Sunday, December 06, 2009

Film Review : A Serious Man (dir Ethan and Joel Coen)

Is there something profound out there, or is it just fate? One has to ask oneself if the latest offering from the Coen Brothers is simply telling a story, or getting at something deeper. It is certainly an exploration of Jewishness in modern (1967) America in the sort of Midwestern community in which Joel and Ethan Coen were brought up. In interviews, they spoken about their upbringing, but have refused to speculate on the questions the film might raise. But the movie itself – is it full of clues, or does it simply tease?

Before the opening credits roll, we are in a Polish Shtetl. A man is helped at the roadside by an elderly rabbi, so invites him home. But his wife claims she had heard that the rabbi had died three years ago and the stranger was in fact a dybbuk. Is she correct? We never find out for sure, and neither is this strange tale integrated into the film as a whole. But a doubt remains that, generations on, the descendents of the man are in some way paying for the sins of their fathers.

Larry Gopnik (a magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish physics professor whose life is starting to fall apart. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for the odious Sy Ablemann (Fred Melamud), his son is into pot, his daughter is into hair, his brother lazing round the house draining his cyst. He is being harassed by his redneck neighbour, bribed by a college student, chased by the record company, and all for no reason – Larry is honest, trusting, decent. It’s as if God is testing him, like he did the honest Job.

Larry turns for support and answers to three rabbis. But the first offers him platitudes, the second a meandering, pointless (and very funny) story about a Jewish dentist who has a goy patient with “Help Me” written in Hebrew characters on the inside of his teeth. The third refuses to see him.

Perhaps the clue lies in Larry’s job – he is teaching about Schrödinger’s Cat, which could exist / not exist in a box simultaneously. A Schrödinger event appears to occur when Larry and another character are both in car crashes at the same time. Larry survives, the other character is killed. Larry’s brother subverts chance by using his numeric skills for card-counting, but fate rounds on him and he is arrested. Towards the end of the film, Larry for the first time when faced with a choice takes the immoral option. As he does, the telephone rings with bad news. Coincidence? Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind which is enveloping the Midwestern community, the storm from which God spoke to Job?

This is a slow-moving, thoughtful film whose humour is whimsical rather than funny, exquisitely constructed and beautifully shot by long-time Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins. It won’t appeal to the multiplex audiences, but will intrigue those who relish intelligent filmmaking that is not afraid to leave all its loose threads hanging.

Film Review : The Men Who Stare at Goats (dir Grant Heslov)

On paper, this looked a winner. Jon Ronson’s book, “The Men who Stare at Goats”, had proved a subversive bestseller. The cast was pure Hollywood A-list – George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. The trailers were very funny. And yet…

When Henry Kissenger won the Nobel Peace prize, Tom Lehrer declared satire redundant. At outset in this film, we are told that some of the events that follow are true. But the story of the First Earth Battalion which is set up to explore opportunities for the use of the paranormal in warfare is so bizarre that it goes well beyond satire, and so the viewer has to decide what is and isn’t true as the film flits between contemporary Iraqi buddy-movie and the story of the setting up of battalion in the 1970s.

The Iraqi framing-device is slight. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has been deserted by his wife for the editor of his small-town American newspaper. He decides to prove his macho credentials by heading for Kuwait at the time of the first Iraq war, where he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) who is set on heading into Iraq on a secret mission. Desparate to become embedded with the troops to see some action, Wilton joins with him and while they cross Iraq, he learns about Cassidy’s background and the history of the First Earth Battalion, set up by seventies hippy-soldier Bill Django (Jeff Bridges playing his stoner Big Lebowski type).

At this point, the movie dips into the area covered by Ronson’s book, and does contain some very funny moments. The de-bleated goats and the use of the theme music to Barney and Friends to break down prisoners are based on fact. But then all the strands get brought together in a fictional denouement which ties up all loose ends in a manner which may have seemed satisfying to the producers, but came over to me as infantile and embarrassing. Apparently there has already been a documentary made based on this story, and that would seem to be the appropriate way to bring this story to the screen and not this hotch-potch.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Theatre Review : Mother Courage and her Children by Bertold Brecht - Olivier (dir Deborah Warner 30/11/09)

Glasgow in the 1980’s was known as the Brecht Capital of Europe. At any time, odds were there would be at least one Brecht play in production. Leading the way was the Citizens Theatre under the directorship of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald. A Brecht play was guaranteed most seasons, and that is where I first saw Mother Courage and her Children. Sadly, the sands of time have erased my recollection of that production, and Brecht seemed to fall from fashion as Thatcherism made his questioning of power and economic relationships seem old-fashioned.

But in recent years he has come back with a bang in a series of productions (Life of Galileo at the National, Good Woman of Szechuan at the Young Vic) which have revealed not only his intellectual power, but also his humour and daring as a dramatist. Now Mother Courage has dragged her cart across the Olivier Stage in yet another revelatory production.

The Olivier is denuded, all scenery removed, stage hands visible where the wings should be. Gore Vidal intones Brecht’s stage directions, setting the scene amongst the bored troops of Sweden during the Thirty Years War. To a crescendo of music Mother Courage enters on the cart drawn by her sons. Fiona Shaw as Courage takes up a microphone and starts singing, looking for the world like Edward Tudor-Pole on Top of the Pops. Shaw may not be the world’s best singer or dancer, but she radiates charisma and hers is an upbeat indomitable Courage.

This is a long piece, structured around 12 scenes from each of a 12 year period in the midst of the 30 Years War, during which Courage and her family follow first one army then another making a living from trading the contents of their wagon. The futility of war is revealed in the banality of the economic relations which prevail. A deal with a recruiting officer takes her son Eiliff (Clifford Samuel) into the army. Her other son Swiss Cheese (Harry Melling) becomes army paymaster, but is captured. Courage bargains too hard for his life and he is killed. Mute daughter Kattrin (the excellent Sophie Stone) is disfigured in an attack by a soldier, and thus loses her value as a potential wife. The Cook (Martin Marquez) wants Courage to escape with him to an Inn in Utrecht that he has inherited, but refuses to take Kattrin with him as well as she will frighten the customers. Courage decides to stay. Kattrin is finally killed alerting a town to the advancing troops, in the single act of altruism that we see. Mother Courage is left to drag her wagon by herself.

This is a play that was born in a time of war, and there are more parallels with recent events, but there is never the sense that these are being forced on the audience. One is left to make the connection with profiteers such Krupp, IG Farben and Haliburton oneself. Ideologies are cheap - a change of shirt, and the pastor becomes a priest - and life becomes devoid of value. It is a short step to the Blasted of Sarah Kane.

But this is not a bleak play. Brecht is always an amusing writer, and Fiona Shaw extracts every ounce of humour in a sparkling performance, ably supported by all around her. The music, by Irish rocker Duke Special, didn’t always work, but to my surprise I found myself humming the main theme on the way home. The sparse staging with projected directions and Gore Vidal’s intonations not only remained true to Brecht’s Verfremsdungeffekt, but gave a potentially baggy piece a great sense of unity.

This was an adventurous, clever production of one of the great plays of the 20th Century.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Art Review : Turner and the Masters - Tate Britain (September 2009 - January 2010)

JMW Turner was a combative character, who frequently set himself up in comparison to both contemporary artists and established Great Masters. He famously demanded in his will that two of his best works were to be given to the new National Gallery, on the proviso that they were permanently hung between two paintings by his great predecessor as an interpreter of landscapes, the Frenchman Claude Lorraine. This splendidly instructive exhibition looks at how Turner learnt from, and attempted to supersede, his illustrious forebears.

The comparisons with Claude are direct, and brilliantly illustrated in the exhibition. Turner knew Claude’s “Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters” from the collection of his patron, the Earl of Egremont. In protest at the conservative policies of the British Institution who encouraged artists to model themselves directly on the painters of the past, Turner submitted “Appulia in Search of Appulus Learns from the Swain the Cause of his Metamorphosis”, which copied the Claude almost exactly except for the central characters, who point to a shepherd who was turned into a tree for copying the dancing of the nymphs of Pan. Untalented mimicry has its pitfalls.

Turner saw “Seaport at Sunset” (left) by Claude in the Louvre in 1821. In 1828 in Rome, he fashioned his response, “Regulus” (right), which stuck closely to the mirror image of Claude’s composition but which transformed the central narrative. Regulus was a captured Roman General who had his eyelids removed and then pointed at the sun. Turner replaces Claude’s warm glow of sunset with a blaze of brilliant yellow light which dazzles all who gaze at it. The genteel seaport has been transformed into a place of searing drama.

Likewise, Turner engaged directly with Dutch masters of the seascape such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van de Velde. In another brilliant pendant, Turner transforms Van de Velde’s “A Rising Gale”, a clear and precise depiction of a storm-tossed boat, into “Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board”. The composition is similar, but Turner’s looser brushwork and delicate highlights of the breaking waves give the painting a much greater sense of movement.

However, it is equally illuminating to look at examples where Turner tried and failed to emulate his great predecessors. Titian may be considered a natural point of departure, as his use of colour and his late brushwork have many similarities with Turner. Yet when one looks at Venus and Adonis, whose head is turned away from the viewer and whose shoulder is obscuring the face of Venus, one can only wonder if there is a more poorly composed painting in the canon. Similarly, an attempt to paint the Holy Family offers a vision of an oversized baby somehow suspended in mid-air. In fact, one has to conclude that Turner is a poor figurative painter. For me, his one such success is Jessica, peering out of her Venetian window – a painting which was pilloried for its overuse of yellow when it was first produced.

Turner’s relationship with his contemporary David Wilkie is illustrative. Wilkie’s painting “Village Politicians” had been the success of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1806. This piece was a directly based on genre pieces by Dutch artists of the late 17th Century such as David Teniers the Younger. Turner’s immediate instinct was to try to do better, and in 1807 he presented “A Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for shoeing his Poney” at the Summer Exhibition. Yet despite its fine execution, the painting is a failure. The charm of Wilkie - and of Teniers - is in the detail, in the personalities represented and in the incidental vignettes scattered throughout their pieces. Turner’s blacksmith needs the overlong title to explain the topic under discussion, and none of the people are recognisable as characters. Wilkie exhibited “The Blind Fiddler” the same year, where every character from the dull-eyed nursing mother to the expansive man clicking his fingers to amuse the child has a reality to them which Turner lacked. Wilkie won this contest hands down.

This fine exhibition brings its paintings together with intelligence and clarity, setting out a compelling story of how Turner defined himself in relation to others; yet ultimately Turner’s distinct vision is very much his own. By examining the similarities between Turner and other artists, the ultimate revelation is the extent to which Turner’s later vision of light and haze and water was actually a transformation from inside out of the gentle landscapes of Claude. It is to him that he constantly returns, to his classical forms and elegant compositions, even if they are but shadows in a miasma of blinding light. His final exhibited works in 1850 once again echo, however indistinctly, the format of Claude’s seaport works.

Turner wasn’t being arrogant when he wrote his will, he was acknowledging a debt.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Theatre Review : Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner - Cottesloe (dir Katie Mitchell 23/11/09)

Desiree loves Marie, who used to love Petrell, who now loves Irene but is trying to seduce Lucy the maid. Meanwhile, the malevolent Freder, sometime lover of Desiree, is also trying to corrupt Lucy whilst persuading Marie to marry him. Or something like that, as to be honest the love lives of this group of angst-ridden medical students in 1923 Vienna became somewhat bewildering after a while.

Desiree (Lydia Wilson) is impulsive, a slave to her passions, wanting it all – to sleep with Marie, or to try being a prostitute like Lucy, or to indulge herself in the ultimate act of will. Meanwhile Freder (Geoffrey Streatfield) is persuading Lucy first to steal, and ultimately to go on the game, simply because he can. There is no motive, other than to control. “Bourgoise existence or suicide – there is no other choice” intones Alt (Jonah Russell), the intellectual.

Katie Mitchell directs, overlaying the action with menace-laden electronic sounds and flashy scene-changes. But she never manages to fully engage with the nihilism at heart of the play. The characters are not so empty that they become pure ciphers, but neither do they engage so that you care about their fate. Freder is disturbing, but he is not Aaron the Moor or Barabbas, an embodiment of pure evil. Desiree becomes tiresome. Lucy the maid-ingenué is a cliché long predating Moll Hackabout.

Ferdinand Bruckner’s play is an attack on the spiritual vacuum of a generation who have ill-absorbed the intellectual currents of the early 20th Century. Sexuality has been liberated by Freud. Twelve-tone music plays on the gramophone. Freder is a partially-developed Dostoevskian existentialist-nihilist. But this production didn’t leave you feeling sick and empty, or angry, or provoked. It was all too slick and efficient, just too much like a comfortable bourgeois night out with some ideas thrown in, and I really can’t think of anything further from what Bruckner must have intended.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Theatre Review : Roman Tragedies by William Shakespeare - Toneelgroep Amsterdam - Barbican (dir Ivo van Hove 22/11/09)

To be perfectly honest, Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies are my least favourite part of his canon. I find Coriolanus's shifts in loyalty difficult to come to terms with and the politics of Julius Caesar leaves me cold. Antony and Cleopatra has some magnificent set pieces, but large parts - unless well-directed - can be quite static. So signing up for 6 hours of Roman Tragedies, in Dutch with no interval, was an explicit act of faith in the Barbican BITE's production team's continuing ability to bring the absolute best in international theatre to London.

My faith was fully justified - this was superb.

In the programme, Ivo van Hove talks about how he wants to focus on the politics and relationships. He cuts the crowd scenes and replaces the battles with tremendous explosions of percussion, composed by Eric Sleichim. The cast wear modern suits, except when in the more intimate surrounds of Cleopatra's court. The set is an expansive arrangement of angular settees, like a conference centre or airport lounge, surmounted by a screen on which real-time video of the actors is projected Katie Mitchell-style (see along with the surtitles.

I have written elsewhere how performing Shakespeare in a foreign language gives the director a freedom with the text that is usually missing when it is performed in English. To judge by the surtitles, significant liberties had been taken with the text whilst keynote speeches remained unchanged. By necessity, one loses the poetry of Shakespeare's language when performing in translation, but in this case the poetry was replaced by a drive and immediacy appropriate to the modern setting.

Coriolanus was the weakest part of the trilogy, and could have been cut completely and not impacted the whole. There is a major historical discontinuity between this play and Julius Caesar and, whilst interesting in paring down some of the baggage of this messy play, it never scaled the heights emotionally or politically.

Julius Caesar, however, was a different matter. Cutting the crowd scenes gave the political machinations a clarity and immediacy which brought the play to life. Hans Kesting played Marc Antony from a wheelchair, having injured his foot the week before. When asked to reply to Brutus' funeral oration, he wheels himself to the lectern. The camera, shows only the top of his head, making him look faintly ridiculous. He hauls himself to his feet, staring at the audience in a silence which seemed to last for ever. Then he thows his text to the floor, grabs a microphone and wheels to the front of the stage, where a handheld camera zooms in as he splutters "Friends... Romans... countrymen...". Electrifying.

In Antony and Cleopatra, suits are swapped for joggers and pyjamas at Cleopatra's sexually smouldering court. Chris Nietvelt plays Cleopatra as willful and passionate but lacking proper emotional intelligence, screaming when she doesn't get her way. With Marieke Heebink as Charmian barely able to keep her hands off Cleopatra herself, the court is a pressure-cooker of the passions which stifles as the battles plans of Antony and Cleopatra go awry. The long final scene became almost unwatchable as the intensity mounted.

Whilst all this was happening, the audience were invited to mingle with the actors on the settees on the stage. At the side of the stage, in keeping with the conference centre theme, was a bar and food stalls, and a computer where you could type comments which were displayed on the rolling infobar along with news updates, footballs scores and updates on the historical background under the main screen. This sounds gimmicky, and was to a certain extent - but it fitted well with the modern setting of the production.

This was adventurous theatre which took apart Shakespeare and put him together anew for the 21st century, making him modern, accessible and very much relevant. It was quite simply the most eye-opening reimagining of his work that I have seen - fresh, clear, lucid and exciting.

This production ran for only three days at the Barbican, barely time to make the reviews before it finished. Once the word is out, it must return...

Art Review : Turner and Venice - Tate Britain (October 2003 - January 2004)

Curators must normally face a difficult task in balancing how they choose to develop the main intellectual themes of an exhibition with the cost and availability of the artefacts that they wish to bring together. However, such is the scale of the Turner bequest, the problem that Ian Warrell faced when setting up the Turner and Venice exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2003 must have been to decide what to omit.

A visit to the recent Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain (see ) has sent me back to the Catalogue of Turner and Venice, which had lain unopened on my bookshelves for the past six years. I remember my impressions at the time: a compendious overview of the sketches, watercolours and exhibited works which arose as a result of Turner’s three short visits to Venice. The sketches were of marginal interest, the oil paintings were, of course, superb, but the highlight for me was the revelatory display of exquisite watercolours.

The problem at the gallery though was one of scale. 185 exhibits can challenge the stamina of the most dedicated aficionado, and I do remember flagging towards the end as I fought through the crowds.

No such problem with the catalogue, which examines Turner’s response to Venice in even greater detail – one has the time and space to peruse it at leisure, and it is well worthy of detailed examination. Turner, who lived his life by the Thames, was always drawn to water, so it is natural that Venice was included in his first major tour of Italy in 1819 (he had briefly crossed the Alps in 1802), although he only spent five days in Venice out of a six month trip. The impact was not immediate, as it was not until 1833 that he spent a week there and thereafter until 1846 he sent at least one view of Venice in all but two years to the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. His third and final visit was in 1840 when he stayed from the 20th August to the 3rd September.

The catalogue is comprehensive. It sets out the historical context – Venice, after years of decline was broken by Napoleon and has now become a client of Austria, the wealth from trade long-since dissipated, and with it the glories of Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini. Canaletto and his followers had painted both Venice and London in precise detail and, by the 1820’s, with Byron’s romanticised vision of the decayed glories of Venice in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage riding high in the public consciousness, British artist such as Clarkson Stanfield, William Etty and Richard Parkes Bonington had started to respond in turn. By 1837, Thackery was able to complain that he was “weary of gondolas, striped shirts…and too many white palaces standing before dark purple skies”. Turner employed a similar viewpoint to that of Stansfield for their respective paintings of the Doge’s Palace both exhibited in 1833. But whereas Stansfield architectural lines echo the precise draughtsmanship of Canaletto, Turner’s smaller painting is focussed on the loose jumble of boats and the hazed reflections of buildings on the water.

However, the main body of the Exhibition focuses on the sketches and watercolours produced during Turner’s visits, and how some of these scenes were turned into full oil-paintings for exhibition. In the case of Turner’s 1840 visit, we are taken down the Grand Canal and across the Giudeca, stopping to look at how Turner responded to each scene in turn. The watercolours are superb, the watery light being subtly conveyed by delicate washes and a few deft flicks of the brush, many having the detail added in pencil or in pen dipped in watercolour.

It gives an insight into Turner’s creative process, obsessively sketching detail and capturing the effects of light in the watercolours for later reworking in oils in the Studio. For example, an 1833 pencil sketch of the Bacino with some hasty blue, brown and white highlights added, is believed to have become “Venice from the Canale della Giudeca, Chiesa di S. Maria della Salute etc”, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840. Even the great later works where the buildings of Venice barely emerge from a haze of mist and light are firmly rooted in Turner’s sketches and watercolours, and these connections are clearly set out in this illuminating exhibition and its exceptional catalogue.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Theatre Review : Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca - Donmer Warehouse (dir Jonathan Munby 9/11/09)

It has been prophesised to Basilio, King of Poland (Malcolm Storry) that his son Segismundo (Dominic West) will be an evil and capricious monarch - as a result, the King imprisons his son and tells his subjects that he has died. However, as the King ages and worries about his succession, he decides to test his son to see his suitability for the crown. So he drugs him and when he comes round he is in his rightful place as the Crown Prince. However, it is not long before the prophesy appears to be correct as Segismundo defenestrates a recalcitrant courtier and forces himself on a lady of the court. Basilio realises he has made an error, drugs Segismundo once again and returns him to his prison, where he is left to reflect if what he had experienced was reality or a dream. But then rebels once again free him from prison -will he have learnt from his experience, or will the prophesy prove to be true once again?

Pedro Calderon de la Barca was one of the great playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age, and this is generally accounted one of his finest works. Its exploration of the nature of dreams and reality is very much attuned to modern sensibility, although Basilio's attempt to thwart fate echos that of Laius, father of Oedipus. However, it is an uneven piece of work. The subplot, where the wronged Rosaura (Kate Fleetwood) dons breeches in order to infiltrate the court and confront Astolfo (Rupert Evans) who has failed to honour his obligations to her, fails to engage at the same level.

Dominic West is magnetic, capturing the despair and elation of Segismundo as his is imprisoned and then freed, and then explores the limits of the power that he wields. As he wakes once again in prison, and tries to understand if he had lived or dreamed his moment of freedom, is the one moment where the play attain a truly Shakespearean level of self-reflectiveness. All other cast members impress, especially Kate Fleetwood as a believably muscular yet vulnerable Rosario.

Yet despite all these positives, and a dark and atmospheric design, somehow, for me, the play never completely came to life. Maybe it was because of too much tedious exposition of the back-story and the weakness of the sub-plot, or maybe a certain amount of intellectual disengagedness which divorced the ideas from the narrative drive and which not even Dominic West could overcome.

Or maybe it was simply that I had an appallingly uncomfortable seat at the end of the back row at the side of the circle, which does divorce one from the action somewhat. The Donmar's great virtue is top quality, challenging productions at affordable prices in a wonderfully intimate theatre. The drawback is that - consequently - tickets are like gold dust and sometimes one has to go with whatever ticket one can get, so perhaps that is why I was never truly able to immerse myself into the drama.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review : The Golden Bough - A study of Magic and Religion by Sir James Frazer (Wordsworth 1993, first published in this edition 1922)

In classical times the priest of Diana Nemorensis at Aricia did not enjoy a comfortable tenure. Any challenger who broke a bough from the trees in his grove could challenge the priest in mortal combat, and if the challenger won, he would become the next priest. In “The Golden Bough”, Sir James Frazer studies the origins of this custom. The study runs to ten volumes, and virtually invents the science of comparative anthropology in doing so.

Frazer’s thesis is that this ancient Roman custom displays traits inherent within the beliefs of indigenous communities throughout the world, and that by studying these customs, one can start to explain – despite the lack of written evidence – how such a tradition came into being.

The argument is complex. Essentially, Frazer believed that the custom has arisen from ancient ceremonies of agricultural fertility. Primitive tribes believed in magic which would assist their crops to flourish and their hunting to be successful. As society developed, magical customs became institutionalised as religious ceremony. The priest / king as guarantor of the wellbeing of the tribe was particularly subject to custom, and in some cases answerable with his life for the success of the crops and the wellbeing of his people. However, powerful kings tried to offset this responsibility onto family members, sacrificial substitutes and ultimately to proxy deities. The cycle of death and rebirth was incarnate within the ancient deities such as Attis, Adonis and Dionysus. Within Greek religion, the cycle became refined as the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the mother / daughter relationship reflecting the old woman / maiden of agricultural fertility ceremonies throughout Europe.

There is a radical subtext. Frazer was convinced that the fundamentals of Christian religion were themselves an extension of ceremony and custom to be found in tribes around the Middle East in ancient times. One can see parallels between the death and rebirth of Attis , Adonis or Isis, for example, and the resurrection. Christmas was timed to coincide with ceremonies to celebrate the renewal of the Sun after the Winter Solstice, whilst Easter coincides with spring fertility festivals of death and rebirth.

For each stage in his argument, Frazer brings to bear an astonishing number of examples, ranging from primitive South Sea headhunters to the agricultural traditions of his native Scotland. To take one example, human sacrifices to ensure the success of crops are referenced by the Indians of Guayaquil in Ecuador, Incas, Aztecs, Pawnees, West Africans at Lagos and Benin, the Bagaboos of Mindanau, the Lhota Naga of the valleys of the Brahmapootra, and the Gonds and Khonds of India. And similar examples are given for the killing of the king if the crops fail, or if he shows weakness, or if the term of his office expires and so on.

The scope of the study is awesome, and the breadth of erudition on display is truly breathtaking. One needs a reference source at hand to be able to pinpoint the islands of the Moluccas, the Native Americans of British Columbia, the African tribes or the Carpathian villagers which are constantly referred to in passing, the reader assumed to be familiar with Thompson Indians or Nuba tribesmen. Yet apparently, Frazer travelled little in remote parts. His encyclopaedic knowledge of tribal customs was based on extensive reading and correspondence.

In fact, the detail is exhausting. One could develop the argument more succinctly with reference to fewer examples. It becomes impossible to absorb paragraph upon paragraph of similar customs from around the world (and I have only read the single volume summary at a mere 700 pages of close type), and it is undeniably depressing to witness the universal scope of human barbarity in propitiation of all forms of deities. But this is Frazer’s genius – by universalising the particular, his investigation into the origins of an arcane Roman custom transformed the way we understand human belief systems and how mankind in every obscure part of the Earth has created its gods in its own barbarous image.

Theatre Review : Architecting by The TEAM and National Theatre of Scotland - Barbican Pit (dir Rachel Chakvin 12/11/09)

Yankee property developer Carrie Campbell (Libby King) seeks shelter in a run-down bar in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Inside, with bar-owner Oasis Melly (Jill Frutkin) is the historian Henry Adams (Jake Margolin) playing with a paper model of Chartres Cathedral, and Margaret Mitchell (Lana Lesley), who is being sought by TV executives wanting to make a politically-correct TV remake of Gone With the Wind.

Carrie Campbell wants to put in place her father's vision of a vast gated development in this neglected traditional neighbourhood. However, this is her first time south of the Mason-Dixon line and she is out of her cultural mileiu. Meanwhile, Margaret Mitchell is trying to preserve the soul of the South as represented in her novel from the odious producer (Frank Boyd) and his black director who has his own vision of the South, which is skillfully intercut with the primary narrative.

The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) are a New York-based company "dedicated to dissecting and celebrating the experience of living in America today." This they certainly do, as this is thought-provoking, visually arresting theatre, strewn with ideas. The reconstruction of New Orleans is paralleled with that of Mitchell's Atlanta; once again Northerners fail to understand the South. The depiction of black characters in Gone with the Wind is challenged strongly, yet Mammy is played by a white man in a giant black bra. Adams' vision of historical entropy stands bleakly over all.

All this is played with vigour by the admirable company, swapping roles with a speed that is occassionally bewildering, as the Oasis bar becomes the set of the remake of Gone with the Wind or a 24 hour petrol station as themes evolve and merge into one another.

However, it is inevitable that with so much in this heady mix, some ideas work better than others. The story of two unlikely lovers on their way to an audition for the role of Scarlett O'Hara has a charm of its own, but doesn't integrate well into the rest of the play - a more brutal director might have wielded the knife to make a sharper whole. The second half didn't live up to the promise of the first, and ran out of steam in the end. But that does not alter the fact that the TEAM have shown that difficult ideas-based experimental theatre can also be fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Film Review : Katalin Varga (dir Peter Strickland)

This is a beautiful, shocking film which will haunt you long after leaving the cinema, for many reasons.

The plot is straightforward, but is revealed slowly: Katalin Varga's husband has discovered that his wife's son was not fathered by him, and he turns her out of their house in rural Rumania. Katalin takes her son and embarks on a journey across the remote Translylvanian countryside, but she isn't intent on visiting her sick mother, as she tells her son, but trying instead to rectify the wrong done to her which has resulted in her life being turned upside down.

The film moves forward slowly through stunningly beautiful but wild and remote countryside, the sense of menace heighened by a hallucinatory electric drone in the background. When she reaches her first destination the film cuts to gypsy violins and wild dancing, it is not clear if we are in real time or flashback - the image becomes grainier, and Katalin has lost her distinctive headscarf. But soon the reasons become more clear.

Hilda Peter as Katalin is extraordinary, her finely wrought face switching easily from concern for her son, to apparent lust, to grim determination. Towards the end of the film, she reveals her story to Antal (Tibor Palffy), one of the men she has been searching for, and his doting wife. She tells her horrific story in a state approaching ecstacy, knowing that the revenge she is extracting is much more subtle than what had been brutally meted out to Antal's colleague.

And yet, Antal is reaching out for redemption himself through the son that is all that is missing in his own marriage, and through his gradual understanding of the past. Is forgiveness possible?
This is subtle, complex film-making, the story being told in a flash of the eyes, a shadow on the wall, yet a storyline that is remorseless in its determinism.

Peter Strickland produced, directed and wrote the screenplay, his first film. Remember the name....

Film Review : Thirst (Bakjwi) (dir Chan-wook Park)

- "So here's the deal, it's a remake of Zola's Therese Raquin, wait for it...-it's remade as a modern Korean vampire movie"
- "Nice one, Park" you can see Steve Carroll saying as he raises his eyes to his sidekick, "Look, don't call us on your Orange mobile phone...".

But amazingly, it works. Chan-wook Park's take on vampirism eschews most of the traditional baggage of the genre, adds a moral twist and some very funny bits, but somehow manages to keep the barrage of ideas under control for long enough to fashion a taught, exciting and enjoyable film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Kang-ho Song is Sang-hyeon, a priest racked with self-doubt who volunteers to test a vaccine for the Emmanuel Virus, a deeply unpleasant Ebola-like haemorragic virus. The vaccine fails, but he discovers that human blood keeps the symptoms at bay. With his recovery, he is ascribed miraculous powers by followers. At this point Zola cuts in. He is asked to cure his sickly friend Kang-woo and proceeds to join his appalling mother and beautiful wife Tae-joo for games of Mah-Jong. Needless to say, Tae-joo is not satisfied by Kang-woo's affactions and soon Sang-hyeon's priestly vows are in jeopardy (although he is unconcerned by syphoning off the blood from hospital patients in comas in order to get his regular fix).

Those familiar with Therese Raquin can see where the plot goes from here, although in Therese Raquin the protagonists don't have superhuman powers, which is just as well for their domino-playing friends. They also don't have the problems of daylight and the need for regular fixes of blood to deal with, which is where the ethical issues of how exactly one sources one's fresh human blood cut in.

Everyone is talking vampires this year. They even did a piece on the genre on Newsnight Review for goodness sake. I don't know if this is some subconscious response to the emasculation of bloodsucking capitalism over the past two years, or just the way these fashions go. From Buffy to Twilight our screens are full of blood-soaked revisionist horrors, turning their backs on Dr Van Helsing and the Hammer films of the past. This doesn't subvert the vampire genre as thoroughly as the magnificent "Let the Right One In" did earlier this year, and as a film it doesn't retain a consistent unity of tone, but it is a very enjoyable, thought-provoking if occasionally bonkers piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film Review : The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (dir Terry Gilliam)

There is no denying Terry Gilliam's visual brilliance - in all of his films created remarkable images which stay with you long after the film - and this is certainly no exception. From the beatifully realised wagon of Doctor Parnassus, which transforms at the tug of a rope into a fully-functioning stage, to the remarkable pastel dreamscapes of the Doctor's imagination which characters can enter through a mirror on the stage.

But a film needs more than just an ability to look good - a bit of plot, some tension and maybe a couple of ideas wouldn't go amiss. And this is where this film goes sadly wrong. The premise - that characters can enter into the imagination of the immortal doctor and realise their desires - is good, and everyone from Midas onwards knows that one should be careful about what you wish for. But Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has, for reasons I didn't really follow, made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits playing Tom Waits) and this is generally not a good thing to do. So innocent souls must be attracted through the mirror, and some seem to succumb within Doctor Parnassus' imagination but others don't. It's all rather confusing.

Now, those of you who have seen some movies in the past may have seen the following plot devices
1. The girl with a choice between the guy who always really loved her and the flashy newcomer
2. A deadline, and a ticking clock
3. A chase (But this time on imaginary stilts!)

By the time all these have been telegraphed your cliche detectors would be on full beam if you weren't trying to wrestle with the detail of the plot, so eventually you give up and let all the beautiful cinematography wash over you. And rightly so, because it all ends exactly as you expected, but since you didn't really care that much for any of the characters in the first place you're not really bothered. You have been entertained for a couple of hours, and you leave the cinema feeling that you have eaten a meringue - it was good whilst it lasted, but hardly satisfying.

Personal View : Nick Griffin on Question Time

Voltaire did not in fact say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”: it was instead attributed to him by S.G. Tallentyre on the basis that, if he didn’t actually say it, he ought to have done. Whether he said it or thought it or not is immaterial – the sentiment encapsulates the spirit of freedom of speech in a liberal democracy. It makes explicit the fact that we are sufficiently confident in our institutions to allow any sentiment to be expressed, even those invidious to liberal-minded democrats, as in an environment of rational tolerance the better argument must prevail. The only exception, prima facie, must be the preaching of violence or hatred against individuals or groups.

The prospect of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, appearing on Question Time on BBC1, has outraged many who find the views of him and his party abhorrent. Peter Hain, that great fighter against racism in all its forms, has passionately set out his belief that views such as those of Griffin should not be allowed a platform. He points to the ticking clock on the BNP website marking down the seconds till the start of the program, and argues that the publicity and legitimacy that Griffin’s appearance will accord will counter the great steps made in the past 40 years against racism in the UK.

However, I disagree. If Griffin’s views are abhorrent, then we must allow him the opportunity to state them so that they can be rebutted in free debate. If his views are genuinely unacceptable, then it is incumbent upon the other panellists to prove to the audience why this should be the case. If they cannot do that, then one must query if Griffin’s views are so extreme that they shouldn’t be aired. What we cannot do however, is allow ourselves to descend to the level of the bookburners, the totalitarian enemies of democracy whose legitimacy is so fragile that they cannot allow their opponents the freedom to state their case. In preventing Griffin from having the opportunity to state his case, we are, paradoxically, lowering ourselves to the level of Fascist enemies of free speech ourselves.

There are limits however. That freedom which we bestow does not extend so far that it encompasses incitement to hatred or violence against others, but where these boundaries lie is not clear-cut. Is speaking in favour of forced repatriation of non-“Europeans” an incitement to violence when the Government today forcibly repatriates failed asylum-seekers? Those who monitor the activities of the BNP would do well to ensure that these perimeters are clearly defined and maintained.

Does this extend, however, to statements of untruth – such as Holocaust denial? Ultimately, who can define what is true. A Tennessee Christian may believe in the truth of the Biblical creation story, Clarence Darrow may choose to differ. Truth in the eyes of scientists and the State will evolve through time – “E pur si muove”! Newton’s Laws of Motion were inviolable until Einstein proved otherwise. Freedom of thought and of speech ensured that Einstein expressed his heretical views with less comeback than Galileo. And yet, Holocaust denial is an opinion held by a tiny minority against overwhelming evidence, and the espousal of such a view is likely to cause deep offence to a many people. Should it be made illegal to support such an opinion, as in Germany or Austria? In my opinion, no. Once again, I believe that the errors of such a position must be demonstrated in open debate with reference to the copious evidence which survives.

In a free society, we must preserve everyone’s right to be wrong, to express opinions which are contrary to those of the majority, and to believe what almost everyone else believes to be incorrect. For it is only through healthy debate that we can revalidate what we stand for and believe in.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Personal View : City of London Sinfonia at the Wycombe Swan 18/10/09

High Wycombe’s name is not synonymous with a great musical tradition. Legend has it that the Rolling Stones (or was it The Who?) once played at one of its pubs, and eighties synth-legend Howard Jones hailed from these parts, but other than a desultory stream of tribute bands and superannuated rockers who should know better, the world of live popular music tends to pass it by.

It is better served by classical music, though, with numerous local festivals and a residency by the City of London Sinfonia at the Wycombe Swan which is now in its tenth year. The relationship with the CLS no doubt sprang at least in part from the fact that the CLS’ founder, the late Richard Hickox, was born and educated nearby. Hickox was one of the classical world’s great organisers, and tonight’s tribute concert was produced in conjunction with the Wooburn festival, which he also founded, and featured the London Symphony Chorus which he led from 1976-1991.

The concerts are always preceded by a pre-concert talk, which tonight featured guest conductor Andrew Litton. A New Yorker, Litton talked eloquently and engagingly on the pieces to be presented, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, Symphony No 5 “Reformation” by Mendelssohn and The Music-Makers by Elgar, and on how British music is appreciated abroad. For one whose knowledge of classical music is entirely superficial, these talks provide an intriguing insight into this arcane world – for example, the Music Makers, chosen as one of Richard Hickox’ favourite pieces, requires three trombones and a contra-bassoon, as does Mendelssohn’s 5th, hence them being programmed together in these straightened times.

One of the pleasures of having attended these concerts for ten years now is that one gets to recognise the characters within the orchestra. It has always been apparent that the main source of fun has emanated from the violas, whose lead Stephen Tees would glance mischievously towards the cellos whenever some faux pas noticeable only to the players was committed. This was his last concert for the orchestra at High Wycombe, and he will be missed.

For me, the concert is a tactile experience. I always sit in the front row – not the best place, I am informed, for an all-round sound, but where I can feel the vibrations of the double-bass, sense the wheezy suspiration of violin bows drawn slowly, hear the scuff of the conductor’s shoe (or, in the case of Andrew Litton, the thump as he landed following a mighty leap during the Mendelssohn).

The CLS as ever gave a rousing performance. I wasn’t familiar with either of the British pieces before listening to them prior to the concert. The Britten is saltily evocative, developing into a rousing crescendo as the storms envelop Peter Grimes. Both the Mendelssohn and the Elgar show that referentiality is not a purely post-modern phenomenon, as lines by Bach and Elgar’s Nimrod appear in quotations. The Reformation Symphony is, as always with Mendelssohn, chock-full of good tunes, whilst The Music-Makers, with its haunting choral backdrop, is certainly a piece I will look into further.

But one must worry for the future of classical music in Britain. The average age of the audience must have been well over 60, and the hall was probably only 75% full. This is not sustainable, but it’s difficult to see what can be done to reverse the trend. The CLS has already lost its Arts Council grant, and the number of concerts each year has reduced from four to three. Soon, such concerts will only be available in the big cities where they will be inaccessible to a large part of their remaining audience. And so, such music will become still more an elitist museum-piece. But where are the Mendelssohns of today who can write rousing classical music with accessible melodies?

Theatre Review : Cymbeline - Arts Theatre (dir Brendan O'Hea 19/10/09)

It is unfortunate that the phrase “National Youth Theatre” conjures visions of worthy earnestness – why else would this excellent production of a difficult play have to perform to half-empty houses at the Arts Theatre. If instead the title “Royal Shakespeare Company” had hung above the door, the house would be full and to be honest barring the absence of some star names none would be much the wiser.

Because this production is an example in clarity. Some judicious cuts have sharpened the focus, and why more companies don’t take a scalpel to the sacred text in order to resolve down to two hours traffic on the stage is beyond me. The stage is simple, shrouded in sheets, through which as the music begins you can make out the palimpsest of the performers. Switch scene to Rome, and its towers appear in silhouette. A grid of light provides a window, a tuck of cloth reveals a cave. A shadow trunk opens and Iachimo emerges through the hanging sheets to gaze on the sleeping Imogen. Uncluttered and effective, and one can see that Designer Sam Wyer had worked with silhouettes in the excellent “All’s Well that Ends Well” at the National earlier this year.

The cast was on the whole excellent, enunciating well-paced verse with clarity. Luke McEwan is a brow-beaten Cymbelene, the responsibilities of ruling weighing heavily upon him. Catriona Cahill in a dramatic costume makes an eye-catching queen, and Rosie Sansom plays an unconventional Imogen with clarity and precision. However, undoubted scene-stealer was Will Edelsten as Cloten. There was a noticeable frission in the audience whenever he came onto the stage simply due to his presence and comic timing in what is usually an unsympathetic role. I’ll be watching out as his career develops.

This play does have some silly bits, and even they – on the whole – were carried off well. Cloten’s decapitation didn’t provoke its usual mirth, and the whole gaol scene, Jupiter and all, was mercifully underplayed. Nothing can make Guiderius and Arviragus lusting after Imogen-as-Fidele anything other than ridiculous. No-one really cares about the Romans but they do provide an excuse for a dramatic fight, and the whole denouement is preposterous, but no more so than most of Shakespeare’s other conclusions. Most of these minefields were navigated with aplomb in this classy, satisfying production.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Return of Roderick Random

When I started writing this blog, I had visions of a community of likeminded individuals enjoying the cut-and-thrust of cultural debate on its pages, as some agreed and many disagreed with my musings. After a few months, I realised what an insignificant spec in cyberspace I was, and wherever the likeminded individuals were, they weren't queuing up to respond to my blog. And so I got a bit disillusioned, and work got busy, and I saw a couple of plays that I couldn't really be bothered to respond to, and read some books that did not excite the passions, and fell behind in my postings and soon it became like most of the other blogs in the multiverse, started in that first flush of enthusiasm, carefully nurtured for days or weeks or even months, but eventually cast adrift with the flotsam of cyberspace.

But one night, after a couple of months' abeyance, my mate Chris asked if I had stopped writing the blog which he used to read from time to time. And then I got a COMMENT. Yes, a real comment from SOMEONE I DIDN'T KNOW. And it was a nice comment. So thank you Ramona, your support was much appreciated. And I thought, there are some people reading this out there, must get it started again. But again the timing wasn't right, too many other things happening, and the Muse was hanging out and not returning calls.

But now...why now? Basically, because I realised it was time to reappraise the nature of my relationship as audience member with the play, or as reader with the book. Most audience members are passive consumers of the product placed in front of them, reducing their relationship with the work presented to them into an enjoyable experience, a pleasant night out, it made them think a bit, they liked the actor in such a part and the pretty girl and the music. And this is how I watch a play when I know I don't have to write about it. I may have some views on the staging or the lighting but they are hazy ideas, ill-developed pub talk. But when I know that I will have to write about something, the rules of engagement change. I need to be able to articulate the reasons why such a scene works or not. And that requires a much more active intellectual engagement with what is being presented to me. And that is what I was missing - I had become a passive consumer and I realised that my theatregoing and bookreading was becoming less fulfilling as a result.

So, welcome back Roderick Random. Critical faculties ready, spellchecker poised. Once more, stepping into the void. And this time, its personal...