Archive for February, 2015

Cooper’s London

February 10, 2015

BOOKS
!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

Three Lives: Alan, Lenny and Tennessee;
They Entertained You

 

 

Alan CummingNot My Father’s Son: A Memoir, Day Street Books (USA),
Canongate Books (UK)

cumming 1This haunting and, at times, surprisingly funny autobiography of Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son is a story of how Alan overcame years of abusive and outrageously insensitive treatment by his father to finally break free and become his own man. His tale is written with real control and intelligence and is utterly engaging throughout, formated to skip back and forth between his present of success and some eminence to the childhood that scarred and terrified him. Cumming was the subject of a programme about his family and past, Who Do You Think You Are, by the BBC and this is his catalyst for revisiting his difficult childhood and his family. A series of ever-more-surprising revelations, the book is at times almost a mystery story, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. Not surprisingly, the dysfunctional father ill-treated Alan’s brother and mother too, and it’s the bonding and mutual support system of these three people that is one of the most touching aspects of the tale. Not only is the story well written and told with exemplary insight, it unfolds more or less in the sequence in which Alec Cumming figured things out, so when revelations come they are genuinely surprising and pack a real wallop. The format makes it more possible to read the parallels of past and present. The tale is told very personally and, I think, bravely. Friends of mine, male and female, who read the book at my suggestion, came back to thank me for introducing them to it; all of them said they had cried at some points. A moving, touching and very truthful story, Not My Father’s Son is a well-told tale, powerful in its honesty.

Allen Shawn, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives),
Yale University Press

lenny 1Allen Shawn’s new book about Leonard Bernstein probably doesn’t replace the magisterial Humphrey Burton tome about the polymath’s extraordinary life, but it certainly is a superb pendant to it and also a very fine shorter introduction. Its emphasis on considering each of his compositions in turn as well as his TV programmes, lectures, and didactic concerts for children, is also especially interesting. I’ve always preferred Bernstein to, say, his rival and near-contemporary Herbert von Karajan, whose post-World War II career so definitively overlapped with Bernstein’s; I would bet a fair amount that it is Bernstein’s reputation as a conductor and composer that will grow over the next decades, while von Karajan will be found to be, in some ways, a more limited artist. I also expect people to become more aware of Bernstein’s persona, his reputation as a mensch, a real human being. He was flawed; he was complex; he was madly in love with his wife for a time (and with her formed one of the early power couples), but he was also essentially gay and ultimately tormented by his love for men. He could be selfish and thoughtless and he caused problems for many people who knew him or who knew him or got close to him, as this book suggests; but he also was a generous teacher, a superlative mentor for other composers and conductors; and a brilliant entertainer as a conductor, as a teacher and as a composer. He was also a very, very good friend to have. How can you not want to know the story of the man who wrote West Side Story and Candide as well as one of the worst atonal operas in existence? He was a man who had a huge influence teaching about music on at least two generations of children in North America.

Two things come through strongly in this book: his ability to form lasting, loving, loyal relationships both personally and professionally; and his complete dedication to conducting, teaching and composing. He was also a brilliant pianist and a great performer whether on the podium, the piano bench, or in front of a crowd and/or camera delivering lectures. So add to all his other gifts that he was a fine writer. Indeed, Shawn shows clearly that he was, in everything he did, a generous, tireless, and enthusiastic communicator. There was much about his life that, in retrospect, seems messy and sad, but what stands out is how much he was loved and how much joy he brought to everything he did professionally as well as personally.

As well as telling the story of the life and placing it carefully in the social and political context of the times, the book carefully analyses and assesses each of his works individually, cumulatively building up a picture of how important the man was to twentieth century culture both in America and throughout the world; and dealing so fully with this major aspect of Bernstein’s life and mentality, with his artistic intensity and the development of his creativity, made me want to go back to listen to things like his symphonies or even his opera A Quiet Place. Because Bernstein was so gifted and energetic in so many different areas, some people considered him to be facile. Shawn clearly admires the results and argues against that belief. I myself had a brief but delightful acquaintance with Bernstein towards the end of his life that was enriching and enjoyable out of all proportion to the time I spent with him. He even had a joke for me that was delivered a year after his death by Michael Barrett. I came away from reading this book remembering the power and charm of his personality, his astonishing polymorphic brilliance, and that, above all, he was a genuinely generous and endlessly creative man.

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, W W Norton (USA); Bloomsbury Circus (UK)

williams 1John Lahr is a respected critic and biographer and in his latest book, a definitive life of Tennessee Williams, he has outdone himself in creating a completely readable and somewhat provocative re-telling of a story that is almost as bizarre and compelling as any of the Williams plays. Again, like Allen Shawn, Lahr takes the line that the work is an important and central aspect of and also reflection of the life. There are plenty of backstage stories that can amuse or shock, but this biography gave me much pleasure mainly because of its concentration on telling how each work was written and produced; it places each work in the context not only of the life of Williams but also of its culture. The anecdotes about the putting on of plays like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, let alone The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter created the parts played by Taylor and Burton later in the film Boom!) are worth the price of admission alone. That said, the glory of this book is that it is a fine, extremely sensitive and utterly sympathetic view of a man who was troubled but a remarkable magnet for affection and friendship; as well as in the portraits of his friends and colleagues, including Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. It’s good to find out where many of Williams’ characters grew from in his life; but it’s even better to come away from a book caring so much for the protagonist and having such understanding for this turbulent and immensely gifted personality and how it fed into the creation of one of the most important bodies of theatrical work of the last century. Through letters, diaries and interviews, Lahr has recreated the life of a fascinating playwright and also thrown a spotlight on some of the ways things worked on Broadway and in Hollywood not so long ago. The book is extremely well-written, thoroughly researched and a damned good read.

What links these three books for me is not only the williams 2sense of learning more about the background of three very interesting creative people involved in the worlds of theatre, classical music and film–but above all a sense of getting to know more about them in ways that explain why they and their work lenny 2are to be respected and admired. In addition, all three were gay, and Williams and Bernstein gay at a time when there was a need to be discreet about one’s sexuality. Cumming, on the other hand, has the advantage of being two generations younger, when fluid sexuality is much more acceptable–even fashionable.
cumming 2Times change and attitudes change with them; that, in itself, is part of what makes all three books recommended reading.

Advertisements

Apollo’s Girl

February 8, 2015

apollo and lyre
NYFF52: Red Carpet Crystal Ball–
A Little Cloudy…

film societyJanuary 11 was the deadline for my annual whine about who—first seen at the New York Film Festivalgets which Oscar. It’s getting to be a tradition in these pages; a long, hard look back at NYFF after the mind has cleared and the dust has settled and before the statuettes have actually changed hands. But watching the shattering events in France, and the lions linking arms with the lambs (if charlie1not actually lying down with them) as they marched over a million strong through Paris, it was hard to leave television’s realities (at home and abroad) to concentrate on what was showing on the big screen. And to contemplate the crystal ball. So I waited a while.charlie2

It was especially difficult this year becausewith the full deployment of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Centerthere was non-stop action every single day at NYFF for a month. But now that most of the films are finally out and about let the choices begin!

Despite the virtues of the Festival’s three big ones with pride of place (Gone Girl; Inherent Vice; and Birdman), it wasn’t until almost the end of the press screening weeks that Foxcatcher was unveiled. And what an unveiling it was! Unlike even the best films, foxcatcher2Foxcatcher didn’t unspoolit unfolded, like a latter-day Greek tragedy, defined by ever-escalating tension built into the unfolding and the performances Bennett Miller drew from Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum. Theirs was a perfect trifecta, always in balance, winning a Gotham Award for ensemble performance. In fact, I’d walked out on two of Carrell’s previous films (they were, honestly, just too dumb to sit through and, of course, wildly successful). Not on this one, though. Attention must be paid to that kind of revelation.

With his role as the psychopathic scion of an old and very wealthy foxcatcher1family and a by-now infamous prosthetic nose, Carrell deserves to take home the statuette, no matter how intense the competition. But there’s more: the cinematography by Greig Fraser and the editing by another trifecta (Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill) fill in the colors and connect the dots. Will it win? Well, I complained a lot about Social Network losing to The King’s Speech (https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/apollos-girl-3/and suspect that the buzz around Boyhood and Birdman may outweigh anything I can plead on Foxcatcher’s behalf; it isn’t even foxcatcher3nominated for Best Film. But just to sum up: I saw it a second time right after the NYFF press screening; every seat was filled, and the audience barely breathed for two hours and nine minutes. No one took a break or texted, either. These days, that’s a colossal endorsement. With luck, Miller will end up as Best Director. (And who can forget that his golden portfolio includes both Moneyball and Capote?)

Then there was the shock of Whiplash. whiplash poster2Watching it was like being at the epicenter of a tornado. In addition to its many glories, it’s the first film I can remember since Ray that’s truly inside musicnot some Hollywood executive’s idea of what music might be. The conflicts and characters are the stuff of great storytelling, but the music itself is performed by actual musicians, and/or by actors who have had considerable experience at playing. Miles Teller’s final drum solo is so intense it wihplash2made me cry Whiplash (2014) -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.(and believe me, I wasn’t unhappy!). J.K. Simmons has already, like a magnetized locomotive, been collecting awards for best supporting actor.
But let’s look at
Damien Chazelle for a minute: chazelle2
he’s only made one other feature (
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T6Bn0_QfaY
He has, thank God, music in his blood, and he is generous with it. And he also shot Whiplash in 19 days and edited it in two months. Where I come from, that’s called a miracle.

The sad thing is that these two films, each great in its own way, have both been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Film (Whiplash) and Best Achievement in Directing (Foxcatcher). It’s not only apples and oranges, but the Apollo of Foxcatcher vs. the Dionysus of Whiplash.

sissakoTimbuktu, created by Abderrahmane Sissako, is a front-runner for Best Foreign Film, and the first ever contender from Mali. Sissako is part Malian and part Mauritanian, learned his considerable craft at a Russian film school, and has lived primarily in France. For centuries Timbuktu was a crossroads of trade and the timbuktu3melting pot of northwest Africa, until its annexation by extremists in recent years. Sissako knows the territory and the traditions, but filters them through highly sophisticated sensibilities and technique to tell his storya dreamlike tragedy which begins with references to the region’s Edenic, multicultural past and ends with the horror of its present and likely destiny. There’s only one problem: the oranges and apples in this Oscar category are complicated by the presence ida2of Ida, another serious contender. As austere in black-and-white as Timbuktu is sensual in color, Ida (seen at Lincoln Center early last year at the Jewish Film Festival) is all the more powerful for its minimalism. How can we possibly choose between them?

Finally, when it comes to documentaries, NYFF’s Citizen Four is a front-runner for the statue, and with good reason. It’s hard to top either the extreme intelligence and discipline of director Laura Poitress, or her subject, Edward Snowden, as they gradually reveal the extent to which our government has been citizen foursurveilling most of its citizens, or what may come of it in the not-too-distant future. And, of course, its very understatement is what creates its impact. However: its strengths provide one more serving of apples and oranges: the style and content of Gabe Polsky’s Red Army: no less intelligent and disciplined, definitely more raucous and outrageous, andhow did this happen?—not even on the Oscar shortlist, let alone one of its nominees. Red Army, in 76 well-stacked and packed minutes, manages to even-handedly condense fetisovthe complex history of the Cold War through the rollicking tale of the Russian hockey team that ended up playing for New Jersey and then Toronto. As if this weren’t enough, its mighty protagonist Slava Fetisov all but walks off with the movie as he embraces his cellphone, the joys of both conspicuous capitalism and warm collectivism, and his own bigger-than-life force that powers the film.

Full disclosure of personal theory: it has become evident that you can tell a lot from the press conferences that often follow press screenings. The casts and crews of Foxcatcher, Whiplash, and Red Army were pumped beyond any flackery. They knew they had a very, very good thing, and you knew that they knew. It’s all about the energy, and it never lies.

P.S.: A word of thanks for the NYFF’s choice of retrospectives: 21 of Joseph Mankiewicz’s films representing his outsize palette (including Cleopatra, All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa, and that people will talkhard-to-find civilized gem, People Will Talk). And welcome backward glances at This is Spinal Tap, plus a gloriously restored print of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour.hiroshima2

Cooper’s London

February 5, 2015

don't miss it

Theatre
!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
oppenheimer-talk-homepage
(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb…

View original post 1,216 more words

Cooper’s London

February 4, 2015

Theatre
!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
oppenheimer-talk-homepage
(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make clear and comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the enormous moral issues it raised—all the while also explicating the physics so that a lay audience can actually get the drift.

Britain OppenheimerThe director, Angus Jackson has forged an ensemble of actors into a deluxe team working in synch throughout the play’s three-hour journey. His staging engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the oppenheimer.jpg1actors fall to the floor from time to time—a floor that is also a blackboard— to scribble their formulae as they invent them. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America—its music, its outfits, its politics.

The play is remarkable in evoking the inhabitants of Los Alamos and the sense of the isolated and intense hothouse world they were living in. it also interweaves the personal lives and Oppenheimer-2complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, terrifying, and confused-yet-heroic time that one is enveloped in the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer manic fun that everyone must have been having. The musicians not only deserves praise for their idiomatic playing of era’s contemporary music but the actors in the show as well, who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is a vibrant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II before it starts.

The show is simply superb. And above all, oppenheimer-rsc-swan-theatre-theatre-review-atomic4John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J. Robert Oppenheimer, responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life. His genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; his body language seems extraordinarily right; and one also understand his stature as a man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans–a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war.

The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms. Many of the actors stand out, steadmanespecially Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock Dylanand Hedydd Dylan as Jackie Oppenheimer. In fairness, every performance is memorable. But above all Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he’s going to be an actor very much like Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His awkward body language, his speaking rhythms and tone of voice, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – telling its story entertainingly, grippingly; provocative; and engaging both the emotions and the intellect throughout. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. Finally, Oppenheimer deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the A-bomb and its aftermath, but with the inevitable march to manhattan projectMcCarthyism and the Cold War. This play manages to make its bigger-than-life characters achingly human, evoking both our sorrow and our pity for a turning point in global history. There are rumors of a transfer to the West End and, perhaps, to New York—a fitting tribute to the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer is in repertory in the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK until 7 March 2015. It will open in London for an eight-week run on March 27. A must-see! tickets

Much Ado about Love, Lost and Won

LovesLaboursLost-Review-ImageThe RSC has paired new productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing to promote the idea that the latter is the mysterious lost play Love’s Labours Won. Certainly, for centuries, everyone has noted various connections of theme between the plays; and it has always been said that Rosaline and Berowne are a sketch for Beatrice and Benedick.

For those reasons alone it’s interesting to see Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry take on both roles. I attended a matinee of the first and an evening bennet terryperformance of the second on the same day. I was impressed by the committed ensemble work of the actors, the evocative sets and costumes of Simon Higlett, the terrific music by Nigel Hess. Because of the anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One, the first play was set in July 1914, and the second just after the war, so that the men of Messina were returning from its carnage.

It’s a clever ploy, and it enhances enjoyment of both plays in some ways; but it doesn’t really convince me of the premise. Nor do the two plays being done together entirely work. They don’t really illuminate each other except peripherally. In fact, I am pretty convinced after the abrupt ending to Love’s Labours Lost that the play referred to as Love’s Labours Won is not an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing, but actually a lost play. Love’s Labours Lost felt to me as if it hit a surprise climax, rather like the scene in Much Ado in the church that spins the play into an other, darker sphere. I propose therefore that the final scene of Love’s Labours Lost is the climax of a ten-act structure, the climax of a play and its sequel, and that Love’s Labours Won has to be a real sequel continuing the same story with the same characters a year laternot just another, later and better play that happens to share some of the concerns, themes and even character types of the first.

That said, I enjoyed the experience of the two plays enormously. They are good to see together because of the way chris smallChristopher Luscombe has conceived the interpretations and cross references; they are certainly worth a trip to Stratford. There are many felicities in Luscombe’s approach, not the least in some of the cross castings, among them Nick Haverson as Costard in the first and Constable Dogberry in the second. Sam Alexander, who plays the King of Navarre charmingly in the first play, turns into the wicked Don John in the second. Everyone on the stage is deserving of praise.

The RSC is continuing with its policy of intelligent and integrated repertoire that tends to cross-fertilise ideas and also displays an exemplary eye for casting. Christopher Luscombe’s pacing tends to be a bit on the fast side, which is not a bad thing with these comedies, and he has a great sense of invention for business that fleshes out the characterizations and the action. This is a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable presentation of both plays and well worth seeing for oneself.

Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) continue in repertoire at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 14 March 2015.


%d bloggers like this: