Posts Tagged ‘Me As A Protestant’

Well: I feel rather stupid.

I thought I was off to the National Theatre to see “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Fiona Shaw (a production that, in spite of its delayed Press Night and decidedly mixed reviews, I am assured by Me As A Protestant has rekindled a love for Brecht in him – so that’s pretty high praise…), and it turned out that I was going to see David Hare’s (equally schizophrenically reviewed) “The Power of Yes”.

Once I’d actually LOOKED at the tickets, and realised that I wasn’t just going to see a different play, I was also going to see this with my parents, rather than alone (Miss Shaw being someone whom divides opinion, but about whom, like Shakespeare, Steiner, Titian, Matisse and a few others, I am not prepared to hear negative opinions – so I tend to worship at that altar  alone), I started to get very excited. I am absolutely in Hare’s camp. I think his work is serious (which is not to say that it can’t be, simultaneously, incredibly funny), heart-felt, ambitious and extremely accomplished. Like everyone else, he has his ups and downs: but I think a man who has given us “Plenty”, “Racing Demon”, “The Absence of War”, “Murmuring Judges”, “Skylight”, “Stuff Happens” and – my favourite of them all – “Amy’s View”, has got to be counted amongst the gods of contemporary playwrights.

So, I was excited, and after just over two hours (for it runs without an interval), I wasn’t sure. It is a very dense play, crammed with facts, figures, historical events – and even mathematical formulae. It has the great seriousness of purpose that I so like in his work (and how could an analysis of the current financial crisis fail to?) – and it is an absolute endorsement of theatre as THE art form to encourage reflection, debate, understanding and dialogue about our immediate surroundings.

And yet, it did, at times, feel like a draft, not a play. The sub-title is “A Dramatist Attempts To Make Sense of the Financial Crisis” – and therein lies some of the problem. The play is, a verbatim record of Hare’s characteristically pains-taking research and meetings with the people directly involved in, and writing about, the crisis: real people, real conversations, real exchanges. The cast of characters (and to some extent, the cast itself) is huge – and this has necessitated (in Hare’s opinion, at least) the need to precede every appearance made by any character with a Choric figure announcing his or her name, role and involvement in the crisis. This slows the pace considerably, and I wonder how necessary it was, either at all (after all, the endless Dramatis Personae in Shakespearean history plays don’t get the equivalent of a personal introduction every time they open their mouths…), or through some other medium (the set is magnificent and consists almost entirely of projections: there would have been one alternative, at least…). We keep returning to the figure of Hare himself being asked by a kindly, female trader who has been roped into briefing him if he is “alright” and if he is “keeping up” – and it’s hard not to see that as a quick reminder to the audience that this is what they are being expected to do. I felt at some points in the evening that what this should really be is an extended essay in one of the few periodicals that still publishes these things: “The New Yorker” or (oddly) “Vanity Fair” where Hitchens has been so brilliantly contrary – but that is to dispute my credit to Hare for exploiting theatre as a medium so brilliantly, so it becomes self-defeating.

In a very different play, by a very different dramatist, Alan Bennett gets round the issue of having himself on stage (and tackles this issue of “trying to understand how I feel about something”) through the device of two “Alan Bennett’s” in “The Lady in the Van” – and it works very well indeed (although the comic tenor of that play is a little more forgiving to this sort of conceit than Hare’s aggressively “real” piece would be…

I think what stirred me into thinking “This is a draft” is that there is a magnificent, and all too brief scene when Hare is matched with a female journalist who reported on the crisis and who (it transpires) used to count amongst her friends a number of the bankers involved, or those very like them. Maybe it’s Hare’s undoubted flair for writing female characters, maybe it’s because “writer to writer” something comes alive in the language, but this is the scene that sets fire to the whole night and made me wish for more of the same. In response to Hare’s bewildered (and utterly credible) cry of “Why has not one banker apologised for this? How can they be so arrogant?”, she asks him “And when critics attack your work, do you think they’re right? Do you revise your opinion, do you change what you wrote, or what you will write?” and the play moves into a new dimension.

My parents, I should say, were unreserved in their admiration for the piece: intention and execution, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone, but perhaps in the way that one might recommend “All’s Well That Ends Well” (which I directed my own broken-backed production of when at University…) or “Measure for Measure” to someone: fascinating, but apt to leave one thinking about what the structure is and might be, as much as simply enjoying what is there in front of one.

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Twenty six hours of flying time has left me tired, but more cinematically up to date than I was. I enjoyed a wide selection of fare and offer my critiques up to you here:-

  1. Revolutionary Road – Wow: this is a stagey little fucker. Kate Winslet must have given Sam Mendes the blow job of his life when he finally caved and offered her the female lead in this little number, because it has got “Best Actress Nomination” written all over it. Simmering resentment, rage, explosive anger, mental illness and soul-draining sadness – she gets to do it all. To be fair, she does it very well too (not as well as Kristin Scott Thomas does all this and more in “I Have Loved You So Long” – but that performance is in a different league to pretty much everything I have seen recently), and she is (as the fanfare reminded us) reunited to very good effect with Leonardo diCaprio, whom I thought was rather better, reacting with baffled, wounded despair and then anger to his beloved wife’s disappearance into this vengeful bitch. Not exactly a case of “Pass the Butterkist, Roger – it’s going to be a laugh-fest”, and certainly not one to watch with your other half – but very “accomplished”.
  2. “The Reader” – Having seen her in “Revolutionary Road”, I was keen to see the film for which Winslet DID win her Oscar – and I love the Bernard Schlink novel. I’m amazed. Winslet is fine in it, but not extraordinary (and she is hampered by some truly AWFUL “old age” make-up in the final section of the piece). I wondered if maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had got it right when they had her observe in “Extras” that one gets an Oscar when one does a Holocaust film – but then it struck me: it is in “The Reader” NOT “Revolutionary Road” that Kate shows us her vagina, thus instantly rendering her portrayal starkly moving, devoid of vanity, honest and searing: all Oscar shoo-in terms. The screenplay was ordinary, the direction was uninspired, and there was also Ralph Fiennes doing his “Man straining to have a shit” face that features in so many of his “serious roles”.
  3. “He’s Just Not That Into You”  – Look: I needed some light relief after the two above, and ti was this or “Confessions of a Shopaholic”. It was shit.
  4. “The Forty Year-Old Virgin” – Brilliant. Utterly, utterly, utterly brilliant.
  5. “50 First Dates” – Me As A Protestant is a huge Adam Sandler fan, and whilst I don’t appreciate everything in the same vein and extent that he does, I thought I’d give it a go (I have no idea if this is one of the Sandler oeuvre that he is either fond or dismissive of). I found it almost unbearably moving. It’s a far-fetched story about a man who falls in love with a woman whom an accident has left with her long-term memory entirely intact, but unable to remember anything that happened in the last 24 hours – so she forgets him every morning. It’s a beautiful story of unconditional love, sacrifice and faith. And it made me cry, which is disgusting.
  6. “Watchmen” – Shit. Leaden, awful, unimaginative shit.
  7. “Pan’s Labyrinth” – As brilliant as “Watchmen” was shit. Stunning.

Also on offer were: “Coraline” and “The Wrestler”, but seeing as the children, and Wife have (respectively) voiced a desire to see those, I left it until our happy reunion.

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Ah, Holiday!

Is there a better feeling? Wife and I and the children leave for France tomorrow, to spend half-term recovering from a non-stop schedule of shoots (in her case) and too many conversations of the “Is it “Intelligence” or “Wisdom”?” variety in my case.

I am also looking to recover from the draining effects of seeing “Duet for One”, which (while it boasts two of the best stage actors around in Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, both on blisteringly good form) is a play that only gets up to 90% of capacity, and leaves the audience with the unrewarding feeling of coitus interruptus.

It’s a real museum piece: full of the newly popular joys of psychotherapy (it was written in the early 80’s, and is clearly inspired by the life and illness of Jacqueline du Pre – although in the play the heroine is a violinist and her affliction is Multiple Sclerosis) and very static – unsurprisingly since the heroine is wheelchair-bound and it takes place in an office. The oddest thing about it, however, is that the final act feels like an Epilogue, rather than a conclusion: the emotional fireworks all come in the previous act, leaving the final one feeling very,very flat – and for all the firepower of the actors involved, they can’t quite coax it into the life that it needs to satisfy the audience’s need for resolution.

Maybe it wasn’t the best piece to see straight on the back of “Madame de Sade” – although interesting to learn that “Duet for One” is another play that goes over a bomb with our Gallic friends, recently having run for a record-breaking year in Paris. It’s another “listening” play, in the Racinian tradition – although Me As A Protestant would have been happier with the audience’s behaviour at this performance, as there were no crass exclamations of “Oooh!” as swear words abounded and emotions were stripped bare, as there were at the Mishima.

Anyway, next is some Shakespeare: “The Winter’s Tale” as part of The Bridge Project, so while it’s not the most action-packed of Shakespearean dramas, it is in a very different vein – and I have to confess that I am more than ready for that.

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Well: my father was right – that wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, based on the truly horrifying reviews.

I went to see Mishima’s “Madame de Sade” with Me As A Protestant (we were due to be accompanied by his wife, though not, of course by my theatre-phobic wife: but she was too late in her pregnancy, suffering the ills of acid indigestion to join us – which was a shame): he is a huge Mishima fan, and confided to me that, other than “Hamlet”, this is the only play that he has seen four times. Four times! It’s hardly ever performed – at least in the UK – so this is “theatregoer as sleuth/pilgrim” if ever there were a case of that.

Anyway, it was great to see him, as ever, and great to hear that his prodigious talent is pushing out into yet another area (he’s starting work at The National Theatre Studio this year), and (as should be evident from the above) there probably isn’t anyone who is more likely to be a great companion at this play.

It really is considerably better than the critics would have you believe. Most of there problems have centred on the play itself and how “nothing happens”. Well, that is as true as saying that nothing happens in Racine (or, indeed, Beckett – but then everyone KNOWS that “we don’t say that…anymore”) – what happens, happens off-stage and is reacted to on-stage, by the six women who comprise the cast. The other problem with the play (from an English perspective) is that it is about sex, passion, profane and sacred love: there isn’t a fat neighbour with a speech impediment, or a nouveau-riche couple with HILARIOUS pretensions in sight – and that gave rise to a lot of embarrassed reactions to some of the rhapsodic passages in the play, and indeed to a chorus of “Ooh” from the stupid cunt in the seat in front of me. One can imagine how it has come to be part of the repertoire in France, and is so rarely seen here that it’s the first time it’s been seen in the West End, sadly.

Anyway: there are some flaws in this production. It seemed to me that the director couldn’t entirely commit himself to one style  – there are a series of projections that appear on the walls of the set, often accompanied by an echo appearing on the voices of the actors, which pushes the production into a very different space than that which the (for the main part, see below) acting styles and costuming seem to be pushing it. It’s as if the director doesn’t quite trust the actors, the script and the design to carry the meaning of the text: so we get it all underlined for us. And then, there is Frances Barber. Frances Barber is in a different production to everyone else: one that is akin to Gerald Scarfe cartoons come to life: she arches her eyebrows, she cracks her whip, she tilts her head and gives a hearty sneer – tipping the wink to the audience at every opportunity. I have never been a fan of hers, having seen her stamp her stupid way through major roles in “King Lear” and “La Dame Aux Camellias”, but when counterpointed by an actor of the talent, subtlety and grace of Judi Dench, her flaws were glaringly awful. Sadly, she dominated the first ten minutes – that critical point of orientation for any audience, when they starting thinking “Ah – so that’s what they’re doing here…” – and so she took the play into an eye-rolling, thigh stroking pantomime of “Ain’t I SHOCKIN’?” – so it’s hardly surprising that the audience took its cue from her and thought they were in for a naughty night. That opening speech (it seemed to me, though no expert I) should have been flinty and cruel, not salacious and smirking: we got the equivalent of a child waving its bum at a bunch of adults and then saying “I’m a naughty girl”. Euch.

Ah, but then there was Judi! She was magnificent, and in a role that must have been a joy for her: malignant and loving in equal measure, with a couple of speeches that she gave her unparalleled all to. I’ve never seen her anything other than splendid on the stage, and I know that a number of people whose view on acting I admire enormously (chief among them: David Hare and Richard Eyre) view her as our greatest actress, possibly they mean “actor” (though possibly, let’s be honest, they don’t…). Rosamund Pike, too, was first rate, providing as good an account of sexual and moral fervour as I have seen – and of course, she looks sensationally right for the part, a Blakean rose in full bloom.

The look of the thing distracted me (and not in the hugely satisfying way that the lovely Rosamund did): the set is certainly opulent – a silver gilded, paneled salon, with the gilding and the patina on the mirrors suggesting mould. The costumes are straight out of Fragonard and Boucher – but the palette is all wrong, and it’s hard to understand what is being suggested by the contrast between the setting and the costumes. And by the times the projections are in on the act (photo-real, adding another visual language) it all gets very muddy.

Anyway: I am glad i went. if I can, I might go again. It’s a treat to see a play that is so unapologetically for an audience (a group of listeners, let’s not forget), and that is entirely dependent on women to hold the narrative. I’d give it a healthy four out of five, and would suggest that were you to attend on a night when the audience weren’t hoping for “Whoops! There Go My Bloomers!”, and when Frances Barber is indisposed, then you might be in for a real treat. And for a different treat – those of you who are interested, might like a rather more scholarly (and certainly, better informed) take on the production:-


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Tuesday, 27th November 2007

When at University, I met my double.

He had the same name as me (Christian and surname), we looked similar (though not identical), and although we had diametrically opposed cultural perspectives (he was brought up a Calvinist, my upbringing was as Catholic – in every sense – as it’s possible to have without actually being raised by Titian, Graham Greene, Lucrezia Borgia and the Pope), we had the same interests and collaborated on a number of productions, from “Hamlet” to “Edmond” at The Edinburgh Festival.

I have a feeling that he may be the Deborah Warner (Quaker director) to my Fiona Shaw (Catholic actor) – or Schrader to my Scorsese. Anyway: it worked very well creatively.

I’m seeing Me As A Protestant again tomorrow, after an absence of about 7 years, and I’m excited (and a little nervous) to see how we will be with each other after all this time…

I shall let you know, naturally

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Thursday, 29th November 2007

Night out with My Double was great: and I was convinced that it wasn’t going to be. After all, there aren’t many people that you can “pick up with” naturally after an absence of seven years, but that’s what happened.

We went to my club and (in the great tradition thereof) found a room that was entirely unoccupied, where we stayed until midnight talking about film, publishing, Fiona Shaw and marriage – the “big themes” in life. Whether or not we’ll see each other again, I don’t know – we may have scratched that itch and now it’s done, or he may become a regular fixture. Either way, I’m glad that we met up and that it was so reassuringly natural.

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Friday, 18th January 2008

I do admire Gore Vidal for his honesty in opining “Every time I hear of the success of a great friend, inside me something dies” – so imagine how I felt on discovering that My Double’s debut novel has been hailed as “The Great British Novel of This Decade”, garnering reviews that don’t simply hail it as a shoo in for The Whitbread, The Booker and virtually every other laurel wreath going, but earning him comparisons with Dickens and (most especially) Dostoyevsky.

I have just finished the novel – “Crusaders” – and the comparisons are entirely justified. Even more remarkable: I didn’t feel a twinge of jealousy or anything other than admiration, delight for his deserved success, and pride in knowing him. It is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant novel.

Take that, Gore Vidal.

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