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Monday 24 June 2013

Thérèse Desqueyroux, Film, France (2012) directed by Claude Miller, 7* out of 10

Daughter of a rich landowner, the young Thérèse grows up in the Landes-region not far from Bordeaux in the 1920s. Her mother has died and the bookish Thérèse spends her summer holidays with her best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) the daughter of a neighbouring landowner. 

Strong minded, straight talking and intelligent, she senses that her inner sensibilities do not go well with the expectations society has of her. “I have too many ideas in my head” she tells Anne. “Marriage will be good for me. It will put some order into my my ideas.” And so the 20- something Thérèse (cast somewhat implausibly with the 40-something Audrey Tatou) decides to do what is expected of her and marries Anne’s much older-brother Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), a dull country squire without intellectual ambitions. Bernard is quite taken by his beautiful fiancée, who with disarming honesty spells out to him that this marriage is all about joining the neighbouring families’ pine-forests together. 

What must now follow is the tragic tale of wealthy country folk suppressing a young and rebellious spirit. And indeed, this will be rather dark tale; yet the protagonists and the people that surround them are more nuanced than the stereotypes they represent. This gives the story some surprising scope for unexpected yet plausible sorties from the beaten path.

“Thérèse Desqueyroux” is based on the novel by French author, Francois Mauriac who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is director Claude Miller’s last film; he died much too early in April 2012 at the age of 70. Miller’s direction imbues the film with a clear sense of place and time. The landscape and water around the village of Angelouse is a strong character in its own right. Photography and costume are beautifully executed and brought into relief by the carefully chosen piano-music. A competent ensemble of actors led by Audrey Tatou, who gives a strong performance in the main role, contribute to making this an appropriately slow-moving, confident adaptation of Mauriac’s dark and intriguing novel.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Passion Play, play by David Nichols, Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker/Samantha Bond) and James (Owen Teale/Oliver Cotton) are a couple in their late fifties who have been quite contentedly married for 25 years. Oliver restores paintings, Eleanor teaches classical singing (They probably live in Hampstead, subscribe to the Guardian newspaper and vote Labor). When Eleanor’s young friend, the very attractive mid-thirties femme-fatale Kate (Annabel Scholey) decides to go after the rather dull Oliver, he finds it impossible to resist. The awareness of the extent of his betrayal unleashes a full blown mid-life crisis. Eleanor is in the eye of the storm betrayed by Kate and much more painfully by her trusted husband.  Betrayal and martyrdom are the ingredients of the Passion Play.

What makes Peter Nichols’ 1981 play stand out, is that Eleanor and James are each represented on stage by 2 people: one, the person as seen by those who interact with them and the other an alter ego who critically observes the first, and gives more open and direct expression to their needs and emotions. Occasionally that second personality takes over and becomes visible to the other characters, leaving the meaker alter-ego in the shadows. This interplay and the visibility to the audience of the inner dialogue of the two protagonists add drama, wit and some gripping emotional truth.

An impressive set, effective use of oratorio music and a director (David Levaux), who really knows what he is doing add substantially to the impact of this play. Casting was spot on and the quality of the acting makes this a great evening at the theatre: Zoe Wanamaker, Samantha Bond, Oliver Cotton and Annabel Scholey succeed with outstanding performances. This Passion Play is worth a detour to London’s Theatreland.   

Sunday 2 June 2013

Race, Play by David Mamet , Hampstead Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

In his book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves” (Harper and Collins, 2012) the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely develops his “fudge factor”- theory about how people decide whether to behave honestly or dishonestly. “....our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand we want to benefit from cheating and get as mch money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest , wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalisation, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor” theory.”

I am usually sceptical about about the validity of plausible theories, but this one might be both plausible and valid. Of course, you and I might very well be exceptions to this rule by either being always totally honest or always totally dishonest; but as a working assumption for dealing with others in the real world, this theory may well be valid and useful.

Outwardly, all the characters in David Mamets play Race are either black or white. Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) (white) and Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) (black) are the two partners in their Manhattan law-firm. Susan (Nina Toussaint - White)(black) is a young, highly talented, Harvard-trained lawyer working for Jack Lawson. Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) (white) rich respected businessman appears in their office unannounced. He explains that he has been accused of raping his black girl-friend and that he is innocent. He has just left the law-firm that represented him and would like Lawson and Brown to represent him from now on. Jack Lawson and Henry Brown have to decide whether to accept Strickland as a client and, if so, what strategy to deploy in a case, where the playing field is very uneven as a result of the role race plays in it. 

As the play proceeds the issue of race also enters into the way the various pairs of characters interact with each other and justify their own actions to themselves. Outwardly the people in this play are either black or white, but inside these highly trained and educated individuals are able to paint a firework of shades of grey with their great cognitive flexibility.

Mamet shows again that he is a master of plot and dialogue. The audience is kept on their toes: never a dull moment from the opening lines to the end and the issues of Race that are explored on stage are all worth exploring. This play ranks equal in quality with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, that was such a success when it had its London run last year (first at the Royal Court and then in the West End).

The set is beautifully designed, with the evocative New York skyline appearing in the window of the mock Edwardian furnished Law firm.

Director Terry Johnson succeeds with a suspenseful production. The ensemble cast is excellent with an outstanding performance by Nina Toussaint-White as Susan. Clark Peters shines as Henry Brown. Deservedly rapturous applause from a full house. Very few black people in the audience, though.

Poster from the New York Production of the Play

Saturday 1 June 2013

To Be or Not To Be, Play by Nick Whitby based on the film by Ernst Lubitsch, Stadschouwburg, Amsterdam, 8* out of 10

This review is an exercise in narrow-casting: an English review of a play which is only accessible to Dutch speakers.

September 1939. A Polish theatre company comes together in Warsaw to rehearse a bitingly satirical play about Nazi-Germany. But before its premiere, the Polish government-censor forbids the performance as the Polish government fears that it will provoke Poland’s powerful neighbour to the West. So the theatre company decide to play Shakespeare’s Hamlet instead. During the performance of Hamlet, a young Polish Airforce pilot, Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski becomes starstruck by Maria Tura the actress wife (Ellen ten Damme) of the jealous and ego-maniacal theatre director Josef Tura (Viggo Waas). After the Germans invade Poland he will need the theatre company’s help to save the names of the members of the Polish resistance being communicated to the Gestapo.

To save the resistance, the jealousies of the drama-queens (and kings) in the theatre company must give way to courageous patriotism as they face playing the most important roles of their lives as if their life depended on it . In fact, it does.

To Be Or Not To Be is an adaptation to the stage of the eponymous 1942 Hollywood Film Comedy Classic directed by Ernst Lubitsch remade in the 1980s with Mel Brooks.

In 1942 the great Ernst Lubitsch who was Jewish and had escaped from Germany to the United States, made his film a hilarious comedy. He could do this, since the US had not yet entered the war (World War II) and the worst of the atrocities to be carried out by Germans under their Nazi leaders were yet to come. In the US and England making fun of the Nazis was an arrow in the quiver of  psychological warfare against the Germans. As these countries never suffered occupation by the Germans and remained rather open democracies during World War II, they also kept their penchant for hilarious comedy about grotesque Nazi characters after World War II, once the Germany had been beaten. A production in Amsterdam of a play based on this film, a city under brutal German Nazi occupation during World War II, the city of of Anne Frank, where the majority of resistance fighters, Jews and other “undesirables” were murdered, must necessarily answer the question whether the Anglo-American habit of unadulterated comedy is appropriate for this subject.

The answer given to this question by director Gijs de Lange is no, yet he manages to address this tricky issue in an amusing manner by introducing the stand-up comedian Raoul Heertje, well known and popular for intelligent satirical and political comedy, as the means by which the original film comedy is mitigated by some thoughtful questioning. Heertje is himself Jewish and switches between playing himself and the main Nazi character Col. Erhardt. Furthermore, the ending of the play is more like Charlie Chaplin’s ending for his great Nazi parody “The Great Dictator” than that of Ernst Lubitsch’s original film.

The Dutch production of To Be or Not To Be is an enjoyable mix of comedy, stand-up comedy, slapstick, musical variety show and (a little bit) of drama. The inclusion of stand-up comedy elements is largely successful, the case for an adapted ending full of pathos is less convincing. Despite its undoubted flaws, this play is intelligently silly; it is funny and enjoyable in the appropriately thoughtful way that a Dutch audience would have the right to expect. Not a mean achievement.