TWO RECENT PLAYS – one was excellent, the other was quite good. Let me start with the excellent one: it’s called “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti at the delightful (it’s small and intimate; and Gandalf himself, Sir Ian, was in attendance) Tricycle Theatre. The lead actor, who was outstanding, was Adrian Lester (last seen in a dreadful TV series called “Hustle”; as well as bit parts in “Spiderman 3 and “Doomsday”).
The story is based on an incident in the (real) life of Ira Aldridge, a freed American slave who in the late 1820’s moves to Europe to pursue his passion for theatre. Aldridge built quite a reputation for himself in Europe; but the – heart of the – story is set in London, the year before emancipation (1834). It is here that at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden that he is drafted in by a fearless French director Pierre Laporte, to replace the lead actor, Edmund Kean in a staging of Othello. The idea of using a real black man to act the part of a black man is unheard of and leads to near chaos.
The play is nicely textured and addresses a number of issues through the lens of performance and the role of art in society. Pierre (Eugene O’Hare) says, “Theatre is a political act, a debate of our times. This is our responsibility…we have to confront life, out there, on our stage, in here. Make it live”
But the introduction of a black man to this white stage is too much of a break in tradition; art can speak of progress so long as it stays away from actually threatening the world with it.
Charles (Ryan Kiggell), the son of the ailing theatre owner Edmund Kean and the epitome of a sneering racist status quo replies that, “People come to the theatre to get away from reality. And…. What I mean to say is…it’s a sad fact…and I’m sorry to say it… but it’s true I’m afraid that…his…well…he will prevent them from escaping reality”
Aldridge wrestles with being true and investing his role with truth; art is about confronting truth. Charles wants nothing more than artifice; art is about escape.
And Charles is of course for the period, fully in tuned with his world. His class cannot confront the looming reality of blacks claiming a place at the colonial table. “This concept of equality and freedom, it’s a fad,” he says “Impossible to achieve because there’ll always be those of us who must lead and those who must follow.”
And the resentment/fear/horror of ‘the other’ that is couched in arguments about tradition, artistic purpose and finances (Bernard -Simon Chandler- another one of the actors aghast at working next to a –real- Moor says, “For goodness sake, boy, our whole economy relies on the labour force on those plantations. How do you think this theatre was built? It’s how things are”) is finally given full vent by the critics: “At Covent Garden,” one of the reviewers writes, “they have brought out a genuine nigger to act Othello. This gentleman is the colour of a new half penny, his hair is woolly, and his features, although African, are considerably humanized. But owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in a manner to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery.” The bile rises at the thought of this black man’s audacity to attempt equality and integration. “In the name of propriety and decency we protest against an interesting actress and a decent girl like Miss Ellen Tree being subjected to the indignity of being pawed about by Mr. Wallack’s black servant.”
For this is all they see. Not Othello, not the actor, not the man, just a black servant.
Chakrabarti’s uses these historical pro v anti slavery sentiments, this colonial world view, as the backdrop, the red velvet as it were, to enable us to examine how we see each other. The play that’s about to be performed with its on and off-stage drama is her ‘objective correlative’ that highlights the inability of people to see beyond the skin to the human… beyond the actor to the part.
It is summed up in a neat coda by another black person – a servant (who clearly knows her place) who tells Aldridge, “I had this mistress once grew attached to me, kept me close by and tol’ me all she problems, intimate problems, sir; but when five poun’ went missing she grabbed me by my ear like a dog and fling me out… I’m just sayin’ people see what them a look fo’.”
The play ends with a much older Aldridge in his dressing room about to perform. He’s putting on white make up. The black man rejected for playing a black man has won some sort of acceptance (in Russia) as a black man in white face playing not a white man, but Lear.
The other pay is Constellations by Nick Payne at the Royal Court. It features Sally Hawkins as Marianne (so good in “Happy Go Lucky”) and Rafe Spall as Roland (“Prometheus” and the upcoming “Life of Pi”). It revolves around these two who meet, maybe marry and one of them maybe dies of a brain tumor.
The ‘maybe’ is due to the fact that the play’s about the multiverse where every action that’s ever made plays out in different ways in different parallel universes. It’s a sort of better written version of “Run Lola Run”. Scenes are repeated over and over with sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle differences and consequences.
It’s fast paced and wonderfully well acted. I myself have a ‘thing’ about parallel universes. In one of them I have a novel that’s doing really well.
It was a nice evening out (short – a mere 75 minutes). But I’m not sure there was a whole lot of depth there… a sort of “Copenhagen” on trainer wheels.
“THE MASTER” IS about two and a half hours long. It’s the longest two and a half hours you’re likely to spend in a long time. And this despite outstanding performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous master, Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as a violent wandering seaman Freddie Quell.
The story is about Freddie’s ambivalent relationship with Lancaster, a hypnotic cult leader. Freddie is both obsessively protective (which essentially means beating up non-believers) and a non-believer himself. The movie looks at the need people have to believe in something larger than themselves; the need to transcend themselves. But Freddie is essentially a drunk – for him such transcendence lies only at the bottom of a bottle (or in the fantasy of love which never rises above his hurried couplings). But it’s this human need for belief that opens the door so easily for charlatans like Lancaster. Director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be suggesting that there is an essential gullibility at the heart of us all; a gullibility that allow us to believe the far flung nonsense that Dodd is pedaling (or for that matter that water can turn into wine, that bread is the body of the Christ etc).
There is a nice balance between the commanding self-confidence of Hoffman/Dodd – all stillness and mannered poise- and the twitching unbalanced Phoenix/Freddie. What both men have in common is a deep violent refusal to be contradicted. With Freddie this violence is physical and on the surface. With Dodd, the violence is repressed and only erupts from time to time.
So, all this should add up to a movie that’s as good as the accolades that have greeted it. But there are two words I’d use to describe it: “Weird” and “boring”.
Anderson’s distinct style mixes in realism and fantasy (there’s one scene in which Dodd is speaking at a gathering of believers…. His speech turns into song and the female on-lookers are transformed into nakedness.) He juxtaposes scenes in such a way as to break up the narrative thread and offer us more of a series of dramatized vignettes linked together thematically but with scant sense of continuity.
Such a pity. “The Master” has the potential to offer interesting commentary if only the self-consciousness of the directing hadn’t gotten in the way.
THIS WEEKEND – A brace of movies, both praised by critics, one of which deserved the praise. I’ll start with the good news: “Argo”. Now that Ben Affleck has fled the dubious charms of JLo, he’s emerged as a tremendous director. His last few movies – “Town” and “Gone, Baby Gone” were both well crafted, taut thrillers. As is “Argo”.
You probably know the story – when the US Embassy was invaded in Iran in 1979 after the fall of the decadent, US imposed Shah; and 56 hostages were kidnapped (and held for 444 days), 6 embassy staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house.
The job of the US State Department was to get them out of Iran and back to safety (before the Iranians discovered that they were 6 hostages short). The US State Department came up with a number of wild ideas (and director Affleck makes no bones in pointing out how generally out of touch the Department was – ideas such as teaching the Americans how to ride – unobtrusively?- for 300 miles to the border, or having them pretend to be visiting agriculture experts – in winter? Etc.) Eventually the best bad idea that wins, calls for exfiltration CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) to get them out by pretending that they were part of a pre-production team of Canadians scouting for locations for a sci-fi movie, “Argo”.
Usually when a movie boasts that it’s “based on a true story”, I want to run for the hills. But the truth of this story is fundamental to its core idea and the central element in helping to suspend our disbelief. If it were just ‘fiction’ the BS meter would be off the charts. So here we have a piece of fiction, in essence a ‘lie’ about a true story that is about the deception of the Iranian authorities via the fabrication of a truth.
As Mendez’ ludicrous concoction gains traction in the state Department, he’s allowed to recruits a couple of real (and convincingly cynical) Hollywood types – John Goodman (always superb) as make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel. (At one stage, one of the CIA boffins observe, “so now you mean we own a film company?”)
These three conspire with fake storyboards, and a fake press conference with fake actors to con Variety into publishing something about the movie in order to give it its patina of authenticity. Nothing deceives quite like authenticity.
The brilliance of the movie is how deftly Affleck balances the outlandishness and inherent jokiness of the idea with the deathly seriousness of the reality. The movie slowly shifts gear from the absurdity of Hollywood to the nail biting suspense of the escape. It’s always a difficult task when you already know the outcome, to let the drama of the story work on your emotions, so as to still the rational brain and allow you the pleasure of surprise. (Of course “The Great Escape” did this brilliantly by surprising us in just how few actually escaped). But “Argo”pulls it all off and the last half an hour of the movie delivers moments of nail-biting tension that’s as good as it gets.
Affleck and his production designers have worked hard at ramping up the verisimilitude of the look. During the credits, he shows us just how closely the actors looked like the real people. The design is worked down to the minutest detail – the clunky phones, the big computers… the time it takes for information to travel. These days, after a few clicks on Google and quick call on a cell, no-one would have made it out.
The theme of truth and lies in the story is summarized by Mendez, Affleck’s character, in the way he overcomes the disbelief of his (understandably) terrified embassy staff. He does so not only by demonstrating supreme self-confidence that they’d succeed, but by letting slip the mask of the spy’s deception to reveal the truth about himself – his real name. Truth revealed to sell a lie. But there are so many complex emotions at play here – fear of failure, bravado, gentle protectiveness, anger with the indifference of the State Department – that Affleck’s performance falls short. His portrayal is fine, but a bit one dimensional and flat.
Still, that’s a minor complaint for such a major achievement.
Now “Rust and Bone” is entirely another matter. This highly regarded movie is from French director Jacques Audiard (“The Beat that my Heart Skipped” and the award winning, “A Prophet”). It stars Marion Cotillard as Stephane, a killer whale trainer whose life is dramatically altered when an accident results in the amputation of her two legs (and the symbolism here about loss of past and the existentialist need to recreate a new beginning are too many to go into). She hooks up with the brutish Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a philandering security guard who earns some extra money as a street fighter (he’s all violent action to her incapacity caused by a violent action). The story traces the arc of his relationship with her and how this evolving intimacy tempers his callous indifference to his son resulting in something of a genuine bond. It’s all very existentialist – you can leave who you are behind and recast yourself as if no history existed.
At least that’s what I think Audiard is getting at. But despite the charm of Ms Cotillard, there’s very little here to believe in. Whereas “Argo” worked hard to find that willing suspension of disbelief, “Rust and Bone” remains entirely unbelievable. You’ll spend 90 odd minutes in the company of two not very likeable or even interesting characters engaged in an unlikely relationship in an uninteresting story.
Maybe it’s better in French
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Tapestry of Death
While on a business trip to Shanghai, Peter Newton is shaken by a feeling of being briefly transported to another world where an unknown woman is holding his hand and urging him to come back. He is further shaken when the gift he purchases there for his girlfriend, Judy, which he thought was just a prettily carved box, turns out to be a daguerreotype – one of the very earliest forms of photography from the late nineteenth century. In the photograph are four persons, one of whom is him.
Who are the other people? Why is he in a photograph that seems to have been taken in the nineteenth century? And why would he just happen upon this in a junk shop, in an obscure street in Shanghai?
Peter returns to New York to comfort a distraught Judy, who has been on a hiking trip and has narrowly managed to escape being savaged by a sickle-wielding phantom. The three friends she went with were not so lucky. It is upon leaving her and returning to his own apartment that he discovers that he has slipped into another world – one where his apartment is lived in by another, and where things almost seem to be the same, but not quite so.
As his sensations of being transported to another world become more and more worryingly pronounced, Peter heads to Tepotzlan, a small village about an hour south of Mexico City, where he meets a neurologist who he feels may be able to help him. There, in the shadows on the magic mountains of the ancient Aztec god, Quetzcoatl, he gradually learns how to take control over his ‘slips’. He also – coincidentally? – runs into Fiona Thornton, one of the other people in the daguerreotype; the one who was holding his hand when he first experienced the feeling of being somewhere else.
And thus the story unfolds… can ya wait?
I’D EXPECTED THE same old, same old from Denzel in this his latest offering, “Flight”. But I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t “Unstoppable” or “The Taking of Pelham 123” on a ‘plane. You know, the ordinary, somewhat flawed man who rises to a moment of supreme heroism (with an accompanying triumphant score).
Yes, he did manage to do what no-one else could possibly do (way upping the triumph of landing an aircraft on the Hudson) by averting a sure-fire crash by flying upside down, averting hitting a densely populated area, and crash landing on a nearby field, thereby saving 96 of the 102 passengers and crew.
Problem was, he was drunk and high.
It’s a film about addiction.
Denzel’s character, Whip Whitaker is a smooth talking dashing hunk of a captain (he’s getting jowly, but still looking good) who just happens to be a chain smoking, coke snorting, bourbon drinking wreck. He’s alienated his family and as the story unfolds, alienates his close friends and eventually his (ex-addict) lover (the English actor, Kelly Reilly).
Director Robert Zemeckis, who has certainly brought us some gems – all the “Back to the Future” movies and the eminently watchable “Castaway” – isn’t one to offer up too much nuance. Captain Whip’s addiction is a sort of alcoholic’s anonymous “how to” guide. First acknowledge that you’re an alcoholic; then hit rock bottom…only then can you begin to get back on the road to salvation. Whip lies to himself, lies to others and just can’t beat the addiction even as others around him (including a phoned-in performance by Don Cheadle as a company lawyer) try to protect him.
Zemeckis offers us a (somewhat specious) theme of deconstructing and finding what’s true. Is the truth the fact that he saved pretty much everyone’s life through his heroics or is the truth the fact of his addiction? How do you balance those truths, even as it’s up to Whip to face his own truth.
And face it he does in a moment of pure Hollywood drama.
Denzil is one of those actors who always manage to suggest that there’s an underlying decency in his broken characters, struggling to emerge into the sunlight (which thankfully stayed submerged in “Training Day”). It’s what keeps you on the character’s side, even as he’s pissing off everyone else.
And, despite its obvious Hollywood-ness, it’s what makes “Flight” a supremely watchable film. Indeed, like any flight you’ve ever taken, you know exactly where it’s heading. And getting there is a pleasant enough journey.
Look out for John Goodman in it – he revels in the roll of the good-time drug dealer. Whenever the movie dips, he brings it back, you could say, high.