Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

January 24, 2017

Theatre

apollo-and-lyre

 

Orange Julius (Basil Kreimendahl)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

orange-juliusFor Robert Redford, America’s definitive turn away from innocence and hope was marked by the TV quiz show scandals of 1950s, leading him to make a film (Quiz Show) based on Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. While Redford has made many admirable films, Quiz Show is surely his best. For me, America’s definitive turn came with the war in Vietnam, setting the country on a course still playing out as we face an unknowable and unprecedented post-election future. Of course with such an opinion, confirmation is always welcome, and the New York Times has come through with Karl Marlantes‘ essay the war that killed trust about his experiences as an officer in Vietnam. Its first paragraph contains a memorable quote: “But an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!”

Although Kreimendahl is too young to have lived through the war himself, he has clearly thought long and deeply about its lasting shadow. He’s crafted a play about how it affects a Vietnam vet whose deteriorating mind and body have been compromised by exposure to Agent Orange and how, in turn, his wife and daughters try to cope with its challenges. The ante is upped by the transgender identity of one of his children (Nut, the play’s narrator) who struggles with both a longing for closeness with his father and the impossibility of achieving it.

This is an ambitious production (directed by Dustin Wills), that cuts back and forth orange-julius_rattlestickfrom home to battlefield, from reality to fantasy, from anger to empathy, while reminding us that the subjects at hand can still draw blood and need to be remembered. The cast does wonders with the words and characters, drawing us in to each of them in turn, and not holding back when things turn physical during the fight scenes or emotional during the family confrontations. Applause for Jess Barbagallo as Nut, and to Stephen Payne as the ravaged vet, Ruy Iskandar as a fellow soldier, Mary Testa as wife and mother, and Irene Sofia Lucio as Nut’s sister.

Apollo’s Girl

December 25, 2016

TV/Film

apollo and lyre

A Little Night Music

I’m starting very small–still recovering from the election—so have two tweet-like recommendations: first, Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC broke every glass ceiling ever. It’s not about whose ideas you preferred, but about two women, phenomenally well-matched for debate, creating a paradigm for (relatively) civil combat. On the biggest issues we will be grappling with 24/7 after January 20. Frankly, it was hypnotic!
MSNBC interview

There was a consistent effort to actually listen to each other before attempting decapitation with tightly focused ripostes, and a crackling intelligence that never descended into campaign speak. The last time we saw its like was the early days of the Vidal/Buckley mano a mano, and those two were definitely White Men in a very elegant duel that remained alive for a long time.

Second, La La Land. It was the life-enabling piton for climbing out of the post-election abyss, and while you are likely to be enchanted by it (the 8.9 IMDb readers’ score and 93 Metacritic’s are hard to contest), I can only add  that if babies can now be produced with the DNA of three parents. La La Land is definitely the love child of Russian Ark, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Shall We Dance. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy and go see it. And then urge Damien Chazelle to run for president. landscape-1468420673-la-la-land-4

Cooper’s London

July 4, 2016

Politics/Theatre

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Shakespeare Lives!
The Brexit/Regrexit Plays

Forget the West End and regional theatre; forget the RSC and National. The UK at the moment is broadcasting the Greatest Show on Earth 18 hours a day, unspooling with real style, gusto and endless twists of plot. It’s called the Brexit Play. It features major and minor politicians (some of whom are becoming stars, and others who were stars ) who look as if they are about to burn out. Some Farron-591646people, like Tim Farron (who runs the Liberal Democrats—all eight of them that made it into Parliament in the last election) is trying to start a contemporary play to compete, which I call: Regrexit. If he succeeds, we will also see the annoyed 48% of the country’s voters (Remain!) trying to reverse the decision of the 52% (Leave!) the EU.

I could write an essay on just how bad it is for the arts, and for entertainment, too, but you can probably figure it out for yourself; the whole issue has itself become the world’s arts and entertainment this summer.

michael and sarah. gove
Recently, TV pundits were comparing
Michael Gove (Conservative MP) to Macbeth, Mrs. Gove to Lady Macbeth (without the laughs), and Boris Johnson (twice Mayor of London) to Duncan. Julius Caesar seems to be playing itself out on TV screens as well, with some people appealing to the mobs to crown their Caesar, and others crying to the Brexit voters: “You blocks, you stones, you worse-than-senseless things. Knew you not Pompey?”

Mind you, we are not entirely certain who’s acting Pompey right now. It sure ain’t Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party opposition leader), with his lean shanks corbynand slippered pantaloons, still at this writing refusing to leave the stage though “Exit pursued by bear” has been in his script for days. He is also being likened to King John, who provoked his nobles and eventually signed Magna Carta against his will (are you listening, Jeremy?). Frankly, it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare is still living at this hour and somehow foresaw it all.

POLITICS Heseltine/BackbenchWe had John of Gaunt of Richard II on TV today in theperson of Baron Heseltine (the Conservative who unseated Margaret Thatcher), pleading for “this England, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-Paradise, this fortress built by Nature for her self”, and for its prime and moral position in Europe.

Daily, as if creating scripts for new History Plays, or merely echoing them, we have betrayals, and we have evidence of
theresa mayloyalties; we have great shifts of support
for one would-be political monarch after another, from one moment to the next. And we may just have another female Prime Minister soon, the redoubtable Theresa May (for now, the Conservative Home Secretary), playing, according to her supporters, our very own sane and stable Paulina of The Winter’s Tale.

Of course, the most memorable and powerful speech on behalf of remaining in the EU was made at the 11th hour (and wonderfully!) by the actress Sheila Hancock. I do hope it surfaces on the Internet.

Mingy and stingy old ITV has been blocking her speech for copyright reasons. Now if only she had said her piece on the BBC! (Which, of course, is under threat from the Conservatives, but that is another story from another place.)

Right now the beleagured UK is living through what the Chinese call “interesting times”. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s a political thriller; it’s a political farce; it’s also a soap opera and high drama, all at once. Europe is seriously pissed off with the UK, cameron-hands-2and especially with our PM, David Cameron, who swore over and over that he could win this. “If you are not 100% certain you can risk it, David, do not do it,” they advised. Years ago, thatcher1Margaret Thatcher was pressured into holding a referendum by her Euroskeptics but never would; David Cameron believed he knew better. He was told not to have a Referendum; he went ahead, leading the Remain! Campaign, and he did not win. And so his little Conservative Party squabble cost him his job and his legacy— and is costing the whole of Europe dearly. We may end up not only with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but also the withdrawal of Scotland and Ireland from the UK. (Shakespeare was no stranger to bad decisions: Brutus thought Cassius knew how to preserve the Roman republic. Chaos ensued.)

These are similarly parlous and chaotic times, and this is (do not think I am exaggerating) the worst Constitutional Crisis in what feels like forever—some say since our Civil War and Cromwell. demonstrationsThere is also the fear that David Cameron’s ill-considered attempt to bring the UK equivalent of Tea Party Republicans to heel has unleashed xenophobia of a very high order, and the racism that escalates daily as well. Has he put our toes on the first step of the ladder of Fascism? It sounds exaggerated; but people old enough to remember the 1930s are telling me that this is exactly what it felt like when it all began, and that Hitler sounded as plausible and not-so-very-racist as, let us say, Nigel Farage (England’s new Oswald Moseley?), leader of the UK Independence Party.

Farage, who has been working tirelessly for 17 years to bring the UK out of the EU, abruptly resigned from the party on July 4th, ten days after his triumph. Perhaps he is Richard II to someone’s Bolingbroke. Perhaps he and his henchmen are not Hitlersjust little Fascists much diluted. (Mind you, Hitler had plans for genocide and territorial expansion.) I suspect that the problem with Farage and his fellow bigoted Brexiters all along has been that they have no plans at all! farageThey just don’t like immigrants or the EU any more than Henry V liked the French, or the Yorkists liked the Lancastrians with whom they fought the Wars of the Roses. Never mind that this is no reason to leave it, but a reason to reform it; never mind that you are encouraging a country to betray all its friends and neighbours, remove its influence at a crucial time, and diminish its moral standing in the world.

Don’t believe the propaganda. The EU is democratic; the only laws we are living under promulgated by the EU were first debated and voted for in their Parliament (where we have MEPs), then agreed to and adopted by our Parliament. The EU asks only for a fair share of “fees” to belong to their club; the reason the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world (well, until last week) was precisely because of the growth and development achieved during the past 43 years as the EU’s partner. Basically, as in Julius Caesar, Brexit’s rationale was all a lot of demagoguery and downright lies used to provoke the crowd: “Friends, Romans, countrymen: we come to bury the EU, not to praise it!”eu

There is a mythical £350 million we send to the EU every week that is actually more like £128 million when you consider rebates and so forth. This is the UK’s fee for belonging to the EU club; this is our tax. People who complain about those who will not pay their fair share of taxes in the UK also complain about Britain’s paying its fair share of tax to the EU; they choose to ignore not only the quantifiable benefits but the unquantifiable ones. One example: the UK has a huge lead in and great respect for its scientific research. For every £4 we put into the EU budget, we actually get back £6.5 for projects that also link us to, and are done in co-operation with, other EU countries. And, for the arts, include experimental theatre groups subsidized by the EU; exchanges of artists to work and exhibit their work within EU countries; cross-cultural musical festivals and shows. All that and much, much more is about to go, too.


donald trumpBut why should I bore you with our little troubles when you have an even greater clown to entertain you for months to come in the Presidential race? Perhaps sadly, we have just had our own boris johnsonblonde clown with a comb-over (Boris Johnson) withdraw from the race for Prime Minister. But never fear! He is very ambitious and a talented entertainer. He loves a crowd. You can’t keep such people down. He will probably pop up again in some other role very soon.

lear's foolUnlike like the Fool in King Lear, who ends up dying for telling the truth, and who disappears halfway through the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 1, 2016

TV/Music/Opera

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Fearless Prediction:
The Night Manager

 

 

This TV series based on the John Le Carre novel hasnight manager been a huge success in the UK and is something not to be missed now that it’s hit small screens in the US. Apart from the contemporary resonances given to the story by an update to the original novel, this is simply one of the best-photographed, best-acted and most stunningly engaging series to come out of the BBC, ever. It is bound to be as legendary as the old Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series with Alec Guiness. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie give immensely nuanced performances in their roles as a double agent and illegal arms dealer; night manager 2Olivia Colman is superb as the heavily pregnant, obsessively moral spy mistress after the Hugh Laurie character and running Tom Hiddleston; Tom Hollander is suitably camp and sinister as Corcoran; and Elizabeth Debicki is in the same class as Tilda Swinton playing the romantic, troubled Jed. The writing by John le Carre and David Farr is classy, witty and dark.ster. The directing by Susanne Bier deserves unstinting praise. Shot as if it were a high-quality film, The Night Manager doesn’t dawdle; and all of its six hours are needed to work out the complex and exciting tale. At no point does the tension disperse; at no point is any aspect of the writing, direction, acting or photography anything but superbly realized. Quite simply, it grabs you from the opening moments of the first episode and speeds forward, always provocative, worrying, and morally challenging. I dare you not to be completely engrossed. I certainly advise you not to miss it. This is one class act!

Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall
Erato 0825646 107896

Verdi, Aida, Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tezier, Erwin Schrott/ Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano Warners 3 CDs 0825646 106639

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wigmore hallAntonio Pappano
has recently conducted two recordings that are highly recommended additions to any library. 
The concert he did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2014 with Joyce di Donato has actually won a Grammy award, and take my word for it, it’s deserved! The program consists of mezzo material from Haydn and Rossini that di Donato has made her own over the years; she sings the first half of the concert with impeccable taste and understanding.

Though I have indelible memories of Janet Baker’s performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos that even Joyce di Donato cannot drive into second place, I would put assumption of this cantata up there with Baker’s. And I certainly was just as won over by her Rossini songs. She’s a dazzling interpreter of this kind of material with her richly lyrical, controlled and warm voice, as well as a real relationship to the words she’s singing. Listen to her performance of “La Danza” by Rossini. It won’t replace the interpretation by Mario Lanza; but it’s certainly good enough to be mentioned in the same breath and returned to regularly.

joyce and tonyPappano is an impeccable partner for di Donato throughout this live recital. In the second half of the concert, they reflect their American backgrounds with some wonderful material from what is now called The American Songbook. Some people have claimed that di Donato sounds too fruity in this repertoire, but I find her approach utterly pleasing. Hearing this music sung in her unique way—especially the songs by Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen– is definitive as far as I’m concerned. Thank goodness this recital was recorded so we can hear and enjoy it forever and remember what all the fuss was about.

Another Pappano recording that caught my attention even more forcefully is the new and much-anticipated Aida. Right from the start you know this is going to be a major collectable: first, from the way Pappano conducts the contemplative, sad, soft overture, and then from the way he supports the declamation of the High Priest; and finally from Jonas Kaufmann’s inward, intense singing of “Celeste, Aida”. Under Pappano’s direction the orchestra and the soloists consistnetly follow all the dynamics in the score; Kaufmann actually takes the final note of his first aria piano with a lovely diminuendo as suggested by Verdi.

This recording puts you in the presence of artists who take their commitment to the work very seriously. Several critics have claimed that this interpretation does not quite match the great recordings made by Solti and Karajan in the early stereo era, or supercede the famous Toscanini broadcast of the opera. How silly! This recording is its own thing.

I found it consistently considered, spacious, and remarkably true to Verdi’s intentions musically; it’s also always convincingly sung and acted. The comparisons seem to me beside the point. You can hear them all and make up your own mind; they’re not mutually exclusive, but each illuminates aspects of the score in different ways. You need them all!Aida-Rome

Also there’s something compelling about being able to hear the best contemporary artists and their interpretations of this work. Listen to the classic assumptions by all means; but don’t dismiss the performance that is brought before you now.

Anna Harteros has the right kind of dramatic heft in her voice for the role of Aida. Her singing of “Ritorna, Vincitor”, for example, has a clean vocal approach that I found captivating. She’s sublime in “O patria mia”. Jonas Kaufman sounds both heroic and sensitive as Radames; and Ekaterina Semchuk steals every scene she’s in as Amneris; while the superb French baritone Ludovic Tézier as aida2Amonosro is wonderful not only in his singing but also in characterizing a cold, tyrannical father–a sort of Stalin of ancient Ethiopia. Bonus: Semchuck is particularly fine at the shadings of her role, but knows just when to chew the scenery. When she curses the priests for condemning Radames, you know they will remain cursed for a good long time. Erwin Schrott is luxury casting for the smallish role of Ramfis.

For me, after listening to it repeatedly, the recording pretty much lives up to the hype that preceded it and is certainly one of the best all-round performances of this opera in years. But I do have one quibble with this set that may just be personal; I found that the recording’s dynamic range is so wide that at times the quiet passages nearly disappeared and the big moments were liable to make me jump in my seat. But you can hang onto your volume controls, and maybe it’s just a matter of my now somewhat ageing stereo equipment not being up to contemporary sound engineering.

The presentation and booklet for this set are top-class. This is an essential performance where Pappano and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome have brought out so many nuances, so much refreshing and well-considered detail, that it reminds one why Aida was, once upon a time, one of the most beloved and performed operas in the repertoire, always placed somewhere in the top five.aida3

Aida has slipped from grace rather in the past couple of decades, possibly because that much spectacle is very expensive to mount these days of Draconian budget cuts; but this recording seems to me to go a good deal of the way towards restoring it to a peak position on the Best Operas list. It’s a great drama about the conflict between private desire and public duty; a nearly perfect score; and a performance entirely worthy of such a masterpiece, for its casting, and particularly for its conductor Antonio Pappano, whose baton controls the soloists, chorus and orchestra with a mastery of Verdian style. And perhaps because it is so good, it also provokes a strong desire to go back and listen, once again, to Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi in their legendary performances as Aida; to Jussi Björling as Radames; sophia lorenor even to see once again the old 1950s Italian movie where the angelic voice of Renata Tebaldi emerges from the mouth of a very young and sumptuously gorgeous Sophia Loren.

So if you have no Aida at all, this is as good a place to start as any; it is a fine reading of the work, and if it stimulates you to listen to Karajan with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, or Solti with the astonishingly perfect Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, that would be a good thing too. But pappanoremember that Pappano can absolutely hold his own, and don’t dismiss this version just because a few old fogeys are nostalgic for some of the great performances of the past. Be grateful, rather, that they’re all available for our delight and that these contemporary performers have created another very fine interpretation of the work to add to the list of un-missable Aida recordings.

Cooper’s London

March 13, 2016

Theatre/Opera

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Coming Up:
New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
in London

Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.

Hoff0611Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.

On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with dangerous liaisonsgood reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.

An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)

Another classic revival in the West End is a new fiennesadaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.

Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting andhorrocks unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.

At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s ma raineyrunning in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-threepennyBarker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.

Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!

Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…

Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.

A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. Nell_Gwynne_and_King_CharlesYou may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.

This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).

Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The painkillerPainkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.

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…and some notes on notes…

The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma

As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from sunset blvdearly April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a guys and dollsproduction of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!

Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.

Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, lady daydirector Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.

Apollo’s Girl

August 29, 2015

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

The Short and the Long of the Best…
Learning to Drive;
Edgar Reitz Comes
Home

It’s relatively short (90 minutes) and I didn’t plan to write about it but, in all honestly, I simply had to. Learning to Drive is a real honey; compelling learning to drive2story, fresh, realistic, quirky dialogue, and two characters who you will remember for a long time because you just can’t stop caring about them. The story, in its barest outlines, could have been just another Odd Couple two-hander; they meet cute, have little in common, yet somehow manage to bond and persevere until they drive into the sunset together.

kernochanForget it! What makes this gem stand out is the serious talent that went into its conception, its script (thank you, thank you Sarah Kernochan), its realization and those same spacious pages that the cast and director (Isabel Coixet) inhabit together from first frame to last. Based on an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker story by Katha Pollitt, the film took 11 years to emerge from magazine to movie and, as frustrating as that journey may have been, there are no shortcuts I know of to creating such lapidary work.

Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are equal partners in this brilliant caper, but share their skills with Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber, Avi Nash and Matt Salinger. DP Manel Ruiz just keeps getting it right and the editing (by Keith Reamer and Thelma Schoonmaker) flaunts its rhythms coixetall the way through (one touch: we’re not in Toronto, and when Clarkson and Kingsley drive around, they are always geographically correct). Well, that’s a minor detail. But had this movie been made with a lesser talent for holding the reins than Coixet’s, it would has been just another charmer without the finesse and perception that loft it way beyond its genre. (AMC Loew’s Lincoln Square; AMC Empire 25; Angelika Film Center)

Home From Home (Anthology Film Archives, Sept. 8 – 17)

Years ago, having worked many months in Germany, I was drawn to heimat oneMoMA to see Edgar Reitz’ Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany. MoMA offered two choices: see all 16 hours in two days, or opt for four hours a day for two weekends. Guided by some fateful instinct, I chose total immersion. Reitz was telling the tale of Germany between the wars and and beyond and, after spending the weekend with the three families from Shabbach whose interlocking stories explained the riddle of how, and why, Germany did what it had done in those years, I was never quite the same. But I craved more.

Almost a decade later, Reitz mounted Heimat: A Chronicle of a Generation, which revisited some of the key players from 1960 – 1972 from a different perspective. This time it took heimat 224 hours to tell their story. The Public Theatre stepped up to the plate and offered weekly subscriptions (180 minutes per week) in its tiny screening room. The word got out: that tiny screening room was packed with the likes of Susan Sonntag, Wallace Shawn and their friends in a communal trance for the entire run. Eventually, PBS showed part of the series and Bravo (then a very high-end film subscription channel) the rest, with repeats..

But times changed. Heimat Three (A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings) heimatparsed the last decade of the 20th century up to the Millennium in just six hours, and was shown here only at the Goethe Institut in Boston. PBS had moved on to Downton Abbey, and Bravo had become a bargain-basement repository for NBC’s schlockiest fare.

reitzIt’s more of a pity than you might imagine, for Reitz is a truly mighty filmmaker, using his camera (often subjectively) as his script’s equal partner in ways that only a master can conjure. This becomes obvious in the very first episodes, where he enables us to experience the first long-distance radio broadcast as the miracle it must have seemed to small-town Germans in 1920. Or to fly slowly over Shabbach inside an antique biplane that allows us to take in the beauty of the forests below. This will pay off in spades in episode 15, when we are inside a supersonic fighter jet in the same location, turning the forests into a green blur. While seeing the entire 53 hours on the big screen is no longer possible, you can find it all on DVD: https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.edgar-reitz.de/&prev=search It’s an incredibly self-indulgent binge, but will satisfy whenever you’re hungry for real film food.

In the meantime, The Anthology Film Archive is offering us the gift of Reitz’ newest: Heimat: A Chronicle home from homeof a Vision,a prequel to the later dramathat takes place in mid-19th-century Germany before its revolution and unification into the country it would become under the Hohenzollern Kaisers until 1918. This is no dry history, but a living, breathing emotional high that keeps you hypnotized,  watching and feeling, until the story ends. And you will still want more….

For a full schedule of the Mighty Reitz (including two of his early pre-Heimat films and a program of shorts), go to  Reitz schedule You won’t get this opportunity often, so take advantage of the here-and-now, now! (September 8 – 17). To buy tickets:
buy tickets

Cooper’s London

August 18, 2015

Mel snapshot 19

Summer Catch-up: Staying In…

It’s summertime and the livin’ is so easy that I just don’t feel like making the effort to get to much, so I’m finding that I prefer spending more time catching up with books, DVDs and CDs that have accumulated for the past months and even some that have accumulated even longerthat I never got around to. Sipping a Pimm’s No 1 (usually indoors during a rain storm) and avoiding all the impossible summer tourist traffic where I live, I’ve come across some lovely surprises. (I’ll forego telling you about the duds.)

alexander kantorowLiszt, Two Piano Concertos, Malédiction: Alexandre Kantorow, pianist;
Tapiola Sinfonietta; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, conductor BIS-2100

My fearless prediction is that Alexandre Kantorow, on the evidence of this fine recording, is a name you should notice now and always seek out. As I write this, he is still only 19 and continuing his studies with Frank Braley at the Paris Conservatoire; but he’s also being invited to make more and more appearances around Europe. His interpretations of jean-jacques kantorow2Liszt, on his first concerto recording and his first for BIS, are a stunning collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra conducted by his father. Jean-Jacques Kantorow is a solo violinist as well and has recently picked up his fiddle again to make a recording of early French violin sonatas inspired, I gather, by his son’s tastes and talents. The playing on this disc is full of unexpected appoggiaturas and tempi, and a clarity of interpretation that’s remarkable lisztfor its freshness. Every moment of the playing feels just right! The somewhat unorthodox “concerto” Malédiction is quite fascinating and comes between the two better-known concerti. The booklet has excellent notes. Kantorow’s is a remarkable performance of three revised and finalised versions of piano concerti that Liszt originally wrote to show off his own virtuosity. Alexandre Kantorow certainly has the fingers for them, as one would expect; and, more importantly, he clearly has the feeling, too. The success of this disc transcends technique. I gather from people who’ve heard him live that Kantorow’s Brahms and Gershwin are just as brilliant and fresh as his Liszt. He’s a keen chamber music performer as well. Definitely a career to follow. I haven’t been this impressed by the Liszt concertos since I heard them played by Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviatislav Richter as a very fortunate young man.

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op35: Leonid Kogan, violinist; Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux and the Paris Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra conducted by Constantin Silvestri, respectively. Recorded 1958 and 1959. Meloydia CD 10 02328

Speaking of Brahms, and of Russian musicians whom I was fortunate enough to hear long ago, Leonid Kogan’s koganearly-ish performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concerti have been released on a Meloydia CD. Recorded while he was on tour in the West in 1958 and 1959 they are, of course, historic documents by now, commemorating a violinist who was somewhat overshadowed in his own day by his compatriot David Oistrakh. Kogan’s playing had a sweetness, lyricism and inward quality that are displayed in these performances with Pierre Monteux in Boston and Constantin Silvestri in Paris. Time and again there are nuances in the phrasing that startle your ears; but above all there is a focused integrity of emotional understanding and commitment that were hallmarks of Kogan’s captivating playing. The cadenzas are particularly brilliant and the slow movements are as sweetly played as I have ever heard them. Kogan was a very special performing artist on the violin and these performances are to be treasured. As Isaac Stern said, Leonid Kogan didn’t just pay the violin brilliantly, he created music on it as if it were being played for the first time. The technique is impeccable; but it’s always in the service of an emotional connection with the music that is offered with great generosity to the audience. It’s quite wonderful to have these two performances preserved on disc and available again. And Tchaikovsky’s Meditation is a real bonus. This is romantic playing of the first rank and great control in the true Russian romantic tradition.

Summer Catch-up: Going Out

Take note of the name Iqbal Khan! In khanhis last gig as a director in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company he created a memorable production of Much Ado About Nothing set in India that was hilarious, yet exceptionally touching. His cast worked as a coherent ensemble with easy give and take and spoke the poetry . The characterizations were spot-on and all the nuances, humour and poignant dark side were strong. Now he’s done it again. He has directed one of the best versions of Othello that I’ve ever seen with his cast once more working together brilliantly; the poetry is always there, and veins of dark humour and wry social commentary lighten and enlighten the text. You will want and need to see everything that Iqbal Khan does from now on. Khan is a stalwart of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and I would travel to Birmingham to see his work.

In this new Othello, Ciaran Bagnall’s mono-set bagnall's setmanages to reference the canals of Venice, a sumptuous palace, and a war-torn Cyprus as required. It also suggests the claustrophobia of the second half of the story by dropping immense drapes to enclose the palace’s space in which most of the action now takes place. The anachronisms in the design and in the costumes by Fotini Dimou make fascinating references to today without dragging the play out of its period; and the music by Akintayo Akinbode invokes a mood of Orientalism but also, in its rhythms, something like the drums of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones as Othello is driven towards murder.

As with his Much Ado, Khan has put the text first. Everything grows from his deep engagement with Shakespeare. The press emphasized that this is an Othello with a black Iago (Lucian Msamati); and there was much fuss about how this would change some of the implications of a play usually played as the story of an outsider Black Man living in a tight White society. Certainly Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Eton-esque Cassio seems to confront and develop this idea; and there are moments of racist stupidity voiced by some of the characters that cause this Iago to stare in disbelief, rippling out to the audience in a thought-provoking and uncomfortable way.

quarshie an msamatiThat said, the casting is, to my mind, “blind”. Within seconds it does not matter that Iago is black. The colour of the skin is less important than the intensity and rightness of the characterizations; each actor in this production inhabits his or her character. Ultimately, the play rests on the credibility of the Othello. Hugh Quarshie, known in the UK for his leading role as a doctor in a weekly TV hospital serial, is startlingly plausible as Othello in all his aspects, loving not wisely but too well, not easily wrought but once moved wrought in the extreme. He starts as a powerful, martial yet diplomatic man, a man of seeming self-confidence aware that he is the best general of his age. The love he shares with Joanna Vanderham’s attractive Desdemona in the opening scene is strongly conveyed. But as Iago works on him, the insecurities and cracks begin to show and he is tormented into becoming a murderer.

othello3Quarshie grows in stature as he grows in paranoia and madness; Desdemona conveys growing sadness and confusion; and Emilia moves more into the center of the action. Msamati is a brilliant Iago. The conclusion of the play is so immensely moving and powerfully staged. that the audience fell silent. Highest praise to the entire company but most of all to the director, Iqbal Khan. He has clearly thought through the weight and meaning of every line of the script and presents a unique, at times surprising, interpretation. My attention did not flag, ever.

Seriously Foxy

At Stratford, Iqbal Khan may be the newer man in town to watch; but often the old- timers can be just as relevant and trevor nunnsurprising. Trevor Nunn has created a truly intelligent production of Volpone that is extremely funny indeed in its observations of the corruption of a class-ridden, greedy, wealth-hungry society and also at moments both poignant and searing. It’s a masterful balancing act, and a darker look at this play than is usual; don’t expect the non-stop hilarity and sentimental satire of the stereotypes that are the common approach. These are present, but part of an unusually complex take. Although Nunn’s Volpone is rounded, droll, multi-layered and ultimately bitter, it also takes full advantage of all the japes and vaudevilles written into the text, and is shot through with a true commedia dell’arte atmosphere while being set in a contemporary world. (Yes, the update works.)

volponeIn Henry Goodman, Nunn has found his perfect Volpone. Goodman’s physicality is astonishing; you can read Volpone’s every thought and change of mood in his mobile face. Goodman is able to be outrageously clownish; he brings out the sardonic side regularly; cheeky and appealing as required, he does all the disguises and different voices and accents to perfection. His versatility and energy keep the audience’s attention and sympathy despite his being such a scoundrel; partly because he’s so adept and partly because the characters he’s gulling are so much more awful than he is (and so much more stupidVolpone’s intelligence is pivotal in this interpretation) that you hope for his victory despite everything.

By contrast, Rhiannon Handy as Celia and Andy Apollo as Bonario are Volpone’s perfect foils: moral young things of integrity at the other end of the scale, confused innocents who are not cloying. Miles Richardson is outstanding as the prototype of the shifty and greedy lawyer, Voltore, especially when suffering his brief attack of mclaughlinconscience. Annette McLaughlin is wonderful as Lady Politic Would-Be, a modern day Kardashian clone in stilletto heels, the star of a live reality show followed everywhere by her attentive crew.

The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is extremely attractive in a post-modernist way. The one weak link seemed to be Orion Lee’s Mosca. But then, I realized that I had come into the theatre as one often does with preconceptions: in this case, of Mosca based on earlier productions I’d seen in which he is much more a co-conspirator of Volpone’s and also on the lookout for his main chance from very early on. Here he’s very much a servant and very aware of the class differences; only spotting his chance and getting up the nerve to pursue it fairly late in the proceedings. Once he does make up his mind, however, he is dangerous and immoveable. I do have a
couple of quibbles about Lee’s performance, but in the end the interpretation ben jonsonof Mosca is consistent with the rest of this strongly individual production.

Nunn’s approach to this production seems not to be to everyone’s taste; but for me it is a brilliant tribute to the wit and serious moral purpose of Ben Jonson and a worthy presentation of an exceptional play.

Apollo’s Girl

July 27, 2015

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

 

Summer in the City:

What to See…

As always, there’s good stuff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and there’s always a retrospective to remind you of what you may have missed and get you images (3)through the dog days. This year it’s Richard Lesterthe irrefutable answer to the pressing question, “Whatever became of fun?”

Lester’s career followed its own arc: an icon of 60s Britain, he was an American (like many other film expats) who chose London over Hollywood. There were some compelling reasons. While we were ramping up in Vietnam, London was exploding with a revolution in film, theatre, music, fashion and art fueled by idiosyncratic, fearless prodigies who reveled in the city’s openness to change and low cost of living. Being there was a singular treat; next best is seeing what made it so special.

images (2)If Harold Pinter: Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation (FSLC 2013) was a bellweather of the era’s dark side; Lester’s upcoming retrospective (August 7 – 13) is the one to make you laugh most of the time and, in the case of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, to be snatched up into the heart of a whirlwind that retains its magic to this day. Seeing it for the first time? Lucky you – prepare to dance in the streets after it’s over! To find out more about Lester, read Sam Kashner’s Vanity Fair interview (Making Beatlemania: A Hard Day’s Night at 50): article and secure your tickets to the retrospective seats

images (5)Before Lester takes the screens, as part of Sound+Vision (July 29 – August 7) you can dip into some homegrown post-Beatles’ beats with Brendan Toller’s Danny Says on opening night, and meet both filmmaker and subject afterwards, and ponder Julian Temple’s images (4)The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. Johnson may be rock’s only star who can read passages from Canterbury Tales in flawless Middle English and lead you gently into contemplating your own mortality. And there’s much more: http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/sound-vision-2015

Catch up with Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack , held over and going strong tangerine_6at the Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center. Tangerine is a no-holds-barred dip into the seamy, steamy transgender street life of LA hustlers shot (beautifully) on an iPhone 55, and anchored by the epic turn of newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Wolfpack, on the other hand, is Tangerine’s polar opposite. Following the coming-of-age of seven siblings who have been kept indoors on the Lower East Side, schooled at home, and enlightened by a diet of films which they have come to memorize and act out in home-grown performances, wolfpack-1024it’s original and startling all the way through. By the end, as the older brothers finally break away to enter the outside world, you are haunted by what their futures will be like and deeply curious about the possibilities of a sequel.

Finally, Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (NDNF 2015) is coming back This original and download (2)unsettling look at genius and ambition richly deserves another run. Opening July 31; don’t miss it this time around! (https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/apollos-girl-57/)

images (7)And, as an end-of-summer special treat, FSLC will screen West Side Story on August 28 at 7:45pm, outdoors on the plaza, where it was actually filmed in 1960 (when there were vacant tenements, a cement basketball court and some very mean streets about to be turned into what is now Lincoln Center). 

Phoenix (Lincoln Plaza and IFC center)

Eager to see the newest work of the director and stars of Barbara (Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld) I enjoyed a recent screening of Phoenix download (4)and set out to write a review. The story of hidden identity, Holocaust survival, betrayal, infidelity and constancy unfolded like a great, twisty period (post-World War II) mystery, acted by a superb cast, directed by a superb director and photographed by Hans Fromm, another Barbara alumnus. It seemed, with a Metascore of 91, like a straightforward rave. And who doesn’t like a great, twisty period mystery?

But it wasn’t about just loving the excellent work of cast and crew; there was also something subtle that wasn’t easily identifiedsomething about the story that made me want to know more about it, and about its origins. A slight sense of displacementperhaps something about its characters and its locationso I pursued the mystery further. Here’s what I found:

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

In 1963, Hubert Monteilhet (prolific French author and winner of the Grand Prix de litérature policière), who specialized in mysteries and historical novels, wrote a best-seller, Le Retour des cendres. The film rights were quickly snapped up in the UK, and a script written (by Monteilhet and Julius Epstein of Casablanca fame); the director was J. Lee Thompson (Planet of the Apes franchise), and the cast starred Ingrid Thulin and Maximillian Schell, with Samantha Eggar playing a character later excised from Phoenix. While the actors spoke English, the story (like the novel) was set in France. The dubious character of the anti-hero was much the same (although he was a chess master rather than a bar porter, and the heroine an X-ray technician, rather than a cabaret singer). The plot was even more complicated then that of Phoenix, but was still deeply concerned with identity and morality. Jazz great John Dankworth did the score for Le Retour (I’m curious about that, too), where Phoenix embedded Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” as a leitmotif throughout the film.

Petzhold’s choices in developing Phoenix were those of a brilliant images (8)filmmaker, but its journey from post-war France to post-war Germany (they were, surely, very different landscapes) wasn’t entirely seamless. Nevertheless, Phoenix’ 91 Metascore tells you how well he stitched the pieces of his pattern together, and why the process of adaptation—without which there would be no film industryis a challenge best undertaken by those, like Petzhold, with the skill and imagination to transform their source material and the actors to follow their lead.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (Cinema Village)

At the end of The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, after all the song 494825881_640credits, where you would expect the lengthy thank-yous that usually end a non-fiction labor of love, the producers (Susan and William Ecker) and director (William download (6)Gazecki) have fashioned a list from the heart: every category includes “Best” before the title noun and name: Best Microfilming Company Ever; New Best Friends; Best Friend Lawyer; New Best Friend Accountant and, notably, New Best Friend and Future Screenwriting Partner: Aaron Sorkin.

 

All of this is entirely appropriate for a film that is, at its beating heart, an unabashed love letter to a Red Hot Mama like no otherSonia Kalish Abuza Tucker, aka images (12)Sophie—whose immigrant rags-to riches story (she was born during her voyage from the Ukraine to America) led her from singing in her parents’ restaurant to performing at the London Palladium for the King and Queen of England. Her appetites were large; she was married three times, had a son who lived in his mother’s shadow all his life, and enjoyed “intimate friendships” with many women (including Lady Edwina Mountbatten). And that’s only for starters.

In the days before television she became a household word by touring, keeping lists of everyone she met on the way, and staying in touch to build an enormous, effective fan base, writing—by hand—cards and letters to each of them to remind them she’d be returning to their area and hoped to see them in the seats. In the 20s and 30s, she sold nostalgia for an earlier time of vaudeville and burlesque, performing songs her theatrical way with a powerful voice, ample body, and confident patter that crossed every social boundary and geographic border. Her radio shows, films, Broadway musicals, and club dates kept her before an adoring public for more than half a century. Wait til you see the footage, and the celebrity interviews….

download (5)So yes, the film is a cinematic love letter, made by writers on whose biography it is based (Susan and William Ecker), and essentially a family affair by them and director William Gazecki. It certainly gives you a sense of Tucker’s talent and magnetism and reminds you how appealing she was. For those who can remember her performances, Outrageous is a welcome feast of nostalgia. For those too young to have known her, it’s a primer for feeling the love. But, at the end, when sentimental tears are flowing, it leaves you curious to know more, to explore this over-the-top public talent more deeply. As much as Soph (as her friends called her) seemed to let it all hang out, her personal life was way ahead of its time, yet enigmatic and fully understood only by her. http://www.sophietucker.com/

P.S.: Special kudos for Guy Digenti’s Best Scrapbook Design, Motion Graphics, and Digital Puppetry.

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.

Cogito: John Branch

October 23, 2014

Books

JB photo-painting by RC 2

 

 

The Peripheral: Futures Imperfect

The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.

William Gibson’s new book has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those who are afraid of the dark.

The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of athe peripheral basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”

We soon learn a little about Flynne’s brother. But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his eyes and ears? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture develops, and further questions accumulate.

Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information.lost The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting the viewer as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded his grasp. Lost piled up perplexities, but you won’t find them in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in bafflement. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates.

That’s not to say that everything is explained. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the story, in such statements as these:

Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”

Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”

Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”

Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”

In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” though the real world in The Peripheral is in the future.

Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of making money—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and her brother’s been doing it lately—but most people earn their living from illegal drugs, manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now relies on a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences.

In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend, Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications with that past world are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.

gibsonThat summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the blurred boundary between the virtual and the real. In The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was, but no longer is, their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.

As is his wont, Gibson reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. The habit upsets some readers. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s work that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about.

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