Theatre Review: Henry V

Where: Noel Coward Theatre, London / When: 30th November 2013

Henry V is the first of Shakespeare’s historical plays I’ve seen, and what a version to see. Classily designed, acted and directed, Jude Law gives an engaging and spirited performance in the title role, supported by a well-rounded cast.

The play is a long one, so for those that are unfamiliar with the plot (as I was), catch up here.

Firstly, the set design was utterly brilliant. A bare, wooden, whitewashed ‘U’ shape formed the main stage, with a sense of space behind it, allowing characters to charge off towards the action, without having to construct multiple sets. It’s plain, whitewashed look also created a slightly dreamlike quality, as if we were imagining the action. This feeling was enhanced by the presence of our very own Greek chorus, an omnipresent narrator who addressed the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall at regular times throughout the play. The young actor playing the narrator (a very good Ashley Zhangazha) was dressed in modern clothing, making him distinct amongst the rest of the cast, who were dressed in period appropriate clothing. He also doubled up as another role, that of a young ‘boy’ soldier. This drifting in and out of the story – in plain view of the audience – only added to the dreamlike quality.

I have to confess that I found the first half rather tedious. Though the acting was good, very little seemed to actually happen and it felt like a lot of scenes of talking about possible battles, but with nothing really driving the action. Things picked up considerably in the second half, when battle is commenced and the actors are able to let loose a bit more. The final scene between Henry and Princess Katharine of France was delighful, but seemed a little incongrous. It was so lightly played and funny (with Law admirably making fun of his own, real-life signs of aging) it seemed a liittle odd coming at the end of a play about war. While the scene was enjoyable to watch, I did feel it interuppted the flow of the piece, though there were clearly limits on how Grandage could incorporate it smoothly, with its deliberate change of tone and pace.

I think it would be fair to say that many of the audience members were there to see Jude Law (I was killing two birds with one stone – seeing what was a new play for me and an actor I had not yet seen on stage) and he did not disappoint. I had heard good things about Law as a stage performer and he filled the role of Henry with charisma and energy. It made me wonder why he doesn’t play more of these traditional ‘heroes’. His Henry was commanding, warm and vigorous. Coupled with Law’s stage presence, it meant he was convincing as a leader and you felt his passion for England and his belief in his own quest. Law was ably supported by a great cast of supporting actors, with Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen as particular stand outs, along with the previously mentioned Zhangazha.

Henry V is the closing show of the inaugral Michael Grandage Company season. The collection of plays shown at the Noel Coward has been an interesting one, taking the sort of work and performances usually seen in subsidised theatre and putting them in a commercial setting. Judging by teh packed out theatre each time I’ve been, it’s been a success. There’s no question that this may well have a lot to do with the consistently starry casting, but the variety of plays produced indicates that Grandage is perhaps willing to experiment further, now this first independent season is under his belt.

Film Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second instalment in the Hunger Games series, based on the very successful book trilogy by Suzanne Collins and featuring everybody’s secret best friend, Jennifer Lawrence. Full disclosure at this point: I am a big fan of the books and so may be a tad biased with this one…

Catch up with the plot of the first film here

In Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen is living in the sad, empty ‘Victor’s Village’ of District 12, trying to forget the trauma of the games and her own guilt, both at living where friends died and for now having so much compared to the rest of her community. She is avoiding her joint District 12 winner, Peeta Mellark, embarrassed at ‘tricking him’ into believing she returned his feelings for her. Just before embarking on a victory tour across the nation, Katniss learns that President Snow is watching her. Her victory has incited flames of rebellion and he is counting on her to stamp them out – or he will permanently eliminate her and her family. Katniss and Peeta try to calm the districts while on the tour, but their natural instincts to reach out to others seem to win out and they make the situation worse. In order to punish Katniss and eliminate her in as discreet a way as possible, President Snow announces that this year’s 75th Hunger Games will feature only former victors as tributes, sending Katniss back into the arena to fight for her life once again…

Catching Fire has been widely praised,  and cited as an improvement on first film (which was very good). Despite clocking in at over two hours, the film doesn’t feel long – in fact it seems very well paced. It is beautiful to look at, with the Capitol realised in spectacular technicolour, contrasting perfectly with the endless grey of the districts. Our leads look different, too. Both Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have had their wardrobes subtly upgraded. They dress very closely to the way they did before, but there’s a warmth and richness to their clothing this time round, to indicate their uncomfortable (and hard won) new positions of privilege. The brutality of the violence occuring in the districts is effectively realised – demonstrated in short, sharp bursts, the effect all the more shocking for being glimpsed at, rather than laid out for us. The audience, like Katniss, can feel something is happening, but the truth is always kept just out of reach. We are left as frustrated as she is.

The arena was brought to life in all it’s menacing glory; each fresh horror inflicted upon our tributes was smartly designed and played and it seemed to me to be very close to the book’s descriptions. Interestingly, the arena also felt more vulnerable this time, its fabricated setting more obvious. Perhaps that was due to the tributes having been through this experince before. They are wise to the Capitol’s tricks and they know it’s a game, in a way that was harder to feel in the first film. The constant rumblings of discontent and rebellion echo throughout the film; graffiti glimpsed through a train window, tributes openly complaining about being sent back to the arena, confused, frenetic TV footage and peaceful (and not so peaceful) protests being squashed. The books are undeniably political and it was good to see that the filmmakers are not shying away from that aspect of the story. I suspect it will be watered down, but the social, economic and politcial ideas running through the book trilogy are interesting and relevant to the viewing audience.

Much of the success of the film is due to Jennifer Lawrence’s engaging and fierce performance as Katniss, giving us a tough, interesting heroine to root for. Lawrence manages to play Katniss as guarded with the other characters, while simultaneously allowing the audience to glimpse some of her inner monologue. In an impressive final shot, we see multiple emotions and questions running across Lawrence’s face, which she conveys with the slightest of movements. It is an impressive, nuanced performance which anchors and grounds the film. I also really enjoyed the performances of newcomers Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jena Malone as Johanna and (one of my favourites) Jefferey Wright as Beetee.

I have a lot of time for Josh Hutcherson and enjoy his performance as Peeta, but I think he was badly served by this film. His character is a far more prominent part of the story than was represented and I did feel he was offscreen more than he was on. I didn’t feel like much time was spent developing his and Katniss’ relationship, making it hard for those that haven’t read the books to understand why she makes such a fuss about protecting him. It may also lessen the impact of certain events in the third film, which would be a real shame. I was also a little disappointed by the amping up of the ‘love triangle’ aspect of the story – a more minor plotpoint in the book.

Those minor niggles aside though, this was a very enjoyable film. It was well paced, full of action and provided us with a really interesting female lead in a major blockbuster – something we could always use more of.

Exhibition Review: Pop Art Design

Where: Barbican Centre / When: November 2013

I was very excited to visit the Barbican’s Pop Art Exhibit, as it’s one of my favourite movements and I am a big fan of Roy Lichtenstein. The exhibition has been heavily promoted and as so much of what is produced by the Barbican is thoughtful and intelligent, I was looking forward to seeing what the exhibit contained.

The exhibition was laid out over two floors and explored the different aspects and nuances to Pop Art design. As you wonder round, vivid colours and big, imposing sculptures looming out at you, you can hear the slightly spooky, space-agey music from the film installations floating all around you, throughout the exhibit. This gave me the feeling of being in some sort of surrealist film, which added to my experience. The origins of the movement were explored, as well as its critique of and impact on the social culture of the time. I loved all the graphic and typography work in particular. Alexander Girard’s work in typography was especially memorable. So much of the work had a disarming apparent simplicity – collages with magazine cut outs, for example – or the focus on a single, everyday object (for example, there was a sculpture of a crushed cigarette that I loved, but can’t seem to find the name of the sculptor) that seemed innocuous, yet had a powerful effect in person. The often misogynistic and sexualising undertones of the movement were also highlighted, though perhaps more could have been made of the few female artists on display. I loved the uses of colour, repetition and the often startling juxtaposition of ‘banal’ images against more vivid ones, like Jim Dine’s Drag – Johnson and Mao for example; an everyday news image presented in a startling new way. One piece that both fascinated and alarmed was Gunnar Aagaard Andersen’s Portrait of my Mother’s Chesterfield Chair, 1964, which I feel kind of has to be seen to be believed!

I’ll admit, this exhibition exposed my knowledge of Pop Art as pretty shallow and (being truthful) I would have preferred more that I recognised, such as Lichtenstein, though Warhol was well represented. However, the exhibition was wide ranging and there was something for everyone to examine, appreciate and enjoy. I heartily enjoyed my visit and the shop is jam packed with all sorts of pop art-influenced gifts (a perfect source for Christmas if you have artistically inclined friends and family). The exhibition is showing at the Barbican until February 2014.

Film Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s latest film, a sort of tragicomedy, depicting the fall of the eponymous Jasmine, in a virtuoso performance by Cate Blanchett, whose millionaire husband lost everything through fraudulent business dealings (primarily a Ponzi scheme) and who is trying to rebuild her life while living with her wayward, estranged sister.

Allen’s film is very of our time; the parallels to the Madoff scandal and the feeling – especially in the US – that the rich are take, take, taking from the poor are keenly observed and are surely resonant with current audiences. They certainly were with me. While the rest of the audience I saw it with seemed to think it was a comedy (and there are some very funny scenes) I found the film utterly heart-breaking and quite disturbing at points. Allen examines one woman’s psyche, with both he and Blanchett laying Jasmine completely bare to the audience. She is delusional, deluded and not really prepared for any sort of reality. The film switches between the present and Jasmine’s former life, showing us both the extreme contrast between her present poverty and previous luxury and the events that led up to her world collapsing. We understand just how deep her refusal to understand the world around her and to see the truth of the people she loves goes. For Jasmine, life must be perfect, easy and beautiful. It must be according to her rules and her design or she cannot cope.

The film lives and dies on Blanchett’s performance and what a performance it is. Always good, here she is extraordinary, giving an exquisite and incredibly moving portrait of a clearly damaged and flawed woman trying to build a life she understands and recognises. Blanchett plays the contradictions within Jasmine beautifully. She is perpetually telling her sister Ginger (energetically played by the lovely Sally Hawkins) that she can do better with her boyfriends, blithely ignoring her own catastrophic mistake in partner: a husband who lied, cheated and built their lives on matchsticks. She talks about gaining qualifications and getting a job, slowly realising that she is totally unqualified for life as an independent adult; yet the moment a man of ‘the right sort’ appears she pursues him far more aggressively than her education, desperate for the safety and security of a wealthy and important man who will – essentially – let her do what she is best at; looking pretty and being charming.

The shock of all she has been through – losing her husband, fortune, friends and home – also causes her to lose her mind. Jasmine is clearly unstable and has vivid hallucinations that Blanchett plays with total sincerity and desperation, making them a retreat, a safe place for Jasmine in amongst the chaos around her. The film also teases us with the idea that Jasmine’s instability might stem from her part in her own destruction. As the flashbacks move closer and closer towards the present day, more and more questions are asked (and answered) about Jasmine’s role in what’s happened to her, making the study of her character even more interesting than if she had been a passive victim.

The film is an excellent character study and an incredible showcase for Blanchett’s considerable talents. Not the happiest film going experience, but if you have an interest in the mechanics of acting, then well worth a watch.

Book Review: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears is the latest novel from Peter Carey – one of my all-time favourite writers. It’s a much slimmer novel than many of his previous works, but like much of his other work, builds and creates a fully formed, detailed world for his characters to inhabit.

The basic plot was as follows: Catherine, our narrator, has been secretly seeing a married man, a colleague at Swinburne Museum, for many years. At the beginning of the novel she discovers he has died unexpectedly and the story examines her struggle with her secret grief. We follow her as she tries to suppress her pain, whilst being tasked with building a strange automaton recently arrived at the museum. Grateful to bury herself in work, she discovers a selection of journals accompanying the object and finds a kindred spirit in the writer, Henry Brandling, who originally commissioned the automaton as present to his sick child and is also using the building of the automaton to distract himself from his own pain. As the automaton is built, so their stories progress and so Catherine begins to repair.

I was a bit wary picking up The Chemistry of Tears. I have previously been a staunch Carey devotee (Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang and one my favourites, Oscar and Lucinda). However, the last novel of his that I read was Theft: A Love Story, which I more or less hated. It’s always frustrating when a previously loved author writes something you don’t like. It’s natural, if the writer is any good, as they will adapt, update and search for new styles and material, but that doesn’t stop it from being disappointing. Having been burned before then, I was worried about how The Chemistry… would turn out.

Well, I certainly liked it better than Theft…, though it came nowhere close to his older novels for me.  On the negative side, part of the issue was Catherine, our primary narrator. I found her profoundly irritating throughout most of the novel, which was frustrating to read. As she was grieving, I would have thought sympathy was the intended response but I struggled to feel it. Her narrative voice had an odd, stiff quality to it and I’m not sure that there was enough character history or exploration for me to understand why Catherine behaved the way she did; she seemed to make strange, aggressive choices about the work and other people, which without closer examination, I found hard to contextualize. However, the novel is set in a specifically defined time period and indeed, time is a focal point for our characters, both the need of it and never having enough. We are looking at a snapshot of a life – both in Catherine and in Henry Brandling (who I warmed to as a narrator far more) – so detailed exploration or character history wouldn’t really work within that framing device.

Like many of his other works, Carey chooses a topic around which characters’ motivations are built and from which we can learn a great deal about them. He builds a rich, detailed world of knowledge for both his characters and his readers, never presuming that the reader is an expert or a fool. In Oscar and Lucinda this topic was gambling and religion, in Jack Maggs it was mesmerism, in Theft: A Love Story it was art forgery and in The Chemistry of Tears it is automatons. Carey immerses our narrators and the reader in this world, incorporating the science, theory and design of these strange, unreal yet living creatures throughout the book. I have to admit, I found quite a bit of the technical aspects rather dry, but you couldn’t dispute the authority and credibility the detail provided gives to the narrative. Carey shows how beautiful science can be to those that depend on it and the almost religious fervour it can provoke, as seen in the automaton’s craftsman, Herr Sumper.

Carey has always been terrifically gifted at evoking historical settings and I enjoyed all the Henry Brandling sections. You felt his yearning and need to help his son, while knowing he was ultimately helpless. I found Herr Sumper completely terrifying, like something out of a gothic novel and there was definitely an added spookiness to those parts of the novel. He is one of those monstrous, cunning, larger than life men that Carey is so good at imagining. I also enjoyed the vivid descriptions of London in the summer – the inclusion of actual details and events of 2010 really brought it to life for me.

The themes explored within the novel: what it is to be truly alive, grief and our understanding of time are all beautifully explored. I felt distanced from the action much of the time due to my previously noted struggles with the narrative voice, but Carey has unquestionably written a delicate, elegant and uplifting book, celebrating the human spirit.