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Monday 28 February 2011

Water, created by Filter & David Farr, at the Tricycle Theatre, London, 4.5* out of 5

A young woman comes to Vancouver. She is a junior member of the British government and a negotiator on climate change. She is here to negotiate with her US counterparts a common stance on carbon emissions targets for the next major worldwide conference round. Privately the woman, who has been clear that her priority is her professional life is going through a crisis with her boyfriend, a record chasing deep sea diver. He is currently thousands of miles away from her. He has done all he can to make this relationship last and is disappointed at her reluctance to commit. She begins to question her priorities.

Also on his way to Vancouver is middle aged environmental officer from the UK. In his private life he is struggling with bouts of depression. He has come to Vancouver for the funeral of his estranged father, a professor of Oceanography at Vancouver University. He meets up with his half-brother and discovers the truth about his father.

Water is a drama about the tension of in life between private happiness, professional success and political realities. The play is very well constructed and holds the audience's attention from beginning to end. The cast is very good, but the stars of this show are the creative team particularly the sound. Water is vibrant, inventive entertaining and stimulating theatre at its best.

Among the “flood” of new plays on environmental issues currently on the London stage (e.g. Greenland, The Heretic), Water stands out for sheer quality and originality adding to the tricycle's highly deserved reputation for excellence.

Sunday 27 February 2011

The Heretic, Play/Comedy by Richard Bean, at the Royal Court Theatre London, 3* out of5

At some stage during this play, the daughter of “the Heretic”, a female professor of Earth Sciences at a modern Redbrick University in England, exclaims: this is like being in EastEnders (for overseas visitors to London deprived of quintessential UK TV experiences EastEnders is a long running TV soap-opera on BBC TV).

Perhaps not, but the play The Heretic is more like a light television sitcom than a play worthy of the Royal Court Theatre. Environmental issues are rather incidental to the plot. The question of what can happen to an academic whose findings do not match "group-think", is the subject of this comedy. There are death threats from extreme environmentalists and a not so gentle reminder about the funding implications for the Department from the scientist's boss.

Back to "The Heretic" proper. The first hour of is filled with very funny one liners and quite entertaining. As the play wears on, a rather thin plot is solely the vehicle for gags and one-liners. The supply of gags dries up in the second half of the play. For the last one and half hours, The Heretic turns into a romantic comedy with certain twist and turns of the plot bordering on the pathetic.

The talented cast and creative team are more than this play deserves. Having said that, a packed house applauded warmly; with part of the audience clapping enthusiastically. I guess a few good laughs are especially appreciated in these austere times.

And then there is this: sometimes the plots of comedies can be trumped by real life. The Global Governance research centre. funded by Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi at the London School of Economics might want to send its staff to The Heretic. Moreover, the Middle East Centre at the same university might wish to join them. This outfit would rather remove from their website a map of the Middle East that "erroneously" omitted the a country called Israel, than correct the error by adding Israel to their map. One must assume that this is its tactic to mollify the Emirates Foundation which funds the this research centre. Something very similar is demanded by her department head, from the scientist in The Heretic; except here it's about funding from the environmental lobby. Academic life can indeed be stranger than fiction.

I should mention that most of the reviews in the press are more enthusiastic than mine. You can read them via the link to the Royal Court Theatre's website below.

Biutiful, Film/Drama, Mexico/Spain, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 4.5* out of 5

Uxbal makes his living from helping to run illegal street selling and immigration in Barcelona (Spain). He has a heart for the African street sellers and the Chinese man and women living in squalid conditions whose labour he helps to sell to Spanish construction site managers. Uxbal also looks after his two children from his marriage to his estranged, bipolar wife.

A visit to his doctor brings bad news. For the sake of his children and he will have to bring some order into his life. Other people have come to rely on him, too. But terrible trials and tribulations still lie ahead.

Biutful is a deeply moving, sad, intelligent and indeed beautiful film. Xavier Bardem and Maricel Alvarez playing Uxbal's wife are outstanding. The other levers of the cast are excellent, too. The direction and photography reinforce the quality of this film.

Truly deserving of its Oscar Nomination for “Best Foreign Movie”, Biutiful is one of a group of “foreign” and art films - among them Of Gods and Men (Des Dieux et des Hommes) and Blue Valentine - which are of far higher quality than the actual nominees for Oscar-glory in 2011.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre adapted by Tanya Ronder, Play, Young Vic, 4*out of 5

Vernon G. Little, aged 14, the (almost) eponymous hero of the play,based on the 2002 Booker Price winning début novel by DBC Pierre, is in trouble. His best friend just committed a massacre in his classroom and Vernon was found in the grounds of the school holding on to a bag of ammunition. He says he found this bag in the grounds of his school. The finger of the law and the media will soon resolutely point at this hapless Texas teenager, as one misfortune piles upon another.

Vernon Little is the Holden Caulfield for the 21st century. His social context is on the intersection of Bowling for Columbine, South Park and Family Guy (see notes below). 

This play about, among other things, mass murder, suicide and serial killing is a riotously funny, serious tour de force accompanied by a cheesy live Country and Western soundtrack which the actors deliver with considerable musical skill. Young people in the audience will laugh at a cynical, crazy, all too real adult world which incorporates everything from the evil child molesting psychiatrist to the beloved but totally ineffectual mother, whose choice in men is less than fortunate. 

Meanwhile, we grumpy old adults in the audience are unable to get annoyed by how we are depicted, because we are cunningly distracted by the urge to quietly hum along to the hits of yesteryear - from Glenn Campbell's Galvistan to Johnny Cash's Rings of Fire (in Spanish for good measure).

This intelligent, irreverent and outrageous play is punchily presented in Rufus Norris' fast moving production of very high quality, inventive in many ways, for instance by conjuring up cars from sofas or shopping carts.

The ensemble of actors is outstanding. Johnnie Fiori as Pam and especially Joseph Drake in the title role deserve a special mention.

This is the play to get the age-group from 14 to 24 to love the theatre. The applause at the end of the play from an audience that included many young people was very enthusiastic - deservedly so!


Holden Caulfield is the Teenage hero of J. D. Sallinger 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye
South Park is a North-American animated situation-comedy TV series created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Family Guy is an animated situation-comedy television series created by Seth MacFarlane about a dysfunctional family. The characters tend to regularly break out in song.

Sunday 20 February 2011

The Human Resources Manager, Film (Israel), directed by Eran Riklis, 3.5* out of 5

A young woman is killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, but for weeks nobody seems to miss her. A large Israeli bakery finds itself in the eye of a media storm when it turns out that she was part of the cleaning crew and apparently nobody at the bakery had noticed her absence.

The owner of the bakery asks the Human Resources Manager to investigate. He finds out that the young woman is a Romanian guest worker who has left her husband and child behind in her native country. In order to repair its image the owner decides that the bakery take on the mission of facilitating a funeral in the employees native Romania and assist her family there. She confides this mission to the Human Resources Manager who has family problems of his own.

The Human Resources Manager is an Israeli road-movie. As Israel is not large enough for a road-movie - you can drive end-to-end in about 3 hours - the bulk of the action takes place in Romania, which has no such limitation. The Romanian location does little to lighten what is a rather sad story. The writer of the screenplay Noah Stollman, who adapted a novel by A.B. Yehoshua, and the director Eran Riklis have managed to infuse a gentle note of humour into this film. This mainly lies in the depiction of the characters and is competently delivered by strong acting performances.

This is Riklis 3rd major film after the Syrian Bride and the Lemon Tree and very deliberately the first one that does not look at the relations between Israelis and Arabs. The way the Human Resources Manager reacts to the bureaucratic and other obstacles put in his way and deals with having to function as an Israeli and in a way represent Israel in another culture provides a good metaphor of the disconnect between the way Israelis are, see themselves and the way they are perceived by others. In this sense, this non-political film can be seen as a bit political, too.

This is not a film of grand powerful emotions but a sympathetic portrayal of diverse, engaging characters brought into contact with each other by a sad event. They all have to deal with the absurd situation they have been thrown into by events as best they can.

It is the portrayal of the characters and our ability to identify with them, that makes going to see this film worthwhile.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men), Film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, 4* out of 5

A group of catholic monks in Algeria enjoy very cordial relations with the local, mainly Muslim community to whom they provide important medical and social services. The monks are respectful of Islam and dedicated to working the land and living their spiritual lives. As a brutal Islamist movement encroaches on the neighbourhood of the Monastery the monks have to decide whether to leave or stay. The heavy handed suppression of terrorism by the Algerian army does not make life easier.

Based on a true story, Des Hommes et des Dieux is a great piece of individual and ensemble acting. Each one of the people in the monastery is an individual with his motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses. The group dynamics in the discussions among them are beautifully scripted and wholly believable. None of the monks is a fanatic or a hypocrite. The last thing they seek is martyrdom.

After all the scandals of the last decade, the catholic church is in dire need of some positive role models. The Atlas Mountain religious community, skilfully depicted by writer/director Xavier Beauvais goes some way towards restoring the our belief in European and Christian values of practical tolerance and compassion.

The dialogues are very well written and the film is beautifully photographed, acted and directed. Of Gods and Men fully deserves its nominee-status for best foreign film at the 2011 Oscars.

Friday 4 February 2011

Black Swan, film directed by Darren Aronofsky, 4* out of 5, high quality psychological thriller

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a perfectionist ballerina in a prestigious New York ballet company. She lives with her possessive mother, who is more than committed to her daughter's dancing career. The ballet company's artistic director Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel)  retires his ageing prima-ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder). He now has to cast a new star-ballerina to dance two rolls in Swan Lake: the virginal, pure White Swan, and the sensuous, seductive Black Swan. Nina is ideal for the White Swan role - but will she be able to dance the Black Swan? Just as Nina thinks she has safely landed the role, Lily (Mila Kunis), a sensual new dancer appears on the scene. She definitely has what it takes to play the Black Swan.

Black Swan is a taut psychological thriller. Less of a dance film than a sort of “Gaslight” with a Swan Lake – or perhaps more accurately, “Gaslight”1 with a twist (no dancing pun intended). The excellent direction definitely holds the viewer in constant tension and suspense. There are also some fairly steamy erotic scenes of the kind we are more used to from French productions than Hollywood. Overall, script and direction give this psychological thriller a Claude Chabrol-like quality – and a high quality at that.

Meeting on the set of “Black Swan” has led to romance for Natalie Portman and the aptly surnamed Benjamin Millepied ("millepieds" is French for "centipede"), who plays the male dancer David. He also created the choreography for the film's dance scenes. Millepied, the principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and Portman are engaged to be married. Portman is also expecting their first child.

1For the uninitiated “Gaslight” a classic 1944 film directed by George Cukor, starring Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman. The plot aims to show that even paranoid people can have enemies.

Black Swan


Wednesday 2 February 2011

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, Royal Court Theatre, Highly Recommended

It is the late 1950ies.  A white middle class couple sells its desirable property below market value. A black couple buys it. They will be the first non-whites in the neighbourhood. The liberal white home-owners in the neigbourhood are none too pleased with their friends the sellers, and embarrassed about having to express their objections. It is 2009; a young yuppie couple has bought the same property and has plans to make extensive changes to it. The couple and its plans are not welcome by the existing home-owners in this mixed middle-class neigbourhood.

What have the efforts of the civil rights movement and others to combat racism achieved in the period from the 1950ies to 2009 ? Norris brings attitudes to race and home ownership together. He cleverly teases out ambivalence in our own attitudes; the audience is sent on an emotional roller-coaster ride of identification with the protagonists who confront each other on stage. 

We have by no means eliminated racist attitudes and probably never will, but the balance of power between black and white has changed significantly and that is clearly for the good of both. On stage in 2009, the neighbourly dispute about building restrictions leads to broader political debate. The stance taken by each party is affected, but no longer determined, by race. The same goes for the question of who has the upper hand in the combative exchanges. The outcome of civil rights struggle and social policy no doubt falls short of Martin Luther King's dream,nonetheless it is real and tangible progress. 

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is an intelligent, funny, cleverly constructed and fiendishly subversive American play, that makes you laugh and makes you think.  A strong ensemble cast and able direction keep the audience absorbed in the stage action.

Clybourne Park is transferring to London's  West End; Wyndham's Theatre, 28 January to 7 May 2011. Catch it there.