Monthly Archives: July 2017

Road – Royal Court

Road. Royal Court

Back in 1999 the League of Gentlemen included a significant sketch about the effects of northern playwrights in their live tour show. It gently mocked their poetic style with mini-monologues that built to a rising chant, arguing that rather than merely reflect the world around them, writers such as Willy Russell, John Godber and Jim Cartwright had enshrined a particular vision of northern lives that had become impossible to shake off, which is perhaps now ripe for rediscovery. For the most part, their plays fell out of fashion and while Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine continue to attract audiences, it’s been a while since a major London theatre has produced a show by one of the key drivers of northern drama.

Jim Cartwright’s Road, returns to the Royal Court more than 30 years after it debuted in 1986, examining the lives of one set of residents in a generic Lancashire town. And while the odd accent drops by from Newcastle, it tells a story of poverty, hopelessness and futile ambition, yearning for a better future and nostalgic for a happier past. Road is essentially an anthology of monologues from different perspectives that build to form a picture of mass desperation and loneliness.

The message is not a subtle one and Cartwright pulls no punches in showing the bleakness of his characters’ lives, but his work retains a powerful force that if nothing else, reminds you still how rarely true working-class lives are depicted on stage. There’s not much time to spend with each character and how deeply you connect with the individual tale does vary depending on the subject and skill of the actor, but John Tiffany’s production does leave you with a wider sense of separate lives all struggling against the same sense of confinement and limitation.

Interestingly, Cartwright’s work also seems to fit into the wider representations of northern lives that use many of the same tropes and experiences, a sense of consistency with past and future that suggests a semi-unchanging pattern of life. Valerie’s monologue in Act Two is a painful examination of a woman at her wit’s end, struggling to keep her family above water because her oafish husband wastes their weekly giro on booze. Valerie’s fear and endless fret she realises has turned to hate for her alcoholic spouse who takes everything from his family and gives nothing in return. There are strong parallels here with Sons and Lovers as Mrs Morel experiences the same frustrations with her miner husband who leaves her to struggle while he drinks his evenings away. That same sense of entrapment, loathing her partner but unable to leave, needing to protect the children, links Cartwright and Lawrence so clearly 70 years apart.

And in the example of more recent writers, Cartwright’s work – or at least the same set of experiences – inform the TV creations of Victoria Wood and Jimmy McGovern. Cartwright’s set of ballsy young women out for a drink, a good time and a man for the night come up time and time again in Wood’s sketches, and when the characters in Road head to the chip shop on their way home, you can’t help but think of the Chip Shop song from Wood’s As Seen on TV, the last stopping point before the people desperate to forget, head back to their real lives. And McGovern’s recent dramas utilise the multi-perspective approach that Cartwright introduces in Road in his renowned drama The Street and recently Broken with different narrative voices driving each episode. Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but he’s part of a chorus of voices all trying to tell us the same thing in the last hundred years.

One of the startling things about John Tiffany’s new interpretation is the influence of more abstract European theatre-makers in the production design. We’re told at the start by our partial narrator / master of ceremonies Scullery (Lemn Sissay) that Road is set somewhere between the town and the slagheap, a purgatorial midpoint between everything and nothing. Chloe Lamford’s set abjures the expected row of houses for a courtyard-like meeting place where characters momentarily cross paths on their way to and from nights out, backed by the bricked-up window arches of a supposedly derelict house.

Interior scenes take place in a small off-centre square that characters drag chairs or ironing boards into, snippets of crushed-up lives in terraced housing. As one scene moves off, the entire square rises into the air revealing a glass box in which a series of rooms are presented throughout the course of the play, each with a different perspective and a shade of working-class life coexisting on the same road.

Microphoned glass boxes are becoming quite the thing; the Young Vic’s Olivier award winning Yerma, which has a brief revival this summer, takes place in one and they  appear regularly in the work of Complicite and collaborators Schaubuhne Berlin, used as a way to distance the audience from individuals speaking, while also making them seem like untouchable historical artefacts kept in pristine boxes commenting on our appropriation and repurposing of history from a living breathing thing to a rose-tinted fiction. So, you see this influence here as Lamford, who has worked with Schaubuhne, comments on this enshrined image of the northern working-classes that the League of Gentlemen mocked so voluble.

Given the slightly chapter-like nature of the play, it’s mix of realist and abstract forms make it a challenging watch, but director John Tiffany has assembled a creative team with considerable experience of working with some of the leading alternative theatre companies. As well as Lamford who has also worked with star director Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Assistant Director Grace Gummer’s have Complicite experience. Tiffany’s own work this year includes the excellent The Glass Menagerie (as well as Harry Potter), which brought a touching emotional truth to Tennessee Williams’s play about fragility, and this combined experience of showing constrained lives, and how external interpretations have shaped our picture of areas of our society, is something that comes through in this production’s attempt to liberate the emotional impact of Cartwright’s characters behind the clichés.

One criticism that can surely be levelled at the play is its lack of deep engagement with any of its characters, and while they all get some time to speak, either in specific talking-heads style monologues, or in conversation with others, it’s true that we only have a surface understanding of each one. But, arguably, Cartwright’s play does this deliberately to form a combined impression, and has much to say to us now about how well we know, or care about our neighbours. How many people on this road know as much about each other as we find out in 10-minute soliloquies; how much do we know about the people who live on our own street?

And the multi-tasking cast give us plenty to think about as they successfully inhabit as series of funny, touching and affecting scenarios. Leading a talented cast is Michelle Fairley first as Brenda the brusquely worn, impoverished single-mother scrounging money from her daughter getting ready for a night out, but best of all as Helen an older woman seducing a young soldier so drunk he can barely stand. Fairley manhandles him to great comic effect, attempting to undress him but falling in her chips, the one-sided conversation all-the-while insisting he’s seducing her, before a punch of reality cuts right through the humour at the end as Fairley conveys the hopeless domestic tragedy of Helen’s life.

Excellent and heart-breaking work too from Mark Hadfield as the former RAF man aching for a past that has long departed. Jerry’s loneliness is palpable as he reminisces about the gentility of decades past and his lost love, as shrieking drunken girls pass his window, which Hadfield seems to feel as physical stabs mocking the emptiness of his current life. Mike Noble is fascinating as Skin-Lad describing the transition from violent past to Buddah-loving peacekeeper, and as well as the Lawrencian Valerie, Liz White brings cheeky appeal to Carol who on the surface is all gobby attitude but with friend Louise (Faye Marsay) longs for something different, longs for escape.

Gareth Fry’s music choices are part of that momentary escape for every character and Road is stuffed with recognisable tunes that underscore the search for meaning and longing in each of the character’s life. Whether it’s the lyrics to Don’t You Want Me Baby sung by the girls going out on the town, the gentle 40s rhythms that pensioner Molly listens to as she does her make-up in the kitchen, Otis Redding soothing the flashy boys when they get home, or the stirring sweep of Swan Lake that erupts from the music box that Scullery steals, music is used to connect to the soul, something alive and still fighting for more, mirroring the poetic rhythm of Cartwright’s writing, and carefully selected to add insight to this show.

Cartwright may not be as fashionable as he once was, but Road leaves you with plenty to think about and the consistent impression of warmth, humanity and so much life amidst the petty tragedies and containment of working-class experience. Whether the League of Gentlemen were right and Cartwright and his ilk have done northern writing a disservice is for you to decide, but it’s telling that modern impressions of the ‘underclass’ are all about violence, hoodies and tower blocks written by people who’ve never lived that way. There is a kind of truth in the work of Cartwright, Lawrence, Wood and others we seem to be losing, the value of letting people tell their own stories, fostering creativity wherever it exists and looking beyond the clichés for all the different kinds of lives that Road reminds us we are far from understanding.

Road is at the Royal Court until 9 September and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion – V&A

Balenciaga -Shaping Fashion, V&A

Making the case for fashion as a recognised and skilled art form has never been easy, and until recently exhibitions in museums and galleries haven’t helped, offering a series of pretty outfits on mannequins with very little focus on the intricacy of construction and the inventiveness of design studios. Showing the finished product isn’t enough on its own, and many a show has fallen foul of the clothes-horse approach that just show a series of lovely frocks with no real explanation of why they’re important and influential, reinforcing the idea that fashion is all about surface frippery. The Alexander McQueen show changed all that with its combination of design, story-telling and careful curation, and it’s clear from the V&A’s new exhibition focusing on another fashion icon that they’ve learnt some important lessons.

The V&A’s impressive Balenciaga exhibition is a slightly different beast from the touring Alexander McQueen show from 2015, and where there is less show-stopping glamour in the room as well as in the arrangement of the garments, the Balenciaga show has deeper academic and historical depth of content that should please the fashion-lovers as well as the expert seamstresses or designers. Emerging on the other side, the visitor can genuinely say they’ve seen beautiful outfits but, crucially, that they have also learnt about the detailed construction and engineering process that sits behind the creation of every garment, helping you to understand why designer clothing is so special.

Fed through the exhibition is Balenciaga’s experience as a tailor – an important contributory factor in his success. What the V&A does so cleverly is clearly demonstrate this at every point in their argument about his influence on contemporary and modern designers. It is a tell and show exhibition in which the detailed signs explain the skill in each themed section – be it a type of cut or particular means of construction – and then shows you two types of evidence.

Balenciaga Tulip Dress, V&AFirst, the finished garment often with x-ray images demonstrating the hidden engineering or weighting within to main shape, but also – and this is the clever bit – a recreation of that technique made by the V&A now to demonstrate its current applicability. In many cases, this is accompanied by a video of the creation process so you can see how these styles were made. It’s such a smart idea, giving the visitor a proper insight into the importance of the techniques Balenciaga pioneered, which also showcases the talent of the fashion gallery staff at the V&A who are undoubtedly experts in their field.

Famously aloof, the V&A attempt to break open Balenciaga’s process with a series of early cases looking at design beginning with fabrics which, unlike most approaches in female fashion, came before the sketch as Balenciaga, with his tailor training, found that the choice of material would determine how it could be cut and shaped. These decisions early on would then affect every subsequent aspect of the creative process, moving, as the exhibition then does, from cutting to sewing and construction.

It is here in the ‘Workrooms’ section that we learn about the creation of the famous 1965 tulip dress that sought to flatter the figure while actively offering a new shape – contrary to the popular fitted jacket and full skirts of Dior’s New Look. But while this high-neck peach silk evening gown looks loose and comfortable, constructed from an entire sheet of fabric at the front, and with a fitted bow at the back, Nick Veasey’s accompanying X-ray shows an inbuilt corset structure around the torso which is entirely invisible from any angle.

And these revelatory images appear again and again throughout this exhibition, unveiling the hidden expertise within the dresses in which Balenciaga determined how the finished item should fit and look even when it appeared on a live woman. Equally fascinating is the 1954 reddy-pink gown with ties under the full skirt that fit around the knees to keep the lower half of the dress in place as you walk. It’s one of the more stunning pieces in this collection both for its striking colour and, using the X-rays, you see a combination of corsetry, hoops and padding that created what feels like a modern gown but with nods to a more glamorous age of bustles and Embassy Balls.

Balenciaga Green Dress, V&AThis taps into one of the V&A’s core arguments, that Balenciaga’s approach has left a lasting fashion legacy, and in these carefully chosen pieces, you can see how his designs combined a sense of past, present and future that give them a timeless appeal. Even now a semi-voluminous green dress near the start of the exhibition that uses ballooning to create three layered sections down the body, with a puff sleeved cape in the same hue, looks slightly futuristic, and could be something one of the more Avant Garde starlets might wear on the red carpet. But at the same time, it all feels like the 1960s and, further back, references the empire-line fashions of Regency England.

Balenciaga’s interest in architecture also becomes increasingly clear, whether it manifests in the ruched sleeve of a tan coat with one single piece of ribbon holding the sculpted layers of material in place so they drape the arm, or in the lasting design of the babydoll dress introduced in 1958 that subverted the idea of designing specifically for the female-shape. By adding volume all over the body and not just in the full skirts of contemporaries, Balenciaga actively moved away from ideas of traditional feminine allure to demonstrate different ways to look good, which had little to do with uncomfortable figure-hugging styles, giving the body more freedom and, importantly, better comfort.

But Balenciaga also offered glamour, so the next step was to add embellishments to the clothes themselves and there are several examples of dresses cut in quite a simple style with jewels, feathers or embroidered patterns to make them special. Highlights include a cream hour-glass shaped shift dress sewn with a classic floral pattern, mixing garden flowers connected by green vines. Nearby is a silver and pink evening coat made of dyed feathers, while behind it is a red coat combining encrusted 3-D ‘jewels’ and embroidery. It’s clear Balenciaga was a designer who knew his customers and created items for all the occasions she might attend.

Balenciaga Embroidered Dress, V&AOne of the other things you may notice here, unlike most designer exhibitions, is that Balenciaga’s outfits look as though they could fit a modern-sized woman, with a realistic sense of the female figure rather than the impossibly-tiny items you usually see in these shows. Many of these designs are deceptively simple and the minimalistic ethic is one that has been much imitated.

The second section of the exhibition looks at the showroom and the Balenciaga salons in which customers were given an opportunity to see the clothes on live models employed by the fashion house to sell direct to customs – quite different to a runway fashion show. There are videos as well as examples of the outfits showing the sale process in which customers sat with pads noting the number of the item they wished to order.

In the middle cases that form the inner circle of the show, there are examples of clothes that made it into everyday wear, all with simple and practical approaches to design that challenge the traditional silhouette. Whether it’s the long-sleeved loose-fitting shift dresses that now look so elegant, but at the time were practically scandalous, to the classic floral day dress and tailored suit, practicality, comfort and style typify Balenciaga’s design that simultaneously reflect the changing role of women in the post-war era.

Once the garment is sold, and it becomes the property of the customer, it might be interesting to note that alterations were made that actively subverted the designer’s original intentions. Among the star pieces here are contributions from Ava Gardner’s collection, herself a lover of the Spanish style that infuses Balenciaga’s work, including a pink dress discovered to have a separate corset inside and a 1964 lace evening coat that she added feathers to after she bought it.

The final part of the exhibition upstairs in the lovely mezzanine gallery considers the Balenciaga legacy in other designers’ work, so expect lots of red carpet-esque dresses and crazy pieces that espouse the values or style principles of Balenciaga. Although this is in some ways the core of the argument about how Balenciaga ‘shaped fashion’, for me, this was the least interesting part of the show, moving away from the main work and showcasing a series of less interesting and tenuously connected items -several of which have done the rounds at numerous fashion exhibitions, including the red and white puff dress that looks like a ball of feathers.

Nonetheless, this exhibition helps the V&A to establish its position as the leading curator of fashion history, that doesn’t just rely on the pretty clothes but takes a more rounded approach to presenting material. With a strong central argument and the careful presentation of evidence including video and recreated gowns, the V&A easily prove the case that Balenciaga shaped fashion, and that they are shaping the fashion exhibition.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A until 18 February and tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman by Johan Persson

Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.

Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.

Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.

10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.

Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.

And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.

There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.

One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.

Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.

However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them.  A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.

Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music –  and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.

Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.

Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.

As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.

In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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