Talking Movies

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

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James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

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October 22, 2015

Getting Back to Back to the Future

Watching the Back to the Future trilogy yesterday for ‘Back to the Future Day’ made me think again about the Films You’d Love Your Kids To See season in the Lighthouse cinema this past summer.

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Back to the Future of course featured in that season. Time travel has never, ever been as much fun as 1980s teenager Marty McFly’s jaunt back to 1950s Hill Valley where he must ensure his teenage parents meet and fall in love to ensure his own future existence. Watching all three films you realised anew what a great double-act Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were as Marty and Doc Brown, how stirring Alan Silvestri’s score was, the incredible 1980s-ness of everything, and just how sharp a script Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote. Watching the waves of nostalgia washing over ITV 2 yesterday you also wondered if the 1980s really was a golden age for kid’s films or if it’s just the generation that grew up with them wallowing in nostalgia for their own childhood rather than the films.

Back in the summer I wrote about the paradox of the Lighthouse encouraging adults to take their children to see films they had enjoyed as children. Your children cannot have the same childhood you had because films are part of a cultural matrix. You can’t separate them from the culture surrounding them. Observe Huey Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, Star Trek and Japanese corporations in the Back to the Future trilogy. These are films of the 1980s, with all that means for politics, music, fashion, television, and on and on and on… To remember originally experiencing Back to the Future involves comics and annuals that accompanied it, which tied it together with a whole complex of movies; Ghostbusters, Short Circuit, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Goonies, E.T., The Karate Kid, Roger Moore’s Bonds; and television; Doctor Who, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Transformers, Mask, ALF, Family Ties, MacGyver, The A-Team, Knightrider. That’s some fearsome nostalgia.

But in a smartphone age there is something retro not just about making children experience movies with hundreds of people who have all ditched their phones to unite as an audience and groan as one at Indy being served monkey brains but also in showing them movies shot in such an old-fashioned way as Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis recently said vis a vis The Walk that spectacle doesn’t just mean CGI. A close-up is cinematic spectacle, because close-ups don’t happen in reality. Look at all the moments in Back to the Future when Silvestri’s score tells you how to read a scene while Zemeckis moves the camera as outrageously as Hitchcock to draw your attention to something, convey importance, or just dazzle you. When Zemeckis unleashes the train pushing a DeLorean finale of Back to the Future: Part III it shames today’s blockbusters. This summer saw many action sequences that were neither choreographed nor legible, but simply CGI edited in a frenzy to create an impression of thrilling action. Zemeckis’ train finale by contrast, is so perfectly constructed, shot by shot, that a 1910s audience would comprehend it and thrill to it as Guido Silvestri hammered his piano.

Twitter went crazy because Back to the Future: Part II’s future day had arrived, but watching that 2015 sequence yesterday it was striking just how much of its vista of hoverboards and flying cars was realised practically. To say nothing of how the earliest cinema pioneers would have smiled approvingly at the lo-fi trick Zemeckis employed in the sequels to have multiple versions of Fox and Lloyd interacting with each other onscreen. And watching Zemeckis’ inspired writing partner Bob Gale effortlessly handle the parallel timelines chaos of Back to the Future: Part II’s time-travel antics you couldn’t help but sigh, remembering just how insultingly nonsensical Terminator: Genisys was. Zemeckis and Gale are no doubt appreciative of how beloved their work is, but Zemeckis probably wishes people would go see the movie he released last month instead of hyping one he made thirty years ago. Perhaps the takeaway from ‘Back to the Future Day’ is we get the movies we deserve.

Zemeckis & Gale had a horrible time getting their script greenlighted in the 1980s. But the idea that anybody would touch it with a bargepole now is fantasy. It’s not a sequel, it’s not based on a comic book, or a toy, or a TV show, or a YA novel, it is simply an original idea that happens to be cinematic lightning in a bottle. If we want films now that will be as beloved in 2045 as Back to the Future is now then we need to put our foot down: we want sharp scripts and properly choreographed action.

October 16, 2015

Simon Rich: Absurdist Conscience

Simon Rich’s work as a staff writer at Pixar finally saw the light of day with Inside Out, and with a second series of Man Seeking Woman coming soon to FXX, here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on how Rich has moved from pure absurdism to something more like a biting satirist.

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“‘Chess players are not naturally confrontational. But by the time I entered the number five spot, my opponents were growing bolder. ‘We know you’re cheating,’ they’d say. Or, ‘You’re obviously cheating.’ Or, ‘Please, Terry, why won’t you stop cheating?’” – Elliot Allagash

Rich’s first novel was published in 2010. A novel of scheming and anecdotage (and the anecdotes are mostly about scheming), its tale of a bored teenage billionaire upending his school’s social hierarchy was labelled a Pygmalion riff and optioned for cinema by writer/director Jason Reitman. Elliot and his raconteur father Terry have obvious predecessors in Percy and Braddock Washington in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, with the innocent John T Unger being reinvented as Rich’s narrator Seymour Herson. Seymour becomes president after Elliot destroys rivals with schemes that include diabolical exam cheating. But as Seymour edges closer to Harvard he reaches his limit with Elliot’s antics… To read Elliot Allagash is to want to tell people, verbatim, just how Terry became the Harvard chess champion without understanding chess, what the secret of ancestor Cornelius Allagash’s private club was, and how Elliot took revenge on the restaurant that refused him service. It’s that hysterically quotable.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org covering the evolution of Simon Rich’s prose comedy from Ant Farm to Spoiled Brats.

October 14, 2015

David Lean at the Lighthouse

As the last thoughts of an Indian summer disappear, the leaves fall everywhere, and scarves and hats are disinterred and pressed in to use, the Lighthouse announces a Lean season.

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Afternoons with David Lean will take place throughout November, with one of England’s finest film directors working on the largest cinematic canvasses imaginable. And Lean’s precision as a director and the scale of his work have no finer representation than the first film Lawrence of Arabia. Meanwhile the 50th anniversary of Lean’s Russian revolutionary romance Doctor Zhivago is marked at the end of the month with a newly restored re-release.

 

Lawrence of Arabia

1 & 4 Nov, 2pm

Lean may have clashed with cinematographer Freddie Young (“Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs” the older man barked at Lean), but their collaboration betrays no signs of that tension. Shimmering sands are scored by Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable theme, Omar Sharif’s arrival is legendarily menacing and mysterious, and Peter O’Toole makes an unforgettable leading man debut as TE Lawrence. Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn co-star as the Machiavellian players surrounding the enigmatic Lawrence’s attempts to inspire an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=330

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

8 & 11 November, 3pm

This World War II drama marked the beginning of Lean’s epic phase, with a tremendous use of a whistled ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’. POW British soldiers begin construction of a bridge under the leadership of Alec Guinness’ noble commanding officer. But James Donald’s Doctor soon realises that Colonel Nicholson has lost his grip. Jack Hawkins and William Holden are in the jungles on a mission to destroy the bridge. Little do they know that by its completion they might as well propose blowing up Colonel Nicholson…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=18344

 

Ryan’s Daughter

15 & 18 November, 2pm

Lean’s third successive collaboration with Freddie Young and screenwriter Robert Bolt proved the moment when the wheels fell off the wagon, leading to a 14 year cinematic silence from Lean. The heroine was played by Bolt’s wife Sarah Miles, a less than convincing young Irishwoman, and her affair with a British soldier was doomed by the casting of troubled Christopher Jones who didn’t act onscreen for thirty years after this outing. Trevor Howard, John Mills and Robert Mitchum all did their best, but a love story with unconvincing lovers…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=12884

 

Brief Encounter

22 & 25 November, 4pm

The sole entry in this season from the smaller-scale Lean is a love story scripted by another frequent collaborator Noel Coward from his own play. Housewife Celia Johnson is tempted to have an affair with a doctor she meets by chance at a train station, played by Trevor Howard. Brief Encounter’s use of Rachmaninov’s heart-rending 2nd Piano Concerto was extremely influential, and it remains a key influence on cinematic romance. Repressed, simmering passion of noble, thwarted lovers is quite similarly at play in Wong’s In the Mood for Love.

 

 Tickets available here:  http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=20967

 

Doctor Zhivago

From 27 November…

After the all-male heroics of Lawrence, Lean, Bolt, and Young reunited for a romance on a similar epic scale. Spanning decades of modern Russian history Boris Pasternak’s novel became a totemic cinematic love story, with Maurice Jarre’s balalaika-led ‘Lara’s Theme’ taking on a life of its own. Omar Sharif’s titular medic spends his life torn between two women, Geraldine Chaplin and Lara herself, Julie Christie. Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger and Ralph Richardson are memorable supporting players fleshing out the fall of Tsarist Russia and the madness of the Russian Civil War.

 

 Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=355

October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

October 10, 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival 25 years ago, but this anniversary production doubles as a posthumous tribute to its author Brian Friel.

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The adult Michael (Charlie Bonner) narrates the summer of 1936 when he was 7 years old. The illegitimate son of the youngest daughter Chrissie (Vanessa Emme), he was doted on by her four sisters: messer Maggie (Cara Kelly), simple Rose (Mary Murray), quiet Agnes (Catherine Cusack), and schoolteacher Kate (Catherine McCormack). But this golden summer is the beginning of the end for the Mundy sisters, even though the return of their beloved brother Jack (Declan Conlon) after 25 years in the Ugandan Missions seems an unlikely catalyst for catastrophe. While the visit of Michael’s ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry Evans (Matt Tait) seems pivotal to the emotional turmoil that besets the house, it almost takes a ha’penny place in hindsight to the arrival of malfunctioning wireless Marconi; the ambassador of the industrial revolution finally reaching Ballybeg that will sweep away all.

Director Annabelle Comyn strips away the misplaced nostalgia that has gathered around Friel’s Tony-winning script; there are no fields of wheat crying out for Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ to soundtrack memories of halcyon summer here. Instead Paul O’Mahony’s domestic table, chests and stove yield seamlessly to the outside of rocks, kites and leaves strewn on the ground while looming over all is a reflective triangle with a layer of gauzy fabric dulling its accuracy. Chahine Yavroyan’s lights frequently flash accompanied by a loud pop, as in her design for Comyn’s 2014 The Vortex, to jolt us back to fuller lighting after expressive dimming during monologues or sad moments. It also emphasises these are Michael’s memories, and he mayn’t be as scrupulously accurate as he believes. Indeed his penultimate narration of doom colours the final scenes as oblivious to coming tragedy.

As my academic cohort Graham Price noted this is not a production that masks the bleakness. The dance is not a joyous climax, a moment of healing. It is an abrupt explosion of energy, that can’t overwhelm the despair; even in their dancing the sisters are alone, their movements governed by the forces that entrap them. And no dance is as revealing as Kate’s energetic but strict Irish dance-steps. McCormack’s performance recalls Cathy Belton’s affecting Judith in Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey last year. Kate is intelligent, and loving towards Michael, but she is buckling under the strain of holding her family together by conforming to societal norms. And her priest sibling instead of a godsend proves an albatross, having gone wildly native. A stooped, bearded Conlon is magnificent. His English initially clipped, from long usage exclusively with British imperialists. His hair wet from malarial sweats, but then smarter as he regains his vocabulary. Jack’s enthusiasm for Riyangan rituals leaves you convinced he, not the fox, sacrificed Rose’s pet rooster.

It is odd that a production that began as a celebration of a living playwright become a eulogy, but a fitting one it is.

5/5

Dancing at Lughnasa continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until the 11th of October.

October 9, 2015

The Cherry Orchard

Belgian company tg STAN bring a revelatory, fourth-wall crumbling production of The Cherry Orchard to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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Widower Lyuba (Jolente De Keersmaeker) is returning home to her Russian estate after five years in Paris. She and daughter Anya (Evelien Bosmans) find that Lyuba’s brother Leonid (Robby Cleiren) and her adopted daughter Varya (Evgenia Brendes) have been unable to keep up interest payments on the estate’s mortgage. The spendthrift family is in danger of being evicted, despite the sensible, if heartless, advice offered by millionaire entrepreneur Lopakhin (Frank Vercruyssen) to cut down the trees and lease the land for summerhouses. But there is little hope of anything sensible being done in this house. If Leonid isn’t playing imaginary games of billiards or eulogising bookcases, then Lyuba is tearing up letters from her lover and, inspired by the return of Petya (Lukas De Wolf); her drowned son’s tutor; lamenting that it’s all a punishment from God for her misdeeds.

If you wish Chekhov to be presented in splendid costumes with elaborate sets and subtle naturalistic lighting, then this is not Chekhov. The ball in the background of the action in Act Three is a party scored by Belgian house music that frequently becomes a mesmerising foreground. The dawn breaking in Act One is achieved by Stijn Van Opstal removing filters from lights visible behind some moveable scenery, and informing the audience ‘It’s the sun rising’. Van Opstal also offers members of the front row a bottle of water at the start of Act Three as he puts out water for the house party in his capacity as aged servant Firs. He also plays Master Mishap, Semyon, a dual role he informs us of with ‘A change of shoes, a change of shirt, oh, and yes, a change of character’.

The Cherry Orchard as presented by tg STAN may be construed as Chekhov via Bertolt Brecht via Groucho Marx. The fourth wall is a moveable feast. Van Opstal literally winks at the audience. When one person laughed at a tender line between Petya and Lyuba both actors turned to look for that person in the audience to raise their eyebrows at them. This is tremendous fun, and a not unreasonable response to Chekhov’s anarchic script. It also makes supporting players like drunken neighbour Boris (Bert Haelvoet) and governess/magician Sharlotta (Minke Kruyver) incredibly memorable. Indeed it will be almost impossible not to hold Kruyver’s still, wry performance as the resigned, witty drifter dressed in New Romantic garb as the benchmark when next encountering the character. Emphasising the ensemble in this way also amplifies Chekhov’s pathos by highlighting the characters’ shared haplessness.

This stands beside 2009’s Three Sisters and 2012’s The Select: The Sun Also Rises as a production which will forever affect the way you think about a classic work.

5/5

The Cherry Orchard continues its run at Belvedere College until the 10th of October.

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

October 6, 2015

The Night Alive

Playwright/director Conor McPherson finally shepherds his award-winning play back to the city in which it is set, as a flagship of Dublin Theatre Festival 2015.

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The Night Alive opens with Tommy (Adrian Dunbar) being a good Samaritan, bringing Aimee (Kate Stanley Brennan) back to his flat after he sees her being assaulted. Well, flat… It’s the ground floor of a house, the upper floor being occupied by Tommy’s uncle Maurice (Frank Grimes). And the flat is in a shambolic state. When Aimee goes to the bathroom to wash the blood off her not-broken nose Tommy frantically tries to put manners on the place. So begins an interruption to his slovenly way of life, as Aimee stays on, causing Tommy to clash with Maurice as well as his literally slow-witted employee Doc (Laurence Kinlan); always 5 to 7 seconds behind everyone else on the uptake Tommy tells Aimee. But that’s as nothing to the hassle that Aimee’s boyfriend Kenneth (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) will cause for all concerned…

Alyson Cummins’ set is so festooned with layered rubbish that it’s as if Monty Python’s ‘Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things’ was charged by Tommy with the interior decoration. This is the state you get into when your wife throws you out, and it provides plenty of comedic material; “Which one’s the bin?” “Any of them”, “Come upstairs in ten minutes. I’ll boil you an egg that won’t give you botulism”, and Tommy offering Aimee a biscuit with her tea, which he happily tucks into, apparently oblivious to it being a dog biscuit. The pairing of Tommy and Doc are not unlike Martin McDonagh characters in their logical pursuit of utterly absurd questions, but there’s a serious vein too, as Tommy’s growing attachment to Aimee sees him attempt to renege on his responsibility for the unemployable Doc.

A live question because of some thoroughly nasty business with a hammer… There’s a sudden air of menace from the moment Ian-Lloyd Anderson appears in a spiffy cream suit. There’s a Pinter quality to his dialogue with Doc, but, as often with McPherson, also a whiff of sulphur; this inexplicable villain would give you an idle whack with a hammer, just to pass the time like. It’s almost as if he’s quite literally a necessary evil, to allow Tommy to be heroic in his own eyes – Finland! But true heroism, Aimee’s actions force him to realise, is accepting responsibility for your burdens; in his case Doc. But then McPherson inserts the idea that in heaven you don’t know you’ve died, it’s just like your life has finally clicked into its groove; which sounds regrettably like an ad for Molson Canadian.

The Night Alive recalls Our Few and Evil Days. A very funny play, with disturbing elements, that dazzles in performance; Kinlan is hilarious, and engaging in his vulnerability, Dunbar a tremendous well-meaning screw-up, Brennan nicely enigmatic, Grimes righteously cantankerous, and Anderson terrifying. It’s afterwards you feel there was something underdeveloped dramatically about it all.

4/5

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

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