Talking Movies

May 3, 2016

Northern Star

Director Lynne Parker revisits her late uncle Stewart Parker’s 1984 script again, with a Brechtian touch, and the result is a theatrical tour de force.

CglTW9uWsAEVlBf

Henry Joy McCracken (Paul Mallon) is on the run. The 1798 Rebellion has failed miserably in Antrim as he has found himself leading literally dozens of men, to exaggerate slightly. And exaggerating slightly is something McCracken does a lot during a purgatorial night in a ruined house with his Catholic lover Mary (Charlotte McCurry). As he attempts to construct some sort of decent speech from the gallows for the citizens of Belfast he trawls through his memories of the 1790s, remembered in flashbacks that approximate to Shakespeare’s 7 Ages of Man and to the style of 7 different Irish playwrights. There is the ribald shenanigans of Sheridan in rooting out informers, the melodramatic balderdash of Boucicault in uniting Defenders and Orangemen, and the witty quips of Wilde in McCracken’s dealing with Wolfe Tone and Edward Bunting. But there’s also darkness…

Lynne Parker has spoken of adopting a Brechtian approach by having McCracken identified by his jacket, so Mallon can hand it over to other actors and sit back and observe himself in his own flashbacks; played by Ali White with gusto in the Boucicault flashback and with comic disbelief in the O’Casey flashback. This combined with Zia Holly’s design, confronting the audience with the wings of a theatre as the playing space, amps up the theatricality of Stewart Parker’s script, which was already reminiscent of Stoppard’s Travesties in its dialogue with and pitch-perfect parodies of older works. Rory Nolan is hilarious as a dodgy Defender played in the style of O’Casey’s Paycock, and as harp enthusiast Edward Bunting played as Algernon Moncrieff’s ancestor, in Stewart Parker’s two most acute ventriloquisms. But all these capers occur underneath an ever-present literal noose.

Mallon and McCurry scenes in McCracken’s long night of the soul are the emotional glue that binds together the fantastical flashbacks, and they are affecting as she tries to convince him that his sister’s plan to escape to America under false papers is a reprieve not banishment. The flashbacks become more contemplative after the interval with Darragh Kelly’s loyalist labourer challenging McCracken over his failure to rally Protestants to the United Irishmen’s standard, and a prison flashback revealing the desperation of McCracken’s situation. Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, and Robbie O’Connor complete the ensemble, deftly portraying a dizzying array of characters in McCracken’s remembrances. Mallon is wonderfully melancholic during Parker’s most overtly state of the nation moments, and remarkably, even with the Troubles’ paramilitary iconography at work, a 1984 play about 1798 sounds like it’s addressing 1916 at a theatrical remove.

Rough Magic’s 2012 Travesties occasionally lost the audience with its intellectual bravura, but Lynne Parker through theatrical panache has indeed ‘liberated’ this equally clever meditation on history and culture.

4/5

Northern Star continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 7th of May.

April 5, 2012

Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die

It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.

Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…

(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.

(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.

(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.

(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.

(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.

(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…

(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.

(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.

(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.

October 27, 2009

Interview with Kenneth Branagh

I traveled to Belfast in late 2007 to interview Kenneth Branagh for InDublin about his mainstream directorial comeback Sleuth which was about to hit cinemas. Here then is the full transcript of Kenneth Branagh on Sleuth, Pinter, Caine and more…

Is it fair to say that the words ‘Screenplay by Harold Pinter’ were the main attraction of Sleuth?
It is absolutely fair to say that. I mean, it really arrested me. The call came through and they said ‘a new version of’ which is a better way of saying ‘remake’ cos I thought ‘oh dear no’, I know that original film very well and I’d seen the play not long before but then they said ‘Jude Law is producing it, Michael Caine is in it but the screenplay is by Harold Pinter’ and I’d always, always wanted to work with him. I couldn’t believe really that I hadn’t been in a Pinter play. I did my audition speeches for drama schools, the modern ones anyway, from Pinter plays, and, I don’t know, I’ve seen so many of the plays that somehow I felt I ought to have been. And also you know he’s such a modern classic, done so regularly, and I having spent some you know a lot of time, ahem, working with dead authors, I was very excited about the idea perhaps as I’d been led to believe he would be involved, that he had been very heavily involved with the development process and worked with Jude Law as producer on a number of drafts of the screenplay, that he would be in the room; and I knew that he was a very good actor and a very good director himself, it just seemed – that’s how it was incredibly attractive.
Your shooting style on Sleuth seems different. Your films have been characterised by a very mobile camera, following the actors around, creating a lot of energy on screen, whereas this film has a lot of fixed camera set-ups. Was that a response to Pinter’s style? Creating an apparent surface calm to focus people on the subtext which crackles?
Yeah, it was trying to find the style. It was much influenced by films that I like a lot, French cinema actually, recently seen films that I’ve liked a lot like Cache (Hidden), Thirteen, Lemming, those kinds of movies where the camera doesn’t move much, where the action unfolds in long takes, where the frame is very carefully constructed, so one of the things that I enjoyed doing was, for instance, when the two men come into the house for the first time and in this sort of little dance of conversational niceties that precedes the sort of meat of it, you get 10 minutes of this sort of dance and then Michael Caine sits down into what is the first close-up to say ‘I understand you’re fucking my wife’. That in the second shot, where we bring them into the house, that we’re looking at the level of a drinks table, we’re looking thru two glasses –   one is already poured with a whiskey: Caine’s character hasn’t asked Jude whether he wants one yet, he hasn’t asked him what it is, and he hasn’t chosen, and yet the idea of providing the provocation with the way the frame is set, suggesting to the audience from very early on that everything could mean something; the colour of the whiskey, the placement of the glass, the fact that he’s walking towards us the glass of a green bottle, that we don’t see their heads then, that their body language might be just as key – the way they hold the glass, all of that. I enjoyed trying to find a spare, and yet loaded, style cos that’s what I felt about his dialogue.


I think, because they give the award so late in a career, that this is the first time a Nobel Laureate has worked on a film since Bernard Shaw’s screenplay for Pygmalion. Was he an intimidating presence? Did he stand behind your shoulder muttering ‘I wrote three dots, he’s only giving me two’?
No, he wasn’t. I mean there was a bit of kerfufflage before we started that, where – I think maybe it was to do with Harold’s 75  th birthday, maybe that was it, a number of extremely important celebrations of his work, one of which involved a documentary for Channel 4 in which I think he rather bridled against the kind of popular myth of the orchestration of the pauses in his work, his ultra-precision and deliberation and insistence upon absolute adherence to his pre-planned structure, but I found him to be a very JOLLY collaborator, I found him I found him to be somebody who as he said explicitly on our first meeting ‘I like being part of a team’ and that seemed to be a typical remark of a writer, but also in his case, a man of the theatre – someone who started out as an actor and also a very fine director. So he’s very much in tune with the creative process. He, and Michael Caine, their ages seemed to drop once in the rehearsal room. They had that enthusiasm, I’ve seen it in other people, Robert Altman’s another example of somebody who   –  I worked with him when he was in his late 70s, when I saw him by the camera he seemed to be – 25, and so it was with these two. So Harold did not carry the aura of his…beatification.

So he was happy to let you be the one in charge of interpreting his ambiguities?
He left a lot of space. We did ask questions and he was happy to answer them, where he felt it was pertinent to do so. Sometimes. But, to give you an example of where, as it were the Pinter question mark, that I think is a very positive part of this entertainment, was there. I remember in rehearsals saying to him, ‘So, uh, Harold can I ask, it may seem banal, when Maggie rings up at the end of the movie, [during the very intense scene between the two men], she calls twice, I mean what is she saying?’ and he said ‘Well, who says it’s Maggie?’ ‘What? But I mean he’s talking to her!’ ‘We hear him talking. He appears to be talking to someone. It may appear to be Maggie. But he could easily have contrived for the call to have occurred. There may be no-one there. I don’t know is the answer. There It Is…’ I understood actually that once he said that actually, once we worried less about offering Jude some literal off-screen responses or scripted piece for Maggie it began to be quite interesting – about the way, particularly about the way in which in that third act, we were unsure as to whether Michael’s character was providing a provocative but phony suggestion that he was gay and wished to share his life with Milo, and whether Milo was responding in kind, appearing to indulge it, be surprised by it, and then sort of meet it halfway but in fact was involved in an even more super-subtle attempt to humiliate the other so for me, when he did choose to speak to add further ambiguity it was always interesting.

Michael Caine has said that he played his character as suffering from morbid jealousy. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah. We had to have, what you might call a sort of playing centre, some basic position that on the surface of it might simply be a jealous or revengeful husband. But when I discovered this condition, and numerous and specific examples of what in this very grotesque, intensified version of jealously were clearly true, .i.e. the specific notion that this condition would encourage someone to pursue the ultimate revenge, of trying to have an affair with the lover of the adulterous partner, a tremendously sort of twisted and destructive act, and sort of very calculating and unbalanced and unsettling, at least sort of rather surprising and unusual. It seemed to release Michael, it seemed to just – there was plenty to read about, medical experts to support, ‘oh no, this is’ – if you want to put it crudely it’s jealousy really at the max. It seemed to allow all sorts of things to happen, .i.e. for him to be ABSOLUTELY cool, calm and collected – because its manifestations often involved the ability to wear masks, you know sort of social and public masks that were incredibly convincing. So it allowed him to be even more naturalistic, even more throwaway, even more kind and gentle where he was supposed to be, even funnier where he was supposed to be, knowing that he could reach with an intensity that he gives full value to at the end of that first act where he says ‘I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with a hairdresser. A hairdresser that’s fucking my wife. My wife is mine – She Belongs To Me’, and he seems to then reveal that morbidly jealous side which practically shows him as a kind of caveman, and so that, it seemed to open us access to both superficial ways of playing things and also a sort of central feeling of an atavistic rather primitive individual.

It also moves it away from Olivier’s dangerous eccentric, that this film is not a playful gun game of plot twists it’s a full on Comedy of Menace. I mean I almost cheered when you started with a Pinter pause at the start when they first meet, because it indicates this is the real deal, this is full on Pinter – two men battling for control.
I remember the first time we previewed it and we got a laugh on that first moment of just, and it was a nervous laugh, at the end of it – is there a mistake? Did something just happen? It almost felt live. ‘I’m Milo Tindle’ long pause ‘Oh yes’. But much longer than that.

Michael Caine is having something of a late career resurgence with Children of Men, The Prestige, Batman Begins and this. Is he enjoying acting more than ever now?
He talks about a period about 10 years ago where he really said he was going to give up. He was going to give up and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore, he didn’t feel the parts were interesting enough. He was at, as it were he didn’t get the girl anymore so that part of him that as the leading man movie-star hadn’t quite morphed into the really fascinating career parts quite yet. Even though to some extent he’s always had a character career as well as his unusual but brilliant leading man career. So, he said for about two to three years, as he puts it, he ‘fucked about in the restaurant trade’. And then, I think it was Bob Rafelson with a picture with Nicholson was singular event- Days of Wine and Roses? Can’t quite remember, must be more than 10 years ago. Anyway he said that was something of a –   he enjoyed it so much he got back in the swing of it and I think he now only does exactly that which he fancies and he really did fancy this. And he had to work very hard for this, long takes, lots of dialogue to remember, great big leading man role and I think he seemed to be enjoying it hugely. And this was particularly one where his particular brand of experience means for particular moments –   and one that I would cite at the end of the first act where he fires the gun and looks at where Jude Law’s character is and we hold a close-up for, I know it to be literally 24 seconds, in profile – just him watching where he’s fired the gun which I think is a wonderful movie moment, its rather like the one you were alluding to at the beginning, it takes a long time – there’s no music – and it’s just Michael Caine reacting and I think it’s a riveting moment and very much sort of an example in a very, very subtle way of how a lifetime of experience can be channelled into something that is a piece of fine brushwork, that is wonderfully apt for that point in the picture.

To talk about your own acting career, the critics were ridiculously hostile to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I adored I thought it was a wonderful 30s musical interpretation of the piece. But it was slated and having killed off the directing career they pointed to the performances in Conspiracy and Shackleton and Rabbit-Proof Fence and said ‘See what we made him go do instead? Good for us critics!’ Do you think that they’re wrong, that it is possible to build up a good body of work as a director AND as an actor in other people’s films?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s impossible to make prescriptive rules to cover what is quite sort of an unusual career-path, not many people get a chance to do it or perhaps even choose to pursue it when the opportunities come up. To be honest I don’t fully understand  – I would have said that my experience of the moments in one’s career where one’s REALLY been dumped on across the board tend to be the ones that do turn around. So Frankenstein, it was as vitriolic but perhaps greater in volume because it was a bigger picture, the reaction to that – and yet since it started appearing on television or DVD or video I’ve never seen a bad review for it, I’ve only seen very, very positive things, certainly is the case with the Hamlet DVD that’s just come out. Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m hoping that will find its place at some point, I think it hasn’t quite had that sort of reassessment but I supposed I don’t understand it – people say to me occasionally ‘It’s about time you understood, don’t be too clever for your own good’ or something and I really don’t understand what that means – do they want me to be stupider, than your own good? Or, what I believe now, I absolutely of course understand with some work, everyone of course is entitled to their opinion and it may be very particular and it may not be very positive about a film, but I think it’s manifestly untrue to suggest in the cleverness argument that one is, the suggestion that one infers is that that kind of work – with its so called ‘cleverness’ – is an attempt to condescend or patronise or to advertise what somehow I am suggesting subtly is a superior intelligence, I would say that is manifestly untrue and in fact is the opposite in the sense that it is ABSOLUTELY assuming intelligence, pre-eminent intelligence, not an intelligence which requires some sort of academic track record, but simply intelligence, imagination, invention, curiosity, receptivity. Do I assume all of those things? Yes. Beyond that people like the film – they may or may not. But somehow the judgement that that kind of condescension might be at work, I simply disagree with it.
When can we expect to see The Magic Flute and As You Like It?
Magic Flute will be here in January, and will travel around, and As You Like It will be here also and doing the kind of – the truth is with both those pictures – not actually in both cases all the time but they’re tending to do, As You Like It in particular, two or three nights at an art-house cinema. Magic Flute will certainly open here in January, Belfast and Dublin, and play in various places for at least a week and I hope beyond that. The release for Magic Flute actually is pleasingly and surprisingly wide, I’ve been delighted to find out. [] Yeah, and I do recommend that they see it in a cinema because the sound mix is really great, usually these pictures being the specialist tings they are they end up being in rather good cinemas that really maximise the amount of trouble we took to try and, particularly in the case of Magic Flute, get a sort of real experience not just only of the music but the soundtrack and effects within the movie and that in itself is an unusual thing with an opera, you’ll not hear it very often in that way. Some friends I showed it to last week were commenting on what an unusual and pleasing things that was. So I hope it has a good long life in the cinema.

Just as a sort of parting shot question, do you have any plans to re-release Henry V in 2015 for the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt?
Well what an interesting idea. I had been hoping to try and twist somebody’s eyes about, twist somebody’s arm rather, about 2009 for just the 20th anniversary of when it was released here but you’ve now put another idea in my head so thank you for that. You’re welcome, thanks. [] Thanks ever so much, appreciate it

Blog at WordPress.com.