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Thursday, 29 April 2010

Theatre - The Real Thing - Old Vic

Star rating – 9/10

This is a playwright’s play – no doubt about it. But it is also a very accessible, touching and hilarious play about love, intellectual snobbery, and musical tastes. Some of Stoppard’s work has a tendency of going right over my head, but definitely not this one. Anna Mackmin’s production is one of the best things I have seen for ages.

Henry is the playwright, who is probably as close to the character of Stoppard himself as he is likely to write. Toby Stephen’s is absolutely brilliant as the successful dramatist who is trying to decide which records to pick for his forthcoming ‘Desert Island Discs’ appearance. He wants to pick classical choices that will show him as an intellectual heavyweight and cultured person, but the trouble is that he really loves things likes the hits of Neil Sedaka and the Righteous Brothers. Stephens’ acting is so skillful and nuanced that you totally forget that he is playing a part – one of the best individual performances I have seen for a long while.

He is struggling in his marriage and having an affair with Annie an actress. But part of his problem is that he is incapable of showing or expressing in his writing, any real emotion about love. This is the case, even when he and Annie are together, having left their respective partners to be with each other.

There is quite a lot of ‘play within a play’ action but Stoppard’s clever writing makes the plot relatively easy to keep up with for most of the time. Henry has firm views, that he is eager to express at any opportunity, about what constitutes good writing and proper use of the English language. He cannot help but be patronising to his wife and then to Annie about this. He does not really mean to alienate those around him – but nevertheless succeeds in doing so continually, albeit in a very charming way.

Hattie Morahan and Fenella Woolgar are also worthy of a mention for their good performances as the wronged wife, and Annie respectively. But it is Toby Stephens who shines, as he brings this tremendous Stoppard character to life so brilliantly and convincingly.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Exhibitions - A World Observed 1940 - 2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm - Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating – 8/10

I went along to this new exhibition of photographs by Dorothy Bohm after having heard a radio interview with her, but not being familiar with her work. She certainly sounded like a very interesting, talented and empathetic woman, and that is exactly how she comes across from looking at this display of a lifetime’s work and passion.

Bohm was born in 1924 in East Prussia, and grew up in a Jewish family in a Europe becoming dominated by the Nazis. Her family fled to England at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Dorothy was 15. She took up photography at the suggestion of her father, who thought she was very observant. And how right he was. From Manchester where she first based herself, and then travelling throughout the world, her tremendous power of seeing a moment in time and being able to capture it for ever with her camera is astonishing.

Her forte is street photography – not posed but just capturing ordinary people going about their lives and connecting with them in a way which needs tremendous empathy and humility. One photo here shows a woman walking her dog and talking to a street cleaner having a break as she passes in 1970s Rome. Bohm used to always use black and white film, as she felt that colour was distracting. Then in the 1980’s she discovered the medium of Polaroid, and started to work in colour, still making the human figures the centre of much of her work. She used, and indeed still uses today aged 85, what she regards as a pure form of photography, that is she does not use digital cameras and does not manipulate the images in any way. Instead she tries to capture the scenes before her, as they appear to her.

She explains her desire to capture precious moments on film forever as being rooted in her childhood experiences of losing so much in such a distressful way. And capture precious moments she certainly does. There is a great photo of a rural Swiss woman from 1948 stood in the field with her animals, staring straight at the camera with the years of hard work showing not only in the lines on her face but in her facial expression too.

Bohm is interested in capturing vulnerability, ‘happiness that passes and beauty that fades’. She travelled widely ad there beautiful photos here from New York, London, Cordoba, Lisbon and Haifa among many, many other places. One particularly striking shot is of two young boys in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1950. The older one is obviously completely at ease with his photographer, and laughs with her as he gives his young companion a piggy back. This charming portrait shows how Bohm can effortlessly relate to children, as she loves to do.

This exhibition is one of dignity, of ordinary people in their own environments, captured in time; from some trendy hipsters in a Kings Road bar in Chelsea in the 1960s, to a fishmonger from Billingsgate Market. Bohm is an extremely intuitive photographer. But not all her photos are of people. Some are beautifully captured moments in urban and rural settings. One from 1994 captures the fog settling over Lake Lugaro in Switzerland brilliantly. Bohm also appreciates the beauty of present day Manchester, and the most recent pieces bring us bang up to date with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Urbis and murals in the Northern Quarter of the city.

Bohm’s photos reveal so much about her personality. They remind us to take time out to appreciate a beautiful moment instead of rushing on by. And that just cannot be a bad thing.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Film - The Ghost - directed by Roman Polanski

Star rating 8/10

You really have to try to put aside all thoughts of the current position of this film’s director, Roman Polanski, if you can, when watching this hugely enjoyable film. The real life parallels would just be too distracting from this slick suspense thriller, which is also very funny in all the right places. Based on a Robert Harris bestseller, it takes us on a hair raising journey with the ghost writer for the former Prime Minister, whose not so simple task is to polish up the manuscript for his memoirs. Ewan McGregor, is very believable as the na├»ve young writer, whose name is cleverly never revealed; and Pierce Brosnan is surprisingly excellent as the Prime Minister with a murky past who is being put on trial for war crimes. We are to assume that any similarities to a certain Tony Blair and entirely deliberate, and his clever and spiky wife Ruth (with Olivia Williams giving the tour de force of the piece) couldn’t possibly be a nod to Cherie, could she?

So the ghost writer is flown to America, where the ex PM is holed up, and discovers that the previous ghost writer was washed up dead on a beach in somewhat suspicious circumstances. Not a comfortable position to find ones self in. Kim Cattrell is good as the PM’s assistant who is probably getting a bit too close to her boss for the comfort of his wife, even if her English accent is not entirely convincing. She puts the young writer through his paces, and keeps very close tabs on his every move.

Polanski has made a very slick thriller; the build up is spot on, the unfolding events very creepy, and the denouement is a great twist. As the ghost writer gets closer and closer to the truth about his employers, then he has to think fast and run even faster to escape the fate of his predecessor. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as the academic whose welcoming veneer hides something much more sinister.

To say more would be to give the game away. This is a sharp and slick morality tale about a once popular public figure whose popularity quickly gives way to hatred and condemnation. Just can’t help drawing those parallels though Mr Polanski.

Books - In A Strange Room - Damon Galgut

Star rating – 6/10

Having enjoyed Damon Galgut’s last novel, ‘The Imposter’ very much, I was very much looking forward to reading this one. It is not really a novel, more like three novellas joined up loosely into one book, which in my book is a short story collection. I have to admit here that I don’t like short stories, to me they usually feel unsatisfactory and artificially brief. I feel short changed. So did I feel short changed by this book? Well, yes and no is the honest answer.

The three experiences narrated here are very different, and Galgut uses his talent as a writer to transport the reader to different places and different emotions very skilfully. It takes a little while to work out who is telling the stories as he slips from first to third person quite readily, but once this is clear it is easy to go where Galgut is taking you.

The first journey ‘The Follower’ took place when he was a young man travelling in Greece. He meets a German fellow traveller called Reiner who is handsome but very mysterious and brooding, a bit like the Clint Eastwood character in an old Western. They hook up again in for a trek in Lesotho, but never really seem to connect properly. The narrator is sexually attracted to Reiner, but also repelled by him too, with his self centred and OCD like behaviour. It feels like a very lonely and depressing experience.

The second is called ‘The Lover’ and there is also sexual tension, and unconsummated love with a young man the narrator meets whilst travelling through Africa. The sense of frustration as the tension builds and wanes, again and again, is palpable. And Galgut tells the story beautifully.

The final novella, ‘The Guardian’ is the most depressing as he is now taking care of his dear friend Anna who is depressed and suicidal. He decides that a trip through India will help, but inevitably it does not. And again he is to all intents alone with his feelings and feels badly let down.

Galgut is a great writer. His prose is tight. His evocation of place and emotion is skilful. So maybe it was the short story like formation that meant that this didn’t quite gel for me as it should have done. I will read more of Galgut, but will stick to his meatier volumes in future.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Theatre - David Hare Platform - National Theatre

Star rating 8/10

This was the first National Theatre Platform that I have been to. Platforms are short sessions which last under an hour, cost £3.50 a throw, and comprise a talk with a selected artist followed by questions from the audience. This Platform featured playwright David Hare, who is celebrating his 40th year as a dramatist.

I have only seen one of his many plays, ‘The Power of Yes’, here at the National last year, which I very much rated for its telling of the origins of the credit crunch in an extremely original manner. So I was an interested observer here rather than an avid fan. The Platform started with three clips selected by Hare himself showing highlights from his career. 'Plenty', a 1985 screen adaptation of his play, starring the fabulous Meryl Streep shows a woman struggling with the unbearable compromises of her life and marriage in the post war peacetime period. 'Via Dolorosa', a BBC adaptation of the play in which Hare himself performs a solo piece on the state of Israel, which he admits during the later talk caused him great embarrassment as he is not at home as an actor. And lastly 'The Absence of War' with John Thaw as the leader of New Labour during the 1992 election night defeat - quite poignant in the current election's build up and widely predicted death of the New Labour project.

In the interview section, Hare came across as intelligent, articulate and modest. He told how he discovered his talent for play writing by accident, and that his first love is comedy and satire. He was a young radical writer who was one of the few of his stable to infiltrate the NT when it was seen as very much part of the establishment. He was backed by NT Director Peter Hall, who refused to give in to the calls for ‘Plenty’ to be taken off in the face of terrible reviews, as he believed it was a truly good play.

Hare discussed his series of political plays, and his current role covering this election for The Guardian. He was very amusing in recounting how the Tories had invited him, and everyone else in the country for that matter, to become part of the Government in the previous day's manifesto launch. He says he is mulling over their offer!

He came across as a very funny, insightful, and generous man who is clearly very talented, and whose plays I wish I had seen more of, but will certainly look out for from now on. And the Platform was a thoroughly enjoyable way of spending less than an hour at the National. I will certainly be going to more.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Film - I Am Love - directed by Luca Guadagnino

Star rating – 6/10

This is a stylish tale of the fortunes of a wealthy Milanese family following the death of the elderly industrial magnate Edoardo Recchi Sr. He unexpectedly leaves his fortune and factory jointly to his son, Tancredi, and one his grandsons, the young Edoardo Jr, known as Edo.

The setting of the film’s opening is Milan in the snow at Christmas, and shows us the lavish entertaining of the Recchi family in their perfect and beautiful mansion. Tancredi’s Russian wife Emma, played superbly by the ever impressive Tilda Swinton, has everything under control. She has a lovely rapport with the many servants in her household, is impeccably dressed for every occasion, and seems to be a caring and compassionate mother to her children. Everything is just so.

We get a taste of her background in Russia, before Tancredi whisked her away to a new life with a new name in Italy, and it feels unsettling, as evidenced by her brief flashbacks and apparent nightmares, although the reasons for this are never really fleshed out satisfactorily. She seems to cope with her life extremely well - there is a very touching scene between her and her art student daughter, Betta, who feels able to come out as having a relationship with a woman to her mother, but unable to tell anyone else in the family.

The cat is thrown amongst the pigeons in this charming and exquisite picture of wealthy Milanese domestic bliss, as of course it must inevitably be, when Emma falls for her son Edo’s handsome young chef friend Antonio. The romance between them is sensitively done, and the inevitable catastrophe ensues.

My problem with the film is that, beautifully shot and located as it is, nothing really much happens for ages. It feels a bit too slow to get going, and then when we get to the heart of the action every scene is accompanied by such a dramatic and overblown score that it feels completely false. Such as when Emma and Antonio are making love in the hills surrounding Milan at the remote farm where he is setting up his own restaurant with Edo, the fanfares are so great you really do expect a choir of angels to come and accompany them in their moment of bliss.

Swinton is excellent in the film, and it is a feast to watch with its lavish and beautiful settings, but it could have done with a bit more characterisation and storyline, and a bit less of the dramatic score to accompany it.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Books - The Big Short - Inside the Doomsday Machine - Michael Lewis

Star rating – 9/10

Now you may not think that a book that tries to disclose what really went on behind the whole subprime mortgage fiasco in the United States, which we now know led to our credit crunch, then to the global recession, is a candidate for a page turner of a book, but I have to tell you that you would be missing out not to read this latest offering from Michael Lewis.

Lewis is famous for writing ‘Liar’s Poker’ in 1989, which exposed the lurid and murky dealings on Wall Street, but which was so good that many seem to have treated it as a bible for how to succeed in the world of finance (not that I have read this book yet - but you can be sure I will be doing so very soon). This latest foray into the world of Wall Street is sensational. It tells the story through the eyes of individuals who found themselves wrapped up in the greatest financial scam that we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

Steve Eisman works on Wall Street, but has been criticising the subprime mortgage industry for some years. The only trouble is he is distinctly lacking in social graces, to put it mildly, and can’t help but offend most people he comes into contact with, so his message is not taken very seriously.

Michael Burry is a doctor who takes a career u-turn to become a player on the stock exchange almost by accident, as he likes nothing more than to sit on a dark room and study the markets. He later learns that the reason for his propensity for numbers, and also for his anti social behaviour, is that he has Asperger’s syndrome. Burry is the first person to buy a credit default swap on a subprime mortgage – in other words , to bet on the subprime mortgage lender defaulting at some stage. And as the banks were lending money to people who had not a hope in hell of ever repaying the mortgage after the first couple of years low ‘teaser rate’, this was one hell of a good bet.

Greg Lippmann, is a typical greedy Wall Street bond salesperson who sees the potential of these bets, or subprime mortgage swaps market, very early on, and so effectively bets on the total collapse of the US housing market.

Charlie Ledley, Jamie Mai and Ben Hockett are three young financial wannabes who set up a hedge fund from a back yard and also realise what the markets are letting themselves in for and so also engage in the business of betting on the subprime mortgage market collapsing. They cannot believe that no one else has spotted what they have spotted.

And one of the most startling things about Michael Lewis’s expose is that it brings home just how little the leaders of the major financial institutions in the US and later around the world, knew or cared about the sort of financial derivatives (or virtual hand grenades) that their companies were dealing with. If the US Government (or in effect the US tax payers) had not bailed them out to the tune of billions of dollars, then the whole global financial system could have gone into meltdown.

Lewis tells this story in such a gripping way that it seems so obvious what was going on, and so incredible that it could have happened. He does come from a particular moral standpoint in the affair, but one that to me seems entirely justified in the circumstances. This is a gripping read, history in the making told in an extremely accessible way – if only someone like Lewis had been around to warn the poor people who were sold a pipe dream of home ownership, only to have to leave their homes abandoned in desperation a couple of years down the line.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Film – Crazy Heart – directed by Scott Cooper

Star rating – 7/10

Jeff Bridges certainly deserves his Oscar for this fabulous performance as an old alcoholic faded country star, Bad Blake, who has fallen on hard times, and expanded his waistline in the process, and is forced to play bowling alleys instead of packed arenas. He drinks so much he has to go off mid set to be sick outside in a bin – not very glamorous.

The central performances in Crazy Heart are very strong, Bridges aside, Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as a much younger single mother Jean, who somehow falls for Bad whilst doing an interview with him for a local paper. Colin Farrell is surprising good as the country star of the moment, Tommy Sweet, who has mysteriously fallen out with Bad but who still respects him enough to ask him to support him on tour, and to write songs for him.

The story line is a bit weaker than the performances though. We never find out exactly what went wrong between Bad and Tommy, and why Bad is so quick to forgive him. The romance between Jean and Bad stretches credulity to breaking point, not that it all goes so predictably wrong, but that she would fall for him in the first place in the state he is in when she meets him. He has four failed marriages behind him and a 28 year old son who he has not seen since he was four. Apart from the hard drinking, he chain smokes and has a diet to die for – literally.

But it is a sad, poignant story of faded glory and eventual redemption. The music is great, as Bridges shows us again that he can really hold a tune. Crazy Heart is well worth seeing for Bridges superb performance alone.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Theatre - The Comedy of Errors - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 7/10

This is the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, and is a light anarchic comedy of twins, tempests and mistaken identities.

All the action takes place in a single day in Ephesus, where a Syracusan merchant finds himself in a strange land under sentence of death. Whilst pleading for his life to the Duke, the merchant Egeon tells his back story of how his wife and he had identical twin sons, and adopted another set of identical twin sons, born on the same day in the same inn, and were then separated from them and each other in a shipwreck. Ok, so the basic premise is all a bit far fetched, but if you can just suspend your disbelief at the set up and just immerse yourself in the action it is great fun.

The main comic parts are brilliantly played by Owain Arthur (pictured) and Michael Jibson as Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse respectively. They are brothers who do not know it, and who do not meet but whose paths keep crossing to the consternation of the other players in the farce. One notable scene is when Dromio of Syracuse is describing the woman who claims to be his wife but who he has never seen before. His description of her physical attributes is hilarious.

The other identity mix up is between the brothers Antipholus, and the various wives, merchants and townsfolk that they meet and totally confuse, and are confused by in equal measure, during the course of the day, again without being aware of each others’ existence.

The costumes are lovely, very rich and colourful, and really help to set the scene in ancient Ephesus. The technical staging is the weak point here though. There is not much of it, but what little there is gets in the way – the Duke suspended over the stage at the start in a perspex box containing his throne; the revolving stage effect which was a good idea but badly in need of a bit of oil as it creaked its way loudly through every rotation; and the Abbess appearing as the good fairy with lights round her bodice like a pantomime figure, but whose wires were something of a hindrance and required help from another member of the cast. It would have been better if director Roxana Silbert had had the confidence to go with paired down staging completely, and made do with just a door at the crucial moment. Writing this good can speak for itself.

But the staging apart, this is a great bit of light relief from the master. It is hard to believe that someone could have the skill, range, and imagination to write tragic masterpieces such as King Lear and Hamlet, with the same quill as such light amusing comic pieces as this one.