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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Theatre - King John - RSC, Stratford

Star rating - 9/10

King John is one of the lesser performed and lesser known of Shakespeare's history plays, so new adaptations like the current RSC one can feel freer to take a few liberties with the original text, with less risk of pedants moaning. And while the historical plot in this production, directed by Maria Aberg, is easy enough to follow, I'm not sure what the Bard would have made of the actors channelling Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey doing their Dirty Dancing  routine in the middle of it...but I absolutely adored it.

John is not perhaps the most well remembered or best loved of the English monarchs. Possibly you might think of the Magna Carta - maybe not much else. The story here is concerned with the attempts to seize the crown from him by supporters of his elder brother's son. And it also follows the power play between England, France and the Pope. And there are many parallels with our modern day politicians to be drawn here - with the frail pact between the two nations showing an uncanny resemblance to our current coalition bedfellows; and the pursuit of power for its own sake by a flawed individual bearing all the hallmarks of a certain former Prime Minister Brown. 

Following on from last year's wonderfully luxurious Vegas version of The Merchant of Venice, the RSC have totally sexed up this play, and use the carefully picked musical tracks to brilliant effect. Alex Waldmann, confidently plays King John as a beautiful specimen of a man, and  in a much more sympathetic light then maybe Shakespeare intended. The partner in his exploits was originally a man, Philip Faulconbridge (known lovingly as The Bastard). But here, he is most definitely a she, and Pippa Nixon is one of the standout things about this production, as she impishly pulls the strings and uses her sexual allure to great effect. The chemistry between her and the forlorn king is thrillingly palpable.

It's amusing to note how Shakespeare was using the play for his own political ends too - as he so often did. His own mistress, Queen Elizabeth I was having her own battles with the papacy - indeed she was branded as a heretic by the Pope. And Shakespeare wastes no time in getting his digs in via his treatment of the papal envoy here. 

And the play has one of the most exhilarating endings I have seen for a long while - King John cavorting sexily around to Franki Valli's Beggin' as he dies a slow horrible death by poison. The whole thing was breathtaking, and great, great fun. I know it won't be to everyone's tastes (sorry Mum!), but I loved it - so who cares if a few liberties were taken. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

DVD - Even The Rain - directed by Icíar Bollaín

Star rating - 8/10

This film was made in 2010 but is just out on DVD, and concerns a group of film makers making a movie in the Bolivian city of Cochambamba about the colonisation and exploitation that happened at the hands of Christopher Columbus as he 'discovered' the New World.  

Spanish director  Icíar Bollaín brings out the irony of the project, as the locals are recruited as extras in the film, and find themselves exploited by the film makers in a mirror image of the past.

A parallel story soon emerges, affecting the real lives rather than the dramatic exploits of the local inhabitants. They are being cut off from their water supply by a multinational corporation, keen to privatise the supply for profit. The police intervene and arrest one of the key actors in the film, Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), who is also one of the leaders of the protest against the water privatisation

But these parallel threads collide as the priorities of the film makers and the local extras inevitably clash - shooting schedule or water. Morals are questioned, as the film makers are forced to change their stance on more than one occasion. The political issues involved are undoubtedly important, and the arguments, although possibly slightly obvious targets, are well made.

There are three great performances involved. Luis Tosar (Costa) and the extremely easy on the eye Gael Garcia Bernal (Sebastian) are convincing as the film makers caught between the dedication to their project, and the ever increasing brutality and violence which the protesters, many of whom are members of their cast, are having to face. Aduvira, in his first film role,  is also excellent as Daniel, who remains steadfast to his cause and stubborn as a mule - to the desperate frustration of the crew.

This is an engaging and serious film, whose issues are firmly on its sleeve, but then I find sleeves quite useful for that purpose myself. 

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Films - The Imposter - Directed by Bart Layton

Star rating - 3/10

After watching this documentary from director Bart Layton I was struggling to come to terms with who is really fooling who here. Call me a sucker for a great strap line, but with adjectives like 'riveting' and 'unmissable' being used about it, I was relishing the prospect of the dark twist at the end - more of that later.

It's the true story of how French 23-year-old Frédéric Bourdin, of Algerian descent - complete with French accent, dark brown eyes, and dark hair - came to pose successfully as a missing working class American boy. Nicholas Barclay was 13 years old when he disappeared from his Texan home in 1994, and it was over four years after that when his family got a call from Spain to say their missing son had been found. Small details like his former blue eyes, blond hair, and American accent were either glossed over, or hidden by Bourdin's amazing deception. And he was accepted back into their home as their own, complete with lurid stories of torture and sexual abuse by the military.

But what is most shocking about the case is how his family came to believe that it was their son, despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary. It is truly amazing what people will believe when they want something to be true. But far from being riveted by this incredible tale, frankly, I was bored to begin with; hung on in there for the promised dark twist to come; only to leave the cinema feeling swindled at the lack of one. 

Bourdin is an out and out narcissistic liar to be sure, but no-one else in the film comes out with much credibility either. I am not sure why it is causing all the stir that it is, but I ended up feeling thoroughly depressed by the total lack of intelligence displayed by almost everyone in it. Thrilling it is not.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Books/Music - For The Sender - by Alex Woodard

Star rating - 7/10

This is a one sitting sort of short little book that gets you thinking far beyond the last page. American musician Alex Woodard originally offered to turn letters from other people about their lives into songs, as a way of boosting pre-release sales for his record. But the offer turned out to touch his life, and the lives of other people far beyond his imaginings. Although I have to admit the songs are not really to my personal taste (CD included with book), the way they translate the very honest letters about sadness and loss into music is to be applauded. I think this book will touch all who read it in some way - and will probably be a word of mouth - or should that be song - success. It deserves to be.

Find out more about his brave and generous project at

Friday, 24 August 2012

Books - Waterline - Ross Raisin

Star rating - 9/10

Ross Raisin's new novel Waterline, like his brilliant 2008 debut God's Own Country before it, is essentially about marginalisation from society. Whereas that was a tale set amongst the wilds of the Yorkshire countryside, about a young man sinking into insanity, this book has a distinctly urban setting. For it is only amid the bustle of big cities where your soul can get truly lost.

Mick was a shipbuilder on the Clyde, in the days when such manufacturing still survived in Glasgow. And it is the deadly fallout from this occupation, in the form of asbestos, which has caused the death of his wife Cathy at the outset of the novel. We get to know Mick immediately Cathy's funeral, with distant family members unconvincingly encouraging Mick to stay in touch afterwards:' "Don't be a stranger now" ...The kind of thing you say to people who are strangers'.

Raisin's description of Mick's inability to cope alone in his home is perfect in its quiet perception. Mick aimlessly gathers piles of stuff together, that only bring back painful memories and cause him to retreat into his shed. He is racked with guilt at the asbestos which he has brought into their lives, and that it was Cathy and not himself who succumbed to its lethal effects. This story is a haunting study into how a life can unravel - how anyone can sink from living an ordinary life into near oblivion in a few easy steps. It is something we often say - it could be any of us - but Ross Raisin describes with pinpoint accuracy how it could actually happen without aim or objective. 

His perception into the plight of someone like Mick, who is totally lost without his wife to guide him through the everyday decisions of his life, is astounding. 'Best not to think about the big picture right now, because it's just too bloody big ... and he's too close up to be able to see it properly.'  It is achingly sad to see Mick slip day by day into destitution and desperation, despite having loving sons who would have helped  - if only they had realised there was a problem.

Mick's dependency on Cathy is replaced by one on Bean, a homeless guy who has a tendency to disappear without warning with bouts of depression, then return without a word of explanation or comment. Their experiences on the streets and hostels of their new world are interspersed with snippets of how they are viewed by the rest of the world. It is a clever device which jolts the reader into their own reality and helps to ask serious questions about how we view homeless people.

This is a seriously moving and relevant story, and is written in a confident, spare style which belies much meaning. With it, Ross Raisin is developing into an extremely accomplished and important writer.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Films - Take This Waltz - directed by Sarah Polley

Star rating – 7/10

Michelle Williams is a superb actress with sublime talent and beauty to match, and she doesn’t seem to pick any parts with a happy marriage involved that’s for sure.  She simply blew me away in the heartbreaker of a couple of years ago, Blue Valentine, where she and the wonderful Ryan Gosling played a working class couple whose relationship breaks down in a very painful and searingly honest way. Then there was her delightful and transformational performance as Marilyn Munroe last year in My Week with Marilyn – not a woman whose name is synonymous with married bliss. Not to mention her role as wife to a repressed gay man in the groundbreaking homo erotic cowboy picture Brokeback Mountain.

And the state of wedlock doesn’t fare much better in her latest film, Take This Waltz, where she stars as Margot, a middle class Canadian woman who feels unfulfilled in her relationship to nice, steady (read ‘boring’), and loving husband Lou (played by Seth Rogen). Into her life then steps an amazingly handsome guy (Luke Kirby) who sits next to her on a plane, and then turns out to be her close neighbour. Who would have known! Happens to me all the time...

Some parts of the ensuing three way triangle are spot on. There is a very funny scene in the swimming baths involving aqua aerobics and a weak bladder - I won’t say more. And move over When Harry Met Sally, this film features the most erotic scene I have ever witnessed between a couple sitting down at a table and not actually doing anything physical at the time. It is quite something -believe me. And the longing and torture of unrequited love, or to put it more accurately, unfulfilled desire, is very well done.

But despite the three very good lead performances, it is not a totally satisfactory watch. It does stray unnecessarily into sentimentality at times, and some of the morality lessons involved with having an affair are needlessly telegraphed to the audience. And (last moan) the baby talk between Margot and Lou is cloying to say the least. 

But despite these flaws, Michelle Williams always lights up the screen, and this film is worth going to see for the table erotica scene alone. And of course a bit of Leonard Cohen, with The Buggles thrown in for good measure, on the soundtrack can’t fail to satisfy.