If Franz Kafka had penned a Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin episode and got Robert Wiene to direct it (with Terry Gilliam on hand to assist him, perhaps) then it’s possible that the end result would have been something like From Morning To Midnight, the latest production from Melly Still, which had its first preview performance in the Lyttelton on Tuesday night. Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s episodic Expressionist drama concerns a bank clerk who, shaken out of his dull routine by the appearance of a glam femme, absconds from his job with 60,000 gold marks in his pocket and an existentialist’s inquiry in his heart: that is, to discover “a reason for being alive, a reason for actually drawing breath.” It’s a quest that leads our hero through various locales (from hotel to snowy wasteland, brothel to Salvation Army meeting) over the course of one day, as Kaiser explores the kind of freedom and meaning attainable by Modern Man.
The National has this season’s Edward II on its hands with From Morning To Midnight, a production that, while clearly captivating some audience members, sent a number fleeing from the theatre at the interval and prompted the man in front of me to deem the show “The worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Without going that far (I, for one, would sooner sit through this production than the frightful Jeeves and Wooster again, for starters), the show is a mixed bag indeed. An inert text by Dennis Kelly (a writer who keeps getting commissions beyond his capabilities, it seems to me) is one of its major problems; it simply doesn’t do justice to the play’s leaps from the mundane to the phantasmagorical or provide the production with enough ballast to ground its effects and multiple coups de théâtre. Moreover, the piece feels, in this rendering, intellectually mediocre, its elements of social critique muted.
Still can be a wonderfully witty, imaginative director: her Beasts and Beauties was a marvel and, in Coram Boy, she delivered one of the finest-ever NT productions. And she certainly goes all-out to stage some big, startling moments here. They include a daringly sustained, near-wordless opening sequence presenting the bank’s routine and bustle; a snowstorm epiphany; and some deft, amusing early sequences that take us into the Clerk’s fantasies of himself as an intrepid romantic hero. Best of all is a great scene in which the Clerk rejects his family that’s punctuated by Kelly Williams’s fine shriek as the abandoned spouse – one of the all-too-rare moments in which a genuine human emotion pierces through the production’s conception.
The problem is that too many of the episodes come off, precisely, as self-conscious Big, Startling Moments designed to make the audience go “Wow!” and as a consequence the production feels at once over-elaborate and weirdly empty. Indeed,for a show that features a cycle race, bopping and a bawdy cabaret amongst other to-ing and fro-ing in its second half, much of From Morning To Midnight is surprisingly sluggish, the show reaching its nadir in a painfully protracted Salvation Army sequence (featuring Edward II-esque video projections, oh joy) that starts to feel like it will never, ever end. There’s also something offensive about the implications of this final scene and Kaiser’s eagerness to turn characters into money-grasping betrayers.
Some of the production’s pacing problems will probably be ironed out over the course of the preview period, but other troublesome aspects run deeper. Nodding and winking at the work of Wiene and Fritz Lang amongst others, Soutra Gilmour’s design combines with Bruno Poet’s lighting to forge another dispiriting gloom-and-shadows special (see here and here) that confuses depressive with impressive. And while the onstage band’s pastiching of silent film scores adds zing to scattered moments the musicians are ultimately strangely underused.
Fronting Still’s hard-working, multi-tasking ensemble, the always-inventive Adam Godley does all kinds of interesting physical things in the lead role; first seen as a mere silent cog in the machine of the bank, he unravels with zeal but never manages to create a character we come to care about. His Clerk remains a cipher to the (bitter) end, and consequently the protagonist’s journey has no poignancy and no emotional power.
That goes for the whole production, in fact. From Morning To Midnight is an admirably daring choice for the NT. It's a landmark expressionist play, and I'm happy that I saw it, but I'd have liked to have seen it served better than it is here. As it is, Still’s production lumbers on (and on) and Kelly’s version makes the play’s perceptions look too puny to carry the weight.
Geoffrey Beevers’s Middlemarch Trilogy shapes up into something special with its second instalment, The Doctor’s Story. While there were many aspects to admire in the first production, Dorothea’s Story [review here], some slightly fussy, knowing touches marred the overall effect of the adaptation for me. The Doctor’s Story retains the same kind of aesthetic and approach as the first production with swift scene transitions, minimal set, audience address and other Brechty business. But the overall tone is less arch and irony-filled and consequently more consistently absorbing. Fans of a certain well-regarded Mafia series might think of the production as the equivalent of The Godfather, Part II: a second part that proves totally compelling in its own right while also deepening and enriching the experience of the first.
The play’s focus is another problem marriage with its “hidden as well as evident troubles”. The studious doctor Tertius Lydgate is, like Dorothea, another of Eliot’s idealists and he arrives in Middlemarch with the desire to do “good work for [the town] and great work for the world.” But gradually Lydgate finds his principles and position compromised by the surprising complexities of Middlemarch society, first via his marriage to the solipsistic coquette Rosamond Vincey and then through his association with the banker Bulstrode.
Beevers’s adaptation dropped hints of the dramas occurring for Lydgate on the periphery of Dorothea’s story and it’s fascinating to see how he brings those to the fore here while relegating Dorothea to the sidelines for the most part. There’s a wonderful sense of life going on around the characters, with some of the first production’s scenes replayed from different vantage points. The detailed, supple work from the ensemble once again astounds, with the company contributing vivid performances in their main role/s and then transforming themselves into surly pub gossipers or squabbling committee members as required.
As the Lydgates, David Ricardo-Pearce and Niamh Walsh brilliantly convey the tensions of a marriage foundering on its partners contrasting temperaments. Rosamond’s move from perfect self-absorption to an awakening to the reality of other people in the great scene with Dorothea is charted especially movingly. Christopher Naylor is terrifically likeable as the vicar Farebrother, while Christopher Ettridge fleshes out the duplicitous, blackmailed Bulstrode and Liz Crowther does a subtle heart-breaker of a turn as his deluded wife. The result is a production that conveys, through the most minimal yet creative of means, the bustle and flow of a community and the intense private dilemmas and dramas playing out behind its doors.
So who would have suspected that a whole heap of unresolved Daddy/daughter issues lay beneath the shiny, happy surface of … Mary Poppins? That’s the case put forward in John Lee Hancock’s funny, touching and surprisingly beguiling Saving Mr. Banks (the Closing Night film of this year’s London Film Festival) which dramatises the conflicts that arose from Walt Disney’s determination to bring P.L.Travers’s books to the cinema screen in a (now beloved) all-singin’, all-dancin’ form.
Hancock’s frankly Freudian take on these events pits its avuncular, wily Disney (Tom Hanks) against a prim, schoolmarmish, control freak Mrs. T. (Emma Thompson) as the Mouse man flies the fiercely reluctant - but cash-strapped - author out to Hollywood and tries to woo her for once and for all into signing over the rights to the Poppins books. Interspersed with these 1960s scenes - which find Travers wrangling with Disney and his creative team over the movie’s script, design, characterisation and casting (“Dick van Dyke is not one of the greats!” she protests) - are flashbacks to the writer’s childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia. Here, as the movie tells it, Travers’s early life with her eccentric, alcoholic pa (Colin Farrell) and put-upon mother (Ruth Wilson) sowed the seeds for her future literary creations.
Hancock made a botch of his previous outing The Blind Side but, working from an astute, affectionate script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, he gets the tone right in this new film, producing a movie about movie-making that avoids the various pitfalls of archness, cynicism or cosy self-adoration. That Saving Mr. Banks is a Walt Disney Production should alert you to the fact that the film isn’t the place to go to for a blistering critique of the Mouse House. Sure, Thompson’s Travers gets to whip out caustic denunciations of the Disney Empire as a crass, vulgarising, “dollar-printing machine” but Walt’s perspective that the work that both he and Travers does as storytellers “instils hope [in audiences] time and again” is finally the view that dominates.
Still, the film’s presentation of the pair’s interaction and the workings of the Disney studio proves nuanced enough. Starting out as nicely-done culture-clash comedy (“It smells like chlorine. And sweat” is Travers’s verdict on L.A. when she steps from the plane), the film digs deeper as it goes along, its points about adaptation and authorship developing in a great series of script-meeting scenes that find Travers’s tart, unforgiving personality testing the patience of toothy American geniality as represented by Mary Poppins’s screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and its composers the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).
At the heart of the picture is a platonic male/female double act to place alongside the one in Philomena. But Hancock’s movie rings a whole lot richer and truer than Frears’s does; it’s actually made with some genuine feeling and sensibility. It also helps that, unlike Philomena, SavingMr Banks feels thoroughly inhabited by other vivid, well-drawn characters – each of whom makes you grin a little every time they appear and who complement Hanks and Thompson’s well-judged turns in the lead roles. Hanks makes his twinkling Disney a man who knows that charm’s the best way to get what he wants, while Thompson (the spirit of Nanny McPhee constantly hovering) uses her crack comedy timing to cut through some of the movie’s more manipulative bits. The moment when her Travers charges into the boss’s office bellowing “Disney!” in scary low tones suggests a sensational Lady Bracknell in the actress’s future.
Throughout, Hancock proves himself adept at bringing out understated, intimate moments, especially in the scenes that show Travers’s loneliness and disorientation in L.A. and how those feelings pull her back into sometimes painful memories of her past. (The film’s flashback structure and literary-creation themes mark it out as a companion piece to Gavin Millar’s quirkier, Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild.) The Australia-set scenes initially look a tad too whimsical but they gain in grit, helped by Colin Farrell’s best screen performance in ages and the piercingly plaintive notes that Ruth Wilson strikes as Travers’s mother, a woman rendered increasingly desperate by her husband’s wayward actions.
Saving Mr. Banks has some shortcomings: in particular, the over-extended ending, set at the Poppins premiere, is fumbled. Elsewhere, though, scenes that, by rights, shouldn’t work come off: witness Travers’s tentative bonding with her sweet chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). Mostly, the film is lovely, and its centrepiece sequence - in which the frosty Travers finally thaws out when introduced to the delights of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” - is as purely joyous a moment as 2013’s movies have offered.
Well, I’m dashed. Jeeves &
Wooster in Perfect Nonsense pairs Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan as P.G.
Wodehouse’s beloved comic creations in a play adapted by Robert and David Goodale from the 1938 The Code of
the Woosters and directed by Sean Foley. Following a
brief tour the production has now pitched up in the West End where it’s booking
until March next year. Not being much of a Wodehouse enthusiast my expectations
for the evening rested mostly on Foley’s involvement: I enjoyed the quirky,
boldly theatrical spin that the director put on his production of The Ladykillers a couple of years ago. (Recast, that production is currently back
in the West End too.)
Foley certainly strives to
bring a similar kind of brio to his latest outing, but the results prove much
less successful. Indeed, I’d rank Perfect Nonsense as one of the archest, smuggest,
most superfluous productions that the West End has seen in many a long year. A
show-offy star vehicle for its actors, its Woman in Black-derived conceit is
that the action is unfolding in a theatre that Bertie has hired to stage his story
of a disastrous weekend and where, as usual, he requires Jeeves’s expert aid to
help him out. And so, while the cobbled-together plot goes hang, the evening
becomes a roll-call of fussy, meta set-pieces featuring much wink-wink audience
address, a lot of rolling on of scenery, the highlighting of location shifts,
and the actors (multi-tasking Mark Hadfield completes the trio) leaping
manically from role to role and generally mugging it up like there's no tomorrow. Macfadyen does drag (rather scarily). Mangan bares
his teeth and jumps up and down a lot. A little toy dog (apparently this
season’s must-have theatrical item following the appearance of one in the
Orange Tree’s Dorothea’s Story) yaps away. Beds get hidden under and windows
What’s lacking, fatally, is a
semblance of wit or charm. In strenuously flagging up the farcical elements,
Foley makes the production a terminally self-conscious, strained affair in
which you don’t even feel much genuine affection for the original
material. He’s clearly directed the show with both eyes fixed firmly on the One
Man, Two Guvnors crowd and, to judge by the rapturous reception (including some
ovators!), they’re responding as intended. But I'd say it's a poor show, chaps.
New stories every day, new paradoxes, opinions. Now come tidings of entertainments, triumphs, revels, plays. Then again, as in a new shifted scene, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical then tragical matters. (Robert Burton, The Anatomyof Melancholy)
Alex Ramon teaches English Literature and Film at the University of Reading and at Kingston University, London, UK. He writes about film and music for PopMatters, about music for Wears The Trousers, and about theatre for British Theatre Guide and The Public Reviews. He's the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields (CSP, 2008) and also contributed to the volume Carol Shields: Evocation and Echo. At the moment he's writing about novel-to-film adaptations. And Guy Maddin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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