Search This Blog

Monday 19 December 2011

Reasons to be Pretty, Play by Neil LaBute, Almeida Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Neil LaBute's play Reasons to be Pretty gets off to an explosive start in a young couple's bedroom when Steph (Siân Brooke) confronts her boyfriend Greg (Tom Burke) about a remark he has made to his friend Kent (Kieran Bew) at work that day. Kent's pregnant wife Carly (Billie Piper) who works as a security guard at the CashCo supermarket with Kent and Greg, has overheard the remark and told Steph about it: Kent had gone on about a new “hot” young woman employee in Accounts and Greg had said that he finds Steph's face quite plain and yet is very content to be with her. Steph wants Greg to own up to what he said. She is angry and finds it unacceptable that he should not think her pretty. Is it worth making so much out of this kind of remark even if it were (objectively or subjectively) true?

Greg is a nice enough fellow who has settled into a comfortable routine. As a result of Steph's readiness to follow through on her feelings of hurt and anger towards him, he is shaken up. Taking a lead from her, he begins confronting his own complacency and lack of drive both in his friendships and in his professional life.

Reasons to be Pretty is a resolutely American Play. Its protagonists are average Americans (average not being an insult in this context in the USA) wanting something better for themselves, not just economically. But how will this play out?

LaBute is a master of capturing contemporary language in the intelligent, fiercely funny dialogues between his characters. With the character of Greg he has created a modern, intelligent male, who has to decide whether to see himself as the innocent victim of his girlfriend's exaggerated sensitivity or to look deeper and act. Will Greg be man enough to face this challenge?

The production by Michael Attenborough is fast paced and precise, the set by Soutra Gilmour is inventive, the music well chosen and integrated. As a result of the pregnancy of one of the actresses and based on suggestions from Attenborough, LaBute has rewritten parts of the play for this, its UK premier If anything this has enriched the play.

The four actors are excellent. Tom Burke as Greg gives an outstanding performance, and Siân Brooke movingly rises to the demands of a complex role. Definitely worth a visit to the Almeida.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Carnage, Film, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Yasmina Reza, 8* out of 10

In their New York apartment, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C, Reilly) Longstreet host a meeting with another white upper middle-class couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) Cowan. Their two teenage sons have come to blows with potentially costly dental cost consequences for one and possible exclusion from their prestigious private school for the other. In the age of truth and reconciliation commissions and mediation, Penelope Longstreet and Nancy Cowan have agreed to address the conflict in a most adult, civilised and conciliatory manner with no third parties involved. Their husbands go along with this, more or less enthusiastically. As the story begins, it appears that the couples have managed this process in textbook fashion. Having apparently achieved their objective, all that is left, is for their meeting to unwind. All four are however, a little bit too wound-up inside to part company without casually making a point or two.

The French writer Yasmina Reza gained international fame as the author of the play “Art”. In it four French yuppie male friends fall out over a modern painting which one of them has acquired. “Carnage”, based on her play "God of Carnage", is a worthy successor to Reza's first theatre hit. She is very skilled at holding up the mirror of irony to exactly the type of person who will go to see her plays or films. She does this with sharp wit and an empathic sense of humour. What drives us to perform such social acrobatics? Do we want to seem reasonable and civilized, so we can look at ourselves in the mirror with a self-satisfied air? Do we reluctantly believe we need to show our uncivilized, rude and violent teenage children how to deal with conflict the “right” way? Do we want to teach those other parents a lesson about how to bring up a child properly, while demonstrating to them that we did that; never mind if the awkward, sweaty intermediate result of our efforts does not look even to us like an unqualified success? Do we want to show our peers that our professional success is bigger than theirs, or, if it is not, that our cultural refinement is? Or do we really just want to do “the right thing”?

In this film, Yasmina Reza explores all these avenues. She does this without letting the story escape into absurdity and fantasy. Situations like this are very likely occur in real life and are already absurd enough.

All four members of the star cast give excellent performances without overdoing it. The non-American members of the cast, Kate Winslet (who is English) and Christoph Waltz (who is Austrian) successfully portray a New York power couple. Veteran film-maker Roman Polanski has weathered the most recent twists and turns of his private life without losing his well honed director's touch. He has produced a quality film and brought to bear his experience and his skill of letting the camera tell a story with wit and humour sometimes without the need for any dialogue whatsoever.

Carnage would work as well as an ensemble play as it does as a film. This ironic look at the wealthy New York liberal has been produced with a largely European creative team as a European film. The result is definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

How The World Began, Play by Catherine Trieschmann, Arcola Theatre, London, 8 out of 10

Susan (Anna Francolini) is a young science teacher from New York City, soon to be single mother. The break up of her relationship and her impending motherhood have led her to take a position as a science teacher in the US bible belt in rural Kansas. One of Susan's new pupils is the 15 year old Micah (Perry Millward) who is an orphan living with a local childless man (Ciaran McIntyre) and his wife. Micah lost his mother to cancer and his stepfather in a recent tornado, which has devastated the rural area where he lives.

As a science teacher Susan is all too well aware of how she needs to teach her subject and deal with evolution theory while respecting the division between state and church as demanded by the US Constitution and implemented in Kansas state legislation on education. Yet Susan is also a woman with a personal views and a certain impulsiveness. When she makes a remark in the classroom that might be seen to offend religious sensibilities, Micah insists that she presents a public apology. A dark and threatening atmosphere develops around the relationship between teacher and pupil and ripples through the local community. Where will this end?

How the World Began takes a familiar controversy dealt with in reality, film, television and theatre in several creative endeavours. Some like the play turned into a film, Inherit The Wind with the unforgettable Spencer Tracy, are of high quality.

The great strength of Catherine Trieschmann's play is the emphasis on the personal, the genuine connection that she credibly establishes between Susan and Micah. The dialogues are intelligent and both Micah and Susan defend their positions and their dignity, but they do not put ideology first. What we see is an intelligent, high potential farm boy student with a troubled background in conflict with a science teacher. Susan wants to earn her money, get all her certificates she needs for teaching, get health insurance cover. But she also defends the ethos of the science teacher, while respecting the religious background from which her pupils come. And she is a talented teacher with a heart for her students. It is the presence of the human and relational dimension within a genuine political and ideological problem in the US education system that makes this a very good play.

The director keeps the play moving along and the performances move the audience. The UK is a country blessed with extraordinary creative talent in film and cinema. 

All three members of the How the World Began give an outstanding performance. The chemistry between Susan and Micah gives drama and emotion to the very intelligent dialogues. Perry Millward as Micah stands out with a performance that is worth the price of the ticket plus a donation to the Arcola building fund. How the World Began is excellent theatre and deserves a sell out run. 

Although my daughter may not be a representative sample,  this is a play that can reach a young adult/teenage audience. With this production of How The World Began the Arcola Theatre confirms its track record as a place to go in London to be moved, entertained and challenged to think by intelligent plays.

Tom Atkins presents the European Premiere of HOW THE WORLD BEGAN by Catherine Trieschmann
Director Des Kennedy
Designer Alyson Cummins
Lighting Designer Mark Howland
Sound Designer Paul Millen
Video Designer Ben Gutteridge

Cast: Anna Francolini, Ciaran McIntyre and Perry Millward

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Ides of March, Film directed by George Clooney, 7 out of 10

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a campaign manager for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), an aspiring US presidential candidate fighting the Democratic primary election in the crucial State of Ohio. Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris´ trusted friend and Campaign Director has brought the talented Meyers on board. His forte is handling the media aspects of the campaign. Meyers is a smooth operator and a realist; but he is also personally convinced that Morris' will make a great US President for the Democrats who'll be able to advance a liberal agenda. Morris' opponent, Senator Pullman, is a right-wing Democrat, whose campaign director Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is experienced, clever and ruthless. As a high stakes strategic game develops between the two campaign management teams, the heady mix of adrenalin and testosterone, of alpha males and attractive power-struck interns, of sex and politics unfolds. The resulting fatal attraction will raise the question of character of the candidate and his political advisers. Meyers will find out the hard way what it means to be a key-player on the sharp end of a primary campaign. And soon he will have to decide. Should he abandon the chance to influence US policy at the highest level in order to avoid fighting dirty, or should he break his “ethics-barrier” in order to come out on top?

The title of the film refers to the story of Julius Caesar. In the Ides of March (15 March) of the year 44 B.C. a number of senators, former supporters of Julius Caesar, including his quasi-adopted son Brutus, carry out their conspiracy to end his political career by murdering him.

Based on the theatre play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, The Ides of March is an intelligent political drama with real suspense. The plot is straight-forward and some of its twists and turns too predictable to make this a truly outstanding film. Still it is realistic enough. and there is a good deal of substance in the storyline. 
The ethical issues raised here are good food for thought and discussion. The Ides of March is certainly worthy of George Clooney and on the level of excellent political drama of a film like Primary Colors or a television series like The West Wing. This gripping thriller is a must for those interested in the US politics. Competent direction complements very strong performances by an ensemble of outstanding actors. 

The charismatic Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine, Drive) confirms that he is an excellent actor, suitable for a wide range of roles. Quite an achievement for a young man sharing the screen with the likes of George Clooney, Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

The rating system of my reviews has changed to allocate points out of 10, rather than the five * used previously, to be more informative on the rating. (0 is the worst possible rating and 10 is the best)

Thursday 27 October 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Film directed by Lynne Ramsay, 10 out of 10

In his recent book, which appeared in the US under the title “The Science of Evil” (UK title Zero Degrees of Empathy), the British neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen reports on results of his research on the brain. His empirical studies identified an “empathy-circuit” in the brain. Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the position of an other and sense what he feels. Studies on psychopaths, who have committed heinous crimes, show that their empathy circuits are absent or do not functio properly. They do not feel empathy with other people. Baron-Cohen finds zero degrees on his scale of empathy a more useful concept than the commonly used term evil. The lack of empathy could also occur temporarily, i.e. while in a rage. Moreover it could be focused on some people while empathy is shown towards others. Baron-Cohen's research points to a possible genetic component as the cause, but the evidence was as yet insufficient to draw the conclusion that there are identifiable groups of genes leading to absence of empathy, what we commonly call evil. Not everyone whose empathy circuit is disturbed turns into an evil criminal, though. Baron-Cohen is convinced that nurture can do a lot to mitigate nature.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film based on the book of the same name by the female writer Lionel Shriver. It is perhaps the ultimate nightmare of every educated, intelligent, no non-nonsense mother brilliantly captured on celluloid.

Eva (Tilda Swinton) lives on her own in a small very modest home. She is subjected to the furtive, hostile looks of her neighbours. Her house and car are doused in red paint every day. As the story moves between present and past we find out what the circumstances were that have led to the situation in which Eva finds herself.

A modern and rather independent woman working as a well known travel-writer she meets Franklin. They marry and have a son, Kevin. Kevin is more than a handful to his mother from the beginning. A crybaby who drives his mother to distraction. Even as a small child he is highly manipulative. From the youngest age he devotes his energy to probe the areas where he can provoke and hurt his mother. This also involves manipulating his father, his doctors and others with his charm and intelligence. The cruel psychological war he has unleashed on his mother escalates as he grows into a teenager.

Eva won't be defeated. She does not break down, stands up to Kevin and has another child. A less strong person would have broken down, sent him away or left, particularly since her husband is of no help to her in raising their son. There are moments when Eva loses it, but Kevin is not interested in the final victory. He wants the thrill of the escalating war on his mother, the one worthy target of his manipulative narcissistic obsession. How far will Kevin go in order to provoke his mother to give up on him?

Lynne Ramsay's script (written with Rory Kinnear) and outstanding direction tells this compelling tale brilliantly. Tilda Swinton's perfo
rmance is among the best of 2011. Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin is magnetic and the chemistry between Swinton and Miller makes the film a candidate for many prizes. This film is not advised for couples thinking of starting a family, though.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Theatre of Life: Quasicrystals, the True Story of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, starring Dan Shechtman, Professor of Applied Material Sciences at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa

April 8, 1982. Dan Shechtman is a young Israeli materials scientist on a one year sabbatical in the United States. He experiments with heating up metal compounds and cooling them down quickly. An area of the resulting cooled-down mass looks different from the rest. Dan examines it under the electron microscope. What he sees at the atomic level is a structure that contradicts everything that has been taught on the subject. And so he doubts his findings. He writes in his notebook in Hebrew “Ayn Chayah Kazo”: A beast like this does not exist. He carefully checks his experiments and his method. Finally, he concludes that as a result of his findings, chapter 1 of all the basic text-books on the structure of matter will have to be rewritten.

At the time of Dan Shechtman's discovery, the mainstream of scientists works with X-rays to examine molecular structures. And using X-ray technology the results Dan saw under the electron-microscope cannot immediately be confirmed. Rather than question the paradigm, which has prevailed in their field since 1912, Dan's colleagues decide to disbelieve and even ridicule him as a charlatan. The head of Shechtman's research group, a personal friend, gives him a copy of a beginners' textbook and tells him to read it carefully. When Shechtman persists, he is fired from his research group as his boss and former friend does not want to risk the research group being exposed to the worldwide ridicule of other scientists in the field.

Shechtman manages to convince a colleague in Israel, that his stunning results are real. The colleague develops a theory framework based on the experimental results. But a paper they submit for publication in the field of Physics is rejected by the editors. The explanation given for the rejection is that Dan's discovery is of no interest to physicists. But he does not give up and slowly manages to convince a few more scientists and after four years of struggle, a scientific journal in the field of materials science publishes a paper co-written with colleagues that describes his findings.

Despite this publication, Linus Pauling, a scientist with the rare distinction of having won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Chemistry and Peace), continues to ridicule Dan Shechtman's work until his death in 1994. (Perhaps the 3 Lenin Prizes Pauling received in the 1960s from the Soviet Government disposed him to being somewhat dogmatic.)

But Dan Shechtman and the growing number of scientists who support his position does not give up and finally there is a paradigm shift in the theory on the structure of matter. Dan Shechtman's findings have entered the mainstream.

For those of us who believed that, in the natural sciences, excommunication and ridicule were tools of the established religious power against the advance of science, the true story of the structure of quasicrystals which plays in the 1980s will come as a shock. Human nature apparently does not need religious dogma to stay closed-minded. Scientists can be blacklisted by the community of scientists i.e. “excommunicated”, when they dare to challenge conventional wisdom and existing paradigms.

Luckily for Dan Shechtman, he lives in an open and democratic society. So no legal code in Israel and the rest of the West threatens his life as a result of his challenge to existing scientific authorities. Moreover, it does not take the several centuries it took the findings of Galileo and Kepler to overcome the paradigms and dogmas of their era.

It is interesting to speculate whether it was coincidence that Dan Shechtman has spent his academic career in Israel, where he is Distinguished Professor at the Technion, Institute of Technology in Haifa. It is also here that he initially found support for publishing his findings from a colleague. There are few other countries where people are willing to be persistent in the face of hostility and threats of exclusion from the scientific, cultural and political sphere not only by their enemies, but by their erstwhile colleagues and friends. There is ample evidence that the spirit shown by Shechtman, who is also one of the pioneers in Israel for teaching budding scientists entrepreneurship may be more pervasive in Israel than in other Western democracies. Numerous examples are found in the stories of Israeli High Tech Enterprises as told by Douglas and Helen Davis in their 2009 study of the Israeli high technology sector “Israel in the World”.

Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman's discovery of quasicrystals has given rise to a whole new field of cross-disciplinary science. Quasicrystals can today be found in many applications such as in surgical instruments and as a protective cover against extreme temperatures on turbine blades.

The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee for Chemistry 2011 deserves high praise for its choice of Nobel Laureate and the reasoning behind it. The message to young scientists is: build on the body of existing knowledge of your field but dare to challenge its fundamental principles, you may live to enjoy the fruit of your courage and conviction. The message to confirmed scientists is: listen carefully when a young colleague questions a paradigm with which you have worked successfully during your professional life.

But there may be a wider lesson to be learnt that is applicable to European academic and political institutions: listen carefully to voices from other confirmed democratic open societies which challenge your political and social paradigms; consider carefully whether these paradigms may need shifting, too.

European attitudes towards Israeli academics, artists and politicians who take a view different from the prevailing conventional wisdom may just be a place to start implementing such an attitude. No boycotts, no divestment, no sanctions but an open and frank dialogue which includes listening to uncomfortable views that challenge old paradigms is the right way forward.

To find out watch Dan Shechtman tell his own story here.

And watch the video of the announcement of the 2011 Nobel prize for Chemistry here.

What has Dan Shechtman learnt from his experience of having his findings rejected and ridiculed?

Midnight in Paris, Film, written and directed by Woody Allen, 3* out of 5

If you were given the chance which past epoch would you have liked to have lived in? For Woody Allen and his good looking all American alter-ego Gil, the protagonist of Allen's latest film Midnight in Paris, the answer is clear: the 1920s in Paris.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a writer who visits Paris in 2010 with Inez, his fiancée and her parents. Gil is a dreamer and romantic whose sympathy for liberal and socialist causes heavily contrasts with his future in-law's neo-conservative outlook. Inez wants Gil to come around to becoming a successful novelist and her trophy-husband. Gil in the meantime has fallen under the spell of Paris, although he only seems to take in the Paris of the past. None of Paris' modern architectural structures seem to gain access to his stream of consciousness as he wanders through its streets. If it is true that we all live our lives to the tunes of an inner sound track, Gil's is 1920s ragtime influenced Jazz. One evening, as Gil strolls through Paris on his own at midnight a limousine passes by and takes him into the international life of 1920s Paris. It is peopled with rich talented more or less idealistic Americans including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also other international artists on the way to becoming famous such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, Picasso and the photographer Man Ray. They seem to be spending most of their evenings at elegant parties given by their millionaire admirers or in romantic Paris cafés.

This is archetypal Woody Allen: intellectual, neurotic and mildly amusing, with the odd successful gag and some excellent well known actors and celebrities thrown in. An example of the latter is the current French President's wife Carla Bruni playing a tourist guide, demurely but effectively dealing with a 21st century insufferable American know-it-all pain in the neck.

Midnight in Paris is mildly amusing for people who are knowledgeable about the artistic and intellectual 20th century characters who spent the 1920s in Paris. There is however no bite in the satire The fact that the dreamer is a good looking tall blond man played by Owen Williams rather than someone reminiscent of the neurotic short, middle aged Woody Allen of his earlier films makes the inner logic of the story somewhat incongruent. Nonetheless, the beauty of classical Paris, the quality of the photography and the expectation Woody Allen has about the cultural education of the viewer, flatters the audience and mitigates the disappointment with the lack of bite. For hardened Woody Allen fans of his romantic-neurotic phase, the gentle nostalgia this film evokes outweighs the relative shallowness of its satirical ambition. 

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Drive, Film, written by Hossein Amini, James Sallis, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; 4* out of 5

A young Hollywood stunt -driver and underpaid car-mechanic moonlights as a getaway driver for robberies. He falls in love with a woman, who is married to a prison-inmate and unwittingly gets on the wrong side of some very nasty people.

If the plot of this action film does not sound very original, that's because it isn't. But don’t let that put you off.

The story is good enough for a stunning and outstanding action-film, because direction, photography and music combine to create a truly beautiful, tense atmosphere that makes the experience of watching Drive memorable.

The deliberate pacing of the camera shots during action sequences and car-chases and the perspective chosen in each shot are masterful. And to put the icing on this cake, there is an extraordinary performance by Ryan Gosling.

He plays his character with an understated determination and a propensity to explode into brutal and relentless but very focused violence. Gosling in his racing-driver's jacket has the charisma and the makings of a James Dean for the 21st century, hopefully with a long and productive career ahead of him. He also seems to have a knack for appearing in high quality films such as one of the best films of 2010, Blue Valentine.

The Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who spent his childhood in New York introduces an unflinching Scandinavian look at social realities and the violent world of organised crime which is reinforced by slowing down the action and taking unusual perspectives. A tense car chase is made even tenser by slow and stationary elements forming part of it. For this film Winding Refn deservedly won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

In fact, Refn’s direction and Gosling's performance have lifted this film into a timeless classic of the action genre.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Interrupters, Documentary film by Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz, 4* out of 5

The past Summer of the English riots has raised the issues of gangs, crime and violence in our cities high on our agendas. The Interrupters is a documentary about a tough-love approach to stopping a crime occurring based on intervention. 

The “violence-interrupters” of the title are former hardened criminals gone good. Armed only with the experiences of their past and a quick witted line in repartee they put themselves into harms way every day to save lives. Their most valuable asset is the respect they receive on the street due both to their courage and their past criminal careers. They work for CeaseFire, a Non Governmental Organisation formed in Chicago after the city had gained notoriety as a capital of youth crime. This notoriety came to a head when Derrion Albert a high school student was beaten to death in a violent incident captured on camera and broadcast throughout the US. The method this NGO employs to fight violent youth crime is to intervene on the street when an argument occurs and before it explodes into violence. It does this by employing formerly violent members of the community to intervene, by constantly gathering relevant information and intervening with the potential protagonists before the violence occurs. 

At one point, Gary Slutkin, a medical doctor in Chicago and the founder-director of CeaseFire explains that much of the violent crime committed by gang members is not gang-on-gang violence, but person-on-person violence resulting from some argument, chance encounter or a grudge that has gotten out of hand. Of course, gang members always have knives, guns or clubs at hand allowing them to act quickly on their most violent impulses. If the right people can find the right words before anger has turned to rage and rage to murder then there is a chance that a crime is prevented. This means a life is saved and another life not wasted behind bars and the pernicious impact on mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of those involved will have been avoided. Early intervention pays big dividends. 

The film follows three of these “violence-interrupters” over the course of a full year. As a result we get to know them and their clients well. This helps us appreciate the longer term impact they have on their direct clients, their families and the wider community in which they do their dangerous work. We can also make an emotional connection with the main characters who are indeed fascinating and inspiring individuals. We get to find out about their past and their present, their successes and their failures. And we find out that sometimes even hardened ex-criminals can sometimes be fooled for some of the time by young clients faking sincerity.

The film makers and the protagonists make us forget that we are watching a documentary. The characters and their stories draw us in, hold our attention and connect with our emotions as any good fictional crime/drama would.

The interrupters fully deserves the many prizes it has won at various festivals. If you cannot catch it in the cinema get the DVD as soon as its available.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Film directed by Tomas Alfredson , Screenplay Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré, 4* out of 5

In her 2011 BBC Reith Lectures entitled Securing Freedom, the former Head of MI5, the British Domestic Intelligence Service, Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller recalls a time when a number steam-kettles were kept by her organisation dedicated to surreptitiously opening intercepted letters without the final recipient noticing.

Some may think that nostalgia is not what it used to be, but the main strand of action in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy takes us back to 1973 in MI6, the British Foreign Intelligence Service not a million miles from Elisa Manningham-Buller's reminiscences. This, however, is a time when the business of spying is a largely intellectual pursuit carried out by clever men, expert at chess and solving The Times crossword puzzle. Fluent in Russian or Hungarian, they are, rare exceptions, graduates of Cambridge or Oxford University. Adept at office politics, this is where a lot of the pent-up emotional energy goes. Their sexual orientation varies. Some are straight, some bisexual, many are gay. Having been brought up in elite English fee paying schools they now analyse coldly what their counterparts in the Soviet Union, their Cold War Adversary is up to. Each side in this very serious mind-game tries to recruit defectors and double-agents from the other. Of course, the Americans were the Soviets' main adversary. The UK government of course is keen on maintaining the much vaunted “special relationship” with the US. Promoting this in 1973 demands that the superior skills British master-spies have honed over the centuries be deployed in order to maintain Britain's position as the preferred and trusted partner of the USA.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy the combination of outer calmness and inner stress is slowly brought to fever pitch by the suspicion that one of the inner circle of high ranking civil servants at the Head of the British Intelligence Service is likely to be a Soviet spy. In the eyes of the coveted American partner MI6 has become a leaky ship. The main protagonist George Smiley, has recently retired after his boss and mentor is forced out of the service. He is brought back by his erstwhile political master and charged with the mission to unmask this double-agent. The presumed traitor must have been a close colleague for decades. Or is Smiley himself the gamekeeper turned KGB-run poacher?

Making an absorbing film out of a book, where most of the crucial action is the interpretation of facts found and scenes remembered by the protagonists is a challenging task. But the adaptation of the screenplay and the outstanding direction by the Swede Tomas Alfredsen (who came to international attention with Let the Right One In) succeed completely. Keeping up with the twists and turns of the plot demands close attention from the viewers. There are many flashbacks, jumps in time which are not announced or signposted; but the viewers' attention is richly rewarded. The photography with its evocation of sepia tones, the set with many fine details and the costume come together and evoke masterfully the gloomy dingy London of 1973. They contribute marvellously to the atmosphere that generates the rising suspense. What the television series Madmen did for design and fashion of the 1960s Madison Avenue's advertising men, this film does for 1970s British Intelligence agents in pre-big-bang London. The best of male British acting talent is led by Gary Oldman, restrained this time as one has not seen him on screen before. The very high quality of the understated performances by the all-talent cast round off a thoroughly successful production.
The film is not totally devoid of humour either. There is the singing of the Soviet National Anthem as a turn at the British Spies' annual office party. And at one point as Smiley and his sidekick go about their business in the bleak East End of London, graffiti on the wall behind them proclaims “The Future is Female”; which brings us back to Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller Although sadly the steam-kettles for opening letters are probably gone for good, those of us who like to believe in happy endings would like to think that they have been requisitioned for making tea. As far as the future of this film is concerned, one or more Academy Awards seem assured.

Monday 12 September 2011

Wittenberg, Play by David Davalos, Gate Theatre Notting Hill, London, 4* out of 5

In William Shakespeare's Hamlet we are told that the Danish Prince in his youth was a scholar in the German town of Wittenberg. In John Marlowe's version of Dr. Faustus part of the action takes place in the town of Wittenberg. And Martin Luther, a historical figure larger then life, wrote his 95 theses against the catholic church's practice of selling indulgences in Wittenberg, where they were nailed to a church door or two. The consequences for the history of the Church and Politics in Europe were immense.

The premise of this play by the American playwright David Davalos is that Hamlet, Faustus and Luther were in Wittenberg at the same time. Young Hamlet has Dr. John Faustus as his philosophy tutor and the catholic priest Martin Luther as his theology tutor. All three characters are as yet blissfully unaware of the roles they will play in literature and history, respectively.

Dr. Faustus represents the search for knowledge and the belief in reason and science. Martin Luther believes that all comes from god and is revealed to us through our own careful reading and interpretation of the one original text God left us with, the Bible. Hamlet represents the very sensitive and intelligent student whose station in life demands decisiveness but whose character is racked with doubt and fear of madness.

Of the three characters in Davalos' play Dr Faustus is the most multifaceted: he is not only lecturer in Philosophy but also Luther's general practitioner prescribing remedies for constipation and moonlights as a crooner in Wittenberg's student watering hole. He is also ready for the love of a good woman; but is the good woman ready for commitment.

For the enjoyment of this play it helps to be acquainted with the canon of world literature Hamlet, Faust the history of the Reformation Luther (and his bête noire Tetzel) and Copernicus. And it helps to have a passing acquaintance with key questions asked by the Enlightenment.

Davalos would not deny being inspired by Tom Stoppard and especially the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” which also features characters from Hamlet in an inventive and intelligent manner.

While Davalos' Wittenberg does not reach the heights of Stoppard's brilliance, Wittenberg is a funny, intelligent and interesting play, entertainingly touching on big philosophical, theological and human questions.

Christopher Haydon's production is full of energy. Oliver Townsend's set is excellent and the acting performances are very good indeed. Sean Campion as Dr. John Faust has the best lines most varied part to show off his considerable talents opposite Andrew Frame's strong performance as Luther. The long-lasting warm applause from the audience was fully deserved.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Broken Glass, Play by Arthur Miller, Tricycle Theatre, London, 4* out of 5

New York in November 1938. Philip and Sylvia Gellberg are a Jewish couple who have been married for more than 20 years and have one son. Philip works in Bank where he is the head of the mortgage department, dealing with foreclosures. Sylvia has become deeply interested in the news from Germany where Jews are being humiliated and mistreated. She has also suddenly been overcome by a mysterious illness which has paralysed her from the waist down.

Gellberg seeks help from Dr. Harry Hyman, a confident and competent general practitioner who suspects that Sylvia's paralysis is psychosomatic. In his youth Hyman was quite a ladies-man. He did part of his training in Heidelberg. Hyman's wife Margaret who also runs his practice is not Jewish. Even though Hyman is not a psychiatrist he believes that he may be able to help. Contrary to Gellberg, Hyman seems comfortable with his Jewish American identity and optimistic by nature, he believes that the Germans wont let Hitler go too far in his mistreatment of the Jews. And anyway the German problem is thousands of miles away from life in New York.

“Broken Glass” is named after the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) in Germany and Austria in November 1938 when synagogues burnt and Jews were attacked, humiliated and mistreated by Nazi gangs while being applauded by the local population. In this play, written in 1995 Arthur Miller skilfully weaves an intelligent plot at the intersection of international politics, Jewish identity, personal relationships and human psychology. There is plenty of drama and humour, too.

Iqbal Khan's excellent production is enhanced by the haunting specially written cello music underlines the tense atmosphere of the play with the ill defined yet ever present threat to Jews everywhere at the eve of World War II. The acting is of high quality throughout, with Tara Fitzgerald as Sylvia and Anthony Sher as Philip Gellberg giving outstanding performances.

This production of Broken Glass ran at the Tricycle last year. It has returned there for a short run (until 10 September 2011) before moving to the Vaudeville Theatre in London's West End starting 14 September 2011. Don't miss it.

Friday 12 August 2011

The Quick, Play by Stephanie Jacob, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 4* out of 5

Jo and Megan are cell-mates in a woman's prison in the North of England. Jo has a temper that can flare and explode into uncontrolled violence and in such a state she committed the crime that has landed her in prison again. Here she shows disdain for the rules and for those in authority. Megan is the soft vulnerable type that likes to help where she can. Unfortunately, she has helped her lover and heroin-dealer once too often. As a result serves a long prison sentence and has had to escape her heroin-addiction. Megan's caring personality and affection for her cell-mate make an impact on Jo, but her emotional world really gets shaken and stirred when she is told that the victim of her violent crime wants to meet her.

What is a tough yet effective approach to dealing with the consequences of violent crime? Restorative justice is a process in which victim and perpetrator of a crime, hopefully in a carefully prepared mediated setting, if both are willing to do so. What does such a dramatic and emotional meeting risk and what can it achieve?

I am usually inclined to be sceptical, even scornful about theatre-plays that are pedagogical and support a politically correct message. The Quick ticks both these boxes, yet, admirably, it manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of its intentions and genre.

At the core of the quality of a good play is the writing. It is evident that Stephanie Jacob has engaged deeply with her subject and has written all the characters of her play and their relationships in a very realistic, differentiated and credible way. Next, the pool of acting skills available in this country never ceases to impress me. Every character in this play is well acted, but the portrayal of the mercurial Jo by Josephine Rogers is a tour-de-force that by itself is worth the price of the ticket. Another outstanding performance is given by Alasdair Craig as the victim of her vicious crime. Both Rogers and Craig manage to capture key aspects of their character through an accomplished physicality of their performance. The chemistry between Jo and her cell-mate Megan (Grace Willis) is presented very credibly, too. Director Lucy Richardson has done an excellent job too, the violin music between the scenes underlines the atmosphere and a reminder of the cruel consequence of what Jo did to her victim.

This is certainly not an evening of light entertainment, but for those who are ready to have their preconceptions questioned (or confirmed) in a high quality, moving and sincere performance it is a very-good investment.

Some months ago the Tricycle's Theatre's production of “Afghanistan” was shown in the Pentagon. An unusual but highly worthwhile experiment: theatre can activate parts of the brain traditional forms of communication cannot reach. A performance of The Quick to both Houses in Parliament and senior civil servants could be timely and beneficial to the quality of the discussions and decision-making on crime and punishment in the wake of the riots in London and other English cities.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Blue Surge, play by Rebecca Gilman, Finborough Theatre, more than 4* out of 5

If August in riot-riven London is not hot enough for you, why not consider spending an evening with two charming hookers at the Finborough Theatre?

Curt is a cop in a small Mid-West town in the USA. He and his partner Doug have been assigned to busting a “massage parlour”. So Curt meets Sandy, an 18 year old “masseuse” and starts a friendship with her. Doug actually manages to arrest his suspect Heather. Curt's girl-friend Beth from an upper middle-class family is an artist. She supports the ambition for 38-year old Curt to make Lieutenant, but is that ambition really his or hers?

Rebecca Gilman, a gifted and justly recognized American playwright, tells a story that has suspense, humour, intelligence and warmth. Written in 2001, this is the UK première of “Blue Surge”. The play explores questions of relationships across class, of ethics vs. practical, needs in a thought provoking way. It manages to confound many of her audience's expectations without stretching its credulity. One of the strength of this play that every character has depth and relationships are believable.

So for the actors and the creative team putting on this play must be a boon. And clearly they are a talented. The set works with few means, but uses glass and light to very good effect. The direction keeps the play moving and holds the audience attention from scene to scene. The acting is excellent with a very well balanced cast; and still Clare Latham as Sandy and James Hillier as Curt stand out.

I discovered the small Finborough Theatre about three years ago. It consistently manages to produce high quality theatre, encourages new writing talent, attracts young people to the theatre. The atmosphere is friendly and enthusiastic;and recently it has equipped itself with air conditioning. What more can a theatre-goer interested in seeing intelligent, modern plays ask for?

Sunday 7 August 2011

The Light Thief, Film,/Kyrgyzstan, written and directed by Aktan Abdykalykov, 3***out of 5

Managers in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) nowadays have to spend much of their time attending cocktail parties at the UN in Geneva and New York or networking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is difficult for them to keep up to date with developments in the field. Luckily the are talented writer-director-actors such as Aktan Abdykalykov in Kyrgyzstan, who allow them to get an authentic picture of the problems that befall potential clients of their NGOs, without having to do any more tiresome travelling than a ride to a “theatre near you”.

The “Light Thief” in this story is Svet Ake. He lives in a rural community and is an electrician with a heart of gold. For some impoverished members of his village he will fix the electricity meter so that it runs backwards. Svet Ake is married with a little daughter. He loves his village and his family. He also maintains the traditions of the culture of his region which includes a mild form of Islam and respect for the high-hatted elders in the village, who are consulted and involved in decisions about the common good.

After the death of one of the elders, an evil young local profiteer gets his straw-man elected as the new mayor. He has his sights set on the profit opportunities that land sales can provide in the era of globalisation.

He understands that the man who may stand between him and a large amount of money is the electrician; so he tries everything from persuasion, to bribery and threats to get Svet Ake on his side.

It is rather comforting to a Western audience that the visiting potential buyers of Kirghiz land are not evil Westerners, but a delegation of no less evil Chinese officials. They are wined, dined and offered the sexual favours of a young woman of the village.

Svet Ake does not give in and is dealt with in a brutal manner by the mayor's henchmen. There is no Happy End for the “Good Man from Kyrgyzstan”.

Friday 22 July 2011

For Once, play by Tim Price, Hampstead Theatre, presented by Pentabus Theatre, 4* out of 5

April and Gordon are the middle-aged parents of a teenage boy, Sid. They live in a small village in the English country-side where Gordon is much involved in the various committees, organising the villages social activities. Each member of the family tells their part of the story of how a terrible event has affected them, their relationships with each other and their relationship with the other people in their village. Conflicts and tensions emerge and are brought to a head.

At the base of any good play is good writing. “For Once” is a very good play and Tim Price a very skilful and talented playwright. The characters he has created have depth, are intelligent and well rounded. Their development and their interaction are presented with sensitivity and insight. The production under the direction of Orla O'Loughlin is of high quality. Tim Price has given the actors some very challenging scenes to play. Geraldine Alexander (outstanding!), Patrick Driver and Jonathan Smith rise to the challenge.

The Pentabus theatre's brochure says that at the heart of their work is “our rural location which affords us a unique perspective on, and relationship to, the world”. This is very well demonstrated in “For Once”. The Hampstead Theatre is to be commended for giving city audiences the opportunity to see the work of Pentabus in this gripping, moving play.


Sid                              Jonathan Smith        
April                            Geraldine Alexander
Gordon                       Patrick Driver

Design: Anthony Lamble
Lighting: Phil Gladwell
Sound: Chris Shutt

Loyalty, play by Sarah Helm, Hampstead Theatre, not quite 3* out of 5

Laura is a journalist for the Independent Newspaper. She is the partner of Nick, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the months leading up to the Iraq War in 2003. They have 2 children and a Polish nanny.

The play enacts Laura's reminiscences of the period leading up to the Iraq War to the point when the post-Iraq-war report by the UN inspectors is issued which confirmed that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Most of the play is set in Nick and Laura's bedroom, a sex-free zone, appropriately equipped with telephones, a line-encryption device for secure phone calls and panic buttons to ward off would-be assassins. Contrary to the Notting Hill set, Laura and Nick live in Stockwell. Nick's boss, Tony Blair, is amazed that anyone closely associated with his government would choose to live in a downscale area of London whose existence he is only dimly aware off. “The Oval” cricket ground is the nearest landmark significant enough to have entered Blair's consciousness. The possibility that Blair might be feigning geographical ignorance in order to wind his Chief of Staff up with a bit of banter, does not seem to enter Laura's mind.

The deal between Nick and Laura is that Nick tells her everything that goes on in his job and she can listen in to all conversations. In return, she will not write about any of these topics nor leak any sensitive information. As a result, we the audience, find out through Laura's ears and eyes about the conversations taking place between Tony Blair, George Bush, Rupert Murdoch and other protagonists in the period leading up to the Iraq War.

The tension in the play is about, where the loyalties of the main characters and especially Nick lie, as the UK is being “cheated” into participating in an Iraq War by the Americans. Nick is smart and somewhat conflicted. Tony Blair is a ruthless, charismatic politician with the ability to get right-thinking leftish, middle class intellectual party-members to do what he wants in order to please him. These individuals think that at the last moment he might decide not go to war with Iraq or, even better, persuade the Americans not to do so either. Failing that, he will at least finally address a cause of the great British Foreign policy frustration, something on might describe as the penis envy of British foreign policy makers: in return for UK support in Iraq, he will get the Americans severely downgrade their very special relationship with the Sate of Israel below the level of their special relationship with the United Kingdom. The expectation is that the US government will put pressure on Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians. This is particularly important to Laura who was Jerusalem correspondent for her paper once and worked closely with a Palestinian camera-man there who during the Iraq War has taken an assignment with the Reuters news agency in Iraq.
Sara Helm's play Loyalty is based on her actual experiences, as the life partner to David Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff. She presents it to us as a piece of fiction based around actually identified real characters. Thus, it appears that she intends for this play to be understood as largely factual. A big problem with this is that since it is also presented as fictional, she does not engage her responsibility for its factual content. Nevertheless, the main interest of this play for the audience is that its author has been through the experience in real life.

Unfortunately, as a play, its quality is slightly below the BBC drama department's efforts to depict significant recent political events such as the expenses scandal in the UK Parliament. For people who are the target group of news papers such as the Independent, Guardian and Observer, this play confirms the views they mostly hold about Blair, Bush, Murdoch and themselves, as well as their thoughts about what went on in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Other than Laura, Nick and their Polish nanny, who at one stage half-jestingly draws a parallel between Blair and Hitler, the characters of the play are stereotypes with no inner life, no inner conflicts and not many ideas. We learn nothing about them, except that they are exactly like they have been depicted by their political opponents. What is more interesting to see is how a journalist and a senior civil servant try to live as a couple given their largely incompatible responsibilities. Laura and Nick and the way their relationship survives the Iraq War is what is best about the content of this play. The set and production for Loyalty are of good quality and the acting performances very competent.

As a play, Loyalty suffers from its one-sided political stand-point: good is good and evil is evil and sometimes the twain shall speak to each other on the phone. Only Nick is more complex: he is good, but as a good civil servant he must also sit on the fence and help evil to commit its evil deeds, in the hope that evil will suddenly turn good and live happily ever after.  The stereotyping of decision makers such as Blair and Bush raises the question whether the theatre is a suitable medium for “faction” of this type. 

Having all your expectations and opinions confirmed does not really make for great theatre. Compared to what other theatres in London have been able to achieve with new writing talent and political subjects (Tricycle, Royal Court, Arcola and Finborough to name a few) “Loyalty” at the Hampstead Theatre is a rather disappointing experience.

Patrick Baladi
Stephen Critchlow
Anna Koval
Lloyd Owen
Maxine Peake
Michael Simkins
Colin Stinton

Creative Team:
Writer: Sarah Helm
Director: Edward Hall
Designer: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Casting: Gabrielle Dawes

Sunday 17 July 2011

The Village Bike, Play by Penelope Skinner, Royal Court Theatre, London, almost 4* out of 5

The Hungarian writer George Mikes once observed: Other people have sex, the English have hot-water bottles. Judging by Penelope Skinner's play, the English have come a long way.

Becky and John are a young couple living in rural middle-England. Becky is expecting baby and senses that pregnancy has made her less sexually attractive to her husband. Her plan is to do whatever it takes to get good sex back into her marriage: yoga, riding a bike and a sexy nightie form part of the arsenal with which she would like to seduce her man. John however has become broody, completely focussed on the impending pregnancy and determined to read everything about motherhood and interpret his wife's outbursts accordingly. The one thing he has absolutely no inclination to engage in with his newly pregnant wife is sex. Becky however is determined to get what she's after: there's the stash of old porno films that used to enliven her sex life with John in the past. Failing that, there's the middle-aged, widowed village plumber who might well be a candidate for fun and games. Even better there's Oliver, a dashing young man who sells her the second-hand bike she wants, in order to keep fit, and whose wife's away for the summer.

The Village Bike is original, direct and funny. It is about sex, it turns many stereotypes upside down. The first act of the play is outstanding. The second part re-establishes the old order of things as the woman who goes after what she wants is faced with the consequences of her behaviour on the people around her. Women cannot not get away with what men easily get away with. Women have to pay a price that men don't.

By having her play follow prevailing moral double-standards that disadvantage women in fulfilling their desire for sex, Penelope Skinner missed an opportunity to follow through on the comedy, dark humour and above the subversiveness of the first act. Nevertheless, The Village Bike is a strong and entertaining play.
Skinner is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatres play-writing workshops. With the Village Bike she has given us a dark, funny and dramatic play of high quality. The director Jo Hill-Gibbens has done an outstanding job to ensure that the production moves along without a dull moment and holds the audience's attention. An excellent cast is led by Romula Garai as Becky. She is among the most talented British actresses of her generation and gives a sympathetic, totally believable portrayal here of a young woman who is ready to take risks in order to get what she wants. 

The Village Bike - Becky (Romola Garai) and John (Nicholas Burns) 

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Nader and Simin – A Separation, Film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, 4* out of 5, highly recommended

Nader and his wife Simin are at the family judge about their divorce. They had planned to leave Tehran and go abroad with their 11 year old daughter Termeh. But now Nader's father is showing symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and Nader does not want to leave. Simin wants Nader to think about his daughter's future rather than his father's present. She does not really want to divorce him at all. If he would go abroad with her before the visa expires in 40 days. 11 year old Termeh has her own agenda: keeping the family together, whether in Tehran or abroad. But Nader is determined, proud and stubborn when it comes to defending what he thinks is right and is his right. He will let Simin go. He will agree to the divorce, but he wants to keep Termeh. Simin is more pragmatic than Nader but a strong and determined woman. Without her daughter she will not go abroad. So, Simin moves to her parents who are supportive of their daughter and respect their son-in-law. When Simin and Nader arrange for a housemaid to ensure their Nader's father is supervised, they find Razieh and Hodjat, a very religious couple living in relative poverty. Hodjat has lost his job and needs to satisfy his creditors. Razieh, who is pregnant and has a young daughter, is seeking work without Hodjat's knowledge, to make ends meet. Then events take a dramatic turn.

This film is a high quality family and court room drama full of suspense. The problems the protagonists have to deal with and the way they react are familiar. We can identify and empathise with every character. The inner and outer conflicts are the consequences of events and character traits that we have come across in ourselves and people we know.
The fact that the story plays in today's Iran adds a special twist. The legal and state institutions are unfamiliar and seem strange to us. One instance is the emergency telephone helpline Razieh calls for sorting out a practical question according to the precepts of Iranian Shiite version of Islam. But the protagonists' actions and feelings, their aspirations and the manner in which they navigate their state and legal institutions seem very familiar, easy to understand and to empathize with for any Western audience.
Don't miss this suspenseful, thoughtful, high quality drama. Great cinema, the film thoroughly deserves the Golden Bear Prize it received at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.