Monthly Archives: January 2018

Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

‘The fault… is not in our stars / But in ourselves… think of the world’. No matter where Julius Caesar is performed or when it is set, as these commuted lines demonstrate, this 400-year old play is always incredibly prescient, asserting the foolishness of rash action and the arrogance of politicians. Yet, over-hasty decisions are made by officials all the time, ones that have avoidable consequences had they been given proper thought and chosen for the right reasons. And while the assassination of a leader may be the ultimate political act, nobility of intention ultimately results in uncertainty, fear and a dangerous power vacuum.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine the corrupting and destructive desire for power that urges men to ruin or, more often, murder their friends. When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it; Claudius, intending to wed his sister-in-law, pours poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father to feed his monarchical ambition, while Lear’s grasping daughters secure their inheritance and his crown, but turf-out their ill father to wander in the wilderness. But none of these characters are allowed to enjoy their victory for long, those who falsely obtain power are punished, the blood on their hands being a symbolic first step to their own demise.

Julius Caesar follows the same course, considering two types of power – the dictator and parliamentary approaches – leaving it up to individual productions and the audience to decide which (if either) offers the most chance of happiness for a nation. At the start of the play Caesar is triumphant, returned from Gaul feted, loved and invincible, a colossus bestriding the world, and we hear rather than see that he is a dictator, an emperor, near enough a King trying to rule without democratic process. Pitted against him are a band of Senators who fear their ‘overmighty’ ruler and determine that for the good of the Republic he must be assassinated. Although led by the noble Brutus whose honourable conscience urges action to assuage his principles, the other conspirators have muddier means, and so Shakespeare offers a fascinating debate about the right to kill for a supposed greater good.

This has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the buzz surrounding the first few performances of Nicholas Hytner’s interpretation, and its excellent cast, has raised considerable expectations. And the excitement is entirely deserved because the Bridge Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar is magnificent, energetic and perfectly conceived, with a vision that not only brings a new clarity to the play but is consistently applied to every imaginatively staged and riveting minute of this two-hour show. Yes, it’s loud, brash and even a tad gimmicky in places, it starts with a blaring concert and ends celebrating the name of a ‘glorious’ new leader, but this rock-and-roll Shakespeare has an emotional depth and force that is never less than entirely compelling.

This in-the-round / promenade (for the pit audience) production, is a marvel of design ingenuity. Created by Bunny Christie, multiple platforms rise from the floor to create stages, homes, the Senate and the battlefield, placing the characters above the crowd and lending an authenticity to the moments of genuine oration and spectacle. The whole place feels like a boxing ring or a bullfighting arena, starkly lit by Bruno Poet and carried through into the performances as David Calder’s Caesar makes his entrance like a victorious champ returning to the ring for one last bout. It feels appropriate for what follows, as soldiers and politicians go head to head in a fight to the death.

Of the many intriguing elements in Hytner’s approach, the clear divide he draws between the two camps brings real clarity to why the story unfolds as it does. Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Octavian are strategic, powerful men who think logically about what must be done, while the conspirators, led by Brutus, are cerebral, carefully arguing their case with precedents and regulation using assassination as a theoretical act, without properly understanding the physical effect it will have on them or the ability to foresee, or satisfactorily conduct, the war which follows.

The conspirators don’t feel dangerous as such, a deliberate choice, and while they do kill a man, Hytner makes them seem like a group of liberals, bogged down in the intellectual cause and utterly out of their depth. A sly hint too of the distance of politicians from the will of the people and how little they understand what people really want from government. How timely that feels.

The portrayal of Brutus underscores all of this with Ben Whishaw easily delivering one of his best stage performances to date, and that is a high bar indeed. Brutus is actually quite a difficult role and is often the weakest aspect of productions. Noble in both behaviour and respected lineage, the contradiction of his friendship with Caesar and decision to end his life can make the character seem too remote. But Whishaw sidesteps this with an idea of Brutus’s essential fallibility that offers new insight into his behaviour and to the eventual failure of the central plot.

Whishaw’s bookish Brutus, for all his academic prowess, is shown to be a terrible decision-maker – something more clearly marked in Whishaw’s performance than previously seen. As unofficial leader, he repeatedly overrules the cautious and more astute Cassius to take the wrong path, leading to their downfall. The decisions to only kill the dictator, to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, to let Mark Anthony speak to the mob alone and to face his enemy at Philippi where he then attacks too early are used by Whishaw to demonstrate Brutus’s arrogance and lack of strategic thinking.

Casting Cassius as a woman – a superb interpretation by Michelle Fairley – only adds even more weight to Brutus’s flaws as he becomes a mansplaining fool, patronising his female colleagues who have considerably more insight that he does. Whishaw’s Brutus believes he is a good man and for a while the audience thinks so too, but for all his conscience-wrangling before the act, he has no insight into himself or ability to see beyond the intellectual liberal cause he espouses. He is no man of the people and Whishaw shows with incredible clarity that Brutus aligns with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, a man driven to destruction by his own fatal flaw, an inability to see the world as it really is.

By contrast David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony is fully a man of the world, not remotely sensitive, arrogant and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures, but steeped in military knowledge and loved by the mob which makes him a far shrewder politician than his counterparts. Morrissey shows that love for a fellow soldier is more real than the false idea of friendship offered by the political elite, and his carefully controlled oration at Caesar’s funeral is brilliantly delivered as he sets aside the microphone to walk into the crowd, genuinely creating a sense of outrage and thirst for revenge that fills the auditorium. Unlike Brutus, Morrisey’s Mark Anthony knows exactly who he is and has the savvy to evoke a chaos in Rome that he knows exactly how to control.

The gender-blind casting is a production highlight, fitting seamlessly into a traditionally male-dominated play, adding a modern spin, while allowing Michelle Fairley as Cassius, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus in particular to deliver top-notch performances as co-conspirators. Fairley’s Cassius is full of bitter scorn for the great leader she once rescued from drowning, and her demands for equality seem to speak to the ages. Fairley charts how Cassius’s manipulation of Brutus is abruptly turned around when she is forced to concede to what she supposes is his greater understanding, which adds fury to their confrontation before Philippi as she viciously chastises him for the mess he’s created.

Andoh’s Casca is a glowering presence who enjoys the grubby criminality of murder far more than ideals of liberating the Republic, while Farzad brilliantly captures the contrast between thought and deed as her confident Decius Brutus leads Caesar to his death then promptly bursts into tears afterwards, overcome by the reality and stain of what they’ve done. Through all this David Calder’s small role as the hardly seen titular dictator haunts everyone, a man who dons a politician’s suit under the slogan ‘Do This! (cleverly taken from Antony’s line in Act 1, Scene 2 “When Caesar says, ‘do this’, it is performed”), but retains his military bearing. Calder is commanding and ‘constant as the northern star’ but leaves the audience to decide whether he deserved to die.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar is nothing short of Roman triumph, capturing the wonderful lyricism of Shakespeare’s writing, in what are some of his most beautiful speeches, with an urgency of action that means two hours just races by. The production vision is so strong and so consistently applied that a plot that starts in Brutus’s living room and ends at the wire-strewn battlefield of Philippi seems a natural progression. Whether you’re being slightly pushed around in the pit or safely seated, once again the striking modernity of the play, of people who kill for power and leave disaster in its place, rings out. It is humanity’s poor thinking not destiny that causes the world’s problems, and 400 years after it was first performed this play reminds us this is still the case. So, listen to Caesar’s moto and get a ticket for this thrilling production while you can – “Do This!”

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April with an NT Live cinema screening on 22 March. Tickets start at £15, with standing tickets available to be part of the Roman crowd. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   

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John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.


The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre

High-profile productions of Pinter plays with an all-star cast have been a regular feature of the West End in the past few years. Jamie Lloyd gave interpretations of Pinter a shake-up with his stylised version of The Homecoming starring John Simm and Gemma Chan in 2015, and since then a hugely acclaimed version of No Man’s Land united Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in late 2016. Now, one of Pinter’s early controversial full-length plays, The Birthday Party has arrived at the theatre named after one of the twentieth-century’s most influential playwrights.

Yet, Pinter is not the easiest experience for an audience with his focus on abstract meanings and heightened realism that for the uninitiated can mean his work seems impenetrable. But, his plays last because they manage to do something still fairly unique in modern theatre, and while plot and character exist to an extent, Pinter eschews traditional ideas about narrative and instead wants to create a particular impression or feeling – predominantly a sense of sinister unease – that pervades his best work, with a sparse style that continues to draw actors and audiences alike.

The Birthday Party is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles (also a deckchair attendant), whose long-term lodger Stanley is their only guest. Claiming to be a pianist with offers to tour the world, Stanley’s place in the house is unclear, but happily settled. That is until strangers Goldberg and McCann arrive for one night, intruding on the birthday celebration Meg has innocently planned. But it’s not really Stanley’s birthday and suddenly his whole existence comes into question; just who is Stanley and what is he really doing in this quiet little town?

Ian Rickson’s assured and compelling new production positions Pinter’s work in a form of shabby realism, a dark little room from which the characters find it difficult to escape. Designed by the Quay Brothers, the Boles boarding house is an abyss in a world of sunshine, filled with dark wood and muted autumnal colours that belie the beautiful summer’s day referenced outside. And, interestingly, although all of the characters except Stanley commute into this warmer world or, through the occasional opening of doors and windows, try to draw the external freshness in with them, they only really exist in this drab chamber, as if permanently yoked to it, unable to escape to the better existence they crave beyond the walls.

As ever with Pinter the blurring of fantasy and reality is a common theme, and Rickson’s production is quite subtle in relaying the contrast between the two. Everything is played with deliberate realism to match the detailed everyday approach to the set and costumes, so the onus is placed on the audience to recognise the moments when characters contradict themselves and to judge what parts of the conversation are a dream or a lie. For example, at several points, we’re given similar bits of information about Stanley’s professional life and during each new conversation the extent of his achievement is scaled down forcing us to question which version is the truth. Rickson, underscores this with a sense of unease because we cannot be sure if Stanley consciously lies to the other characters or to himself, adding a valuable sense of instability to an already unpredictable play.

Pinter also likes to explore the consequences of forcing strangers into established worlds to consider the fragility of human structures and relationships. He does this in The Homecoming as Teddy brings his new wife Ruth into the family home, upsetting the routines and the very male balance that exists there. This also happens in No Man’s Land as Foster is upset when his master brings the garrulous Spooner into the house for a late-night drink that similarly alters their path. Here in The Birthday Party, Meg, Petey and Stanley have developed a similar form of domestic bliss that seems to suit them and although we’re not quite clear how innocent the arrangement is, it is clearly an established and comfortable one.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann is well managed, and instantly distorts the calm and cosy atmosphere that existed before. The audience feels the shift as fussing about cornflakes and the local paper quickly gives way to more intense debates about identity and self-delusion, prompted by the arrival of these two sinister strangers. Importantly, throughout the remainder of the play, they feel like an alien presence, characters who don’t quite belong in this time and place, put there purposefully by Pinter to create a rupture between what has gone before and what is to come. So, while the play’s language is typically opaque, the overriding feeling of this production gives strong signals to the audience about what is happening which keeps you gripped.

Toby Jones is a fairly rare sight on the London stage these days but his ability to play quite diverse types serves him well as the shambolic and uncertain Stanley. With a raft of acclaimed roles in TV and film from projects as broad-ranging as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Witness for the Prosecution, The Detectorists and a First World War soldier in the excellent forthcoming adaptation of Journey’s End, Jones brings a complex and slightly shifty tone to the central role.

Initially, he strikes quite a sad and lonely figure, half dressed in pyjamas and oppressed by the poor-quality breakfast supplied by Meg. But very soon, Jones reveals an undercurrent of something darker as the morality of his relationship with Mrs Boles is called into question hinting at something more than perhaps her husband knows, which, later in the production evolves into something suggesting complicity between them – a peculiar ménage à trois in which Petey is equally content with the ‘arrangement’.

With the announcement of strangers arriving, Jones’s Stanley becomes rapidly agitated, as if unexpectedly caught out, eventually receding into watchful silence and a traumatic emotional turmoil as the party itself gets underway. It’s a skilled performance that offers layers of meaning and interpretation that never quite allows Stanley’s rather slippery identity to be pinned down, leaving you wondering whether he’s genuinely maligned or whether some dark deeds from another time have finally caught up with him.

As Meg Boles, Zoe Wannamaker has rarely been better, creating a slightly empty-headed domestically satisfied working-class woman who dreams of being the centre of attention without ever realising that she is actually the pivotal point in the household. Meg would be a frustrating woman to know, always stating the obvious, asking her husband to his face if he is there, and wanting to hear the news as he reads the paper.

Her relationship with Stanley is rather dubious, and Wannamaker ensures it never quite settles on the motherly or the romantic bringing that constant sense of unease or hint of inappropriateness to a seemingly innocent domestic world. The party itself gives her a chance to let loose some of the girlish glamour and enjoyment of male attention that are usually held in check beneath her pinny, but Wannamaker retains a sense of Meg’s innocence throughout, as if she’s in the world but not part of it, and cannot really see what’s happening under her own roof.

Stephan Mangan’s Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann are a menacing double act that almost fully realises Pinter’s intentions for them as the catalyst for break-down and change, while at the same time making them distinctive individuals. Vaughan-Lawlor is particularly good at delivering much of the implied violence of the piece, and for much of the time he is the embodiment of physical threat. Simultaneously however, Vaughan-Lawlor brings shades of anxiety to the role of the former priest-turned-hard-man, using a latent nervous energy he reveals only to Goldberg and a peculiar need to tear newspapers into strips that seems to calm him.

Goldberg, by contrast, is the established crime boss who talks endlessly about family and respect for his heritage. He too has identity issues, referred to by several first names during the play, and there’s something of the Krays in the way he talks about protecting community. As a well-known comic actor, Mangan takes a more humorous approach to the interpretation of Goldberg and earns many of the evenings laughs with his well-timed delivery and judicious use of the infamous Pinter pause. There is room for a little more darkness in the portrayal however and at present this character seems to contrast most with the straighter interpretations of the other actors. Arguably, Goldberg is only incidentally funny and in fact means to be threatening, which is something Mangan has time to explore as the run continues.

There is a well-conceived small role for Pearl Mackie as neighbour Lulu whose purpose is to add an overtly sexual dimension  to the male / female interactions with her instant attraction to the much-older Goldberg. Played almost entirely as a fantasy figure, Lulu is there to cast light on the parallel bond with Stanley and Meg, and Mackie does well to match her accent to Wannamaker’s to give a nice consistency. Peter Wright, as the mostly silent Petey, must feel quite at home in this theatre having spent several recent months here in the West End transfer of Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and here he is an interestingly passive presence, a man who mostly abandons his home and allows events to occur unchallenged.

Setting this in the realistically depicted and familiar world of the seaside boarding house only adds to its distorting effect, and leaves the audience decidedly unsettled. Pinter is a difficult playwright to love and it has taken many attempts to start to understand why his work endures, but this exciting version of The Birthday Party makes Pinter’s appeal all the clearer – plot and character are only partly the point, it’s about the feeling it creates as you watch it. With press night still a few days away, Rickson’s production is already a tense and unnerving experience that utilises all the skills of its excellent cast to reinforce the oddity of one of Pinter’s most performed plays.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.     


Film Review: Downsizing

In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world,  and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.

This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.

If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.

The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.

Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.

Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.

Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.

In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.

The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.

Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.

With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.

Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.

What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.

Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Witness for the Prosecution – County Hall

A dark new Agatha Christie adaptation has become something of a Christmas tradition, and even though the BBC only started this tradition two years ago with an excellent multi-part interpretation of And Then There Were None, it has fast become an established and much anticipated highlight of the festive schedule. So, disappointment ensued this year when the latest Christie production, Ordeal by Innocence was indefinitely shelved. Fortunately, Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Witness for the Prosecution is still riding high at London’s County Hall and is a charming substitute for the void in the TV listings.

Adapted from her own short story, Agatha Christie wrote a theatrical version of Witness for the Prosecution first performed in 1953, and while these days we’re more used to seeing the stories involving her most famous detectives as TV movies – or with the advent of Kenneth Branagh’s latest venture as actual movies – this new stage version, inventively located in an underused and unexpected London venue makes for an enjoyably twisty tale of murder and intrigue.

Wealthy widow Emily French has been murdered and Leonard Vole stands accused of the crime. Vole claims they were good friends and he was at home at the time of the murder, but with plenty of witnesses ready to testify against him, can Vole’s defence team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Mr Mayhew, prove his innocence? But then Vole’s mysterious wife Romaine is called to given evidence and the case is turned on its head.

At press night back in October, Lucy Bailey’s production divided the critics, with some disliking what they saw as an old-fashioned structure and heavy-handed approach, while others loved it’s classic and meticulous control of the courtroom action that focused on the aftermath of a murder rather than the deed itself. And, depending on your preference to see the action or hear it reported, this version will compare favourably or unfavourably with last year’s BBC dramatization that took the short story rather than the play as its starting point, and recreated the build-up to the murder as well as the court-based action in a more character-focused piece.

By contrast, Christie’s play is driven by procedure, demonstrating the fragility of evidence presented in courtrooms in cases of capital crime and has much in common with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men in the way it examines the anatomy of justice and how prejudice has to be overcome. The case itself could be about anything, but what Christie wants you to see is how the ultimate punishment can hinge on the brilliance of lawyers to twist the scantest evidence to make a case for the guilt or innocence of the accused. And, deliberately, like a real jury, the audience is not permitted to see the crime, instead Christie only wants us to hear its details as court testimony, delivered by witnesses and framed by lawyers, forcing you to question how much you can ever really know without being there.

In this light, some of the harsher reviewers for this show can be put into perspective, if you actively try to compare this to the 2016 TV version and expect to see a Christie story that unpicks the characters and tries to understand their motives, then it will certainly disappoint. But, this play is doing something else entirely and Bailey’s approach stands apart as a stylish and savvy revival that has plenty to say about the failures of the criminal justice system.

The use of County Hall, the former home of London’s local government, which is normally closed to the public is an inspired one, and Witness for the Prosecution takes place in the former Council Chamber, which looks like a courtroom with raised platforms for the judge and clerks as well as an actual witness box, making this a combination of theatrical experience and Open House Weekend. With the addition of a central raised stage amidst the three-quarter round seats, the grandly imposing debating chamber of marble columns and ornate design is a lovely substitute for the Old Bailey, adding plenty of atmosphere to the story.

The action largely takes place between Sir Wilfrid’s chambers and the courtroom, and unlike most Christie TV adaptations you never see the murder or the victim, everything is discussed in retrospect. Some of the criticisms of this production concerned the length of the scene changes, and while occasionally they take a couple of minutes as stagehands roll out carpet and deliver chairs, they don’t detract much from the drama of the case. All venues require compromises of some kind, and lengthy scene changes are only a problem if they interrupt the flow, which in this case they largely don’t. On balance, the use of County Hall adds considerably more to the performance than its limitations detract, and Bailey shrewdly uses the space to enhance the themes of the play.

As Leonard Vole, Jack McMullen has one of the toughest roles and must maintain the audience’s interest in his case without giving away the solution. It’s not an easy balance but McMullen does very well to maintain the idea of a young man fighting for his life and genuinely scared by the weight of the circumstantial evidence, but at the same time he allows the audience to see that he may be capable of the things the witnesses claim which adds to the escalating tension, as well as reinforcing Christie’s notion that evidence and fact don’t always align.

Leading the defence team, David Yelland is wonderfully wry as Sir Wilfrid, wanting to believe in his client’s innocence but knowing how the game must be played in court. We’re given some insight into his thinking during the scenes outside the courtroom, and he has many of the most humorous lines, but unlike the BBC adaptation, Sir Wilfrid here is a servant of the crown, he has a job to do and aspects of his personality – his confidence, his disregard for the approach of the prosecution lawyer and his slightly world-weary acceptance of human behaviour – are only revealed by Yelland where they intersect with the performance of his job, and are indeed only the things his client or the jury would see or know of him in court.

His counterpart, Mr Myers is given a bulldog ferocity by Philip Franks who is a deliberately showier, if less skilled lawyer than Sir Wilfrid. Myers thunders at witnesses and breaks protocol repeatedly by making leading statements and putting words in their mouths (for which objections are frequently raised), which Franks suggests is due to Myer’s arrogance, using a more aggressive but ultimately less nuanced approach. But it does make for entertaining exchanges and many of the productions best moments come from watching Franks and Yelland squeezing and flipping evidence, as witness statements are shaped and redirected by the competing lawyers.

Catherine Steadman’s Romaine is a more difficult role to place, and has to be deliberately seen as an outsider or a strange presence. The character is German in a very English setting and her ‘otherness’ is key to the way in which the audience perceives her evidence. Steadman mostly creates this quite well, and her straight-talking Romaine always seems in control, brusque but unwilling to conform to English niceties. It is a fine line, though, between distinctiveness and exaggeration, with Steadman’s performance occasionally becoming a little cartoony, and by rushing the rather dramatic ending, Romaine feels like the least real character in an otherwise convincing production.

With ticket prices from a reasonable £10 and the show extended for nearly a year until September there’s plenty of time to catch this enjoyable new interpretation. If booking for some of the gallery seats, do take note of the restricted view information which is very clear about which areas of the stage the marble pillars will obscure, while other seats give you a perfect view for £25. So, if you felt Christmas was missing the traditional Agatha Christie adaptation, this production of Witness for the Prosecution is a rare chance to see a carefully-considered and executed Christie play in an unusual but well-chosen setting. As London will see with Quiz later in the year, Bailey’s production reminds us that justice and truth are not always the same thing.

Witness for the Prosecution is at County Hall until 16 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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