Archive for July, 2012

Cooper’s London

July 29, 2012



Julius Africanus is Big!

Once upon a time there was a famous Wayne and Schuster (remember them?) comic sketch spoofing Julius Caesar, where everyone was dressed in togas but the whole story was handled as if the assassination had happened on Dragnet. Since then, Julius Caesar has been set in many places and eras–and as far back as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre the parallel to various contemporary tyrannical states has been drawn.

Greg Doran’s new production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company builds on that tradition. Though the language is all Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, the talk is about Ancient Rome. But when you enter the theatre you find yourself in an arena in an African country; people are celebrating a festival. At the entry to the arena, its back to the audience, stands the colossal statue of the dictator. The mood is contagious; the audience is caught up and, as the play starts (“Knew you not Pompey?…”), the aptness of setting the play in a contemporary and troubled African state with all its jockeying for power is understood by the spectators both on, and off, the stage.

Jeffery Kissoon is perfect as Caesar; Cyril Nri a crafty Cassius; and Adjoa Andoh touching and troubling as Portia;. All the characters make sense. But if you are collecting performances to remember (despite being clearly part of an ensemble that works together seamlessly), Ray Fearon is the Mark Antony you have been waiting for. His attractiveness, his power; his ability to switch from playboy and Caesarean acolyte, to calculating rhetorician, to steely and almost heartless triumvir, and finally to a philosophical warrior already irritated by and wary of the young Octavius, the range and energy that Fearon brings to his portrayal are breathtaking. But Paterson Joseph is equally compelling as a brilliant Brutus who is, indeed, the only one to join the assassination plot for selfless motives.

This production is strikingly theatrical and understands that power politics is theatre. And the funeral scene is a truly compelling climax and switching point in the play, as it should be. Fearon’s appearance to speak over the corpse of Caesar, in the way he shifts moods and plays his audience, is unforgettable.

Most of the individual moments that we all remember and treasure in this play were gripping in tone, and the rhythm of the evening is solidly worked out. Nevertheless, I thought the cast was still settling into the concept and there were a few awkward moments. Nor was I entirely convinced by the decision to keep up the African accents to the degree that they did – they could, I thought, have faded them a bit more into the background, though at times their lilt made for readings of familiar lines that certainly caught the attention.

The play was on at the main house in Stratford, but it is transferring to London for a run in August and September, and I suspect that by then it will have settled down completely. I found the performances so compelling and the concept so seriously intelligent that I’m tempted to see it again in London if I can, though it will not be quite the same on a proscenium stage as it was on RSC’s thrust stage at Stratford.

But I am also excited by the prospect because Greg Doran has explained in recent interviews that he was inspired to attempt the African setting after seeing an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works from Robben Island in which Nelson Mandela had written his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar. He was fascinated by this marginalia “asserting that [the play] spoke in a particular way to his continent.”

This made Doran ponder why Julius Caesar was the most heavily annotated play in that Robben Island Shakespeare. “Then, when I was talking to John Kani, the South African actor, he said to me: ‘Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s African play.’ I think it was he that told me that Julius Nyerere, who was the first President of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili and also that it’s the play that is the most often performed in Africa. Then you look at African history over the past 50 years and see that there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar.”

This Julius Caesar is definitely one not to miss! It will play at the Noel Coward Theatre in London from 8 August until 15 September, and then tour throughout the UK. And it augurs well that Gregory Doran will be the next Artistic Director of the RSC.

P.S. The play was filmed for British Television and, with luck, may screen in the US later this year.

Apollo’s Girl

July 23, 2012



Claude Sautet:
The Things of Life

For those who loathe the sound and fury of traditional summer blockbusters, there are some really tasty alternatives at Lincoln Center. The Film Society’s four screens seem to be running day and night with old and new quality films. In fact, it’s tempting to give up your day job and just go from one to the other, trailing tickets, popcorn (high-end and modest price at both the Walter Reade and the Elinor Bunin Munroe) and hopes sure to be fulfilled.

If you’ve forgotten the glory that was French cinema in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, and specifically the glory that was Claude Sautet, there is a week of his best about to unspool from August 1—9. The series is named, with good reason, for the opening night’s film, The Things of Life (1970). It’s two stars, the succulent Romy Schneider and equally succulent Michel Piccoli, transmit an effortless chemistry that centers their story. It’s a pleasure to see these smart, sexy pros at the top of their game. They, and their supporting cast are all about love and loss, but in ways that defy cliches. In other words, they are complex characters who keep us guessing, perfect avatars for Sautet’s script and the structure of the film, which cuts back and forth in time, drawing us with it right to the last frame.

But the best part (and there are many): the sights, tastes, textures of France then; they remind us of why we went there in the first place, and kept going back. The sound of the language; the elegance and style of the people—their posture, the culture itself. The relationship of one generation to another, and the uncanny maturity and politesse of teenagers accustomed to adult conversation and ways. There’s a cocktail party with live chamber music! There are scenes of winding streets with medieval towers, and scenes of crowds staring at an accident—these could only be French streets and French faces!

Well, it’s fine to wax romantic, because The Things of Life is, in fact, a romance. If you don’t get it right away, there’s Philippe Sarde’s lush score to give you clues and the erotic subtext it fits like a glove that gives the film a satisfying richness. But it’s always about emotion, rather than sensation. There’s nostalgia, too: Romy Schneider types her stories on a typewriter, with carbon copies. People make urgent calls from cabines at the post office. And they smoke. All the time (you can almost smell the Gauloises…).

So do yourself a favor. Look through the series’ schedule and faites vos jeux. Among the highlights: appearances by Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and a week of screenings (beginning August 10) of Max et les Ferrailleurs, never before seen in this country. Bonus: it stars Schneider and Piccoli. sautet schedule

Apollo’s Girl

July 23, 2012



Hand Stories:
Lincoln Center Festival

There’s a reason why puppets have survived for so many millennia; like mimes, they distill and display our primal emotions, put us in touch with our childhood wonder, and spin out their tales in an intense shorthand that living actors cannot always match. Their smaller-than-life protagonists shine brightest in playing out the grandest stories.

Hand Stories has some big topics for us: the cruelty of China’s Cultural Revolution; the cruelty of struggling to live in an America besotted by money and pop culture; and especially the great value of tradition and close family ties that transcends eras and national borders.

It’s fair to say that Yeung Faϊ is truly a magician. In his hands, his cohort of exquisitely built and costumed silent little people become eloquent. They play out historical Chinese myths, fighting, flirting, laughing, maneuvering their tiny swords and fans like lightning, giving us a glimpse of characters who have survived for centuries while “speaking” to the here-and-now.

When Yeung switches to our own era, his brilliance extends not only to the antics of his puppets, but to the ways in which he finds visual metaphors for complex events. The Revolution is played by a marvelous dragon with silver scales; as an artist/villain of the Revolution, his father is made to wear a dunce cap and a confessional signboard; when Yeung performs on the streets of New York, he, too, wears a sign: “Fifth Generation Puppet Master.” But in a city where tradition is unimportant, his only audience is a puppet angel who gives advice with a New York accent, while demanding money for the favor.

His imagination is both playful and heart-breaking. Some of the puppets carry tiny puppets of their own which, by sleight of Yeung’s hands, live an independent life. For one scene, he uses the back of a puppet stage as a cramped prison cell where he must curl up with a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book; he uses the back of another stage to represent his subsequent “freedom” in America—an equally cramped room, covered with newspapers—all he can afford. It’s not surprising he has chosen to live offstage in Hong Kong and France

Like most of the Festival’s events, it’s ars longa and vita brevis; Yeung’s consummate artistry (and that of his stage colleague, Yoann Pencolế, and the production crew) is really fleeting: You have only two days to share his keen imagination and the alchemy of his hands (July 24—25, at the Clark Studio Theater). Make haste! Tickets

Cogito: John Branch

July 21, 2012


Vanya in Soho

In introducing his account of life at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” adding for good measure that “From the desperate city [they] go into the desperate country.” That’s pretty much what Chekhov dramatized in Uncle Vanya, the subtitle of which is Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts. The play’s main characters are caught up in a swirl of unfulfilled desires, carrying their unhappiness with them, wanting life to be somehow other than what it is.

Everyone’s routines are interrupted when the professor and his pretty young wife arrive from the city, intending to live on the estate run by Vanya and Sonya, and for weeks little gets done. They weren’t content before—too little money (for the professor and Yelena, his wife) or too much drudgery (for Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov, the country doctor)—but idleness doesn’t suit them either. The possibility of love appears, then vanishes like a bursting soap bubble. In the end, the professor and Yelena find country life unlivable, and the others return to the familiar, dulling grind of their work. If Thoreau’s image of quiet desperation differs from the conclusion of Chekhov’s text, it’s only that Chekhov weaves in a handful of sounds, and even those are muted in the production of the play running through August 26 at Soho Rep.

Much has been made of Annie Baker’s new adaptation, possibly a little too much. Unlike Paul Schmidt, who in the late 90s published a volume of 12 Chekhov plays in colloquial American-English translations, Baker’s not a Russian scholar herself, so—as playwrights often do—she based her work on a literal rendering, by Margarita Shalina. It’s easy to see from Baker’s other writing that she has an affinity for Chekhov, but her collaborator deserves credit too. It’s also easy to hear some flavorful word choices—the noun “creep,” for instance—that catch American usage better than Schmidt does. And there are almost no Bakerisms in this show, only a few signs of her fondness for silences (beyond Chekhov’s own) and a reminder of her use of songs (as in The Aliens). What she has done best, though, is conceal her work, make the language not noticeable (a condition in which no translation lives for long).

What’s really exciting at Soho Rep is the levity and the production design. Chekhov described three of his major plays as comedies and termed Three Sisters a drama; it was Stanislavsky who viewed all four as tragedies, and for some time his influence on American theater was sufficient to make that view widespread. I’m not sure it’s behind us yet, but Sam Gold’s staging for Soho Rep gives us ample laughs. Admittedly, there are some untidy moments. For instance, Vanya’s wild pistol-waving and shooting at the professor is hampered by a trapdoor entrance both actors must use (the pistol, by the way, looks oddly like a Colt .45 Peacemaker). And quick blackouts rather than slow fadeouts would’ve been neater—fades feel a little too heavy. But we get a good overall sense of what Paul Schmidt called the “heartbreaking ridiculousness” of the characters’ behavior.

The special appeal of this production depends as well on Andrew Lieberman’s setting: we’re inside a wooden A-frame, seated on all four sides of the main playing area, with some of the action an arm’s length away. It’s not a purely environmental set. The roofing is pierced by cutouts for lighting, and large illuminated block letters spelling out the play’s Russian title in Cyrillic hang on the wall at one end. While being invited to feel we’re sharing a country house with the characters, even cooped up in it with them, we’re also reminded that this is a theater and we’re watching a play. Similarly, the costumes (designed by the protean Annie Baker) and the furnishings have a rough-and-ready contemporary feel, but this time the songs are all in Russian, and the text retains Russian character and place names as well as a few other words. We could be somewhere upstate today, but we’re also in Chekhov’s time and place.

Chekhov’s characters number nine, though some have little to do—he cared less for casting costs than today’s American playwrights usually must—and Baker hasn’t cut a soul. Nor are there any star turns among the players. If you notice differences among them—more moment-to-moment details from Michael Shannon’s Astrov, say, or a special satiric edge from Peter Friedman’s professor—that’s only because actors are different, and in close quarters their styles and qualities become more tangible. The finely polished ensemble effect of this cast is lovely to see. It’s just another of the many beauties in Soho Rep’s Vanya. tickets

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Fearless Predictions

July 10, 2012

Codebreaker—Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy (through July 31, Science Museum, London): Mathematician Alan Turing was long neglected, even unknown, except among computer-science students and other digerati (novelist William Gibson included a Turing police force in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer). Turing is no longer unknown. His World War II contributions to cracking Axis codes at Bletchley Park became celebrated as details were declassified. The test that bears his name, a way of judging whether a machine displays human-like intelligence, is now familiar, and even his more abstract work is better recognized, as in the recent book Turing’s Cathedral.To observe the 100th anniversary of his birth, London’s Science Museum has assembled an exhibition combining personal notes with artifacts from his career. museum

Far from Heaven (July 19–29, Williamstown Theatre Festival): Musical adaptations may be the riskiest of artistic endeavors (ditto as financial investments). With an original show, no one can say it compares badly to its source, whereas an adaptation has to measure up to it,as well as to provide fresh depth or perspective. Yet hope springs eternal. In this new show, the 2002 film, written and directed by Todd Haynes (as a smart and lovely rejuvenation of 50s melodramas à la Douglas Sirk), is being adapted by Richard Greenberg (book), Scott Frankel (music), and Michael Korie (lyrics). All three have done good work before: Greenberg in a number of plays, Frankel and Korie in the songs for Grey Gardens. But reputation counts for nothing once the curtain rises—what will matter is whether this show works. schedule

Dido and Aeneas (August 22–25, Mark Morris Dance Group, Mostly Mozart Festival): Choreographer Mark Morris is not only highly musical and very inventive in his movement choices but also one of the greatest classicists since George Balanchine, frequently employing the genre’s virtues of balance, proportion, and symmetry. In Dido and Aeneas (1989), he crafted a stylized, moving dance-drama set to Purcell’s opera, with the singers and musicians in the pit. The vocalists include Stephanie Blythe; Morris himself, once unmatched in the dance role of Dido, has now retreated to the pit to conduct. Tickets are limited, so act fast.    —JEB

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Cooper’s London

July 8, 2012

Fearless Prediction:
Arts Venue Discovery

This seems to be the year of Chekhov‘s favorite uncle. And as if it were not enough that New York has two hot-ticket Uncle Vanyas (see John Branch’s post of 12 June), I have just attended the new captivating production in London at The Print Room at 34 Hereford Road, a stone’s throw from the Portobello Road and Notting Hill. (Yes, it was a printing plant in its original life.) Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters are the artistic directors

The discovery here is the venue itself, open about 18 months now and hosting not just plays (pretty much a 100% success rate with critics and audiences so far), but concerts, art exhibitions, etc. It’s a small community venue – no bar, no restaurant, barely a toilet, but with each ticket you will be given a chit for a discount across the road at a rather good Steak and Oyster Bar!

The space itself is flexible and endlessly reconfigurable, and comfortably cozy. Yet, like Wonderland, it seems to grow. For this Uncle Vanya, about 85 chairs were ranged along the four walls in two rows and everything else was acting space, with an evocative and minimalist set and props.

The production was adapted—with great success—by Mike Poulton, who is obsessed with making sure that people discover Vanya as a comedy, and was directed by Lucy Bailey; it has played a sellout run with a recent reprise. The acting was concentrated, the actors full of energy. You lived the experience with them (sometimes having to be careful not to trip them).

Iain Glen, William Houston, Caroline Blakiston, Lucinda Millward and David Yelland were the five principals, and each one was vividly the Chekhov character he or she was playing. Glen has done some amazing things in the West End but is now probably best known for playing Sir Richard Carlisle (the early prototype for Rupert Murdoch?) in Downton Abbey. But above all, the wonderful William Houston was playing Astrov and I’d bet you came away from the play wanting to see him again.

But everyone inhabited his or her part with complete conviction–it was a true ensemble piece, and the emotions they were suppressing and with which they then exploded were brilliantly conveyed. You could enjoy the acting for its own sake as it went along; but you’d be analysing the characters and ambiguities for days thereafter. Could Stanislavky have done it with more truth or love? I ended up wanting to hug the entire cast.

It was a hot night in a small place and the audience was a bit po of face, I fear, being British and trained to think that you shouldn’t laugh at serious stuff. But even they let go with surprised hilarity at the most unexpected places because the directing, conceptualisation and acting were so good that, for once, all the black humour was there for the taking. It was also amazingly compassionate. Even the most self-obsessed, solipsistic and egotistical aspects of some of the characters commanded pity–and those laughs. The ending was as poignant as I have ever seen it. I wonder if they could transfer it to the West End and give it extra life? It deserves a wide audience.

Co-founders Bailey and Winters have come up with a real winner; not only in this production but also in the whole approach of this new off-off-West End venue. What is being done at The Print Room is a gift to the community and I wish it a long and happy life. It crackles with energy and promise.The summer will be taken up with concerts. If you can’t get to London right now, get on their mailing list. Given their track record so far, I would go see anything there simply expecting it to be worth the effort.

I predict that The Print Room will be one of the most dynamic and important places to experience the best of London’s theatre and arts scene. Meantime, explore their web site and their future: Print Room

Apollo’s Girl

July 7, 2012

Marina Abramović:
The Filmmaker is Present

As you watch this extraordinary documentary, whether or not you are an Abramovic fan, you are likely to become a fan of Matthew Akers, who made the film. It can’t have been easy, but I’d say–judging from the results–it must have been one hell of a ride.

Spending the kind of time necessary to create this masterpiece with an international maverick has brought out the best in Akers, who previously distinguished himself as a producer and cinematographer of (among other films) Carrier, a 10-part PBS series that remains a benchmark of what a reality series can be when it stretches itself. Carrier required shooting thousands of hours of film, and sharpened Akers’ keen eye for what was important to the story once it was pieced together afterwards. Carrier was long and hypnotic, balancing complex personal and political themes that in lesser hands would have been messy and much less compelling. In other words, Akers was the perfect choice for Marina Abramovic.

While Abramovic has polarized art-lovers, in The Artist is Present she is gradually revealed as True North for film-lovers. The inciting incident for the film was her retrospective at MoMA; her interns would reenact some of her notable performances from earlier years, while the artist herself would remain seated in a chair for seven-and-a-half hours a day as visitors (standing in ever-longer lines as the exhibition caught on) inched forward for a chance to sit opposite her, one-on-one. There was no talking, and no moving. Only unbroken staring. There were tears and beatific smiles. But those who had their own performances in mind were quickly removed from the arena and banned from further participation. 

Much of Abramovic’s work over the decades involved stressing and mortifying her body, up to and including drawing blood and expressing bodily fluids. It was extreme performance art, a genre not always popular with the general public, but very much of the era that generated it. But there is always something to be learned by opening yourself to new information. Here, it is delivered by art historians, curators, gallerists, Abramovic’s collaborators, and by the artist herself. No one is more persuasive.

What Akers accomplishes in this elegant film about Abramovic’s work is to present not only the work, but the whole artistwho grows ever more artful, articulate and mesmerizing with timeas an original with a rich and compelling story to tell, and the imagination to express it in ways that are increasingly seductive.

This is where Akers really shows his mettle; his net is cast both  deep and wide. He had access to not only Abramovic’s huge archive of films and stills, but was able to shoot over 700 hours of footage to document her development of the current project, the performance of it, and (thanks to HBO), lavish post-production time to explore how best to structure The Artist is Present. There is no way to create a story out of so much detail unless you have a lot of time and a lot of talent. Akers has both. 

The results are as seductive as the artist. She makes a case for her work that becomes—if not ironcladdefinitely comprehensible. And, as the chapters of her life are revealed, the film accrues substance to balance its style. Its emotional linchpin is Abramovic’s 12-year collaboration with fellow-artist and life partner, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), which ended when each of them walked toward the other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle, then said goodbye. Years later, Ulay arrives at MoMA for a brief encounter with Abramovic that leaves both of them (and most of the onlookers) weeping. Ultimately, you may not become an acolyte, but you will struggle to remain untouched, and, perhaps, finally arrive at your own answer to the question “But why is this art?”

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