Friday, April 27, 2012

Impassioned, imprisioned: Reviewing 'The Kidnap Diaries'

What better way to spend your lunch break than watching 'The Kidnap Diaries'? (as was broadcast on BBC4 last night).

Okay, so it may not be everyone's first choice of lunchtime activity but it was a damn fine way to spend mine.

Douglas Henshall plays Sean Langan, a journalist whose bravado gets the better of him when he think he is getting an 'in' to go beyond just meeting the Taleban (which he had previously covered in documentaries) and would now get into the training camps of the Pakistan/Afgan border areas.

It takes Langan a little while to process that he is not 'waiting' for approval to go to the training camps, when he is led - blindfolded, at gunpoint - to be shut in a small room.  Sami (Jimi Mistry), his translator who arrives to join him a day or so later, is self-aware more quickly (and, for a while at least, Sami quickly goes off the rails into despair).

They're not getting anywhere close to the training camps: they'll be lucky to escape with their lives.

Langan is perhaps the classic journalist risk-taking - passionate about what he does, a 'fearless journalist' as he often describes himself in the flashback sequences of him with his children, telling them the stories of the 'brave journalist'.  Henshall's a great choice for this role: never less than impassioned, he captures the mercurial daring and excess of Langan's journalism and life before the kidnap --- and most beautifully his horrified realisation of what he has got into when he is locked into the small dark room he and Sami are kept in.  Henshall is at his best when at the edge: the scene where he refuses to give the Taleban commander the names of his children is heartbreaking (and it is regarding his children and their ever seeing this drama that Langan himself still struggles over - as seen in the interview with Mark Lawson also shown on BBC4). The figure of Langan/Henshall crashes and burns, flying too close to the sun, and the fairytale tales of 'daring-do' that are told to his children on the sofa come to haunt the period of imprisonment.

There have been far too few reviews for this excellent drama - The Telegraph, Metro - but its deserves plaudits for its excellent portrayal of the madness of journalists and the horrors of near-death captivity.  We are shown the humanity and pressures of the family to whom the Taleban entrust their prisoners (Gul Jan, played by Andreas Karras) as well as the captors themselves.  Mr C, played by Ramon Tikram is terrifying in his relaying of messages from higher up the command - the possibility, probability, of death - all delivered with 'friendly' side-helpings of "bloody good stuff, Mr Langan".  The captors have little idea what to do with their quarry and verdicts of guilt are proffered and rescinded, only to be replaced by sentences of death, followed freedom.  Everything is qualified, edged, uncertain.

It's a rollercoaster of the worst kind.

In Praise of... The Bridge

Ooooh, am liking - nay, LOVING - The Bridge, the latest BBC4 arrival on the Scandi-drama front.

The deliciously frank Saga Noren is rapidly proving to be a new heroine for me: what does it say about me and my love for Scandi women?!  Lisbeth Salander (genius brain, Aspergers); Sarah Lund (smartly insightful, risk-taker, introvert); Birgitte Nyborg (savvy, emotional but tough, isolated); and now Saga Noren (smart, socially awkward, focused).

Some might accuse me liking characters who are either very different to me or in whom I recognise traits of myself (or traits I might admire).  But I don't think so - you don't have to identify with characters to find them interesting or affecting (see MediumRob's question of the week).  But these characters are appearing in dramas that have very well constructed dramatic arcs, and somehow despite all the cliches these resonate.

The Bridge is shaping up nicely to have a real impact on my Saturday nights (I've almost forgotten what other broadcast stations look like on Saturday nights, so long has the European drama thing been filling my weekends with BBC4).  Murders, tension, characters and conflict, politics and social issues: brilliant.

Colonisation. War. Terrorism. Gender Issues. Slavery. Communication: more than 'young adult'' fiction - book review of the Chaos Walking Trilogy (Patrick Ness)

Patrick Ness first hit my radar some years ago the book 'The Crash of Hennington', a curious and quirkily enjoyable narrative about a town that lives with a 'crash' of Rhinos amidst them, a crash that frequently charges through the town reaping a level of destructiveness exceeded by the humans who live there.

I was a good way through reading this trilogy - Chaos Walking - before I rediscovered that previous encounter with Ness in my memory bank, but it made sense.  For here was a writer whose construction of worlds, no matter how odd, seemed nevertheless to be perfectly human and recognisable even as they vibrated with otherness.

The trilogy may be targeted to a young adult readership, but no-one is dumbed down to here in this complex tale of distinctly adult themes and content.  The two central young adult figures - Todd Hewitt and Viola Eade - are placed at the centre of  narratives that take in gender debates, war, slavery, and colonisation.  Problems around communication and language are central to its narrative.

From the first page we enter a vibrant world: Todd's thoughts are 'audible'... and so are those of his dog.  In fact all thoughts of men (and boys) are audible at all times, and so are those of  the animals (even though these may be more straightforward and practical, less emotional and harsh). 

But there are no women in Todd's world, at least to start with - until he encounters Viola: silent, unknowable Viola.

Because whilst women can hear the thoughts of men and animals, the thoughts of women cannot be heard.

The synopses on the back of each volume give a certain insight into the developing narrative of this other world, which has suitably ambiguous villains and heroes who struggle to be heroic.  What is important to note is that these are characters you will care about and feel for: not just the magnificently flawed Todd and Viola, but Ben, Wilf, Hildy, Lee, Simone and others.  Even the violence of Mistress Coyle and the deeply vile Mayor Prentiss are characterised with sufficient detail and ambiguity to be able to see how actions can be justified in the most horrific of circumstances.  Not all characters are good - even those who are 'good' do bad things - but it is a mark of Ness's quality of writing that his narratives do not shy away from ambivalence and horror.

There are many deaths that will move and bereave the reader as they work through the approximately 1600 pages that make up this trilogy: they're worth every second of your reading.  And by the end... you'll have reached the end and will project forward the necessary, appropriate resolution.

I've still got another of Ness's titles to read - A Monster Calls, which was developed from an idea by writer Siobhan Dowd (who sadly died before she could bring the idea to fruition: "She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time".).  The text is beautifully - and scarily - illustrated by Jim Kay and I'm definitely looking forward to engaging with that.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

"Mad world! Mad Kings! Mad composition!" - rethinking power and gender in King John: RSC, Swan Theatre, Saturday 7 April 2012 preview

King John used to be a real crowd-pleaser (back in the 19th century), but has had long periods of having fallen out of favour.  It's hard to see why, since this history play is eminently adaptable to commentary on power, authority, and - in this version especially - gender.  With several strong women characters already in the play, the balance of this production tips even further to the female, with The Bastard being played with the sinewy strength by Pippa Nixon and the Legate Pandulph portrayed by a magisterial and elegant Paola Dionisotti.  
Alex Waldman makes the title role that of a headstrong but ultimately chaos-wreaking young man, out of his depth amidst such strong women.  He fails to compromise, then compromises, and is eventually bought down by poison: a real 'inside I'm dancing' thrash to the death, putting on the show to convince himself more than anyone else.  He's mortified at the pathetic nature of his departure from life. I think Waldman could go far as he's pretty mesmerizing to watch even as this flawed and malleable King.  Resembling James McAvoy won't do the guy any harm either... 
There are some nice flashes of humour and incongruity throughout the production - many allow Nixon space to soliloquize to a rapt audience.  She stops the show, the party, the politics, to comment on the mad family who have allowed her 'Couer-de-Lion' features a role in shoring up these 'Nations at War' (to use the RSC's over-arching thread which includes this play and Richard III*).  Nixon plays The Bastard as one with amused detachment and simultaneously fierce confidence: s/he open the play with a solo ukulele version of 'Land of Hope and Glory', before the music launches fully into Pomp and Circumstance mode and the coronation of John garners exultant (if sychophantic) cheers in front of an irked Chatillion (the fine if under-used Edmund Kingsley**).
There is also a hilarious sequence - if in terms of the play utterly superfluous - where the party to celebrate the (doomed) marriage of Blanche and Lewis, the Dauphin, becomes a recreation of the Dirty Dancing finale complete with a finger-clicking advance and a leap/lift.  It's incongruous, but also rather charming - families willing this compromise to work, but realising all too late that it cannot when the authority of the Church turns up in the form of an imperious Legate to bring wayward John and England's faith back into line.  The party comes to an abrupt end, and Blanche is left once more the pawn of the power-plays where her body and mind are merely exchangeable commodities on an alter of authoritarianism.
The play makes good use of the mother figures, who elsewhere are all too easily given to histrionics in productions of King John: here Constance (mother of the doomed Arthur) is suitably grief-stricken but the distress is contained whilst being no less powerful for that.  Additionally, the ever-luminous Siobhan Redmond*** makes for a righteous power behind-the-throne Queen Elinor.  Her off-stage death brings to an swift end her efforts to manage the wayward, hotheaded John.  Her political accommodations befit her own strengths as a royal force to be acknowledged.
For me, there is just one slightly wrong note in this production: the conflation of The Bastard with Hubert, who is 'instructed' by John to kill the young Arthur and fails.  Sadly, for me it does not seem to quite work.  Is it being female that weakens the act of putting out the eyes of the young prince?  It undermines the otherwise smart but not so simplistic gender-switch of The Bastard.  
But this is a minor complaint in a very savvy production, worth seeing and which I am sure will iron out any rough edges from this preview version (it was only the second performance).
In the meantime, we'll be back next month when I'm looking forward to seeing the delightful Jonjo O'Neill again playing Richard III.  Should be fun.

* The trilogy of 'Nations of War' concludes with 'A Soldier in Every Son - The Rise of the Aztecs'
** Yup, Sir B's progeny
*** Yes, that was how I sold Neil the play.  Plus, ya know, politics and history.  He likes them.

"If you Like Fargo, You'll like this" - Film Review: Headhunters (Jo Nesbo) - Broadway Cinema Nottingham Good Friday 2012

Although we've diligently read the Harry Hole books of Jo Nesbo, from 'The Redbreast' onwards, we'd not gone back and read Nesbo's earlier fiction such as 'Headhunters'.

I'm tempted to see how it now compares, because having found the film a joyous revisitation of the best of the early Coen Brothers films - especially Fargo - I'm keen to see if the book has half the black humour and bloody verve of the film version.

For those who think that the world has been a little short of farce, brutal violence, and dislikeable characters becoming 'rooting-for-em' heroes of empathy, then Headhunters is for you.  Busting genres with gleeful abandon, it switches from art theft, to corporate manipulation, with crashes, cesspits, webcams, guns, knives, tractors, trained-to-kill-dogs and everything in between.

I laughed out loud as often as I hid behind my hands at the blood, but it was well worth it.  Don't fret that for the for first 15-20+ minutes you want to slap the greedy, self-important Roger Brown (with a height complex), pretty soon you'll be hoping his sorry ass survives the psychotic violence that ends up tracking him through cars, hospitals, and hoodies.  It's a mad ride, but utterly enjoyable.

Skip watching the trailer (as ever, I think it gives way too much away) and just go and revel its its excess.  A total blast.

Bonus point: the film has a running time of a brisk 90 minutes.  Brilliant!