I did chant along and handclap - I did! It is a laborious two hours or so in the theatre and, perhaps, only the fanatic will think it a worth while way to spend one's time.

I, certainly, felt SMURF IN WANDERLAND, occupying, for two weeks, the Griffin Theatre's stage, or at the Riverside Theatres out in Parramatta, where it premiered, needed some urgent script 'doctoring'. Four years in the making this work is still fairly clumsy and full of textural 'wanderings'  and forensic sport persiflage. It needed more dramaturgical attention to give it more justification for its programming, no matter how enthusing the idea in Canberra at an Australian Theatre Forum, may have been about the art/sport dichotomy. (It was at the end of the Australian Theatre Forum event - so, it may just have been brain-dead exhaustion that 'floated' it?)

I believe, the time and stage occupation, Theatrically and Social Conscience-wise (tick a box), could have been better served with a return of PYT Fairfield's production of TRIBUNAL, which the Griffin presented last year to overflowing  demand. By the way, one wonders, if the National Theatre of Parramatta has offered TRIBUNAL a berth in their programming schedule in the West?

In a pre-show article in THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (by Peter Munro -26th April, 2017) Mr Williams is reported as saying

           He likens football fans to theatre buffs. "I see multiple shows each week and there's an awful lot of shit you have to wade through to get those moments of magic," he says. "Football fandom is the same. There have been many times where I had a strong disgust with what has been offered to me on the field. And yet I still come back for the next game, just in the hope that we should be better, we will get better."

After 'wading' through SMURF IN WANDERLAND, for the Griffin Theatre Company, I concur. I go to the Griffin in the hope that "we should get better, we will get better." SMURF IN WANDERLAND, new Australian writing at the Sydney theatre, which, exclusively, champions it!: "We will get better" - but when?

This is one of DW Projects on-going enterprises, the others include: QUIET FAITH (national tour April-July) and GRACE UNDER PRESSURE (Seymour Centre and The Big Anxiety). I felt it was ominous to read David Williams Writer's notes in the foyer before the show which began with: "This show began life as a joke." 

Hmmm, again.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Two recent French films: Personal Shopper, and Frantz

Here are two French films worth catching. What is it that the French have? Their work is so good, or, is it that we only get to see the best of the best?

1. PERSONAL SHOPPER

PERSONAL SHOPPER is the second film that Director/Writer, Olivier Assayas and actor, Kristen Stewart have made together. The last was CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, starring Juliette Binoche. Ms Stewart was the supporting artist of that film. In this new film she is definitely front and centre - the star, the camera hardly has her out of sight. I had never seen Ms Stewart in any other work that I could remember, not even any of her extensive child/teen films, let alone any of the TWILIGHT franchise, so, I was curiously, surprisingly, arrested with her performance in the CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - I could hardly shut up about her - she won the French equivalent of the Academy Award - the Cesare - the first time a non-French actor had done so.

PERSONAL SHOPPER, too, arrived with glowing broadcasts of Ms Stewart's work and she delivers an amazingly focused performance with her Maureen. Maureen, a young American in Paris, works as a personal shopper for a busy fashionista, Kyra (Nora von Walstatten) and carries out her work with professional precision, however, spiritually debilitating it may be. In that modern world the internet gadgets of that world dominate her interactions - it is a set of cold pragmatic interactions - some chillingly unsettling, as that with Ingo (Lars Eldinger), the insecure partner of her boss.

To complicate, lubricate the film, Maureen's brother, and twin, has recently died from a congenital heart disease, which she, too, has. He was a 'medium' to the spiritual world and together they have promised to reconnect from the other world with a 'sign'. Maureen stays in the house that her brother lived in and has sensed some atmosphere. Or not. The CGI spiritual arousals of ectoplasm that we witness are sophisticated and intriguing, indeed.

The Spiritual hunt for a 'sign' created, for me, the tensions of the Henry James' film adaptations of THE BOSTONIANS (1984) and THE TURN OF THE SCREW, its film title being: THE INNOCENTS (1961), both dealing with 'ghosts', or not. This film quickly ratchets up into a gripping ghostly modern thriller, on her trip to London by train on assignment as the personal shopper, as her iPhone begins to receive messages that seem to suggest that she is being stalked intensely by an omnipotent eye. This riveting 14 minutes of cinema is a crash course in a contemporary acting development from Ms Stewart that is a complex revelation and has one, as the audience, gasping as to what is 'real' and what is an 'actor's choice' - she makes her 'acting' invisible, and immersively thrilling for us, her audience. (Ms Stewart does not require you to love her, and I reckon that is part of her modernity - why she is so arresting - why she demands your co-operation.)

The combination of an old-fashioned spiritual thriller in contemporary dress with the contemporary world tools that we all have in our pockets or purses, lifts the work into a more than clever experience - it reverberates, dare I say, with the same urgency of the time reality that Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), did - the idea that all the events of the film were happening all about oneself, contemporaneously.

Thrusting forward with a relentlessly swift pace and the subtle intermingling of both 'worlds', combined with the cool, (stunningly beautiful) and absolutely modern character created by Ms Stewart, PERSONAL SHOPPER delivers the thrills in a deeply satisfying manner. The film does not feel 'cheap' or 'cheesy' even despite the genre territory, for the performance, the Cinematography, by Yorick Le Saux, the Editing, by Marion Monnier, the colour Design are flawless.

Some have felt that not all of the film 'adds up', but if you watch closely, it does - just! The final sequences in the 'old world' of a distant country, Aman, far removed from the present modern metropolis thump-beat, brings a pacific and satisfying resolve to the ghost story. Or, not.

The performance by Kristen Stewart is as arresting as anything that Isabelle Huppert has given us - and you know that is saying something - she maybe her heir! Although a French film, PERSONAL SHOPPER, is played in English. Highly recommended.

2. FRANTZ

FRANTZ is a new film from Director, Francois Ozon. It was written in collaboration with Phillipe Piazzo, inspired by the Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount 1932 film, BROKEN LULLABY.

It begins in a battle scarred provincial town in Germany after the First World War. Adrien (Pierre Ninney), a French ex-soldier is observed grieving at the grave of Frantz, and gradually finds himself inveigled by the family of the dead soldier. Anna (Paula Beer), the grieving ex-fiance, and his parents, Doctor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Maria Gruber).

In stunning black and white cinematography that occasionally subtly shifts into Sepia colour (Pascal Marti), with Production Design by Michel Barthelemy and Art Design by Susanne Abel, the romance of this story, moves through the pains of the aftermath of war on the people of two nations and travels along a narrative trajectory that is gorgeously provocative and unexpected. The performances of the two principal leads, especially Ms Beer as her character dominates the latter section of the film, are ideal in their understated offers, beautifully supported by a vast company of the other actors.

It is a beautiful film that transports one out of one's daily life and has a modern integrity of manipulation that can be highly recommended. Not to be missed, especially by those with a romantic heart and faith in the destiny of the human animal. Do Go. The French have what ? A je ne sais quoi - an indefinable something that captures elements of being human in a totally optimistic but real way.