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Wednesday 23 April 2014

King Charles III, play by Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold, Almeida Theatre London, 7* out of 10

A day in the not too distant future; the Queen is dead, Long live the King! On the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Charles, Prince of Wales has become King Charles III (Tim Piggot-Smith). While Charles is awaiting his coronation,  the Labour prime minister of the day presents new legislation, strengthening privacy protection and thereby restricting the freedom of the press. Seeing himself as the protector of democracy Charles, takes a principled stand defending press freedom and asks the government to change the legislation. For this he seeks the support of the leader of the opposition.

As both sides remain steadfast the situation escalates. Prince William  (Oliver Chris) and his astute and ambitious wife Kate, played with gusto by a very watchable Lydia Wilson, observe the situation with concern;  meanwhile, hapless and disheveled Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) falls in love is a republican arts student from St. Martin’s, who shows him that happiness may lie in a paternity test and the simpler life of a commoner.

The cut and thrust of politics and royal intrigue takes its course and the ghost of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, haunts both her former husband and her elder son, as they inevitably get drawn in ever more deeply into the political mire.

"King Charles III" is Mark Bartlett's bold and -  in today's Britain - eminently controversial stab at writing “a future history play”; copious self-conscious references to William Shakespeare are included both in the chosen genre and the writing. Is it supposed to be a drama that is based on a realistic premise? It can be read this way, but to me it appeared as part parody, part tragic comedy; humour is thrown in and succeeds in lightening things up. Whatever Bartlett intended, the quality of the writing is high.

The set, in a round purple hue makes impressive use of the theatre space. Sound, lighting and music work together well and to good effect.  The direction is handled skilfully by Rupert Goold, the choreography of crowd scenes by Anna Morissey inventive. Tim Piggot-Smith gives an excellent performance as King Charles: wracked by doubt, yet principled, kind to his family, naïve as far as his dealings with crafty politicians are concerned.  Other members of the cast give strong performances, too. Oliver Chris plays Charles's son William as a loving son and feminist husband, who must consider the future of his dynasty; Margot Leicester is a concerned Camilla, a loyal wife to troubled King Charles. Adam James and Nicholas Rowe are credible as leaders of the Labour and Conservative party, respectively.

"King Charles III" is an interesting and thought provoking play. It is recommended for those who have a strong interest in UK politics, the constitutional role of the Monarch and the current royals and their, at times, turbulently grotesque private lives.

Monday 21 April 2014

Locke, (2013) Film, written and directed by Steven Knight, 8* out of 10

Any plan made by Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is solid; preferably set in C6-quality concrete, no less.  He is loyal, reliable, no-nonsense; the kind of building project manager you want when you are putting up the largest skyscraper in Europe. Not only does he make sure there is a plan, and a back-up plan too, but he’ll also be on location to see it through to completion and manage any last minute hitches that might arise.

But when the “perfect storm” breaks out in perfectionist Ivan’s well-organised life, he has to set his priorities and manage the concurrent and disparate crises the only way he knows how. Actually, he really needs to be in three places at once. Although that's impossible, this is the 21st century and Ivan Locke, project manager extraordinaire, believes that with the help of his mobile phone provider it must be feasible to “drive and chew gum” at the same time. But can personal crises be managed like major snags in a building-project? 

Steven Knight’s tightly scripted drama is a tour-de-force brought to the screen with an economy of means entirely consistent with telling the story grippingly.  Dickon Hinchcliffe’s score reinforces the pace. The screenplay is a gift for a gifted actor, which Tom Hardy picks up with a flourish; he is ably supported by a vocal acting ensemble.  The only slight flaw in the screenplay is making the psychological childhood trauma of the relationship between Locke and his father too explicit; here less amateur psychology and more confidence in the power of imagination the audience would have been better. But despite this, Locke is a terrific film. Incidentally, it is eminently suitable for adaptation to a theatre- or radio-play. 

Locke is a must for control-oriented managers who struggle to distinguish between their professional and private life. I plead guilty.  It is also very insightful for anyone, male or female, who aspires to a management career, or has to deal with a concrete- thinking management type in their lives.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Calvary, (2014) Film written & directed by John Michael McDonagh, 9* out of 10

During a confession Father James Lavelle (Brandon Gleeson) is threatened by one of his congregants, who bears a deadly grudge against the church. Father James  experienced, wise, committed to his vocation is effective in his job and attentive in his interactions with the cast of colourful characters that make up his community.

His rogue congregant has given Father James one week to get his affairs in order before he will kill him. The priest uses this time to carry on his duties while deciding how best to deal with the threat.

Calvary is part drama, part thriller, part black comedy and chimes with the Christian Easter story. There aren’t many writers/directors who are able to pull off such a potentially incongruous mix of genres and turn it into a great film, but John Michael McDonagh succeeds brilliantly. With the help of a strong acting ensemble, he tells a moving, heart-warming story, at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times terribly tragic which holds the audience’s attention from beginning to end. The lynchpin of this terrific film is Brendan Gleeson who gives a brilliant performance as Father James. (The McDonagh family is clearly bursting with talent with John Michael’s brother Martin being responsible for the 2008 comedy/drama “In Bruges”).

Calvary is a thoughtful and original movie, surely among the best of 2014.  Suspenseful, moving, entertaining, at times hilariously funny, at times desperately sad, it is not to be missed.

Saturday 12 April 2014

The Red Prince - The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe, Book by Timothy Snyder, Vintage Books, London 2009, 9* out of 10

The Red Prince tells the story of Wilhelm, the second of four sons of Stefan, an Austrian Archduke and member of the illustrious von Habsburg family, which, when Wilhelm was a child in the 1890s, had for hundreds of years ruled large parts of Eastern and Central Europe, not to speak of its Spanish branch, whose reign over that country and its vast colonies had ended somewhat earlier.

During the dramatic and turbulent first half of the 20th century in Europe, Wilhelm plays a minor, though by no means insignificant role in the attempts of the Austrian imperial and royal family  to hold on to its reign (or failing that some remnant of that reign) in all or part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

The long-term master plan for his children was set out almost at birth by Wilhelm’s father the Archduke Stefan. Together with the ethos of the family, and Wilhelms own colourful personality it makes Wilhelm’s biography worthy of any fictional historical novel. There are encounters with powerful historical figures of the early 20th century, such as Kaiser Wilhelm and of less powerful yet famous personalities like the French music hall star Mistinguette who publicly toyed with the idea of becoming Wilhelm wife.  He on the other hand was more interested in exotic young men.

In his meticulously researched and entertainingly written book, Timothy Snyder, not only introduces us to many colourful characters populating Europe’s upper echelon’s in the first half of the 20th century; he also gives a timely and readable insight into the little history of the region that is today Ukraine but also touches on Poland and Russia. As the centenary of World War I is being marked in many Western countries, very little is being said about the course this war took on its Eastern front.  In the course of following young Wilhelm’s early military career we learn about the beginnings of today's Ukraine as a nation and a state, and about the role Wilhelm played in it, under his Ukrainian nom de guerre Prince Vasyl Vishivanyi, as a young officer at the head of a Ukrainian regiment fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Russians.

We also follow Wilhelm through the stormy interwar period where he changes his political convictions from Royalist multiculturalist philosemitic Austro-Marxist, hence the "Red" in his princely epithet, to briefly fascist, antisemitic supporter of Adolf Hitler to his premature death in a Soviet political prisoner camp. On the way we meet some other interesting characters of the von Habsburg family who put up resistance to the Nazis and ensured the brewing of beer in the largest Polish brewery in Żywiec, owned today by the Dutch drinks giant Heineken but housing in one of its buildings a niece of our protagonist.   

As a famous historian put it: “The future is fixed, the past is always open to debate”.  Reading The Red Prince is not only enjoyable, but can help making our debates about the past and future more informed. That, surely, must be a good thing.

Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg, The Red Prince