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Friday 30 May 2014

The Wind Rises, Animated Film by Hayao Miyazaki, 8* out of 10

In his beautifully made animated film "The Wind Rises" based loosely on the life of the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, director Hayao Myazaki explores  moral dilemmas and experience friendship and love, success and heartbreak.

Inspired by the Italian airplane designer Gianni Caproni, the young Jiro who is obsessed with flying but too near-sighted to become a pilot dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer. He leaves his home in the provinces and goes to Tokyo for his studies. On a dramatic train-journey he meets Nahoko, the elusive love of his life. In 1927 Jiro joins Mitsubishi Motors where he embarks on his dream-career as an aeronautical engineer. Against the background of major historical events of the first half of the 20th century, Jiro will face moral dilemmas and experience friendship and love, success and heartbreak.

Based loosely on the life of the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, Myazaki explores childhood dreams and the use of talent and creativity to help advance questionable ends. In doing so he is not afraid to make use European literary references such as the French poet Paul ValĂ©ry (“the wind rises, we must try to live”) and the German author Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain).

Myazaki’s film is visually stunning and beautifully made with dream sequences and beautiful Japanese landscapes softening the dark visual impact of design offices and aircraft hangars.

“The Wind Rises” is an intelligent and beautifully made historical drama that is worth a trip to the cinema, even for those who would not normally go to see an animated film. 

Sunday 25 May 2014

Yellow Face, Play by D. H. Hwang, Temporary space, National Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Yellow Face by David Henry Wang manages to say important things about immigration, political correctness, and the US political system without ever getting didactic or soppy. It remains funny, at times hilariously so, and highly entertaining. 

In 1988, David Henry Hwang (Kevin Shen) is the first Chinese-American playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. His "M Butterfly" also became a film directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone. As a result of his Broadway success, he becomes a role model for the Asian-American community in the United States.  

When the British impresario Cameron Mackintosh wants to bring the London production of the hit musical “Miss Saigon” to Broadway and brings the award winning white British actor Jonathan Pryce cast in the leading role of an Eurasian pimp to New York, D. H. Hwang is urged by Asian American friends to be the figurehead for their protests: like African-Americans who succeeded in making blacking-up of white actors unacceptable, they believe it is time for Asian-Americans to do the same for yellowing-up. In the turbulences that follow, Hwang will be confronted with a host of issues relating to Chinese-American identity of second generation of immigrants and that of their parents. He will also have to deal with the upside and the downside of his father's unshakeable belief in the wonderfulness of his adopted country.

In Yellow Face, D. H. Hwang tells us the story of what happens next in a deceptively funny, self-deprecating and, at times, surprisingly moving way. The play manages to say important things about immigration, political correctness, and the US political system without ever getting didactic or soppy. It remains funny, at times hilariously so, and entertaining throughout. 

Playing in the National Theatre’s new temporary stage, which from the outside resembles a wooden model of Battersea Powerstation, this production makes do with a minimalist set, but director Alex Simms ensures that it moves along at a fast pace, so the audience does not have time to miss a more elaborate set.  The cast is terrific and there are particularly strong performances by Kevin Shen in the role of the playwright and David Yip as his father. 

National Theatre Temporary Space 
London - Southbank

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Grounded, by George Brant, directed by Christopher Hayden, Gate Theatre London, 8* out of 10

“The Pilot”, a woman combat pilot in the US Air force on return from pregnancy leave finds herself reassigned from flying F-16 to flying killer drones. This means working in a control centre outside Las Vegas in 8-hour shifts and returning home every day to the role of wife and mother. The changes in her private life, in the nature of her professional duties and in the manner in which her private and professional lives now interact, put her under enormous stress. Add to that the feeling of having been demoted and the loss of the more respected, fun activity of flying real planes. The Pilot has been grounded yet psychologically she now is up in the air  - increasingly losing her emotional and moral anchor.

“Grounded“ by the talented George Brant is a powerful piece of theatre about the effects on our emotional well-being of a job being emptied of meaning through the introduction of innovative technology. In this case the thrill of flying, the perceived danger, the reduced skill-requirements and the loss of seeing things in true colour. There is also the loss of social contact to one’s daredevil peers. These effects are being dangerously compounded by switching from war in Afghanistan to family life in Nevada in short shifts, sometimes boring, sometimes action packed. The play is presented as an intense monologue delivered by the protagonist herself from an enclosed space animated with explosive light and sound effects.  

This is strong psychological and political theatre designed to make you think from an unusual perspective – in this case about drone-warfare.  It seems that the intention was to underline the nefarious aspects of this combat technology. Although most of the audience seemed comfortably anti-war and anti-drone from the outset, paradoxically for me it did the opposite (but then I was rather pro-drone to begin with, although not generally pro-war).  The Pilot seems to be elated when she can kill suspected terrorists (and cause collateral damage) while having fun flying her F-16 fighter-jet; but when she’s ordered to do the same things more boringly with a drone, moral qualms seem to appear for the first time (of course she has a young daughter now, too, whom she sees every day).  Making defending us against our enemies boring and less enjoyable to our military men and women seems progress to me; this way violent action is more likely only to be taken when there is good reason to do so. Furthermore, the idea that drone “pilots” are out of range of counter attacks and therefore drone warfare is inherently unfair is widespread. This is a fallacy though; just because a target is in the USA (or anywhere else in the West), does not mean that terrorists, militants, or enemy soldiers will be unable to reach it.

In any event, “Grounded” makes you think (in a worthwhile way) and is the kind of production that has made me a regular traveller from my home on the European continent to the London’s smaller theatres, such as the Gate (the Finborough, the Tricycle, the Arcola, the King’s Head to name but a few).  It is a compelling, relevant piece of new writing, skilfully directed by the Gate Theatre’s Artistic Director Christopher Hayden, and energetically acted by a focused, committed and quite believable Lucy Ellinson. The creative team responsible for the set, the sound, light and video have made an excellent contribution to the impact of this play on a rapt audience; worth a trip to Notting Hill for those who like new writing with a social and political message.

Since I originally wrote my review, the play has moved to Washington DC and in an interesting article on drone warfare The Economist very fittingly refers to it.  Here the link to the Economist article:

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Martine, Play by Jean-Jacques Bernard, directed by Tom Littler, Finborough Theatre, 8* out of 10

On a country road in France in the 1920s, the pretty Martine 
(Hannah Murray) seeks shelter from the burning sun under an Apple tree , as she returns from an errand. Julien (Barnaby Sax), a handsome young officer returning from war in Syria finds her there and sparks fly. It turns out, that as Julien will be staying with his grandmother, Madame Mervan, as he resumes work in civilian life as a journalist in Paris. Madame Mervan (Susan Penhaligon) lives in the same village as Martine. When Julien's former fiancee Jeanne (Leila Crerar) comes to visit, the social distance between the urbane, sophisticated Julien and the rustic, naive Martine becomes apparent. Moreover, Julien’s grandmother pushes him to aim for a union with Jeanne and end his infatuation with Martine. And Martine herself is pursued by a local farmer Alfred (Chris Porter). But she dreams and hopes against hope that love and marriage with her Julien will be possible.

Martine written in 1922 is the French playwright's Jean-Jacques Bernard (1888 -1972) best-known play. Bernard comes from an artistic family. His father Tristan was an even more prominent author and is grand-nephew Francis Veber is an actor, playwright, screenwriter and film-producer. 

The Finborough Theatre has a tradition of reviving worthwhile theatre plays from the past that are not often performed in the UK.  Martine certainly fits the bill and the beautiful translation by the English writer John Fowles (author of  “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) certainly helps. The play is at times reminiscent of Ibsen and Chekhov although without the latter's sense of humour. A lot is left unsaid and communicated only by gesture or facial expression.

This production has a lot going for it: there is Max Pappenheim’s soundscape rich in birdsong for the scenes playing in the French countryside and resonant with the ticktock of an invisible large clock when the action moves indoors to grandmother Mervan’s farmhouse. There is also Cherry Truluck’s beautifully inventive set, especially for the important initial scene under the apple-tree. Best of all are the performances Tom Littler has got out of his cast, ranging from Susan Penhaligon’s tough but sympathetic Mme Mervan to a beautifully moving performance in the title role by a magnetic Hannah Murray headed for stardom, no doubt.  The tragic story of Martine’s unrequited love made a tear or two flow among members of the audience. It’s good theatre beautifully produced and played.

With the pub downstairs again fully functional and ready to serve a friendly pint or two, the Finborough Theatre is always worth a visit

Monday 5 May 2014

Foreplay, Play by Carl Djerassi, King’s Head Theatre Islington, 7* out of 10

In 1960s Frankfurt a female PhD student invites two giants of German cultural and intellectual life with Jewish roots, the famously egomaniac sociologist Theodor Adorno and the self-assured philosopher Hannah Arendt to a dinner party.  She promises to let them see hitherto undiscovered writings of their former colleague Walter Benjamin, a great literary critic and philosopher, who, unlike Adorno and Arendt did not survive Nazi persecution. The dinner party turns into intellectual and sexual whodunit with a few twists that will be very uncomfortable for some of the protagonists.

For this play Carl Djerassi has adapted his 2011 novel of the same name about real intellectual greats with big egos and a special penchant for aligning their sex-lives closely with their academic interests.

In his day-job Djerassi is a superstar chemist still lecturing at 90, and the inventor, most notably, of the contraceptive pill and other important scientific innovations. He is also is the not unsuccessful writer of novels and plays about scientists and academics facing tricky, potentially career destroying or career making dilemmas. For Djerassi’s characters, intellectual achievement is always also very sexy, and sex is intellectually stimulating or even subject of their research; it is though more discussed, dreamed about and imagined than ever engaged in.

For those who like intellectual, adversarial sparring around the dinner table including talk about sex and pornography, Foreplay can be interesting, whether they are familiar with the non-fictional characters and their ideas or not; the play becomes more gripping as it develops.  The acting is good-quality with well-researched and funny renditions of Adorno (Andrew Stephen), Arendt (Judi Scott) and at times moving renditions of Walter Benjamin (Mark Ooosterveen). Set and costume fit the play and period well. Quite entertaining.  


Saturday 3 May 2014

Uncle Vanya, Play by Anton Chekhov, Mossovet State Academic Theatre Company directed by Andrei Konchalovski, Wyndham Theatre London, 8* out of 10

It all started at school with the red headed girl. My strategy to win her over was to impress her with my knack for learning languages. So I found myself enrolled in voluntary Russian lessons at my high-school in Salzburg (Austria) sitting next to the object of my desires.  What remains from that episode is my ability to state in passable Russian that Grigory is a tractor driver in a kolkhoz and my liking for the sounds most things Russian, from wistful novels to FabergĂ© eggs. And so, when I had the opportunity last night to join numerous elegantly dressed members of the Russian-speaking community in London to see Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” directed by Hollywood great Andrei Konchalowski I grabbed the high priced ticket without hesitation.

Like most of the males in the audience, I am a middle-aged man with a sizeable paunch, but contrary to most men in the audience I was not accompanied by a stunningly good-looking tall thin Russian lady half my age. Moreover, I belonged to the small minority of those present who depended on the English surtitles to follow the action on stage.

Vanya is member of a dysfunctional Russian landowning family and runs the estate for his brother in law the Professor, who is visiting the estate. The Professor was married to Vanya’s beloved late sister. Vanya’s family was so in awe  of his supposed intellectual prowess that they supported his career to the fullest and made over the estate to him and his first wife. In the meantime the Professor has remarried a young and beautiful wife, and Vanya at 40 years of age has realised that the old man is anything but brilliant; a legend only in his own mind.  So all the sacrifice Vanya’s family has made has been in vain and Vanya’s life feels wasted. Vanya is now dead keen to persuade the Professor’s wife to have fling with him. Meanwhile the Doctor, a friend of the family, who comes to visit the estate from time to time, is the object of desire of Vanya’s niece, daughter of his sister and the Professor.  But the Doctor, a man prone to melancholy, ecological sensibilities and vodka is impervious to Sonya's sincere adoration as she lacks more obvious womanly charms. Charms the doctor finds the Professor's wife having in abundance. As the Professor's stay at the estate is bringing the normal residents’ lives into disarray, some other quite comic characters such as the old nanny, the conflict averse "Waffles" Telegenin and Vanya’s rather stupid mother make their appearance.

Chekhov is brilliant at showing us how just below our cool, calm and collected surface, events can force us to show our hilariously embarrassing tragic-clownish selves. For the female characters this results in letting the hypocrisy of bourgeois conventions stop them from grabbing a little happiness when the chance presents itself. For the men in the play, it is a rush of the blood to other parts of their anatomy than those most adapted to rational thought. The result is a fascinating and entertaining portrait of the human condition ending in a moving outcry to the heavens before things settle back to their state of deceptive normality.

It is greatly enjoyable to see Chekhov performed in Russian by a company which has Russian sensibility at its heart. The comedy predominates as Pavel Derevyanko stands out as a fantastic Uncle Vanya on the verge of the nervous breakdown. On the other hand Yulya Vissotzkaya gives an moving performance with a highlight of true pathos in the role of Sonya.

Andrei Konchalovski’s production of Uncle Vanya in London is definitely worth a detour to the Wyndham.