Tag Archives: review

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.

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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.

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.

Electra – a performance with Kristin Scott Thomas at the Old Vic

25 Sep

I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, so when I heard that the Old Vic was staging a production of ‘Electra’, I was excited and managed to book tickets to go along on the opening night.  Before watching the production, I knew the basic premise of the story – Electra seeks revenge on her cheating mother, Clytemnestra, and stepfather, Aegisthus, who murdered her father – but weirdly I knew more about Jung’s Electra complex so I was eager to learn more about this play which has spawned such an interesting psychoanalytical theory.

The image of Kristin Scott Thomas’s elongated, deathly pale face that is around everywhere to advertise the production made me think I’d be in for a dark, intense and haunting experience – an uncomfortable watch, one of those that lingers in your mind long after you’ve watched it.  Unfortunately it wasn’t really any of these things.

The Murder of Clytemnestra

The Murder of Clytemnestra

The subject matter – murder, infidelity and repressed sexuality – is obviously dark but this intensity was never really captured by the production.  Perhaps this was because the script swayed from tragedy to comedy, never fully managing either successfully.  Indeed, basic points of the plot such as Orestes pretending to be dead as part of a plot to avenge the death of his father seemed redundant and futile in the production, especially given that Orestes seemed to murder Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with very little difficulty.   I ended up wondering why Electra had waited all these years for Orestes to murder her mother and stepfather, when it seemed ridiculously easy to do.  The production subsequently lacked any kind of tension or suspense, and the apparent futility of Orestes’ deception resulted in an anti-climactic ending that left me feeling rather cheated.

This is not to say that I didn’t entirely enjoy the play.  The brevity of it (there was no interval) meant that you never felt as though it was dragging on, which would have been quite easy for such a production, and the acting was technically fine.  On the face of it, Kristin Scott Thomas is an adept Electra – wailing, sad and full of resentment towards her mother and her lover.  Her deep, almost baritone voice, lent a touch of poignancy and regret to some of her lamentings.  (Others just made me think of a toddler throwing a strop on the floor).

What her performance, and the Frank McGuinness’s version of the play in general (it is by no means the fault of one individual’s performance), lacked was any deeper emotional content to draw the audience in, to make them connect, empathise and feel that King Agammemnon was someone who had suffered a betrayal so bad that avenging his death was the possible action.

And even Kristen Scott Thomas, with her frantic hand-wringing and writhing around on the floor in a dishevelled dress, couldn’t accomplish that.

The Human Factor exhibition at the Hayward Gallery

18 Aug

Several weeks ago, I went to the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre to visit the Human Factor exhibition.

The website sells it as:

Spanning the past 25 years, The Human Factor focuses on artists who use the figure as a means for exploring far-ranging concerns. Compelling and thought-provoking, their work brings into play ideas about history, voyeurism, sexuality and violence, while reflecting on how we represent the ‘human’ today.

At the same time, the artists in The Human Factor pointedly revisit and update classical traditions of sculpture, while drawing on representations of the human body in contemporary popular culture. Inventively remixing past and present, they transform that most familiar form – the human body – in ways that surprise, unsettle and engage us.

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t read any of the above or know anything about the exhibition.  Instead, I saw the posters around of that oversized bear with his arm around a policeman and I thought that looked like an interesting childhood-themed sculpture . On closer inspection, though, ‘Bear and Policeman’ by Jeff Koons isn’t a cute, quirky sculpture but something far darker (which is clear if you actually take some time to note the bear’s creepy expression) with undertones of perverse sexual humiliation and dominance. That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover. Or rather it doesn’t. It teaches me that if I am to judge a book by its cover, at least make sure I really spend time looking at the cover so I fully understand the cover before I judge it.

The exhibition was generally full of dark surprises like this – a particular favourite of mine was by the witty Maurizio Cattelan, and involved walking in a room that was made to appear like a church towards a tiny, crouched figure at the front. At the back, the pious figure looks almost childlike and but as you move closer, you realise that this figure is actually Adolf Hitler. It shocks, surprises and encourages one to consider what he would be doing in a church – whether he seeks remorse or divine power to implement his regime of terror.  There was also an incredibly life-like sculpture of JF Kennedy’s corpse laid out in a coffin, in a sharp suit but with bare feet, evoking an air of odd familiarity towards this iconic American president, who almost appears to be sleeping peacefully.

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The overall ambience of the exhibition was unsettling – death, decay, despair, consumerism were but some of the themes explored, which is inevitable when grouping art under such an umbrella term as the ‘human factor.’ Perhaps it is me, though, and my weirdly high standards when it comes to art, but I felt some of the art works lacked soul and deeper meaning. They’d been created to shock and incite some emotion in the audience, but for me, while I understood the symbolism and the sculptor or artist’s intention behind the work, I didn’t feel anything. It was almost as though some of the works were too obvious: a sculpture of a modern-day Jesus to represent persecution still occurring today; a sculpture of a futuristic woman in the pose of a Greek god – the oxymoronic nature of the future with the past, modernity with tradition; crude sculptures of women with their buttocks, breasts and lips exaggerated to emphasise the objectivity of females… the list goes on.

An interesting exhibition with a few witty and thought-provoking gems scattered amongst a sea of obvious, disappointing and unoriginal works.

The Corruption of Dorian Gray – The Lion and Unicorn Theatre

20 Jul

I read ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it so I was excited to go and watch ‘The Corruption of Dorian Gray’ at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre the other week.  The theatre, based in Kentish Town, is attached to a charming pub so we could enjoy a few relaxed drinks before we went in.

I’d read good reviews of the play so sat down on the tiny and majorly uncomfortable wooden stools (which seems to be a problem with these quaint, indie theatres… and those too-cool-for-school coffee shops but that is a rant for another time).  It followed the story quite closely and I thought the actors were all very well cast, especially the ultimate corruptor Henry Wotton, who is played by Will Harrison- Wallace, who was both infuriating and enticing as I found him in the book.  Dorian Gray, played by Michael Batton, was never my favourite character but he was played well, with a mixture of evil and likeability – plus, Batton – a mixture of Daniel Radcliffe and Hugh Dancy – encapsulated the Victorian gentleman and probably has the most pronounced cheekbones I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Adam Dechanel’s production emphasised the darkness of the book – so much so, there was what seemed to be a never-ending scene of some strange hedonistic orgy to highlight the seediness of London’s underworld, and the descent of Dorian Gray.  The production also highlighted the homosexuality between Basil and Gray, which is clearly alluded to in the book but explicitly shown in the production.

Objectively, the production was solid, yet I felt it lacked something.  I don’t know if this is because reading such a story allows for a subtler experience but with this production, I felt the messages were being rammed down my throat at some points with overly hammy acting, and they needn’t have been so explicitly portrayed.  The book seems more of a philosophical contemplation on beauty, youth and corruption; however, the realistic limitations of the stage mean that the production is much more hard-hitting, explicit and in some scenes, quite difficult to watch.  That said, my boyfriend loved it so it really is a matter of personal preference.  But overall, it’s a tricky story to adapt for stage; it was well-executed and worth a watch.

Troublemakers? – Ruby Wax: Sane New World

22 May

At the beginning of May, a friend asked me if I wanted to see a live show with Ruby Wax at the Bishopsgate Institute.  I’ve never been the biggest fan of Ruby Wax – I am quite picky with comedians and I’ve never found her really funny – so I wasn’t sure, but when I found out that the topic of the show was ways in which we let our brain sabotage our sanity in he 21st sanity, my interest was piqued.

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Firstly, this was not meant to be a comedy show per se.  Ruby Wax has just finished a Masters at Oxford in mindfulness-cognitive based therapy so I was interested to see if I could glean some insights from her studies.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first half.  While some of the content I felt was too simplified, I guess it must be difficult tailoring information to a mixed audience and keeping everyone entertained at the same time.  She talked about how we associate ‘busyness’ with ‘happiness’ and this is slowly killing us.  This made me reflect on the truth of this for me – whenever someone asks me how I am, I feel an irrational desire to give them something concrete, something more than ‘I’m fine actually’ or ‘Things aren’t going so well at the moment.”  I will usually go off on a tangent and mention things like ‘Oh I had a good weekend, yep, got lots of work done so am on schedule.. and I went to that play the other day, have you heard of it?…’ and often they just stare at me blankly – quite rightly too – because that wasn’t what they asked in the first place.  I just feel that if I answered the question they asked, it would be inadequate, underwhelming and well.. boring.  And that’s something Ruby Wax’s show made me mull over.

She also talked about the chemicals that are produced when we have certain thoughts and how some of these chemicals aren’t meant to remain in us for extended periods of time.  Take the fight-or-flight response. Our ancestors would have that response as a means of survival, if they were hunting for food.  However, now we don’t need that, our fight-or-flight response is triggered by the barrage of depressing news we see on the TV and read in the papers.  Ruby emphasised that it didn’t matter where logistically the threat was; our mind deals with it as though it is directly facing us and therefore we live our lives feeling threatened, and fearful.  This, quite logically, wreaks havoc with our bodies and can help contribute to various illnesses and diseases in later life.

So, I enjoyed the first half – it was informative and Ruby was likeable, although I had to force myself to laugh at some of her jokes, given that I was sitting in the third row and I didn’t want to look rude.  (And faking laughter is a surprisingly tiring thing to do…) Her talking about mindfulness as a way to combat depressive thoughts was nothing new, but nevertheless it was good to hear and be reminded of the principles, within her personal context.

However, what I did not enjoy was the second half which she opened to the audience (there were probably about sixty or seventy of us in there) and sold as a ‘discussion’ or a chance for anyone to ask her questions.  Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old woman but this led to people “asking  questions” that weren’t actually questions at all, rather excuses for them to get on their soapboxes about issues in mental health and encourage Ruby to try and join in and moan with them.  I was watching grown men and women seeking validity, one even spent about five minutes ‘asking a question’ i.e. gushing about how great Ruby was while clasping her third glass of wine, and calling her our ‘tribal mother.’

I get that people should be able to express their thoughts and relay their experiences about mental health but after the tenth person putting their hand up and saying ‘I just want to say, I work in mental health’ and expecting a round of applause and nods of admiration, and then making a point about young people with mental health problems, and don’t you think mindfulness should be taught in schools? and then Ruby murmuring in agreement, I just kind of wanted to get up and shout, ‘what about OLDER people with mental health problems?  do they not matter?!’ but I refrained and sat, and smiled and practised some of the mindfulness the show was really about in the first place.