Saturday, 13 August 2016

On New Horizons: the 16th International Film Festival, Wrocław, 21 July – 31 July 2016



Founded in 2001, and now in its 16th edition, Wrocław’s T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival (Nowe Horyzonty) has established itself as one of Poland’s most important showcases for international art cinema: a great complement to Krakow Film Festival, and to the venerable, vibrant Gdynia Film Festival, which focuses exclusively on Polish productions. I’ve been eager to attend the Festival since I started visiting Poland regularly in 2007 but somehow the dates have never quite worked out. I was happy, therefore, to finally have the opportunity to make it to New Horizons this year, albeit for only a few days.

Deep End 
This is a particularly significant year for New Horizons, since Wrocław is European Capital of Culture for 2016, sharing the title with San Sebastian in Spain. While I can’t comment on how the city’s status may have changed the tenor of the event this year, New Horizons 2016 certainly offered an abundance of riches, including appearances by Claire Denis, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnieszka Holland, Carlos Saura and Victor Erice. (A section focusing on Basque cinema – including the Erice retrospective – constituted the Festival’s loving homage to its ECC twin.)

The Festival also featured over 100 Polish premieres, among them screenings of the crop of recent successes from the likes of Venice and Cannes, such as Ken Loach’s Palme-honoured I, Daniel Blake, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, Alain Guiraudie’s spectacularly confounding Staying Vertical, and Maren Ade’s much-loved (though not by me) daddy/daughter comedy Toni Erdmann.

Deep End
In addition, Polish cinema both brand new (Tomasz Wasilewski’s Silver Bear-winning United States of Love/Zjednoczone Stany Miłości) and classic (Aleksander Hertz’s believed-lost 1919 silent, People with No Tomorrow/Ludzie bez jutra) was showcased, while Deep End (1970), Jerzy Skolimowski’s sublime London-set portrait of adolescent erotic obsession, played to a hugely enthusiastic crowd after an introduction by Gdynia’s Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk. Since I was only at the Festival for a short time, I was able to sample merely a small selection of the films and events on offer. The following remarks shouldn’t be interpreted as in any way comprehensive, then, but are instead a modest overview of some of the work that I was able to catch.

The first film that I saw served as both a perfect introduction to the Festival and to the city in which it’s held. Wrocław From Dawn Till Dusk (Wrocław od switu do zmierzchu) is an insightful observational documentary by Polish film school students, shot in November last year, and overseen by mentors Jacek Bławut and Marcel Łoziński. At once tight and loose, the film, which is part of “The World From Dawn Till Dusk” project, is expertly edited and rendered cohesive by (among other visual and sonic elements) the occasional commentary of DJ Leszek Kopeć, which provides a thread throughout.

Less a “city symphony” than an étude or, perhaps, an impromptu, the film  conjures the atmosphere of Wrocław beautifully, whether focusing on parent/child boppers at a baby salsa class, the inhabitants of a hippie commune, or the daily doings of workers in the city: from shoe-makers to zoo-keepers to puppeteers. Disturbing footage of a nationalist rally led one audience member to complain that the film had shown Wrocław in a negative light. In fact, the film is notable for its affectionate yet unsentimental tone, adding up to a modest mosaic of city life that also serves as a synecdoche for contemporary urban Poland.

Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice
Made in 2006, and screening as part of the Erice retrospective, another documentary, Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami – Correspondence, was a touching addition to the Festival, given Kiarostami’s recent death. No straightforward gab-fest a la Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), the film is rather an idiosyncratic, impressionistic piece that’s deeply infused with the poetics of both filmmakers. As the title suggests, the movie is based around Kiarostami and Erice’s letters to one another, which we see being composed here, and then delivered in the directors’ beguiling mellow voices.

These gentle, respectful missives serve as an entry point to the consideration of wider “correspondences” between the pair, as well as to reflections on continuity and change, and on cinema’s border-crossing potential. In one of the finest sequences, a group of eager, engaged school-kids in an Extremadura village discusses Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) at length, encouraged by their teacher to engage with both the relatable moral dilemmas presented in the film, and with its specific cultural context. Other memorable moments include a huge, haptic close-up of a cow and a sustained, emblematic shot taken through Kiarostami’s car windscreen. In its final passages, the documentary takes a more abstract, metaphysical turn that’s a little bit less compelling, but overall the film does justice to the relationship of two directors linked by their great ability to make us see and experience the world afresh.


Things to Come  (L'Avenir)
Turning to new narrative features, after the draggy, slightly irritating Eden (2014), it was good to find Mia Hansen-Løve back on form with Things to Come (L'Avenir), a delightful, surprisingly funny ode to life going on after loss that screened in the Festival’s “Panorama” strand. A portrait of a philosophy teacher, Natalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), going through a series of personal and professional shake-ups, Things to Come fits comfortably with the current vogue for films focusing on older female characters challenged with remaking their lives, or, indeed, resisting such changes: Marion Vernoux’s  Bright Days Ahead (2013), Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive (2014), and the aforementioned Aquarius come to mind in this context. 

Things to Come (L'Avenir)

While the movie’s engagement with the legacy of late-1960’s radicalism feels a little pat, Things to Come remains perceptive and highly enjoyable, with scenes that don’t always develop in predictable directions. The movie is given grit and grace by its leading performer: a bustling Huppert has seldom been more likeable or more physically witty than she is here, whether facing off with her depressed mother (a cherishable Édith Scob), testing out the alternative lifestyle proposed by her handsome protégé (Roman Kolinka), or fending off unwanted male attention in a movie house. (During a screening of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy!) 

Those of us who saw Huppert’s writhing, shrieking, out-there performance in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s recent highly stylized multi-text theatrical extravaganza Phaedra(s) will be especially impressed by the consummate ease with which the actress slots into a naturalistic domestic context here; the subtlety with which she keeps us attuned to Natalie’s feelings, whether in the character’s social interactions or in the intimate scenes which present the protagonist alone, is prodigious.  In a beautiful final shot, Hansen-Løve brings her wise and restorative movie to a perfect, elegant end.


Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical)

A favourite from Cannes, it was a pleasure to revisit Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical) at New Horizons and to find the film to be an even richer, odder creation than it seemed on first encounter. The follow-up to the director’s highly acclaimed Stranger By The Lake (2013), the suspenseful cruising thriller that brought gay porn aesthetics to the art-house, Staying Vertical offers a deeply subversive meditation on parenthood and creativity, one that deconstructs desires and gender stereotypes with the casual aplomb of François Ozon at his finest.  

The audience response to the film is also worth noting. Much Western media would tell you that Poland is currently sinking into insularity and conservatism, following the election last year of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. Yet the Festival “bubble” presented a much more complex picture, as open-minded, wide-ranging audiences sat unblinking through Staying Vertical’s already-notorious cross-generational sodomy/euthanasia sequence and, later, through the sadomasochistic sex depicted in Lee Seung-won’s demanding, atonal Communication & Lies. Indeed, the former sequence prompted more embarrassed squirms at Cannes than it did in Wrocław, while the Polish audience also seemed considerably more responsive to the black comedy and unforeseen twists and turns of Guiraudie’s latest than the director’s compatriots did.

A Special Day (Una giornata particolare)

Another pleasurable addition to the Festival were the free outdoor evening screenings held in the city’s beautiful Market Square: these ranged from  a presentation of silent early Shakespeare adaptations (complete with new Globe Theatre score), screened as part of the Festival’s excellent “Shakespeare Lives on Film” strand to Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s musical/horror mermaid extravaganza Córki Dancingu (The Lure).

The final film I saw at the Festival was at one of these outdoor presentations: Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day (Una giornata particolare), the director’s near-two-hander in which Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni - she playing a put-upon housewife, he a homosexual radio announcer - are neighbours who bond over a few hours, on the day of Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938.

Dismissed by Pauline Kael as “a strenuous exercise in sensitivity… neo-realism in a gold frame,” the movie has aged surprisingly gracefully, and drew a large and attentive audience.  At the precise moment that the film’s tender final scenes were playing out, the Market Square’s town hall clock chimed 12 a.m.: a beautiful moment of convergence between film, festival and city that carried us, at once sad and hopeful, into the new day. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

CD Review: How Can We Know? EP, Peter Horsfall (2016)



A late highlight of last year’s concert-going, for me, was Barb Jungr’s “Festive Feelings” show at Crazy Coqs, a Christmas concert that combined songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and George Harrison with Jungr’s customary inventiveness, verve and aplomb. Jungr’s collaborators on this programme were Jenny Carr on piano and Peter Horsfall on trumpet, both of whom also contributed harmonies throughout the evening, while Horsfall also sang a seductive lead on “Moonlight in Vermont” and duetted with Jungr on a funny, combative “Fairytale of New York.”   
It’s pleasing to report, then, that Horsfall has now released his debut EP:  How Can We Know? is a 4-track release of great charm and craft that firmly confirms Horsfall as a talent watch. Already a prolific live performer, and member of London swing group Kansas Smitty’s House Band, Horsfall’s music harks back to 1920s and 1930s-era jazz styles. And, as the Crazy Coqs show demonstrated, he has a knack for delivering songs in a way that makes them sound both classic and fresh. His skilful song-writing, which the EP showcases, possesses precisely those same qualities. With Horsfall’s light, airy vocals accompanied by David Archer on guitar, Joe Webb on piano and Dave O’Brien on bass as well as his own great trumpet-playing, the EP sustains a relaxed, easy, intimate tone.

The title track is a stately and instantly enticing opener that capture’s love’s uncertainties with melancholy charm.  “It’s Not You, It’s Me” swings beautifully, with particularly lovely piano and trumpet work, while the mellow, elegant “This Song’s For You” gracefully wishes a parted lover well. “Cupid’s Arrow’s and Bow”, a co-write with Jungr, is a delight: a brisk, giddy and infectious ode to getting swept up by love that comes complete with a sneaky lyrical homage to Leonard Cohen.  Indeed, each of these carefully-crafted songs gleams like a jewel and sounds like a standard in the making. Here’s hoping for an LP from Horsfall and company very soon.

How Can We Know? is out on   9th September  and can be pre-ordered here. Horsfall launches the EP with a show at Crazy Coqs on 8th September. 

Thursday, 7 July 2016

DVD Review: Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC 1969 - 1989 (BFI, 2016)



Whether or not you accept the media hype about our current cultural moment being a TV “Golden Age”, one thing is certain: what’s sorely lacking from British television schedules at the moment is the one-off drama, the single play that, in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a staple of BBC programming and that resulted in many bold and unusual visions. Closely connected to the theatre of the period, the one-off dramas featured in such regular strands as “Play For Today”, “The Wednesday Play”  and “Play of the Month” benefited from the open-mindedness of producers in allowing writers and directors to push the boundaries of the medium, while the format of the shows  (with limited budgets and running times that seldom exceeded two hours)  led to lean, focused story-telling that’s a marked contrast to the bloated excesses and unwieldy narratives of most TV series today.

Among the very many things that the BFI’s stunning new box-set Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (available on Blu-ray and DVD) accomplishes is to remind us of a time when the one-off play was central to British cultural life, and, more specifically, of a time when a highly stylised David Bowie-starring Bertolt Brecht adaptation was considered fit fare for primetime viewing. Formidable in its thematic range, rigorous in its attention to form, Clarke’s body of work fully deserves the wider exposure that this lovingly assembled 12-disc box-set (which includes booklet essays on each film and a documentary featuring new interviews with a range of Clarke’s collaborators) will inevitably provide. It’s an expensive buy, to be sure. Yet the singular, strangely moving spectacle of Bowie as the rake-ish anti-hero poet in Baal (1982), grubby and barking bitter Brecht ballads in split-screen, is pretty much worth the purchase price alone.  

Baal (1982)
   
Born in Wallasey, Merseyside in 1935, Clarke studied Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson in Toronto, before returning to England; he began his directing career in theatre, transitioning into television in the late 1960s, where he worked prolifically until his early death in 1990. The fact that Clarke has never become quite as widely known, or as internationally celebrated, as his contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach may be due precisely to the fact that his most essential work was made for television, and that a great deal of it has been out of circulation for many years. Despite this, though, Clarke’s influence remains wide: American indie mavericks including Gus van Sant and Harmony Korine have openly cited Clarke’s later work as an inspiration (van Sant’s 2003 Elephant borrows not only aspects of its aesthetic but even its title from Clarke’s 1989 film, in which an ever-roving Steadicam  captures 18 anonymous murders in Belfast ), while Lizzie Franke detects echoes of Clarke in the work of contemporary British female filmmakers, from Andrea Arnold to Clio Barnard and Lynne Ramsay.

Less didactic than Loach, less prone to caricature than Leigh can be, Clarke’s work is especially notable for its extraordinary diversity, encompassing period adaptations (Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the Innocent, Büchner’s Danton’s Death), intimate character studies (Diane) , poetic rhapsodies (Penda’s Fen) and hard-hitting experimenta (ContactElephant), alongside some indelible curios (Under the Age, Stars of the Roller State Disco). Though occasionally credited as co-writer, Clarke tended to work from others’ scripts (forging productive collaborations with Roy Minton and David Leland, amongst other scribes), which may explain the variety and range of his output.

Scum (1977)
Yet, cumulatively, some recurrent preoccupations do start to reveal themselves.  For one, Clarke’s work is often drawn to explore group dynamics, the workings of “tribes” or institutions, and the fate of individuals therein. That’s true of a number of the finest plays here, including Sovereign’s Company (1970), which astutely explores the interactions of a bunch of new recruits at a British military academy, through to his most controversial work, Scum (1977), a portrait of the inculcated brutality of borstal life that got itself banned by the BBC for its violence and was remade by Clarke as a feature film in 1979. Though slightly undeveloped in its screenplay, Scum still hits hard, and features a career-making performance from  Ray Winstone as the new boy determined to assert himself in the survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of the youth prison system.

Works such as Scum make it tempting to lump Clarke in the “social realist” box, and it’s true that a number of the films here take the pulse and measure of their moment in provocative ways , whether  it’s the portrait of under-pressure staff in a mental institution in Funny Farm (1975) or the radical trilogy of Northern Ireland-referencing projects, Psy-Warriors (1981), Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989).  Yet the classification is a reductive one, as Clarke’s work often transcends or subverts social realism: witness, for example, the curious dystopia Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984), which unfolds in a bizarre job-centre-cum-skating-rink for unemployed teens : a fitting, if unsubtle, metaphor for the ever-decreasing  circles of opportunity experienced by British working-class youth in the early ’80s.   

Penda's Fen (1974)
Another characteristic of Clarke’s work, indeed, is the sympathetic, though decidedly unsentimental, affinity it demonstrates with teenage protagonists. Among the finest plays here are two unforgettable coming-of-age films. Penda’s  Fen (1974), written by David Rudkin, is a visionary pagan pastoral about the intellectual, spiritual and sexual awakening of a conservative 17-year-old, Stephen (Spencer Banks). Sometimes suggesting Derek Jarman or Terence Davies in its hallucinatory imagery, the film is a rich and strange creation that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to, its combination of the mundane and the mythic adding up to a celebration of hybridity (both national  and personal) that still feels gloriously subversive.

 Diane (1975), meanwhile, casts Janine Duvitski as a teenager challenged with making her life after the trauma of bearing a baby by her own father. Scrupulously avoiding sensationalism via an intelligently elliptical approach to its narrative revelations,  Diane is a should-be classic that boasts a stunning performance from  Duvitski, who honours every step of  the protagonist’s  journey from awkward, angry, inarticulate teen to sensitive young woman tentatively making her own way in the world.  

What’s also notable about Clarke is the generous flexibility of his approach. As a director , you don’t feel him imposing a style on the material but rather finding the best way to tell the story in each case; thus, his aesthetic ranges from the vivid lushness of Penda’s Fen to the chilling clinical sparseness of Psy-Warriors. That sensitivity is somewhat less acute in a few of the later films, in which Clarke’s fondness for Steadicam arguably gets over-indulgent, rendering the likes  of Elephant and 1987’s Christine  (a studiedly affectless and monotonous portrait of an atypical drug-dealer making her rounds in the suburbs)  more admirable experiments than fully developed dramas.


The Firm (189)

Yet Clarke was back on peak form with Road (1987), a rowdy, robust adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play starring Jane Horrocks and Neil Dudgeon as inhabitants of a crumbling County Durham street, that includes a startling stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by Lesley Sharp. Even better is Clarke’s final film, The Firm (1989), presented here alongside its previously unseen “Director’s Cut” version, a powerful account of toxic masculinity featuring a phenomenal performance from Gary Oldman as the volatile estate agent  for whom professional success and family life don’t offer the thrills provided by brutal football hooliganism.   

Diane (1975)
There’s no denying that much of Clarke’s work is challenging and demanding, and that a lot of it is grim. Even warmer, more innocuous works such as Horace (1972) and A Follower for Emily (1974) have a sting in the tale, an undertow of loss, distress or compromise. Yet the quality of Clarke’s work, the amount of thought and feeling it provokes, makes Dissent and Disruption a totally rewarding and strangely life-affirming experience overall.  In that spirit, it seems apt to close with the halting, resonant words of Duvitski’s Diane, expressing her tentative sense of the opportunities still available for her after her traumatic experiences:  “There are things … all sorts of things… I don’t know what they are yet but they’re there. I’ve got my life. I’ve gotta have my chance. Bound to make a terrible bleedin’ muck-up, knowing me. But it’s all I can do... It’s the only time I’ve got”.  

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Theatre Review: French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre)


 Joe Eyre, Florence Roberts and Ziggy Heath in French Without Tears
(Photo by: The Other Richard)

It’s both with great delight and a little bit of trepidation that one heads back to the Orange Tree to see French Without Tears, the OT’s co-production with English Touring Theatre, which, revived and (mostly) re-cast, is now back at the theatre before touring later this year. "Delight" because Paul Miller’s staging of Terence Rattigan’s fragrant 1936 comedy was one of 2015’s most purely pleasurable productions; "trepidation" because revisiting favourite productions can carry some risks. Will the show remain as delightful this time around? Or will its pleasures seem diminished in some way? 

Happily, the former proves to be the case here. Miller pitches this revival so perfectly, with so much charm and intelligence and lightness of touch, that resistance is pretty much futile, whether you’re seeing the show for the first or the second time.  

Rattigan’s play takes place on the west coast of France, where a group of young Englishmen have gathered for the summer to study French for the Diplomatic exam at Monsieur Maingot’s “cram school”. Cross-cultural and (especially) linguistic misunderstandings come to the fore, but, mostly,  the play (which was Rattigan’s first hit) is all about the romantic complications that the protagonists find themselves embroiled in, involving the arch-temptress Diana and Maingot’s daughter Jacqueline.

"Is there something more to this than a mere frolic?" wonders Dan Rebellato in his programme essay. Well, compared to the bruising and cathartic likes of The Deep Blue Sea  (currently at the National Theatre in Carrie Cracknell’s fine production), the answer has to be: "No." Yet, watching French Without Tears again, the beauty of its construction becomes even more apparent, as does the surprising amount of nuance that Rattigan brings to his characterisation of the protagonists which, while sharp and wry, never resorts to mean-spirited mockery, and gives the actors plenty of opportunity to go beyond caricature.

The two cast members reprising their roles – David Whitworth as Prof Maingot and Joe Eyre as Kit – both excel again, with Eyre, in particular, skilfully underplaying (even when dressed in one of the year’s most outrageous costumes) to make Kit’s love-sickness and jealousy both funnier and more relatable than I'd remembered it. The new cast members feel equally at home, too, with Tim Delap expertly incarnating a British naval "type" in Commander Rogers: uptight and awkward yet good-hearted and surprisingly perceptive. 

Alex Large makes the uncomplicated Brian (as keen on "tarts" as he is rubbish at French) entirely adorable. Beatriz Romilly invests Jacqueline with sweetness and shrewdness, articulating at least part of the play's perspective when she describes men as "blundering fools". Florence Roberts renders the cooing seductress Diana a more overt manipulator than Genevieve Gaunt did last year, but also clearly makes us understand the motivations of a character  who believes that her only gift is to make men fall in love with her. As the smug observer Alan, Ziggy Heath comes into his own when the character gets knocked off balance by a surprise declaration from Diana.

With a fine design by Simon Daw, and lovely music by David Shrubsole, Miller’s production is perfectly paced and pitched, reaching its comic apex in a wonderful post-revels scene between Rogers, Brian and Kit. Hilarious, loveable, and the ultimate cure for Brexit blues, it’s still hard to imagine seeing Rattigan’s play served better than this.

French Without Tears is booking at the Orange Tree until 30 July. It tours with English Touring Theatre from September to November. Details here

Friday, 17 June 2016

Theatre Review: Richard III (Almeida)





Hamlet may remain the prized part for the younger Shakespearean actor, and King Lear the Holy Grail for the older, but, for those aged in between, there’s no denying that Richard III still retains a strong attraction, as evidenced by the high-profile names – including Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch – who’ve taken on the role in recent years.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of the monarch as a charismatic villain, merrily murdering his way towards the throne, may send certain historians into a fit, but the role clearly remains as appealing to actors as the play itself does to audiences. The attraction lies in part, perhaps, in the way that Shakespeare makes Richard himself a performer, counterfeiting and pretending, and, at one point, essentially coaching his co-conspirator Buckingham in effective acting technique.

This emphasis on performance can turn the play into something of a pantomime; Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, arguably fell into this mode. But Rupert Goold’s excellent new production at the Almeida, which dynamically re-teams Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave after their previous collaborations in the films of The White Countess and Coriolanus, doesn’t take that route. There’s humour, certainly, in Fiennes’s witty delivery and in the memorable darkly comic performance of Daniel Cerqueira as the killer Catesby, coolly bringing out the block and axe to chop off the head of James Garnon’s Lord Hastings.

Yet, from Jon Morrell’s dark costumes to Hildegard Bechtler’s spare set to Jon Clark’s crepuscular lighting, this is a production that takes the play seriously and illuminates it in intelligent ways. A postmodernist framing device, referencing the 2013 discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a Leicester car-park, is striking but superfluous. Otherwise, though, the production, which mixes cell-phones and breastplates, offers a fine blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

At the centre, of course, is Fiennes, hunched and with his right side braced, his body seemingly at odds with itself yet frighteningly nimble when need be. Fiennes has always been a great actor, but in recent years his performances on both stage and screen (not least his superb, uninhibited turn in A Bigger Splash) have taken on a looser, riskier quality. Always exceptionally clear in his delivery, with an expert approach to the soliloquies, Fiennes does terrific, surprising things in this role: whether it’s mocking Rivers with a Cockney “What, marry, may she?”, letting out a bashful “Aw!” when it’s suggested that the throne might be his, making the line “Are you Tyrrell?" into a question for the audience, turning on Hastings with startling ferocity, or chillingly letting his mask of benevolence slip when Baxter Westby’s bound-for-the-Tower Prince Edward jumps on his back.
   
The dramatic face-offs with Joanna Vanderham’s strongly characterised Lady Anne and with Aislín McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, are particularly disturbing, Fiennes grabbing the crotch of the former and forcing the latter to the floor in a full-on sexual assault,  before railing against “shallow, changing woman” in a moment that powerfully exposes the character’s violent misogyny.

Redgrave, always bold and inventive, makes something equally original of the mad prophetess Margaret. Boiler-suited and carrying a battered doll as the emblem of the character’s losses, she dispenses her curses with stealth rather than stridency, wiggling her finger as she refers to “the worm of conscience”, kissing and caressing the doll  (and reacting with open-mouthed horror as Fiennes grabs its head) and, in a great moment, finally passing her mantle of insight and grief to McGuckin’s Elizabeth. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know”. Redgrave, in particular, embodies that understanding and knowledge here.

Although the production makes good use of the Almeida’s intimate space, Goold’s staging has some problems. The imperfect construction of the play leads to some awkward transitions, “The Citizens” scene feels under-directed, and a couple of the performances aren’t everything they might be: Susan Engel, for one, indulges in some surprising hamming as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Complaints about pace during the preview period may also have resulted in the ending now feeling rushed: the eve-of-Bosworth apparition scene is effectively and unfussily done, and Fiennes invests Richard's fractured final soliloquy with a compelling mixture of self-justification, self-hatred and vulnerability. Yet the battle itself, with blaring lights and a very weedy rain effect, feels somehow stilted, leading to a muted finale. Still, if Goold’s production doesn't match Propeller's amazing take on the play, it remains essential viewing, not least for the chance to see one of our finest actors at the very top of his game.

Richard III is booking at the Almeida until 6 August. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 21 July as the first “Almeida Live” broadcast.

The Pleasure of New Challenges: An Interview with Andrzej Chyra





Andrzej Chyra greets me warmly in his dressing room at London’s Barbican Centre. In under a couple of hours, the actor will be taking to the stage in two roles: firstly, as Hippolytus in Sarah Kane’s  Phaedra’s Love, and, later, as an academic interlocutor in the J.M. Coetzee-derived Elizabeth Costello. Along with the opening Wajdi Mouawad-authored section (in which Chyra doesn’t appear), these pieces constitute the 3 hour 40 minutes triptych that is Phaedra(s), the latest multi-text theatrical extravaganza by Polish auteur Krzysztof Warlikowski, starring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role(s).

Hippolytus, in particular, is a challenging, exposing role for Chyra, but there are no signs of pre-performance nerves on display from the actor, who appears both relaxed and animated as we talk. Chyra thinks hard over his answers, which then tend to come in a rush of ideas and impressions. In short, he’s great company, and the 20 minutes allotted for the interview flies by all too quickly.

Chyra is one of the most acclaimed of Polish actors, known equally for his work in theatre as in cinema, where his key roles include his breakthrough, award-winning turn as the blackmailer Gerard in Krzysztof Krause’s Debt (Dług) (1999); the tormented survivor in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007); and the priest, Father Adam, struggling with his sexuality in Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name of…  (W imię...) (2012). Most recently, Chyra has appeared as the ex-con hotdog vendor  in Jerzy Skolimowski’s stunning city symphony 11 Minutes (2015) and will be seen later this year in Tomasz Wasilewski’s highly anticipated United States of Love, which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2016 Berlinale.

A constant in Chyra’s career has been his collaborations with Warlikowski, the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr. Chyra’s roles for Warlikowski have ranged from Dionysus in Bacchae to Hanan in The Dybbuk to Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, and now at the Barbican for nine performances, Phaedra(s) is the pair’s latest venture together.

I ask Chyra how he and Warlikowski first met, and what he finds particularly rewarding about working with the director. “After I graduated it took a while to get interesting work and I ended up directing TV quiz shows and things like that,” Chyra recalls. “But then Debt happened and things changed.  I don’t know if Krzysztof had seen the film but he heard about me and we met. I don’t think I’d seen any of his productions at that point, either. So we didn’t really know each other’s work so well but there was a great connection between us, and it felt immediately like we were on the same wavelength.  I felt energised again, inspired to act. Since then, it’s not like we’re working together on every production he does, but we always look forward to collaborating.”

Warlikowski’s productions are noted for their distinctive, highly stylised approach. Does the director allow much space for the actors? “Yes, he does,” Chyra affirms. “In fact, Krzysztof’s approach is very collaborative. He works closely with [designer] Małgorzata Szczęśniak, and, in the last few productions, with a dramaturge, on the concepts. But, as actors, we never feel that we’re simply there to slot into a pre-conceived design. He doesn’t treat his performers as puppets. Rather, he is always open to our input and our ideas. He also has a great sense of humour, which is necessary, working on texts that can be quite intense. He’s a very brave director.”

“Brave” is the adjective that Chyra uses to describe Huppert, too. The pair first worked together on Warlikowski’s A Streetcar in 2010 and Chyra’s deep admiration for the actress is clear. “She’s one of the greatest actresses. She has such intelligence, takes so many risks. Sharing the stage with her, those moments when I look into her eyes, or see her hands … there is a strong connection. It always feels fresh. We don’t get tired of each other. At least, I hope that she feels the same way!”

Touring the productions internationally is also something that he enjoys. “Again, it keeps things fresh. We’re in Europe so things are not so very different [a poignant comment given Huppert’s unexpected reference to the EU referendum at the Phaedra(s) Press Night] but there are always little distinctions, country by country.  That helps you to stay present as an actor.”

In The Name Of... (dir. Szumowska)

It soon becomes apparent that Chyra is an artist who seeks out novelty, challenge, the excitement of “keeping things fresh.” He mentions that he recently directed two operas, Shostakovich’s The Gamblers and Paweł Mykietyn’s The Magic Mountain, experiences which he found rewarding. He tells me that part of the attraction of working on A Streetcar was learning French for the part: “that was a great challenge.” 

Chyra recalls that Phaedra(s) is not his first time performing in London theatre: he appeared  here in Festen 14 years ago. He confesses, though, that he and the company had some apprehensions and “doubts” about performing Sarah Kane’s play in the UK. In fact, despite some negative reviews (a couple of which have offensively implied that a French/Polish production can’t hope to share British sensibilities about humour or its sensitivities about racial or gender politics), Chyra contends that the response to Phaedra(s) in London has been more positive than in France, and that the connection with the audience here is stronger.

“We had some great audiences in Paris, but, you know, in France, “Phaedra “means Phèdre, it means Racine. So you have some people walking out at the interval, because this production is not what they anticipate. Different countries, different contexts, generate different expectations. Performing here, in London, it feels … lighter in some way. Serious, yes, but not so heavy. It is a total pleasure to do the play here.”  He looks forward to continuing to tour the production, including to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in September.  Why is the show not being presented in Poland, I ask him. “Well, it got complicated with financing,” Chyra tells me. “And the political situation doesn’t help.”

Our conversation turns briefly to film and to his recent experience of working with Skolimowski. “What a guy, what a guy!” Chyra says admiringly. “He is very special. In fact, straight after we finish Phaedra(s) in London, I go with Skolimowski for a few days to Slovakia to present 11 Minutes [at Art Film Fest] . He wanted me to go to the premiere in Venice and the screening at Gdynia but I was busy on all those occasions. So I will finally get a chance to support the film at a festival.”

Does he have a preference for theatre over film? “No, no,” Chyra says emphatically. “It depends entirely upon the material and on your collaborators. After I’ve done a play, I often feel an urge to make a film, and then vice versa. Making movies, then a production every few years, a directing project… this feels like the right kind of rhythm.” He pauses. “Though I’m over 50 now so perhaps it’s time to rest.” His laughter as he says these words suggests, in fact, that there’s little danger of that.  

Phaedra(s) is at the Barbican until 18 June.