Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre Review: JOAN (Ovalhouse)

From a silent film classic and an often-revived George Bernard Shaw play to songs by Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Madonna, the singular figure of Joan of Arc has remained a somewhat unlikely icon and object of inspiration in 20th and 21st century popular culture. This enduring fascination must be down, in part, to the contradictory qualities embodied by the so-called Maid of Orleans. Peasant, prophetess, warrior, witch, martyr, saint - the identities encompassed by (or ascribed to) Joan of Arc make her a slippery, weirdly radical figure whose transgressions can be seen to go beyond their very specific historical, political and religious contexts and find resonance here and now. 

The question of Joans identity - and, more particularly, her gender identity - lies at the heart of the most recent play to represent her: Lucy J Skilbecks JOAN. Seen last year at Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently in a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it won several awards) Skilbecks one-person show now comes back to London for a couple of weeks of performances in the intimate Downstairs space at Ovalhouse. Its a most welcome return, for JOAN is an embracing, illuminating, hugely enjoyable work that adds something genuinely fresh to our perception of its heroine and her historical (and contemporary) significance.

Skilbeck’s play has clearly been carefully researched. The focus is on the events leading up to Joan’s execution: we learn about the death of her mother at the hands of the English; her decision to leave her father; and the visions of Saint Catherine that inspired her to convince the exiled King to let her lead an army against the country’s oppressors.

However, the novelty and urgency of the piece lies in the way in which it reflects and refracts Joan through the prism of contemporary gender politics. This it does boldly yet also delicately, without attempting to impose one reductive reading on the protagonist’s identity. It’s no surprise that Joan’s religious zeal is less of a concern, conveyed mostly through her deep sense of connection to Catherine. Instead, the focus is on a much more modish aspect: namely, the confrontation of a radical, “gloriously confusing” body with the rigid apparatuses of patriarchal power.  The show is particularly good at conveying the sense of freedom and possibility that Joan experiences in her male attire, as she turns her bra into a trouser bulge, and feels “for the first time total ease.”

The fluidity of Joan’s identity is echoed in the form of the show itself which combines elements of dramatic monologue, cabaret and musical. The approach couldn’t be further from strained Shavian verbosity: rather, it’s physical, fleet and often very funny, with some exhilarating musical interludes. Complemented by Joshua Pharo’s terrific lighting, Emma Bailey’s simple set of crates and mirrors lightly accents the plays themes, and Skilbeck’s direction keeps the pace supple at all times so that the proceedings turn from wry to wrenching on a dime.  

In Lucy Jane Parkinson, the show has its ideal performer, too.  Winner of Drag King Idol 2014, Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) is a dynamic presence: a whirlwind who plays off the encircling audience with hilarious aplomb, especially when mobilizing us to become an army. This Northern-accented Joan embraces something of a Riot Grrrl aesthetic: Tank Girl top, big sneakers, dreads springing from a partially shaved scalp.

Yet, as Joan confronts the consequences of (in Judith Butler’s great phrase) “doing one’s gender wrong,” Parkinson skillfully modulates her performance, doing justice both to Joan’s swagger and her aching sense of set-apartness. The late scenes in which Joan tries to appease her oppressors by letting her hair down and attempting to find a male mate are equal parts funny and painful, revealing femininity to be its own kind of drag act for women. Parkinson’s generous, open interpretation hotwires us to the heroine’s humanity throughout.  

But that’s not all. Via brisk on-stage transformations Parkinson also morphs into three of the men in Joan’s life: her father, Charles VII, and her pro-English interrogator Pierre Cauchon. It’s these guys, in fact, who get the evening’s irreverent songs, and Parkinson’s manic metamorphosis into the disco-dancing Dauphin is particularly sublime. However, Joan herself is finally allotted a moving, intimate number that Parkinson delivers beautifully, as this huge-hearted, playful yet profound revisioning of an icon arrives at its deeply poignant close.

Booking until 22nd April. Further details here

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Book Review: Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford (Harvard Press, 2016)

My review of Mark Ford's Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner is up at PopMatters. You can read it here,

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Film Review: Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, 2016)

Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is out now in the UK. You can read my review from Cannes 2016 here

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Theatre Review: Winter Solstice (Orange Tree)

Winter Solstice (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

I first became aware of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s work a few years ago when Actors Touring Company’s production of the playwright’s The Golden Dragon transferred from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the Arcola. Translated by David Tushingham and directed by Ramin Gray, the production made a huge impression, its playful, eccentric form gradually revealing a deeply serious meditation on the exploitations of globalisation and capitalism in the contemporary metropolis. (Though with its “Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese” restaurant setting, and an all-Caucasian cast playing characters of diverse ethnicities, ages and even species, it’s likely that Gray’s production would be less warmly received in our current "#StopYellowface" moment.)

ATC, Gray and Tushingham now re-team on a more recent Schimmelpfennig play in a production at the Orange Tree.  Winter Solstice initially sounds like a more conventional prospect than The Golden Dragon: the piece focuses on a family gathering being disrupted by the presence of an outsider. We meet Bettina and Albert - she’s a filmmaker and he’s an academic - mid-Christmas Eve barney. The subject of their row is Bettina’s mother Corrina, who, it transpires, has invited to the couple’s apartment a stranger that she met on the train. Rudolph Meyer is a cultured older gent who’s soon settled in and is charming the hosts with civilised chat and classical music at the piano. But Albert gradually senses something sinister under the guest’s rhetoric about chivalry, decency and community. 

Nicolas Le Prevost in Winter Solstice  (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

Those familiar with Schimmelpfennig’s work won’t be surprised by the ways in which this familiar set-up is subverted through meta apparatus. For a start, stage directions are spoken by the cast, who slip between first- and third-person, at once inhabiting their characters’ experiences and standing outside of them. Gray’s production accentuates the play’s “baring the device” self-consciousness, with Lizzie Clachan supplying a rehearsal room set, and a creative approach to props  (dig that Christmas tree!) throughout.

The mix of play, film, novel and radio drama that Schimmelpfennig has fashioned has its drawbacks: we’re told so much about the characters’ thoughts and feelings that some interpretive space is removed. But the distanciation, treated by Gray with wit and lightness of touch, can also be dazzlingly effective, allowing for fluid shifts in perspective and time. (This is appropriate for a play that’s very much concerned with the abiding presence of the past.) These shifts are negotiated with consummate skill by the cast, with fine work from Kate Fahy as Corinna, vacillating between mordant bitterness and hopeful flirtation; Laura Rogers as the prickly Bettina; Dominic Rowan as the increasingly harried Albert; Milo Twomey as an artist friend; and Nicholas Le Prevost as the insinuating, ambiguous Rudolph. 

Nicholas Le Prevost and Dominic Rowan in Winter Solstice

The play has been interpreted as a sharply topical piece: inspired by Schimmelpfennig’s concern about the resurgence of far right movements, it’s been stated in no uncertain terms that Rudolph represents the return of fascism, insidiously seducing its way into a liberal household.

In performance, though, the play feels like a much more slippery, psychological - and perhaps richer - creation than this blunt interpretation suggests. Kindly grandfather figure, potential paramour, Nazi… Rudolph gradually comes to seem like a projection of the other characters’ fantasises or fears. The play pulls the rug from under us right up to the end, as Albert -  agitated, pill-popping and influenced by his fascism-related research  - starts to seem less and less like a reliable witness. As such, the production’s final moments are perfectly judged, striking just the right balance between comfort and chill. Obvious political readings of Winter Solstice are certainly possible, but it’s as a deeply ambiguous portrait of the shifting significance of a stranger that Schimmelpfennig’s haunting play resonates the most.

Winter Solstice is booking until 11 February. Further information here.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Music 2016: 10 Favourite Albums

Lemonade, Beyoncé 

Stranger To Stranger, Paul Simon

Upcetera, Jim Moray

The Colour in Anything, James Blake

Lodestar, Shirley Collins

Blond, Frank Ocean

A Seat at the Table, Solange

Boys For Pele (20th Anniversary Edition),
Tori Amos

Blackstar, David Bowie

Come Together:
Barb Jungr and John McDaniel Perform The Beatles

Bonus: You Want it Darker (Leonard Cohen), Full Circle (Loretta Lynn) 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Theatre 2016: 10 Favourite Productions

Les Blancs (National Theatre)
Review here

Photo: Mark Brenner

The Maids (Trafalgar Studios)
Jamie Lloyd's production was thrilling, disturbing and, finally, deeply moving, with Zawe Ashton, Uzo Aduba and Laura Carmichael giving galvanising, fearless, exposing performances that hot-wired us to the still-potent weirdness and radicalism of Genet's vision.     

Photo: Steve Tanner

A Midsummer Nights Dream (Globe)
Review here

Photo: Alistair Muir
Richard III (Almeida)
Review here

Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Rolling Stone (Orange Tree)
Review here.

Photo: Mark Douet

The Flick (National Theatre)
Review here

Photo: Alistair Muir
King Lear (Old Vic) 
Review here.

Photo: Mark Cocksedge

Bitches (Finborough)
Review here

 Photo: Magda Hueckel

Dogville (Nowy Teatr)
With its Brechtian approach (inspired by Trevor Nunn's Nicholas Nickleby, no less) Lars von Trier’s film seems a (too?) obvious candidate for a stage adaptation. But, faithful to the plot yet theatrical in its own highly expressionistic way, Marcin Liber's production of Christian Lollike's text proved equally compelling. The moment when  Monika Buchowiec's  Grace pulled back the canopy covering the rear of the stage  to reveal a huge wall of tangled chairs was especially sensational: the knotty nastiness of the town exposed.       

Photo: Mitzi de Margary
After October (Finborough)
Waspish but humane, populated by vividly drawn, relatable characters, Rodney Ackland's funny, poignant plays are revived all too rarely on UK stages. This makes Oscar Toeman's perfectly pitched revival of After October all the more special. The production is especially notable for its glorious performances from Sasha Waddell and Adam Buchanan as the ex-actress mother and writer son struggling to survive in '30s London, supported by a great ensemble including Beverley Klein, Josie Kidd, Andrew Cazanave Pin and Jasmine Blackborow.    

Honourable Mentions: Torn Apart (dissolution) (Theatre N16), The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre), Phaedra(s) (Barbican), German Skerries (Orange Tree), Jess and Joe Forever (Orange Tree), Ziemia obiecana (Teatr Wielki w Łodzi)

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Cinema 2016: 10 Favourite Films (+ Extras)

Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

2016 was a year that frayed and frazzled our collective nerves in many ways, leading some of us to seek out films that restored a sense of goodness, balance and belief. One such was Jarmuschs lovely latest, a movie that makes an unremarkable week in the life of a bus driver/poet (Adam Driver) absorbing and transcendent. Structured through patterns of repetition and variation, as unassuming yet as indelible as its protagonist, Paterson is a wry, observant ode to the poetry of everyday experience, that ranks as one of the directors best, and certainly warmest and most loving, works. John Bleasdales great review of the film, at CineVue, is one of my favourite pieces of film writing this year. Read it here.

The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina) (dir. Jan P. Matuszyński)

Jan P. Matuszyński made his drama about the Beksińskis - an artistic Polish clan beset by a number of tragedies - into a funny, intimate and finally devastating family portrait. In its mordant humour and its beautiful attention to the texture of the quotidian, the haunting The Last Family recalls the very best of Mike Leighs work, while feeling totally fresh and distinctive in its own right. The movie announces Matuszyński  as a major talent to watch. Full review here

Things to Come  (dir. Mia Hansen-Love)

Hansen-Love followed up the draggy, slightly irritating Eden with a finely honed, surprisingly funny drama about a philosophy teacher (Isabelle Huppert) undergoing a series of personal and professional shake-ups. Warm, wry, wise, and boasting one of Hupperts most spontaneous, likeable performances, Things to Come is a strangely soothing experience. Full review here.

Lemonade (dir. Beyoncé and others)

So you pretty much give up on the American mainstream and then this happens. Made by one the biggest stars in the world it might have been, but the thing about Lemonade is that it doesnt feel mainstream. On the contrary, its powerful, haunting images - encompassing urban car park and rural idyll, grainy documentary and luscious stylisation - are as enigmatic as they are iconic, a perfect complement to the dynamic stylistic diversity of a song sequence that boasted Beyoncé's best singing and song-writing to date. Some critics got hung up on the tabloidy Bey and Jay bust-up element of the endeavour, but dig deeper and something far richer and more subversive is revealed. With its Katrina and Black Lives Matter references, Lemonade certainly hit the zeitgeist yet its nods to the history of Black expression created something both cutting-edge yet timeless in feeling. With Beyoncé using her talents and persona to channel vulnerability, rage, resistance and transcendence, Lemonade added up to a genuinely empowering and totally engrossing experience, accomplishing more in under an hour than several slack, shapeless features managed in nearly three. (Lookin at you, American Honey and Toni Erdmann.)

Theo and Hugo (dir. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau)

Summertime (dir. Catherine Corsini)

These beautiful films are very different: the former a taut yet dreamy night-in-the-city involving two guys whose sex-club hook-up takes a dramatic turn, the latter a years-spanning love story between two women of different backgrounds and temperaments, presented in the context of second-wave feminism. Yet I persist in thinking of the films as companion pieces, not least because they prove, once again, that when it comes to crafting intense, serious-minded movies that really do justice to the soul-shaking experience of falling in love, no one does it like filmmakers working in France do it, these days. Summertime review here

Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy (dir. Mahamet-Saleh Haroun)

Haroun made his first foray into documentary with this quietly searing work, in which interviews with victims of the  Habre regime and those who fought a long struggle to bring the dictator to justice, are the focus. Few shots in 2016 cinema were more potent than the closing images here, which show the dictator, struggling and unrepentant, being dragged from the courtroom. Full review here

Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Like Things To Come, Kleber Mendonça Filhos follow-up to the much-admired Neighbouring Sounds is also about an older female protagonist confronting new challenges. More openly transgressive than Hansen-Loves film, Aquarius sometimes dotes on its heroine a little bit too much for comfort. Still, the movie remains wonderfully fresh and subversive, crowned by a great performance from Sonia Braga as the radical, resistant widow. The moment in which Bragas Clara blasts Queens Fat-Bottomed Girls back at her noisy neighbours might be my favourite scene of the year.

The BFG (dir. Steven Spielberg)

A lot of people seemed decidedly lukewarm about Spielbergs latest, but I found The BFG to be everything youd hope for: funny, touching, supremely loveable, and, in its exuberant delight in Gobblefunk, as rich to listen to as it is to look at. Full review here

Staying Vertical (dir. Alain Guiraudie)

Guiraudie followed up his phenomenally successful art-porn thriller Stranger By The Lake with an even odder and more transgressive work: a consistently confounding, somewhat Ozonian meditation on creativity and parenthood that moved from hilarity to deep unease in the blink of an eye. Very weird and totally unforgettable. Note: the Cannes audience squirmed more at one (already notorious) sequence than the Wroclaw audience did. Full review here


Honourable Mentions: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Loving, The Handmaiden, The Hard Stop10 Cloverfield LaneEye in the Sky, Ederly, NerudaOffice for Monument Construction

Detested: Captain Fantastic

Biggest WTF did so many people see in that?: Toni Erdmann

DVD Releases of the Year: Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC; Napoleon. 

Book: Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema by Sophie Mayer 

Still Unseen: Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea