Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Betraying the past: Theatre Review 'Betrayal' @ Crucible, Sheffield Saturday Matinee 26 May 2012

Perhaps there is something different about older plays - I'm thinking of Shakespeare specifically here, but there could be arguments for other authors too.  Is it just because these plays are older, because we are likely to have seen multiple versions, that we are more accepting of difference as difference between productions?  That with Shakespeare we are less tied to the evaluation of productions against each other, as if they are in competition?

With such points in mind, I feel ambivalent about writing a review of Betrayal at The Crucible, Sheffield, as directed by Nick Bagnall and designed by Colin Richmond.  The production comes hard on the heels of three delightful visits last summer to see Ian Rickson's production of Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre, London.  I wouldn't dream of comparing so easily the various productions of Hamlet I have seen across recent years: all different, all valuable in their own way.  Yet, in trying to comment on this latest version of Betrayal, I find myself making connections to my experiences last summer at every turn.

Apologies if you don't already know the narrative, but as the second review on this play in less than a year, I'm hopefully not spoiling anything too much.  It's a reverse chronology, from long after the end of an affair to it's first flush nearly a decade earlier.

Firstly, I loved the staging here.  With its clear circular floor on the thrust-stage of the Crucible, showing the detritus of life, love and affairs (confetti, letters, albums) under the feet and furniture of our three core participants, this set is an elegant depiction of the environment of the characters.  The furniture present is limited; the backdrop stark.  Everything feels slightly unhomely (not quite in a Freudian sense of unheimlich, uncanny, but certainly distinctions between environments is blurry).  This suits the dislocated tension about what is home, love, loyalty that informs the characters' actions.  When we hit the near mid-play conversation between Robert and Jerry at the restaurant, the stage slowly rotates.  It is an action that visualises the thrown off-balance moment in the affair and allows the audience a moment to observe the power relations between Jerry and Robert.  They circle each other, but only one of them really knows they're doing so.

Sound and music too feel suited to the staging: the awkward squeaks of a guitar - shades of John Williams - stiltedly accompany the relentless realisation of how everything is connected, everything unravels, even as the narrative moves to the start of the chronology.

Costuming has an observable but light-touch 1970s feel without over-stating everything.  I missed the 'Life on Mars' style sideburns and machismo of Ben Miles' portrayal of Robert (which definitely channelled the spirit and presence of author Harold Pinter himself), but appreciated Colin Tierney's looser style and his late-1960s belated mop-top fringe worn in the final scene of the play.

But I'm already slipping into that comparison mode. So here goes.

Tierney, of whom it took me about 15 minutes to click he had been last seen by me as the "dissolute Loevborg" in Hedda Gabler, certainly conveyed a watchful malice as Robert.  But Tierney's anger felt manipulative rather than violent, emotionally distanced and then a tiny bit heartbroken rather than calculated and malevolent in his provocation of Emma confessing her adultery.

Miles, in contrast, bristled near constantly with an explosive fury.  It is worth noting that the reason why Emma and her former lover Jerry meet again, two years after their affair ended, is that Robert had revealed that he too has been having an affair for many years.  One almost gets the sense that in Ben Miles' depiction of Robert, that affair happened less out of desire than out of righteous indignation, a reassertion of his own virility rather like the venting of ...well, everything, that comes through Robert's squash-playing.

As the wife and lover, Emma, Ruth Gemmell has an incredibly difficult job to do and one which she pushes hard to capture.  This is a woman who captivates the heart of her husband's best friend, a woman who - by implication at least - has continued to have affairs after that one ends.  Gemmell's portrayal conveys a sense of wounded observation of her own life, as if from afar, even when she is the centre of attention.  Even at her happiest, there is an uncertainty to the joy of her affair with Jerry.  In that key final/first scene when Jerry declares his love for her, she looks bemused as if already unsatisfied by Robert.  We never really get to the heart of her Emma and why she takes up the offered love of Jerry and ends up in that 7-year affair.  Her reasoning, her decisions remain enigmatic. 

This feels like a clever way to play Emma, but I don't know if it is the way that makes the most emotional sense for me.  And Gemmell is in such an invidious position trying to play against my vivid memories of a luminescent Kristin Scott Thomas.  KST is in such another league (both in terms of acting and beauty), that it unfairly diminishes the well-balanced performance and grace of Gemmell.  What KST brought to the role was a greater sense of Emma's own emotional heart, and her own ability to lie and betray (remember that Emma lies in that first scene, implying, stating, she had told Robert of the affair with Jerry only on the previous night).  At the start of the chronological narrative, that final scene of the play - KST's Emma is swept off her feet by Jerry's declaration, attempting to laugh it off even as she finds herself ultimately tempted.  There was a greater sense of risk-taking in KST's portrayal.

And so to Jerry, portrayed at Sheffield by a boyishly ebullient John Simm.  If there is a wounded joyless-ness to Gemmell's Emma, then all that joy is invested in Simm's scarcely adult Jerry.  His take on Jerry is certainly unable to embody the manly power and authority, the easy lying of Robert.  Moreover, Simm's Jerry seems equally unable to process the fallibility of memory and truth highlighted by Emma (the anecdote of Jerry throwing Charlotte, eldest daughter of Emma and Robert, up into the air is twice wrongly recalled by Jerry as located in the Downs' kitchen rather than Jerry's own).  Simm presents baffled smiles, realisations that seem incompletely processed and absorbed; his actions and guileless ignorance of the blindingly obvious appear the act of someone scarcely properly advanced from the trusting belief of childhood.  He inhabits the Pinter pauses with bewildered charm.  But for all the deception inevitably required for an affair, Jerry's faith that he and Emma's ability to conceal had been "brilliant", is misguided in the extreme.  The start of the affair looks more an act of wilful pursuit of pleasure than an unburdening of passion.

And this for me was what kept this production in a place where I could not help comparing it with last year's and not to the Crucible's advantage, for all that I enjoyed this latest version of a compelling play.  Simm was probably the best thing about this version, but he just could not compete with Henshall's performance as Jerry.  I've said it often, but Henshall is masterful at conveying a real sense of impassioned emotion.  Where Simm captured disappointment (as when Emma and Jerry part from their flat in Kilburn), Henshall embodied an overwhelmed sadness and loss.  And in that initial declaration of love to Emma, Henshall's words tumble in a torrent of dam-bursting reckless passion.  Henshall's Jerry is as ignorant and deluded as the role requires, equally well-caught in Simm's expressive boyish face, especially his eyebrows.  But Henshall's Jerry is more of a grown-up, more astonished, shocked, and mortified than Simm in his realisations of being betrayed by his own emotions and recollections.

Even so, despite my honest feelings about last year's London performances (biased as I am over Henshall), everything I say about the Sheffield production still feels a little unfair.  Because it is a fine, very fine production, and the performances - especially Simm's - are very good indeed.  It's just that in the end, in a play about hearts, my heart moved a little more last year at the flawed optimism and passion infusing the Comedy Theatre version.

On until 9 June 2012.

Friday, May 25, 2012

MyCalendar on FB - ARGH!!!

Bloody stuck in screen loading hell.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Further Thoughts on 'The Bridge' - our latest Scandi passion

Loved this comment from Heasgarnich on the Guardian's weekly round-up blog on The Bridge:
You know, watching this makes me worried for a potential remake of this. The US Killing was absolute shit-on-a-kebab-stick-roasted-in-the-fires-of-Mordor. Could you imagine a British version of The Bridge? *shudder*
BWAH! I wasn't convinced by the US version of The Killing, but that may be a tad harsh.  Nevertheless, this made me chuckle much.

I won't say too much here as some are watching this on a different schedule - I know at least one friend who has banked the episodes for a marathon watch next week - but so far we've had five social problems explicitly challenged (by means of death/threatened death), more herrings than a herring farm, and the ever adorable Saga Noren fast becoming one of my favourite ever female characters.

One small thing: the subtitling.  Admittedly, most of our criticisms come from immersion in Scandi-drama and attention to the narrative rather than us learning Swedish or Danish, but some of the translations have been ropey or plain wrong (both literally - the subtitles switched references to Eckwall as having been a politician before she was a prosecutor, which should have been the other way around - and also just in terms of sense - Saga says something that clearly SOUNDS like 'if I'd have had sex i'd have said I had sex' but which got translated into something else entirely which made almost no sense at all).

Anyway, we're loving it.  Roll on the finale of The Bridge!

the never ending shower saga...

Seriously considering weeping: have been without a functioning electric shower since end of March / beginning of April. 
  1. needed to contact an electrician - took til just pre-Easter. 
  2. needed new shower
  3. needed to order new shower - with Easter and trips this took til end of April to arrange delivery / collection. 
  4. plumber advised when trying to install that actually original shower should never have been fitted as wrong power level for the wiring [so could not fit as would not have been safe] 
  5. needed to return newly purchased shower for refund 
  6. needed to contact NEW and different supplier for the most suitable shower 
  7. needed electrician to collect this [as outside of area and opening hours didn't allow us to collect]
  8. hurrah today electrician came with shower to install.

Problem: faulty valve in shower - manufacturers need to come and deal with it.

Result: still no functioning shower.

Thank heavens we actually have a bath.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Spry, wry, sly: the silken mischief of Richard III - theatre review, Wednesday 16 May 2012 evening performance: RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

Jonjo O'Neill's Ulster inflection brings a  lively and surprising tone to Roxana Silbert's production of Richard III at the Swan Theatre this year.  I've not seen the play on stage since I saw (Sir) Ian McKellan's version in 1992, and missed seeing Kevin Spacey tearing up the stage with terrifying and seductive aplomb last year.  A shame: but then I may not have been able to enjoy this version as much.

For this is an impish, wilful, tormenting, deluded Gloucester, who becomes King Richard III with daring and relative ease.  Is he scary and evil?  Not in the usual way: he's manipulative for sure, and plays with those around him with the capriciousness of someone frustrated at their position in life and sometimes stunned at his own capacity for manipulation (as in his delirious buttonholing of a guard after wooing Lady Anne [Pippa Nixon] - it's a kind of "Did she just let me do that?!").

He's also fairly spry in his constrained body, scuttling and emphasising his limitations as he sees fit to suit his needs and means.  He's also clearly pathologically beyond the edge, as when he wrestles with one of the young princes and near strangles the child in his fury.  O'Neill plays Richard as a wry and sly smiling villain.  This is a Richard who grins - whose smile, whose villainous smile - brought to mind the lines from Hamlet:
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! [...]
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain...
And he knows he is in a position of power to wield the need to laugh at his jokes, and force agreement, who will turn in an instant on those who even hint at not conforming to his will and needs. He dares us to laugh at his guile and gall, even as we know he has controlled and caused so many deaths.  When he becomes haunted, when he starts to sink under the weight of his own distrust and manipulation, the disintegration is all the more alarming - because we've kinda been rooting for this teasing, vile creature, one who has carefully kept his own hands largely clean and engaged us in being compelled to go along with his climb to the top.

As ever, the production is tremendously well put together and I was especially pleased that Paola Dionisotti topped her very fine performance in King John with an exceptionally furious prophesying banshee turn as exiled Margaret.  Similarly good was Siobhan Redmond as Elizabeth Woodville.  (And my god, that woman always looks amazing as she keeps on giving cracking performances).  Brian Ferguson is an arch spin-doctor Buckingham to Gloucester's rise to be Richard III: and he falls as all spin-doctors fall.  He who hesitates is cursorily abandoned.  And it was good to see Alex Waldmann, so fine as King John, re-appear as Catesby, prepared to follow his master's whims.

Some reviews have criticised O'Neill for being too comedic and too unconvincing at the wickedness, but is that really what we need from all our Dickie 3 performers?  Is there no space to play the role differently, to bring out different aspects?  This may not please traditionalists, but it is an enjoyable and provocative version and you feel pretty wicked for having laughed with this villain so easily.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Alex Ferguson's begrudged acceptance of 'Man City time'

After many MANY years of notorious quantities of 'Man United time' (a.k.a. ludicrous levels of extra time being played until Manchester United got the required result), Sir Alex Ferguson now bemoans that Man City had a similar thing enabling them towards yesterday's Premier title win.

"Everybody expected City to win, but they did it against 10 men for half an hour and with five extra minutes to help them," Ferguson said, somewhat pointedly. "But I congratulate City on winning the league. Anybody who wins it deserves it."
Hmm. Good to give the congrats, but not so good the pot/kettle routine about the extra time.  'Cos you, dude, Mr Manchester United, have never benefitted from an abundance of extra time being offered, eh...?!

Still - at least after 44 years Man City fans can finally shut up about the title race.  They won by chucking stacks of money at it, and STILL nearly didn't make it.  But anyway: Marc Riley will be happy...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In (inevitable) praise of... Avengers Assemble

Well, THAT was pretty awesome.  Avengers Assemble (apologies for the clumsy title variant in the UK).  Brilliant stuff.  Here's the original trailer from last year and the current one for the release.

Helen and I went to see Avengers Assemble last night: neither of us especially well versed in the previous films leading up to this.  Did you need  to be?  Not really: H managed well enough with some handy muttered explanations of the couple sat next to her, and I had enough geek factor to fill in any gaps.

Of course, its (just) a movie and nothing is ever perfect; but Whedon's classic response aside, this is pretty much a fan-geek's dream come true.

There are plenty of delightful set-ups as the characters come on board, but by the end the film is beyond its stride: it is taking colossal steps over everything and throwing an exceptional amount of wit into the dialogue and gestures as it goes.  Oh there is LOADS of action.  Plus if you don't come out chuckling at the line "Puny God", you obviously went to see another film in error. 

As ever, trailers can be a tad revealing, but if you haven't already seen the film, I'd urge you to go.  For the spectacle, for the action and for the sparkling Whedon wit. Brilliant!