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Monday 24 December 2012

Red Velvet, Play written by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Tricycle Theatre London , 8* out of 10

The play Red Velvet finished its run at the Tricycle several weeks back. Yet it has been on my mind since. It is based on a true story, the life of one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the early 19th century.

As he is getting ready for a performance of King Lear in the Polish city of Lodz in August 1867, the celebrated Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge is beseeched by a young Polish woman journalist to grant her an interview about his life.  He reluctantly agrees and reminisces about his debut as Othello on the London stage.

In 1826 a French theatre director in London has a bold plan. When the famous actor Edmund Kean falls ill during the rehearsals for Shakespeare's play Othello - The Moor of Venice: he replaces Kean with an American actor. This actor is Ira Aldridge.  Aldridge is not only American,  he is also black.

With some persuasion, the other actors are made to accept the choice, except for Edmund Keane's talentless nephew who had expected to inherit the role of Othello by virtue of his family relations. Desdemona will be played by Ellen Tree, soon to become one of the the greatest actresses on the English stage.

Aldridge uses his chance to influence the production. Rather than the formal manner of playing Shakespeare, he pleads for a more naturalistic and dramatic approach to the plays staging and acting. Othello and Desdemona should face each other during dialogues, rather than follow the convention of standing and declaiming facing the audience. More daring yet, they should touch during passionate dialogues. When Othello kills Desdemona in a jealous rage his hand will be at her throat and shake her back and forth. The realistic depiction of a black man killing a white woman in a jealous fit of rage was new and daring and sure to incite reaction in 1820s London.

For the first Othello played by a black man the Vaudeville theatre is sold out. London theatre audiences enjoy being shocked and titillated by the novelty of a black actor touching a white English leading lady in the service of art. After opening night, theatre critics of the Spectator and other papers explain why a black actor cannot play Shakespeare: it's the remoteness from the English bards sensibilities and physical factors such as the thick lips that preclude a black actor from succeeding in a Shakespeare role some critics find. But audiences are moved and entertained by the sensational performance of Aldridge and Ellen Tree.

After three days of packed performances, the trustees of the theatre lose their courage. Afraid of scandal, they close the show. Ira Aldridge's short dream of a brilliant career in the London theatre is shattered. Yet he does not disappear into obscurity. While he never returns to the London stage, he becomes a celebrated Shakespearean actor on the European continent traveling for many years to great acclaim between Berlin and St. Petersburg. Not only his Othello is a sensation; with the right makeup he becomes a white King Lear and leaves his mark as the first black actor of note in Europe.

Red Velvet was  the first production by the new Artistic director of the Tricycle, Indhu Rubasingham, and it bodes well for the future of this important London theatre under her leadership. The production was sure footed putting the telling of a unique and unusual story, relevant beyond the world of theatre at its centre. Acting performances were all of high quality. David Lester gave a convincing performance of  outstanding quality in his portrayal of Ira Aldridge.  His transformation on stage into King Lear was a poignant and moving moment of this play.

Almost 200 years after Aldridge’s début as Othello on the London stage, how much progress have we made in allowing talent to overcome prejudice? How many famous black actors are there on the English stage? Not enough.  How many black people in positions of leadership in the UK? Not enough. As in Ira Aldridge’s time, America with all its faults, still leads the way, most recently with re-electing its first black President.

As to Berlin, its is a sadder story still. The German premiere of Bruce Norris’ witty play about race in the America of 1950’s and now,  Clybourne Park, was to take place there last summer. (You can find my review of its UK première of Clybourne Park here.)  When the author heard that all the black characters were to be played by white actresses in make-up he withdrew his permission for the planned Berlin production to have the play performed. The German theatre world and the German media were genuinely surprised by the authors objections. Clearly in 2012 it had not occurred to the theatre-makers in Berlin to consider casting a black character with a black actress, rather than a painted white one. This summer, Ira Aldridge was probably turning in his grave in the cemetery of Lodz.

Indhu Rubasingham
Tom Piper
Lighting Designer:
Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer:
Paul Arditti
Paul Englishby
Choreographer: Imogen Knight
Assistant Director:
Titas Halder

Simon Chandler
Rachel Finnegan
Natasha Gordon
Ryan Kiggell
Ferdinand Kingsley
Adrian Lester
Charlotte Lucas
Eugene O’Hare

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) Film, written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin directed by Benh Zeitlin, 10* out of 10

"Your are an orphan now " was the observation my cousin made when I met him for the first time after my mother had died earlier this year. On a rational level this struck me as odd, since I am in my late fifties and both my parents had died at a ripe old age; but on an emotional level he was onto something. He had named the feeling I had not been able to identify, when images of my childhood came back more frequently than they had in many years.  It was a reminder that the child within us, although  often unacknowledged as we get older, stays with us for life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a film for children, but one that speaks to the child within us grown-ups, the one who is sometimes still afraid to have to face a harsh world without parental shelter and support. 

The central figure of this film is Hushpuppy, a six year old girl, whose mother has left and whose father is teaching her how to  live and survive in the Louisiana "bath-tub". The bath-tub is where people on the margins of society prefer to live freely, yet somewhat cohesively, in shacks with their domestic animals rather than be institutionalized as homeless down-and-outs in urban New Orleans. 

The bath-tub is that part of the Mississippi Delta which has been reserved as an area for to be flooded, when the levees are needed to protect the cities, towns and villages on the other side from being inundated. For Hushpuppy, her father and the others she lives with, the bath-tub yields the meat and fish that can ensure a free self-sufficient life close to nature. 

It is however, a life full of dangers and risks for a 6 year old girl: who will look after her, if her father who sometimes treats her lovingly, sometimes very harshly, were to leave or fall ill? Then there are the hurricanes, floods and the authorities who want to keep the area clear of people and ramshackle huts.

Beasts of the Southern Wild shows us life in the "bath-tub" with its myths, its habits, customs and home truth through Hushpuppy's eyes, as she is trying to form a coherent world-view from her surroundings and experiences. She is a modern female Huckleberry Finn in the making, fascinated by the science of archaeology and aurochs, ancient legendary animals, that are like stone-age cave paintings, come to life. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a moving story, an original and surprisingly uplifting film, whose images will stay with you for a long time. 

Based on a theatre play by Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar herself, have developed an even more powerful screenplay.  Zeitlin's gripping direction is underlined by a great score, which he has largely composed himself. The cast, partly consisting of amateur actors, is excellent and Quevenzhavé Wallis as Hushpuppy is simply stunning, brilliant and unforgettable.

Zeitlin's film deserves all the accolades it has received at the Sundance and Cannes film festival and many more besides.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Killing them Softly (2012) Film, written and directed by Andrew Dominik, 9* out of 10

Ah, the joys of being middle management as the economy enters crisis mode. In Killing Them Softly, organised crime is the setting for an insightful and witty crime action film which can also serve as a case-study in organisational behavioural. Indeed it should form part of the MBA curriculum for any self-respecting senior executive in the organised crime sector, but the film also holds many lessons for budding professionals and managers in other slightly less violent business sectors.

Frankie (Scoot MacNairy) and his Australian drug-addict mate Russell (Ben Mendelssohn) are small-time gangsters - and they are skint. Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola)  a risk-averse gangster has an idea for them on how they might generate some cash flow: take advantage of an opportunity to divert suspicion elsewhere by robbing a mob-operated high stakes poker game, whose manager will be suspected by his bosses to have staged the heist. When mob-enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in, to bring order back into mob operations, corporate dysfunction and human foibles set in motion a chain of comic, tragic and violent events.

Based on George V.  Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade, originally set in the 1980s, the story has been successfully transposed to 2008. The USA descending into financial crisis makes a poignant backdrop to the main action and palpably affects what the economist John Maynard Keynes once called the “animal spirits” of everyone involved. 

Screenplay and direction are excellent. Andrew Dominik makes skilful use of dialogue and photography to move the story forward in a compelling manner. The excellent ensemble of actors brings the characters and their strong personalities to life. Brad Pitt's performance as the mid level gangster who has to carry out the faceless syndicates decisions stands out. There is excitement and brutal violence, the writing evokes classic films such as Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction and In Bruges. Killing Them Softly is a classic of the genre. Don't miss it.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Take This Waltz (2011) Film, written and directed by Sarah Polley , 8* out of 10

On a trip to do research for the advertising material she has to write for a historic Canadian theme-park, quirky Margot (Michelle Williams) meets the funny, sensitive and good-looking Rickshaw driver and aspiring artist Daniel (Luke Kirby). They are attracted to each other and , as it turns out, they are neighbours in Toronto. Margot however, is not unhappily married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a good looking (and cooking), big-hearted Canadian hunk who is working on his first cookbook. She is also integrated into Lou's network of friends and  relatives including his sister Geraldine's (Sarah Silverman) family. Geraldine is a recovering alcoholic.

This being 21st century Toronto, and not any-century Paris, the option of bridging unexciting periods in your marriage by taking a lover, is not acceptable to all concerned. Will Margot accept that she has to choose between her husband and Daniel? How will Margot choose?

Take this Waltz is a a high quality film credibly and intelligently presenting a young woman's dilemma from a woman's point of view. The decision-maker and doer here is Margot, with the men in subordinate though not unimportant roles. She is sensitive and vulnerable but at the same time  must gather enough strength and determination to make a most important choice in pursuit of happiness. She knows that whatever her choice she'll have to live with it. The film honestly presents Margot's struggle and its impact on those around her. 

Take This Waltz is well written, competently directed by Sarah Polley and has strong acting performances, notably by Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen. In modern North-American film there is no one, who can play the young woman in the relationship crisis better than Michelle Williams (see the 2010 film Blue Valentine reviewed in this blog last year). Her performance in Take This Waltz is again mesmerizing, moving and worth the price of the cinema ticket by itself.

Sunday 8 July 2012

"The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty - How We Lie to Others and Especially Ourselves", Book by D. Ariely, 8* out of 10

On July 4, Bob Diamond, the recently deposed American Chief Executive Officer of Barclays Bank, an institution tainted by the LIBOR scandal, appeared before the Treasury Committee of the British Parliament, an institution tainted by the Expenses Scandal. I watched on Sky News part of News Corp. an institution tainted by the Hacking Scandal. 

There is now in the Western World a general bemoaning of greed in the Financial Services Industry. A lot of blame is being put on institutional and cultural factors. In a recent leader The Economist, a voice of free market capitalist reason, states: "culture flows from structure".  It does, but not exclusively. Culture also flows from predispositions inherent in each and everyone of us. 

Mr Diamond explained that there were at Barclays only 14 employees greedily acting with no thought for anyone but themselves. Somehow they did not "love" Barclays quite as passionately and selflessly as their former leader. Their behaviour said Diamond had nothing to do with Barclays culture. Somewhat bizarrely he added that some of these people had been at Barclays for 25 years.  To have kept themselves aloof from Barclays' culture, while working for the organisation for 25 years, shows remarkable resistance to the founding Quaker-values of their employer.

The story of the rogue 14 among the overwhelmingly wonderful 114,000, is however only one possible version of what might have happened. It is of course the one that suits Barclays and Mr. Diamond best.  

What though, if the traders concerned were not especially greedy and selfish criminals, but good people like you (and I)? Could this be conceivable?

It could. The following scenario came to my mind after reading bestselling author and social psychologist Professor Dan Ariely's  new book "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves". 

You are a LIBOR rate-reporter in Barclays dealing room. Your colleague, the money market trader, asks you to use your discretion and power in setting the LIBOR  by raising or lowering it a few hundredth of a percentage-point from what you originally might have had in mind. Framed this way, you don't have to think think about the few 100 Million US Dollars this might add to his profits at the detriment of some other trader at another bank. And anyway, if the banks of the other traders with the opposite position to that of your bank's are regularly doing this too, you are redressing the balance. Isn't that only fair? You also know that tweaking rates is not designated a criminal offence in the relevant regulations; why would that be, you ask yourself, if not to signal that it is in a "grey-zone"? You can help your dealer-friends make more money for Barclays Bank, an organisation you  "love" just as much as your boss,  Mr. Diamond.  As a result of what you do, Barclay's shareholders get better returns, your dealer friends and your bosses get bigger bonuses. 

You are not acting selfishly or greedily since as rate setter you do not get any financial gain for yourself, just the gratitude of those who know that you helped them. Sure, you might even get a bottle of Bollinger-Champagne now and then when you help an ex-colleague who now works at another Bank. What makes this deed even more acceptable in your mind is the fact that you do not know whether tweaking your LIBOR submission  will actually influence the final rate. After all the highest and the lowest submissions by all banks who submit them will be excluded from the LIBOR rate calculations. So, in effect, perhaps you actually changed nothing - and who is to tell whether even without intervention from your dealer friends you might not have given a slightly lower or higher rate anyway? After all, rate setting is more of an art than a science, is it not? Otherwise, why would it need human intervention at all? Could it not be automatically calculated based on actual transactions? As to the ordinary people out there affected by LIBOR, if you made the rate go up slightly you were if anything helping all prudent people and pensioners with their savings. If you made the rate go down slightly, you were if anything helping people who have borrowed money by taking out mortgages and loans.

 "Altruistic cheating", Ariely tells us, is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon, because we all like to feel good about ourselves and gain gratitude and social recognition even from those we may only know casually. Of course, altruistic cheating can be just as harmful to trust and confidence as the purely selfish kind - and just as criminal.

Ariely's book is a timely contribution to explaining the psychological factors both favouring and disfavouring dishonesty and corruption. We ignore these factors at our peril. One of the remarkable findings from the experimental approach taken by Ariely and his colleagues is that money and materialistic greed are often not the most important drivers of dishonesty. Moreover, even where they are, our "cognitive flexibility" and creativity allows us to convince ourselves that we are not actually being unacceptably dishonest or corrupt, as long as we do not overstep a line that we all draw, fudge and maintain in our mind. That line does move. In some cases this tendency will go so far that something we initially were aware of as being a lie, when repeated by us over the years and believed by others becomes a truth even to ourselves. This for instance happens not infrequently when people have successfully lied on their CV about the qualifications they have attained. As they repeat the lie they can end up believing it. Another surprising finding that Ariely speaks about as he describes his experiments is that group-working can actually favour dishonesty and corruption, particularly when the people in the group get on very well with each other.

On the plus side, experiments show that timely moral reminders, whether of a religious or secular nature, reduce our propensity to cheat. A group of students (some religious, some atheist) who were given the 10 commandments to read before doing an exam took much less advantage of opportunities to cheat  than the control group which had not been given any moralistic text to read. The opportunity to "confess" again in a religious and not religious context, also helped people to find the way back to the straight and narrow, once they had slid down a slippery slope of increasing levels of cheating. Where this opportunity what not given the "what-the-hell-effect" set in and offences increased in frequency and seriousness. Form design can make a big difference: people asked to sign that they will not cheat before filling in a form (tax form or insurance claim for example) are more likely to fill it out honestly, than people signing the form after they have filled it in. As one would expect, seeing other people cheat when they have the opportunity to do so does have an infectious negative effect. Being controled by a person one does not know at all does have a strong deterrent effect.

The model that Ariely thinks best describes how you and I deal with cheating and lying is that we all like to benefit from dishonesty, but only to the extent that we can look ourselves in the mirror and think that we are OK.  So most of us apply our creativity and cognitive flexibility to navigate the grey zone between these two desires. 

More research is no doubt needed to confirm and expand on the various hypotheses and theories relating to how people who consider themselves honest manage to justify a certain degree cheating and lying. 

Ariely has written a thoughtful, entertaining and very readable book which can surely add much needed insight to hotly debated and polarising topics.  As a consultant to the UK Treasury's Behavioural Economics Unit, his ideas may find their way into UK Government policy. Not a bad thing that would be, too.  

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely, Harper Collins, 2012


Sunday 1 July 2012

The Drawer Boy, play written by Michael Healey, directed by Eleanor Rhode at the Finborough Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

The year is 1970. Morgan and Angus, two men in their fifties, run a small arm in Ontario not far from Toronto. Miles, a young man from an actors cooperative arrives at the farm. Miles belongs to an idealistic group of Toronto theatre people who are jointly developing and putting on shows for the local farming communities. He wants to work and observe life at a farm as research for his theatre group's show.

Morgan somewhat reluctantly allows him to stay. He begins to enjoy having Miles around and making fun of the serious young man. Miles finds out that Angus has headaches and severe difficulties due to loss of his long term and short term memory; Angus is very good at arithmetic and remembering numbers, though.

As Miles becomes interested in the biography of the Angus and Morgan and the story of their friendship, he awakens demons of the past with serious consequences.

Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy is an intelligent and witty drama about the tensions between city and country people, between down to earth farmers and idealistic artists. The play also explores the nature of friendship, the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves to maintaining our identity and sanity – and the place of truth in all that. Healey skilfully captures the ubiquitous earthy Canadian sense of humour and understatement in his dialogues. The willingness of different parts of Canadian society to engage with each other and stay engaged through conflicts and difficulties is remarkable. Though one wonders whether it is still present in today's more consumerist and less idealistic era.

The Farm Shows of the 1970s, when idealistic theatre people went into the Ontario farming communities to learn about them and develop plays for and about them, are a genuine part of the history of the Canadian theatre. Healey captures that history in this play which was first written and performed in Toronto in 1999. The Finborough, one of the best London Fringe theatres, gives this play its well deserved and long overdue London première.

Making effective use of sound and lighting director Eleanor Rhode ensures that the story holds the audience's attention from beginning to end. A strong Canadian acting ensemble help her to bring the story to life, with outstanding performances by John Bett (Angus) and Neil McCaul (Morgan).

A great outing to the theatre; even a matinee on a hot Summer day is a pleasant experience here: the Finborough Theatre is air conditioned and the Finborough Café a friendly place serving good wines and a mean cup of coffee just when you need it.

Production Team:
Written by Michael Healey

Directed by Eleanor Rhode
Designed by Molly Einchcomb
Lighting by Howard Hudson
Sound and Original Composition by George Dennis
Presented by Snapdragon and Nicola Seed in association with The Finborough Theatre


Thursday 21 June 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow, Book by Daniel Kahnemann,Paperback Edition, Penguin Books (May 2012) 8* out of 10

In an outstanding and highly influential book written for an audience uninitiated in the dark arts of Psychology and the dismal (social) science of Economics, Daniel Kahnemann the godfather of behavioural economics shares his insights from the decades of his research into the human mind. 

Psychologists by training and profession, Daniel Kahnemann and his friend and colleague, the late Amos Twersky, have made an important contribution to the field of Economics for which Kahnemann received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. As the prize is not awarded posthumously, Amos Twersky who died in 1995 did not receive it.

Kahnemann gives an overview of the research on professional career, so the reader gets an insight into a lifetime's research into the human mind in action: solving problems, making decisions, experiencing pleasure and pain and remembering these experiences.

Kahnemann and Twersky focused their sharp minds on what human beings get wrong. And indeed they discover, name and classify the most common mistakes our minds are designed to make over and over again, this being downside of the mind being extremely well adapted to some other functions. Most notably human lack a good intuitive sense for the laws of statistics. I for one was happy for having additional excuse for being no good at Statistics. Additionally we love to combine a very few facts that are available to our memory at any moment into coherent pleasing stories. Unfortunately very coherent and pleasing stories intuitively built on such foundations cannot only be produced by us most prolifically and quickly they mostly turn out to be false. I found this finding initially very disappointing and later on as Kahnemann produces his compelling arguments and illustrations quite annoying. Surprisingly for a factual book, My emotions became quite heavily engaged as Kahnemann illustrates how good I am at fooling myself and how difficult it is to stop doing this even once I know the ways in which my mind is vulnerable to misconceptions about the world out there. I guess what annoyed me was the realisation that I am just as prone to all these mistakes as the average participants in his experiment. In fact confidence in your abilities and experience can be truly turbo-charge ones propensity to get things wrong and persist in ones erroneous ways!

Kahnemann's book is very accessible when he explains what happens when people try to solve problems or make decisions. There are two modes of thinking the fast, intuitive mode and the slow effortful deliberative mode. It is the fast intuitive mode that is constantly active, eager to jump to conclusions and develop plausible, entertaining and satisfying explanations and stories out of very few facts. The slow thinking effortful ode of thinking comes into action when it s clear that effort is required or when we sense that the conclusions of the fast mode of thinking need to be checked.

The result of all this is that human beings are prone to make mistakes when trying to solve problems that feel very easy, but are slightly trickier than they look, We are also prone to take decisions in a way that is inconsistent with what we actually want. What Kahnemann explains is that our errors and less than rational decision making is not totally random and wild, but actually quite systemic and predictable. They have names such as availability heuristic, anchoring and base rate fallacy. As a result his more fallible Human is able to replace the rational Econ, which is the simplified model of the decision maker.

For fans of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, before Kahnemann, Economics is based on the model of a person behaving like the character “Data” highly rational and intelligent, not subject to emotion, after Kahnemann, Economics can work with a model of a human being that is more like Captain Picard, just as intelligent but subject to emotions and inconsistencies in his choices. Many economists see this as great and valuable progress, others think that incorporating an emotional systematically inconsistent rather than a coldly rational person as the base model for their research may cost more than the benefits it brings. But right now Behavioural Economics is “hot” in Economics, business and policy making. With influential books such as “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein and “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely making it to the top of the best-seller lists.

Kahnemann's presentation is very effective as he let's the reader participate in his experiments. Thus we learn from our own actions how easily we mislead ourselves when an expert in human behaviour “pushes the right buttons”. For example: A bat and a ball together cost GBP1.10. The bat cost GBP 1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Unfortunately, even once we have been made aware of the mistakes we are prone to make we are likely to repeat them when confronted with similar problem. Knowledge does however help us to recognize these mistakes more easily when others make them. Depending on our temperament, we can then enjoy catching them out, or help them recognize the error.

Kahnemann's agenda in presenting the book is to let the concepts that are crucial to his theories and discoveries flow into the daily office gossip as the water cooler and the coffee machine when we comment on the behaviour of others. He ends each chapter of his book with some helpful suggestions in this regard.

Thinking Fast and Slow covers a lot of ground. It gives us some insight not only into Kahnemann and Twersky's findings, but also their method of working:daily long walks where they discussed their ideas and hypotheses. It also tells us how some research can emanate from a family argument about moving to California or a visit to the Opera House to see La Traviata.

Most recently Kahnemann has been involved in research about what factors promote well being (he prefers this term to “Happiness”). Here again he shares very valuable insights, for instance, the difference between the experiencing pleasure and pain when an event happens and when we remember it.

Kahnemann's book is a great read with many insights. At times, particularly when an understanding of probability theory and statistics comes into it, it can be quite difficult, requiring a lot of effortful thinking, which can lead to quite a bit of “ego depletion” a state in which you find it difficult to pay attention and inappropriately give free reign to a more lazy fast thinking mode. As this state is connected with a decrease in glucose level, it can be improved by munching on a piece of high quality chocolate. That way even the more difficult passages of this book can bring happiness to the reader.

Daniel Kahnemann
Amos Twersky s"l

Monday 21 May 2012

A Slow Air, play by David Harrower, at the Tricycle Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

At the beginning of the "noughties", I learnt much of what I know about the extraordinary human strength that can be found in ordinary families. I did this by moving to the Netherlands to become father, cook and in house tutor to my (step)children and husband to my (now late wife). Thus I was playing my part in allowing her to pursue her career as a lecturer and her fight for high standards in Holland's education system. Amsterdam,  as a media-city also provided me with vicarious learning opportunities through its inventiveness in TV reality-show concepts. I was, of course, high- browedly dismissive of the lot, while being simultaneously unable to resist their fatal attraction.

One of my favourites was “family dinner”, where the presenter would try to organise a dinner between two family-members who, after a dispute of some kind or for whatever other reason no one could remember had broken-off contact with each other. Sometimes the presenter's valiant attempt ended in disaster, often in a joyfully tearful reunion. While making numerous ironic comments, I , like millions of others sitting in front of their television screens, would feel tingles go down my spine as another long lost family-pair were again talking to each other after many years of silence. 

So in getting my tickets for David Haroower's play A Slow Air, I did not need convincing that the true stories about what goes on in ordinary families make compelling raw material for comedy and drama.  I was not disappointed:  David Harrower shows how the trials and tribulations of an ordinary family can be made into an intelligent and  multifaceted piece of story-telling on stage.

Athol, who runs a small building business, is in his fifties. With their grown up children out of the house, he and his wife Evelyn have moved from Glasgow to the West of Scotland. Morna, Athol's sister, is cleaner for an upper middle-class family in Edinburgh. Her son Joshua studies art and design. Morna and Athol were quite close once but after an incident between them they have had no contact with each other for 14 years.

In this two-hander Athol and Morna take it in turns to tell us what happened next. What follows is a sequence of soliloquies in which a story is told to the audience as it would be to a friend over a glass of smooth whisky. Who will be the hero or the villain of this story and will it end in tears; tears of rage or tears of joy?

David Harrower is a gifted, Olivier Award winning playwright who has fitted the story telling style perfectly to the personalities of each of the two protagonists which emerge as the story evolves. His use of language is  natural and straightforward and at the same time has rhythm and poetry, a sort of gentle Scottish rap. The more it developed the more the audience wanted to hear the story. Attention did not flag for a moment from beginning to end. 

Susan Vidler plays Morna gives a very fine performance as a woman whose teenage mistakes have shaped her life. Lewis Howden simply is Athol. You would love to have him as your builder - or your brother.

A very good evening at the theatre for audiences of various ages. Harrower has written an accessible play and this production deserves a full house.

by David Harrower

Director: David Harrower
Designer: Jessica Brettle
Lighting Designer: Dave Shea
Composer: Daniel Padden

Lewis Howden
Susan Vidler

Sunday 22 April 2012

Misterman, play written and directed by Enda Walsh, National Theatre. Lyttleton, London, 9* out of 10

Thomas Magill (Cillian Murphy) is an eccentric outsider who  lives in the village of Innishfree in the Irish countryside,where he looks after his frail, elderly mother. When he leaves his house for errands, the mission he believes has been assigned to him - by a beautiful Angel sent from God - is to watch over the good people of Innishfree and make them repent for their sinful lives. Like a conscientious local reporter, Thomas commits everyone's misdeeds to paper and to the tapes of his portable cassette recorder. His neighbours are none to pleased. What begins as harmless banter between the self-appointed guardian of good morals and the other villagers gradually takes a more sinister turn.

Misterman was first performed in 1999. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is reported to have said:“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”  This is not much different with this play which in 2012 comes to us in a new context. We saw it in a week where the narcissistic Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik explained to his judges that he was on a sacred mission to save the future of Norway. In its service he claimed that he had to override all empathy for his fellow human beings, however hard he may have found it. 

In Misterman, Walsh gives us some insight into the mind of the loner who develops an obsession and how he is perceived treated or ignored by those around him; at some point such an obsessed person can turn into a mildly annoying or perhaps even lovable eccentric, who adds to the diversity of village life; Or such a person can turn into a perpetrator of brutal acts, beyond our comprehension.

Enda Walsh's beautifully observed play melds comedy, drama and pathos into a coherent whole which holds the attention of the audience from beginning to end. There can be no interval in this 90 minute play. Its impact is impressively reinforced by the set, a large disused manufacturing plant, and by the lighting with its neon symbols of Catholicism. The vast set reflects and amplifies the landscape of alienation and desolation of Tomas McGill's inner life. With Enda Walsh and Martin MacDonagh Ireland has given the English performing arts multi-talented story tellers, that can write and direct for the stage and film alike.

Beyond the excellent writing and the great set, it takes a brilliant actor to fill the stage and bring the story and its characters to life in this one-man play. Cillian Murphy's performance is mesmerising.  He is an actor whose talent shines on the stage and in film (for example as the evil Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman begins). In this production at the Lyttleton, Cillian Murphy is truly outstanding. The rapturous applause from the full house was thoroughly deserved.

Monday 16 April 2012

Headhunters (2011), Film directed by Morten Tyldum based on the novel by Jo Nesbø, 7* out of 10

“Short people got nobody
Short people got nobody
Short people got nobody
To love

They got little baby legs
That stand so low
You got to pick em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time
Well, I don't want no short people”

from Short People, music an lyrics by Randy Newman

In 1977 the still brilliantly active singer-songwriter Randy Newman brought out his album “Little Criminals” with contained the controversial song “Short People”. As Newman saw it, the lyrics were written from the point of view of a maniacal bigot prejudiced against short people. As the song became a hit, Newman ended up hating it, since the irony of its original intent had got lost on a great number of its fans. 

The narrator and hero of Headhunters, Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), is 1m68cm (5 ft 6 inches) tall. He makes it clear to us in the first scenes that compensating for lack of physical height is key to understanding what drives him. Yet there is more to him than meets the eye. Senior Executive Search Consultant in the morning, burglar of paintings in the afternoon, he is constantly in financial trouble. The reasons his expenses consistently exceed his not inconsiderable income are many. There is Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), the tall attractive trophy-wife whose new art-gallery he has to finance, the designer house with the its stylish interior in the Norwegian countryside, the big powerful luxury coupe and last not least the made to measure suits. 

Diana introduces Roger to Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the tall and handsome ex-elite soldier turned ex-Chief Executive Officer of a high-tech defence firm. Greve has just taken early retirement, but Roger sees his chance to earn a big fee for tempting him back into a new high tech firm. As luck has it Greve also is the owner of a valuable painting that captures Roger's moonlighting-job interest, too. In two fell swoops, Roger's financial problems might be over; but if all this seems too good to be true, that maybe so, because it is. From here the plot develops into a quite entertaining thriller with a bit of sex and violence ( against people as well as a dog) and a considerable number of twists and turns. 

Scandinavian crime novels, films and TV series are in fashion: There is Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, Henning Mankell's Wallander series and the recent Danish television offerings The Killing and Borgen. And now the Norwegian bestseller writer Jo Nesbø has moved in where Swedish and Danish creatives have shown the way. Headhunters is the first of his books to make it to the silver screen and international release.

The problem with Headhunters is that the plot seems to be constructed first and then peopled by the characters. The transition of scenes from hard hitting realism to comedy is not very well handled and often leaves the viewer a bit unpleasantly confused. It's not that easy to identify with any of the characters and their predicaments. Having said that, Headhunters has its moments, the plot its twists and turns and, all in all, they do make this thriller quite watchable.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Les Intouchables (France 2011), Film written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, 8*  out of 10

In his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, the rising star in the field of behavioural economics, Professor Dan Ariely, quotes research on the psychological phenomenon of adaptation. People who had an accident that left them in a wheelchair and others who has just won a large prize in a lottery fill in surveys about their personal happiness. Initially subjective happiness of the lottery winner and the unhappiness of the injured people are - as one would expect- far apart. A year later there is still a significant difference, but the result is much closer. The explanation for this is the phenomenon of human adaptation, both to positive and negative events in people's lives. A powerful way in which nature has equipped us with the ability to cope.

Philippe (François Cluzet) is a successful entrepreneur who has become tetraplegic. He is interviewing candidates for the position of in-house carer. Driess (played by the French/Senegalese rapper Omar Sy), a petty criminal from the Paris banlieues is among the candidates. He hopes to be rejected so that he can continue to collect unemployment benefit. The last thing he wants to be is a carer for a tetraplegic. But he finds himself taken on for a trial period. From unpromising beginnings the relationship between the demanding employer and his troublesome new employee evolves to offer unanticipated opportunities and problems for both parties. Will it change them for good or just be a passing episode before each returns to their life before they met?

The plot for this film provides an unlikely  premise for a feel-good comedy-drama let alone the cult film of the year in France where 52% of French adults have seen it in the cinema. Les Intouchables (The Intouchabes) has also become an unexpected hit outside the French-speaking world, subtitles and all.

Les Intouchables is based on a true story. It is very well written and the writer/directors present the story with humour and intelligence so that this film holds the audience interest. It is a moving film that never resorts to pathos. Strong performances by Cluzet and Sy add to this enjoyable mix. Definitely worth a visit.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Young Adult, Film written by Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman, starring Charlize Theron, 8* out of 10

Mavis Gary lives in Minneapolis and is a writer of a series of Young Adult fiction, appearing under a more famous person's name. Recently divorced, she lives in an apartment for singles in a sad high rise block. When she is told that the young adult novel she is working on will be the last in the series she faces decline into drink, unemployment and a generally sad and lonely life. 

But Mavis finds some resources from her past as the coolest girl in her small town high school. Rather than give in to impending doom, she decides that her now married high school sweetheart, who has just invited her and other friends to celebrate the birth of his first child, is the man she should have married.  Inspired by the romantic optimism of the young adult fiction she writes, Mavis decides that with a bit of positive thinking and pizazz, this oversight can still be fixed. Convinced that obstacles are there to be overcome, she sets out to her old home town to conquer her man and live happily ever after.

What makes Young Adult stand out from the usual fare of romantic comedy/drama coming out of Hollywood, is the ironic and sometimes sarcastic look at American stereotypes. The flawed character of the main protagonist played with great gusto by Oscar winner Charlize Theron is a well written woman's role. There is a talented supporting cast, too.

This is a comedy with bite and a refreshing disdain for political correctness. For those who appreciate that sort of thing, it all adds up to a fiendishly enjoyable evening at the movies. 

Monday 13 February 2012

Coriolanus, Film directed by Ralph Fiennes, screenplay John Logan from the play by William Shakespeare 8* out of 10

William Shakespeare's play Coriolanus tells the story of the professional soldier Caius Martius. When the people of Rome take to the streets after their grain stores have been emptied he shows his contempt for the people who do not serve in the military and is prepared to use force rather than negotiation to ensure order returns to the streets. He despises the people and shows it too; he does not have a high opinion of his political masters either. 

An external enemy the Volscians led by Caius Martius' personal arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) wants to use this opportunity to conquer Rome. Gaius Martius comes to the rescue and at his own initiative leads a raid on the Volscian city of Corioles. 

For his crucial role in the victory over the Volscians at Corioles, the government of Rome bestows on him the title “Coriolanus”. 
Coriolanus' mother, Volumina (Vanessa Redgrave), who has great influence on him, now encourages him to run for the office of Consul of the Roman Republic. He easily wins the support of the Senate. It is not his charisma or his political connections that brought him to the top but his his deeds and sense of duty. Believing he merits being Consul, he shows his contempt for a system in which the people (plebs) have a say in consular appointments. This makes him enemies of the Tribunes who represent the people. His bid for the consulship is rejected and Coriolanus is banned from Rome. Furious about having been scorned, he enters an alliance with his former enemies the Volscians and in particular with his former arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius. He starts a campaign against Rome providing crucial assistance and military leadership to the Volscian troops against his home country Rome. 

Director Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the title role, and writer John Logan have transported the action from Roman times into a near present, with the feel of the Balkans of the early 1990s, modern weaponry and 24 hour news-channels included. This works well. Indeed, one of the more comedic touches is to have Jon Snow, the actual anchorman of the UK's Channel 4 News programme, deliver narration and interviews in Shakespearian style.  The war scenes are spectacular and realistic and the contrast with the formal language of another age is handled very well by the excellent ensemble of actors.  The themes ambition, wounded pride, meritocracy and. democracy, soldier against politician and a mother's sometimes pernicious influence on her son are brought out very well.  

With his first film as a director, Ralph Fiennes convinces with a clear and thought-provoking version of the Shakespeare play. Without compromising on the language, he manages to convey the story line clearly through intelligent direction keeping a modern cinema audience, that may otherwise struggle with the classic theatre text, glued to the big silver-screen. Quite an achievement.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

The Descendants, Film directed by Alexander Payne, starring George Clooney, 6* out of 10

The Descendants is a film with the kind of story some find difficult to watch because it stirs up painful memories. Five years ago my wife was diagnosed with a recurrence of a cancer that had been held at bay for more than 11 years. Within 8 weeks of the diagnosis she died with great dignity. She made use of the Dutch law on assisted suicide and so she died probably a couple of weeks ahead of the time she would have without the assistance she requested and received from her doctors. My two children where left with me, their step father. We decided that the three of us would carry on as best we could. After five years it can be said that "as best we could" has turned out well. But there were truly shaky beginnings, mainly due to my difficulties in accepting my new reality; but we stuck together and got there eventually.

In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) is the father of two teenage girls. Elizabeth, his wife is lying in a coma after a boating accident. She has left a living will to switch off her life support machine, if it becomes clear that there is no chance of recovery. In the beginning, there is still slim hope that she might recover, but a dawning certainty that she won't. Matt has to step into the role of a father which he has always neglected and increasingly, he'll have to perform traditionally motherly duties as well. He now finds out from his daughter Alexandra that his wife was in an extramarital relationship shortly before her accident. His wife's best friend lets him know that Elizabeth was planning to leave him. Father and daughter are shocked by this revelation and decide to find and confront Elizabeth's lover.

In his professional life, Matt King is lawyer who has to deal with some important business. He and his cousins hail from a Hawaiian princess and Matt administers a trust on behalf of all her descendants. He has the final say of what to do with the beautiful valuable piece of land on the island of O'ahu, which the trust owns. The descendants plan to sell it to a land-developer who will turn it into a high class tourist resort. This will make Matt and his cousins, who are mostly keen on the deal, very rich; but how to weigh his and their material interest against what the other people living on on the Island want? 

Ideally the different strands of the story should make the whole more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, though,  they overload the story. The result is that the drama of coping with the loss of a mother and a life partner ends up being overshadowed by the extramarital affair and the resolution of the trust. Perhaps the characters seek refuge in these aspects because the core drama of their lives is just to painful to deal with without those distractions.

The strongest scenes of the film are when the tension between Matt and his father-in-law, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) come to the fore. Scott is the most visibly grief stricken person in Elizabeth's surrounding and blames Matt's reluctant attitude to make use of his inheritance to have contributed to Elizabeth's accident. Between him and Matt there is a rawness and a realization that as grandfather and father of Elizabeth's daughters, they will have to go on coping with each other even though there is no love lost between them. Shailene Woodley's performance as the elder daughter, Alexandra,  marks her out as a talented young actress with a promising future career.

Films involving George Clooney always have wit and quality to commend them. That is the case here too, but not enough. Therefore, this is one of Clooney's weaker films with a rather flat acting performance. As a card-carrying liberal, liberal in the American usage of the word that is, he will no doubt been glad for this opportunity to convey some not so subtle political messages too, such as: Inheriting a choice piece of Hawaiian real estate, when you have green leanings, is a heavy responsibility. Even if real estate speculation can make you rich, putting the beautiful unspoilt landscape before profits is the right thing to do and will make you happier than the money you'll get selling it. People in Hawaii, although they wear loud shirts, walk on sandals and live in a paradisical island, have big troubles too. They are just as human, nice and, indeed, American as people in Atlanta or any where else on the American mainland. President Obama, of course, was born on Hawaii. So this message carries political weight, particularly in a year of US presidential elections.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Kreutzer Sonata, Play by Nancy Harris, adapted from Leo Tolstoy, Gate Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

When I was a young child I spent many hours travelling by train with my mother between Salzburg in Austria and Zurich in Switzerland. The mountain scenery is beautiful in all seasons. But what I remember most was the embarrassment I felt, when my mother with slight Polish accent would seek to begin a conversation with other people in the compartment, who would be reading a book or otherwise signalling that they were not up for conversation. The embarrassment invariably changed into amazement when within a very short time of this 8 hour journey, they would confide intimate details of their life to my mother as if she were their therapist and as if no one else was in the compartment.

I was reminded of all this, when Pozdynishev (Hilton McRae), the main character of The Kreutzer Sonata begins a conversation in a train compartment. Pozdynishev, a middle aged man, is not so much interested in listening, as in telling his story. It is a story of love, marriage, passion and rage whose stages evoke the andantes, allegros and crescendos of Ludwig van Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata.

Natalie Abrahami's production makes use of a great set design, film and video. Together with the live performance of parts of the The Kreutzer Sonata as the soundtrack to Pozdinyshev's storytelling skilfully enhance his monologue to make this a dramatic and exciting play. You can see it for a few more days in London after which it will transfer to La MaMa Etc. in New York from 8 to 25 March 2012.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Iron Lady, Film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, screenplay Abi Morgan, 7* out of 10

According to a recent longitudinal study mental deterioration due to ageing starts rather earlier than previously believed. Already at the age of 46 small but measurable deterioration in mental performance can be detected. All the subjects of the study were civil servants, so there is a slim hope for the rest of us that this finding may reflect a professional hazard that applies only to people who believe their defined benefit pensions are secure.

In any event, like the rest of us, people whose careers led them to the exercise of considerable power during their active working life have higher life expectancy than their predecessors of old. Therefore in increasing numbers, they too will suffer from the various illnesses that befall us in old age. Prime Ministers are no exception and when dementia befalls a famous, formidable and controversial leader such as Margaret Thatcher the deterioration of their mental faculties evokes empathy and is painful to watch.
The Iron Lady is less a biopic about Margaret Thatcher than a moving story of how a powerful strong personality struggles with oncoming dementia. Due to the quality script by Abi Morgan, the strong performances by all the ensemble of actors and the outstanding performance by Meryl Streep this film would be just as powerful in its impact on the viewer, if its protagonist were an entirely fictional character rather than the imagined real one.

The fictional Margaret Thatcher of this script fights the onset of dementia with as much courage, common sense and determination as a person in her situation is able to muster. In the early stage of dementia she is portrayed as still self-aware and managing to stay true to herself. In order to try and hide the true extent of her condition from those near to her, she needs an imaginary close friend. She conjures up an imagined version of her deceased husband Dennis (played movingly by Jim Broadbent) to be her accomplice as no doubt he was all through her adult life until his death. Of course over time dementia will win out, but not quite yet: during the examination by her physician, whom she gives a taste of the Margaret Thatcher spirit.

Important points of her career are shown as flashbacks in her mind, based on the memories she has created.  These are of necessity one-sided, showing how she had to fight her way up from her modest family home to the upper echelons of the British political system. Other than Airey Neave, the colleagues in the Conservative Party whom the film shows either gutless, sitting on the fence, or ready to stab her in the back. The characters from the opposition and the British people do not play an important role in her imagination. For her "there is no such thing as society". It is determined individuals like her father that make good things happen. Her key role as Prime Minister, it seems is to remove obstacles that might hold such people back. As a leader she knows what she wants and the challenge is getting her male colleagues to run their departments in a manner loyal to her and her principles. For the British people, for every Brit one by one that is, she prescribes her unwavering personal philosophy of hard-work, fiscal rectitude and self reliance.The film reminds us of the considerable prejudice against working women and of the misogyny she had to overcome in her early political career.

The film makes no judgement on her politics or her decisions. It does not show the impact she had on the country and its people; it shows how she is impacted by people and events and how she reacts to the challenges of her career – always true to character – flaws and all.

In effect, this film is not at all about the right and wrongs of Margaret Thatcher's politics. It portrays with great human empathy all the members of Margaret Thatcher's family, particularly her daughter who suffers most from the prospect of her mother's unstoppable mental decline.

Personally, I would have preferred if this film had dealt with the life of a fictional character. The fact that it takes a real, living and still very controversial person as its protagonist detracts from its core subject matter. Nevertheless, as a film on the struggle with oncoming dementia and for Meryl Streep's outstanding performance in the title role, this film is still very much worth seeing.