Monthly Archives: August 2017

Against – The Almeida

Ben Whishaw in Against, The Almeida

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.

In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.

It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.

The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.

While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory –  to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.

In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.

The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.

Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.

Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.

This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.

There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.

In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.

The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.

Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.

This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?

Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


TV Preview: Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling – BFI Southbank

Holliday Grainger & Tom Burke in Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling

It’s been a great year for J.K. Rowling, ok these days when is it not a great year for J.K. Rowling, but in the last 12 months she’s successfully launched the new Fantastic Beasts film franchise, opened a smash hit West End play that extends the Harry Potter series and just announced a Broadway transfer with the original cast. The Potter books are about to become the subject of a British Library retrospective exhibition and, on top of all that, Rowling is expected to publish the fourth novel in her successful detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, before the year is out. Now the first of her Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted by the BBC and a preview of the first episode was premiered at the BFI with cast and crew in attendance.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was Rowling’s first, and at the time entirely anonymous, opening novel of the Cormoran Strike stories which the BBC has adapted into a three-part series, with episode one airing over the August bank holiday weekend. While there is a crime to solve at the centre, the story is primarily an introduction to regular character Cormoran Strike, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan before stepping on an IED and lost the lower half of one leg to blast injury. He was invalided out of the service and has turned private detective, where he meets temp Robin who over the course of the three novels graduates from Office Assistant to fully-fledged sidekick.

Adapting such a well-loved series of stories was an intimidating prospect for director Michael Keillor and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, but Rowling, as ever, has been involved enough in the development of this show to ensure it looks exactly as it should. Episode One is part introduction to the characters and part establishment of the whodunnit that propels the plot, and it opens with celebrity Luna Landry coming home from a glamorous party. It’s immediately clear that the tone of Keillor’s piece is unlike the crime dramas that we’re so used to; it’s not gruesome Skandi-noir or those dark British thrillers where women end up gratuitously and brutally mutilated, but neither is it in the vein of those cosy Agatha Christies on ITV, Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is somewhere in between, faithful to its source material but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the cinematography designed by Hubert Taczanowski which has a grainy but glamourous sheen as it takes in a series of beautiful venues and snow-covered streets of a Mayfair lifestyle in mid-winter London. TV-makers have learnt a lot from Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager, recently discussed at a similar BFI event, and while the locations here are considerably less Bondian, it is none the less beautifully shot, and carefully tailored to the lifestyle of the characters in each scene – Lula’s home feels like a glossy magazine, while Strike’s office is a ramshackle bolthole, cramped, aged and uncared for.

But it also has plenty in common with the first series of Sherlock which revelled in its love of London and eagerness to show a less tourist-heavy perspective on the capital, and one of the joys of Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is its dedication to using the locations specified by Rowling in the books as well as presenting a more realistic picture of the city. This attention to detail may only be noticed by Londoners but it adds a layer of authenticity to the show seeing Strike walk down the real Denmark Street to his office or asking to be dropped off at Greek Street and actually being dropped off at the point in Greek Street where he could walk back to his workplace. This meticulous realism, though challenging to film Keillor explained during the Q&A that accompanied the screening, was extremely important in creating the world of the books, and the same effect just couldn’t be met in the backstreets of Cardiff, that so often double for London.

Key to the success of the series, and the two subsequent adaptations of The Silkworm and Career of Evil that have also been commissioned, is casting the roles of Strike and Robin, which Kenley-Letts explained became a fairly easy decision. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger may not be the obvious choices and given some dissimilarities with their written creations, are bound to have many advanced detractors, but on screen they both perfectly capture the essence of Rowling’s characterisation – which should be a relief to many of the book’s fans.

Tom Burke’s Strike even in Episode One is a fascinating and layered character that accords well with your vision of Rowling’s Private Detective. Without the same height and breadth that Rowling describes, somehow Burke creates Strike’s particular physical bearing on screen, while simultaneously suggesting a man often too preoccupied with work to take proper care of himself and those around him. One of the reasons that Burke is a good choice for the role is Strike’s lack of emotional awareness in the burgeoning relationship with Robin, which becomes more important as the books go on, and an inability to identify why he cares so much for her, as well as a sense of incapacity in being unable to offer more than he does. Anyone who saw last year’s The Deep Blue Sea will recognise similar characteristics in Burke’s beautiful interpretation of Freddie, a former heroic pilot eroded by peacetime who comes to realise his emotional limitations.

During the Q&A, Burke admitted that while this role comes loaded with expectation, his schedule meant there was no time to be intimidated by the role until afterwards. There are plenty of hints at Strike’s past and carefully laid strands of things to come, but one of the most interesting aspects of Burke’s performance is the concept that Strike is living in the here and now, he is created by his past and cannot conceive of any kind of future, but takes each day as it comes – as military veterans often do.

Strike is a very different TV detective, one who isn’t driven by a strange personality or ongoing battles with personal demons that affect every case, instead he is a man who is pleasingly meticulous about his work and a bit of shambles, but not defined by his war service or the prosthetic leg which affects his work only as far as the pain it causes him in the pursuit of evidence and suspects. It’s fascinating to see his disability normalised in this way, as just one aspect of his life, and writer Ben Richards makes the audience wait some time before we even learn about it, asking us to know the character first.

But at the same time, Strike’s amputee status is not entirely ignored and Richards restricts himself to two brief scenes where Strike is shown removing the strapped-up stump from the painful prosthesis, and seeing it in full after a shower. It is created quite seamlessly using CGI with a real amputee as Tom Burke’s leg double, and while the commercial pressures on TV are not yet ready to allow Strike to be played by a disabled actor, this feels like things are moving in the right direction with, in Episode One at least, a sensitive and honest depiction.

Holliday Grainger is an equal match as temp Robin Ellacott and although she’s still finding her feet in this first epsiode, there’s plenty of things for Robin to do. Grainger is the ideal mix of brisk efficiency as she instantly sets about reordering Strike’s chaotic office, and good-natured warmth that instantly builds a rapport with her strange new boss. Very quickly Robin is making useful fact-finding contributions and accompanying Strike to visit Lula Landry’s flat. There is an openness and ease about Robin on the page, as well as a shyness about how knowledgeable she is, which Grainger captures perfectly and, as the character develops during The Cuckoo’s Calling and the subsequent stories, Burke and Grainger ensure the relationship between Robin and Strike has plenty of room to blossom.

It was clear from the Q&A that these adaptations of Rowling’s novels have been put together with considerable care, affection for the source material and attention to detail which comes across on screen. What could have been an overly cheesy or cartoonish screen incarnation manages, so far, to avoid the pitfalls that the Casual Vacancy fell into, and Episode One has set a high bar for the rest of the series. Director Michael Keillor explained that the books and this interpretation of The Cuckoo’s Calling takes many of the tropes of traditional detective fiction that celebrate the genre and make them feel modern. If the positive reaction of the BFI audience is anything to go by, then fans of the author shouldn’t be disappointed, and J.K. Rowling will have have one more thing to smile about this year.

Episode One of The Cuckoo’s Calling will air on Sunday 27th August on BBC1 at 9pm. For more BFI preview events, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


Apologia – Trafalgar Studios

Apologia - Trafalgar Studios

In the UK, we take most of our daily rights and freedoms for granted and forget the hard-won struggles that brought us the right to vote, to work, to design our lives however we choose. “Millennials” are also a generation that grew up a step removed from the experience and consequences of European warfare, the long-term effects of which were felt first-hand by our grandparents and through them our parents’ generation who took to social protests to overcome the economic and political downturn the Second World War created.

Alexei Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia is all about this generational struggle within a family divided by the external world they grew-up in which shapes their attitude to each other and the parent-child relationship. Our childhood determines the type of adult we become, but Campbell’s play argues that this has varied across the Twentieth-century and makes it considerably harder to understand each other. Someone growing up in the 1960s has a very different idea of what the world could and should be than someone raised in the 1990s.This separation of perspective casts a dark shadow over the play and defines its central relationship between an absent mother and her stolen children.

Respected art historian Kristin invites her adult sons, their girlfriends and her gay best friend to celebrate her birthday with a dinner at her tasteful country home. But relations are strained between the family as Kristin’s recent memoir “Apologia” entirely omits her children Simon and Peter from the story of her life. Frustrated by what they see as her absence, both are determined to have it out with her, while their respective partners Claire the actress and the American-Christian Trudi clash with Kristin over their own lifestyle choices. As the evening unfolds family tensions simmer and it becomes clear that the boys don’t understand their mother at all.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction tends to be love-it or hate-it and Apologia along with his previous works The Ruling Class, Faustus and The Maids has divided critical opinion. I’m in the love-it camp because risky approaches designed to entice new audiences is something London theatre needs as much as the reverent recreation of classic texts. Faustus in particular had many detractors but it’s grotty hyperrealism was a pointed comment about our obsession with transitory fame, empty celebrity and meaningless status, which for many feels like the only escape from a future of limited opportunity, unemployment and purposelessness.

Asking James McAvoy to ride around on a unicycle in his pants or Kit Harrington to take a “blood shower” are part of bigger conversation Lloyd is having with audiences about the changing nature of the modern world and how we engage with it. So, it is in this space that Lloyd meets Campbell and with a text full of skirmishes between past and present, of people born decades apart who can’t quite reach each other, Lloyd directs with considerable understatement that allows the rising and falling waves of family tensions to determine the pace of the show.

At the core of the play is the idea that the post-1980s generation are self-centred, caring only about making money and protecting their own individuality and status, without a thought for the good of society, and Kristin virtually says as much as she locks horns with Simon’s girlfriend Claire. Her youth and indeed the rest of her life was spent protesting for anyone who needed help – an idea Claire finds ‘quaint’ – and we begin to see Campbell’s point that whatever road you take there is a cost. Acknowledging that ‘having it all’ is a media myth, women have long struggled with the balance between family and work, and been severely judged either way.

For the women of the 1960s being the first to really forge careers, enjoy political, social and sexual freedoms, and live in relative economic stability, some experienced a domestic cost in the proximity to their families. Stockard Channing, returning to the West End for the first time in 25 years, gives Kristin a somewhat hard surface, a testament to a life spent earning a respected position as an art historian and politicised figure. The result was having her pre-teen sons taken from her by her former husband, and although they are now back in touch, an air of resentment and abandonment persists within the family.

At the start of the play, Kristin is given a tribal mask by Peter and Trudi, and while it’s a none-too subtle dramatic device, we watch Kristin’s own mask slip during the dinner party and its aftermath. Channing makes this a compelling and skilled unwrapping of a woman who neither knows nor cares what effect she has on others. Frequently when told something about her character, her only disinterested reply is “do I,” and this Kristin is forever controlled, even in criticism she barely raises her voice, preferring to leave the room than rant and rave.

However, formidable and cutting she may be – and her barbed retorts aimed at Claire and Trudi are a well-timed comedy highlight – underneath the hard-shell Channing’s Kristin has suffered for her work. As the initial awkwardness of the reunion turns to outright enmity from her sons, Channing reveals a regret and fear for her children that elicit considerable sympathy, that this accident of history, of being a woman of her time, has led to unbreachable divisions in her family.

And while we eventually learn what really happened when the children were removed from her care, Channing ensures that Kristin is not entirely let off the hook, that her decision to pursue her work has affected her sons’ lives irreparably. The audience is left knowing that although the truth has finally emerged, no one feels any better for it, and much of this is due to the clever ambiguity of Channing’s performance that gives an apologia, a defence of herself, but not an apology for it.

Joseph Millson plays both Peter and Simon, who through another slightly unlikely dramatic device, are never seen together, and leads to a moment of confusion about the position of the interval as Millson rapidly changes costume for his one scene as Simon. Peter is given more stage time and has clearly coped better with the lack of engagement with his mother, but has built up a bitter resentment about the memoir that explodes at dinner. Millson commands the stage and fills it with a lifetime of anguish but it’s clear Peter isn’t there to find redemption but out of duty on his mother’s birthday.

Simon whose emotional problems stem entirely from childhood does come seeking answers and again Millson is impressive as the more fragile brother in what becomes a tender duologue between mother and child. Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) is never seen with him, but battles with Kristin repeatedly about the work she does and her lifestyle. Agyeman makes Claire smug, attention-seeking and unphased by the slights of her near mother-in-law, but Claire becomes the exact counterpoint to Kristin that Campbell and Lloyd want us to see, a product of her time that, despite a small monologue about her own upbringing, is interested in vacuous fame and status only for the self.

Laura Carmichael’s Trudi is initially seen as the opposite, a good natured Christian girl absolutely out of her depth intellectually and emotionally in the charged family atmosphere. And while Kristin’s attacks make her see her life differently, the two form a respect of sorts that add nuance to what could have been a slightly two-dimensional role. Carmichael delivers a cleverly ditzy performance that balances the comic timing with a sense of the innocent bystander trying to keep the peace.

The themes of the play are pronounced in Soutra Gimour’s (a long-term Lloyd collaborator) set that eschews an art strewn household for a cosy kitchen almost devoid of any paintings, save for a few postcards pinned to the fridge door. The emphasis is on the family dramas rather than Kristin’s career, but Gilmour sets the whole production on a raised proscenium arch, surrounded by a picture-frame adding to the discussion about the boundary between life and art that feeds through the production.

Apologia is not perfect, and at times overly reliant on worn scenarios and coincidences that are a little jarring, but there is an intensity to the writing that well captures the difficult balance of engagement that typify family life. And while the presence of Channing anchors the production with a pitch-perfect performance full of emotional uncertainty, the surrounding cast members are given equal opportunity to shine. More than anything, we see the problematic balance between nature and nurture at the heart of Campbell’s play that shows we are as much a product of social, political and cultural forces of the era we’re born as we are the people who raise us, making the generational divide within families much harder to breach.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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