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Thursday 19 September 2013

The Proposal – The Bear, 2 short plays by Anton Chekhov, St James Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

For a 21st century city-dweller who is smartphone-connected and desirous of participating fully in many aspects of life - private, professional, social, cultural - so many needs wants and requests, real and imagined, are vying for his attention that certain activities must be undertaken simultaneously.

So it is a good thing that thanks to the St. James Theatre office and other workers in London’s Victoria district can now munch their organic lunch-time salads, while at the same time watching some highly entertaining quality theatre in a very pleasant cultural space. 

They are currently being marvellously entertained by two short pieces signed Anton Chekhov, a 19th century Russian genius, who had a great sense of humour and an eye for the most human of our human traits - losing our cool completely, when it comes to wooing or being wooed by, a potential life-partner. 

In The Proposal the 35-year-old land-owner Lomov (Matthew McPherson) intends to make a marriage proposal to his neighbour’s daughter (Nadia Hynes). But to the chagrin of the latter, other topics than love and marriage arouse the potential couple’s passions.

In The Bear we meet a Smirnov (Gary Sefton), a middle-aged landowner whose solvency depends on immediately collecting a debt from a recently widowed attractive lady (Caroline Colomei) who appears determined to grieve forever for her deceased but undeserving wealthy landowner husband. The angered Smirnov becomes something like Vladimir Putin’s manic cousin including a compulsion for showing off his muscle-packed torso to the adoring multitude (; the Russian for “bear” is medved, without –iev, but still).  In trying desperately and not very successfully to collect the debt Smirnov in turn unleashes the widow’s suppressed passions to the point where quivering duelling pistols can take on phallic proportions.  

This double bill is true farce at its most farcical and yet Chekhov’s talent imbues the plays with an acute understanding of human nature, giving them a special quality; the characters on stage are ridiculous - and disconcertingly like you and me in what we might think of as our less glorious moments!

In the energetic production directed by Edward Hulme, the enthusiastic cast of the Butterfly Company make the Studio Theatre’s space their own.  They also establish great contact with the audience. Both male leads clearly enjoy skilfully squeezing every drop of comedy out of their hilarious characters.

Pure afternoon delight.


Sunday 8 September 2013

What Maisie Knew, Film directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 8* out of 10

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the precocious 9-year-old daughter of art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) and ageing rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), who have hired the young Margo (Joanna Vanderham) as her nanny, with whom Maisie has developed a strong bond. What is a very dysfunctional home at the best of times, becomes a truly toxic environment as Beale and Susanna go through a nasty break-up. Margo is involved with Beale, while Susanna soon takes up with the young bar-keeper Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgaard).

The adults around Maisie are so wrapped up in their own affairs and desires that they appear to either ignore her altogether or use her in order to further their own ends. Maisie soon understands that in order to get through this, she will have to look after her own needs and take a lead in managing her relationship with the rather irresponsible adults around her. In the stormy waters which they have created, she looks for a suitable place to throw an anchor, in a desperate attempt to find at least some stability for herself.

Despite being a adaptation of the eponymous novel written in the 1890s by the American author Henry James, "What Maisie Knew" is a heart-breaking story of our time: self-obsessed adults misuse their position as parents to pursue their own ends, leaving their child to fend for herself. 

With the help of an excellent ensemble of actors, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel tell Maisie’s story in convincing “scenes from a marriage” style. Juliann Moore stands out as a woman with guilt feelings for being an inadequate parent which she is asking the victim of her inadequate parenting to assuage.  But, the success of this film depends on how credible the portrayal of Maisie is - and Onata Aprile delivers an outstanding performance.

After seeing the What Maisie Knew, I did ask myself whether it was really possible for a young girl to be as mature in dealing with the consequences of chaotic adult relationships as Maisie is. Quite by accident I came across the 1998 documentary film Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Halfway through this documentary a young girl, the daughter of the clerk in an Iranian divorce court, who has spent her childhood observing its procedures, speaks on camera to the filmmakers about her observations on failing adult relationships. It is an amazing document, which has settled the question for me – children like Maisie can speak to us in fictional and factual form across time and cultural barriers. Here a link to this documentary film on YouTube: