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The Importance of Being Earnest – a new take

22 Apr

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The other week I went to the Barbican to watch Gerald Barry’s adaptation of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.  I knew very little about what to expect, except that it was an operatic version of the famous play.  I should mention that although I have never read or watched the play, I had a basic understanding of the premise given its ubiquity.  I should also mention I’m not particularly a fan of opera but these tickets were a gift and it had received a plethora of positive reviews, so I was optimistic.

It’s one of Wilde’s lighter plays, humorous and farcical in nature although it does touch upon the rigid, ridiculous social conventions of the time.  This adaptation took place on a rather bare stage, on which the orchestra sat alongside the actors.  In some ways, the actors singing their lines in an operatic fashion worked – it added to their ridiculousness and pomposity.  But in another way, it was quite frustrating and try-hard, and lost a great deal of novelty after the first few minutes.

The orchestra’s discordant score along with the characters’ manic dialogue created something of a frenzied, ridiculous atmosphere.   Add in plate smashing and jumping around the stage while singing in falsetto, and you get a weird mix of humour and irritation and I left the theatre nursing a mild headache, relieved to return to the world of normal speech.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – a moving exploration into the twisted nature of female friendship

2 Feb

During the Christmas holiday period, I pretty much devoured ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood.  I’ve reviewed some of her work before and she has been one of those writers that I’ve been drawn to, in terms of the subject matter of her novels.  Despite this, though, I’ve never been fully convinced by her writing (I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘The Edible Woman’ or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’… I know, controversial stuff) which I sometimes find rather verbose and I sometimes find it difficult to fully connect with her protagonists.  That was until I read ‘Cat’s Eye’.

The novel is centred around the Elaine Risley, a famous painter, reminiscing about her childhood and early adult years, specifically on her relationship with Cordelia.  It explores the strange and often twisted nature of female friendships at such a young age, where Cordelia is a tormenter and bully, her meanness veiled under the guise of friendship.  The dynamic changes as Elaine grows older and finds herself in the position of power and Cordelia changes from tormenter to a vulnerable, confused young woman.

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Reading this book was like experiencing a long drawn-out blow to the stomach that moved me to tears… in a weirdly satisfying, masochistic way.  ‘Cat’s Eye’ transported me back to my younger days, when cruel psychological games, and friendship and humiliation seemed to go hand in hand.  Atwood manages to infuse a sense of loneliness and isolation throughout the whole novel and I found myself incredibly drawn into Elaine’s memories and the unresolved feelings she carries with her,  even as a middle-aged woman.  I have never read a novel that so powerfully and effectively explores the difficulties of desperately wanting to belong to a group that you will subjugate yourself and become someone you despise.  The novel highlights the dark side of female friendships – the interdependence of certain friendships that can make you feel both feel invincible and suffocated at the same time.  It is as though nothing else matters in that moment but that person, your friend, although there is an impending sense that your “friendship” is held up by delicate strings that can break at any moment.  I can relate to Elaine’s memories and mixed feelings about what happened in her past including her own actions; I have experienced feelings of betrayal with “friends” in the past that turned out to be beyond cruel but like the protagonist of ‘Cat’s Eye,’ I am guilty of colluding in this dynamic as well.

A hauntingly moving novel that lingered in my mind for days after finishing it.

New Year and all that

8 Jan

It’s been a long time since I wrote on here and it’s not been because I haven’t wanted to.  It’s been because I’ve genuinely felt uninspired with many things in my life and every time I started writing a post, it would sound inauthentic and hollow, so I always ended up deleting it.  However, it is 2016 and there’s something comforting about a New Year – all beginnings, potential and hope! – that brings a much-needed sense of closure on the events that occurred in the year before.

Each year is inevitably full of ups and downs but in 2015, the downs seemed particularly overwhelming, paralysing me with fear and feelings of inadequacy and despondency.  I’ve been through this kind of thing before, and I’m pretty sure that my nature, prone to analysing and self-criticism, lends itself quite annoyingly to bouts of melancholia, so I knew it would eventually pass but that didn’t diminish the shock of the fall.

I was stuck in a job I didn’t like and I constantly felt like I was treading water, silently drowning.  The nature of the work highlighted the fact that I didn’t exactly fit in with the role or the organisation but despite that, I desperately tried to force myself to fit, shaping myself to appeal to other people and their expectations but all of this was unsuccessful.  At the same time I made the decision for my dog, Louie had to be put down.  Since December 2014, he was suffering from encephalitis, an insidious disease that made him rapidly deteriorate while I stood by and helplessly watched.  By the end, he couldn’t maintain his balance properly and his joints became painfully stiff.  There was no hope for recovery.

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Louie was a six years old Maltese – a ball of white fluff that would bark at everyone and everything. My mother decided to get him when I was nineteen, saying that she thought it would be a good idea to give me some structure, responsibility and something to love.  When I look back at that time, I was confused and lost, barely feeling real myself but every time I held Louie in my arms, feeling his warm body against mine, I would feel a little more solid.  I have many regrets about that time: I wasn’t a great owner.  I should have spent more time with him; I should have savoured each and every walk with him instead of wallowing in my own problems.   These are things that haunt me and when he passed, I sank deeper and deeper into the ‘should haves’ until despair seeped into me, forcing everything strong and good out.

Now the New Year has begun, I am crawling out of my lethargic slump, determined to eradicate feelings of guilt and low self-worth and replace them with motivation and contentment.  I have come to realise much of my perceived failures stem from the misguided belief in me that I need to be outstanding. I don’t know where this feeling came from – it certainly wasn’t from school which hardly stimulated excellence or even intellectual curiosity but it is something that pervades most decisions I make.  It is behind every self-critical thought; why even try and write something when you know it will be awful?  Why bother taking steps to that job you want because you’ll never be able to compete with everyone else?

I’m still working on breaking down this damaging concept.  Believing that you need to be outstanding sets you up for a life of disappointment and failure; instead, it is absolutely fine to strive to be happy and good enough.  This is what I’m aiming for in 2016.  And to inspire myself with lots of creative, exciting pursuits 🙂

Happy New Year everyone.

The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper

7 Aug

Joseph Merrick (or John Merrick) aka The Elephant Man has always been someone that has fascinated and moved me (please see my review of his biography here).  I remember being made to watch the film by David Lynch as a thirteen year old at school because my History teacher wanted to get a bunch of rowdy Year 9’s to feel empathy and compassion.  I think her exact words were: ‘This’ll teach you empathy.’  It did, for me, but I think I’ve always been ridiculously empathic so it wasn’t a surprise that after around ten minutes, I was weeping uncontrollably.  It didn’t, however, work for some of the “harder” Year 9’s who watched, bemused, disgusted and I was reminded that probably not much has changed since the 19th century in terms of attitudes and fear of anything different.

I didn’t have huge expectations for the play starring Hollywood actor, Bradley Cooper.  My main reason being that I think famous actors doing their stint in Broadway/ The West End is just a way to appear as a “serious actor” and that annoys me.  I also think many of these actors are hugely overrated, and acting on the West End without any ability to edit, zoom in, or re-film, would only emphasise this and make for a poor viewing.  But in particular with this play, I felt that people would be drawn predominantly to see The Elephant Man because “that guy from Hangover” is in it, which I feel is completely disrespectful to Joseph Merrick and his story.  To some extent, I feel this was true.  I sat in front of some audience members who were vocally bored and actually walked out before the end.  The people next to me were similarly rude and fidgety, so I guess I had bad luck with my seats as I spent a great proportion of the night trying not to get too pissed off by the people around me.

Bradley Cooper surprised me.  I know he’s started to take more serious roles like Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper but my expectations were low for reasons outlined in the above paragraphAnd even more so, when I realised he wasn’t wearing any sort of prosthetics – I imagined I would just sit there throughout the play thinking ‘that’s not Joseph Merrick; it’s just Bradley Cooper gurning.’  But the truth was he was utterly convincing as Merrick, from the way he walked to the way he spoke.  He portrayed Merrick incredibly accurately (according to the literature that exists on him) as an intelligent, endearing, earnest individual with an air of innocence and wisdom all at the same time.

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While Cooper was amazing, the other cast members did not seem to hit the same mark.  Treves (played by Alessandro Nivola) was rather bland and uninspiring, which made his internal conflict scene at the end rather difficult to believe.  I felt that Patricia Clark, who played Mrs Kendal, the famous actress befriended Merrick was good (despite her English accent) – in particular, the scene in which she shows herself to Merrick is beautiful and incredibly moving.   At times, though, I felt that her character was more of a caricature and that detracted from the sweetness of their relationship.

Scot Elllis’ direction resulted in the play being fast-paced, unfocussed and erratic at times, however, I really enjoyed the play’s emphasis on Joseph Merrick’s life once he reached Treves – it became more about Merrick’s development as a person rather than merely focusing on the appalling hardship he endured, which was an interesting dimension to explore.  A play worth seeing for anyone with an interest in learning about Joseph Merrick but for those who merely want to see Bradley Cooper with his top off and are not interested in learning more about Joseph Merrick, please stay away.

‘The Mentalists’ starring Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhoddri: a review

9 Jul

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Merchant, and have been for years.  His talent shines through as a writer that is acutely able to explore humour in what are often dark and uncomfortable situations.  I loved The Office (although who doesn’t?), Extras and Hello Ladies, an incredibly underrated show and a huge mismatch for the US audience.  I love his repartee with Karl Pilkington (a comic genius in my books) and Ricky Gervais, and I have often spent hours listening to old podcasts and radioshows with the three of them chatting about nothing much in particular.  That’s not to say that Stephen Merchant’s work has been solidly top-notch, though – Life’s Too Short, for example, lacked substance and that was due in part to sloppy writing and a main character, played by Warwick Davis, who just wasn’t funny.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent to say that when I got tickets for The Mentalists, a play written by Richard Bean, and stars Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri, I was excited and preparing myself for a night of laughs.   This was a mistake on my own part.  I hadn’t researched the play properly and assumed it would be full of Merchant-like humour, but I later realised that the humour is much simpler and less faceted, which makes sense as Bean wrote One Man, Two Guvnors, a play that attracted huge audiences in London but I found to be quite boring and greatly overrated.  (Incidentally, if it is slapstick and farcical comedy you want, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is hilarious). This is Merchant’s first real acting gig, in other words, so don’t expect a play-like adaptation of his own work.

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The Mentalists is a play centred around two characters, Ted (played by Merchant) and Morrie (played by Rhodri).  It is set in a dingy Finsbury Park hotel, and the main objective for them meeting there is for Morrie to film Ted talking into the camera to the public about the need to form a utopian society.  I felt that Merchant did a good job at conveying Ted’s obsessive, frustrated nature and his manic behaviour, as he would jump from anger to excitement to seeking reassurance from Morrie.  Rhodri was good as Morrie, the seedy hairdresser who would make wild fantasies up about his family, making it even more poignant when we learn that neither character knew their parents and both grew up together in the care system.  The acting was good but the play itself was flawed.  I liked the fact that it touched upon some dark themes – indeed, in the second half, the play took a disturbing but comic turn, which I felt was refreshing and avoided the sentimentality I felt was present in the first half.  That said, the dialogue was overly repetitive at times which sometimes meant it was difficult to keep engaged.  In addition, whilst the backgrounds of the characters did make them slightly more endearing to the audience, I wasn’t rooting for either of them, so when the events took a darker turn at the end, I found there to be a lack of suspense.  There were bursts of humour scattered throughout the play, and while there were some laugh-out-loud moments, much of the humour seemed to fall quite flat with the audience.

Merchant performed as a ‘proper actor’ despite some stammering and fluffing up of the lines, which is probably to be expected given how dialogue-heavy the play is and the fact that we went on the second night.  That said, I feel he really holds his own when he writes and acts in his own work, and that is something I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

View From the Bridge at Wyndham’s Theatre: a review/ rant

12 Apr

On Friday I went to see the highly acclaimed performance of Arthur Miller’s ‘View from the Bridge’, directed by the Ivo van Hove and starring Mark Strong, of ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘Before I go to sleep’ fame.  I had purposely avoided reading the reviews in depth but even so, it was impossible to be oblivious to the hype around this adaptation.  As a huge Arthur Miller fan and someone who has studied the play in the past, I was pretty confident sitting in my seat waiting for the performance to start that I was going to see something pretty special.

Let’s just say, I should know by now not to believe the theatre critics as I was sorely disappointed.

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Van Hove’s numerous techniques to add dramatic effect did not stop with the stark, minimalist set, but included overly long pauses punctuated with a beeping noise to heighten tension, and a scene at the end where the stage directions are read out as the scene is being played out.  Rather than add drama, though, these served only to irritate and distract from the intrinsic drama unfolding in the scenes.   Yes, the play is a tragedy but van Hove’s decision to make everything overly dramatic from the beginning resulted in a conflict and denouement that was less so – the time when the play is at its most dramatic.

Before watching this play, I was unfamiliar with Strong and his work.  Whilst technically his acting was fine, I felt he did not seem to embody the character of Eddie Carbone – the “every” man with flaws and vulnerabilities.  Firstly, Strong seemed – well, too strong, especially given that he was supposed to be physically weaker than Marco.   Perhaps this is entirely subjective but I had always pictured Eddie as someone who is distinctly normal looking – he is a longshoreman with a loving wife and he likes to go bowling.  He finds Rodolpho (who, along with Marco, just arrive to America “off the boat” yet both actors assume American accents) or anyone who isn’t as ‘normal’ as him strange because he isn’t used to anyone else.  In the play, I imagined him to appear approachable and friendly, the kind of harmless man who is liked by everyone in his neighbourhood.  I didn’t feel that Strong embodied this persona and this ‘normality’ is exactly what endears Eddie Carbone to the audience.  It is vital in a play that encourages the audience to empathise and question humanity.

I really disliked the portrayal of Katy, played by Phoebe Fox.  In the play, Katy is supposed to be a young woman, nearly eighteen, who has been overprotected and indulged by Eddie Carbone.  Her burgeoning womanhood mixed with her “Daddy issues”, and Eddie’s repressed and confused feelings about his niece are simmering away in the play with increasing intensity until the climax and tragedy unfolds.  The production, however, completely disregarded any idea of subtlety and had Katy practically straddling Eddie and sitting around with her legs spread open in the first scene.   In addition to this, Fox’s erratic portrayal of Katy was, quite frankly, bewildering – her combination of mumbling, shouting and running around with her underwear exposed made her seem like she suffered from some sort of hyperactive disorder.

Even despite everything I’ve said, I did find myself a little moved in the second act but that is credit to Miller’s exceptional writing rather than the production itself.  As my sister’s boyfriend remarked, the end scene with its dramatic music and pouring blood is reminiscent of a scene in the cult 90s movie, Blade, and perhaps that would have been more entertaining.  I should remember to say (despite my frustrations) that Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone and Nicola Walker as Beatrice Carbone delivered solid, worthy performances but ultimately I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Marching on together – a play at the Old Red Lion pub/ theatre in London

12 Feb

Last Friday I went with some friends to watch a play, ‘Marching on together’ by Adam Hughes, at the Old Red Lion pub/ theatre.  I bought the ticket mainly because I wanted to see my friend, so I hesitated when I found out the play was about – shock horror – football.  Football hooliganism in particular, which seems like the worst theme a play could be about for me – it conjures images of skinheads and beer and violence.

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And to be fair, I wasn’t wrong.  The play is set in Leeds in 1984, and follows the story of Macca, ex-leader of the notorious Service Crew, as he is released from prison to find that his former friends (members of the Service Crew) have moved on and he is standing still, trying to fit in with the new football hooligans as life as he knew it crumbles before him.  It is not all about football hooliganism – the miners’ strike is in full swing and Macca attempts and fails to reunite with Linda, his former girlfriend, and their young son.

That said, it was much better than I anticipated and there were times in the play when I was genuinely moved.  The plot was rather predictable in some respects and I wasn’t overly convinced by the ending which involved a set of coincidences, which seemed a bit too convenient in my opinion, and left the play teetering on the edge of sentimentality.  However, the acting was very good.  I think the intimacy of the venue, the realist dialogue and snappy scenes, broken up with amazing 80’s tracks, helped push the play forward and engage the audience.  As a definite ignoramus when it comes to football hooliganism, I actually found that aspect fascinating from a social standpoint.  ‘Marching on together’ helped me understand the motivation for young men (in most cases) to turn to football hooliganism – in most cases, it seemed to be a need to assert themselves, to belong and feel something other than the banality of their, often impoverished, lives.  The play emphasised how addictive some people found the fight, and I felt that the play effectively depicted Macca’s mental distress and descent into depression with his simultaneous increasing desire to fight and pummel anyone who was not a Leeds supporter.

Overall, it was enjoyable.  It was a bit strange that after a play about football hooliganism, we found ourselves in a pub rammed with beer-swigging spectators, one screaming expletives in my ear, as there was a rugby game on.  It was rather formulaic but still a great insight into a grim topic, and the acting more than made up for any of its flaws.