Monthly Archives: May 2018

Translations – National Theatre

Translations - National Theatre (Catherine Ashmore)

In the same week that Ireland has voted to take an important new step in its history, Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations opens at the National Theatre examining another crucial moment in the nation’s history – the point at which the might of English imperialism began to erode Ireland’s linguistic as well as its governmental freedom. While recent scholarship has attempted to re-examine the wider effects of Empire around the world, making a case for some of the its modernising benefits, Friel’s play is a reminder that such invasions can also decimate an entire culture.

Written in 1980 at the height of The Troubles, Translations may be set in 1833 but its portrait of the changing nature of occupation is still surprisingly prescient. And while the action is specific to Ireland, the British Army took much the same approach the world over; arrive relatively peaceably, engage local people to help them to learn native customs, before full subjugation, control and, crucially, the subsequent Anglicisation of the area – particularly notable in renaming settlements after existing British towns or translating them to something more pronounceable, anything to help the invaders feel at home.

In Friel’s play, the British army are in Baile Beag one hot summer on a cartographic mission to remap, and consequently, rename every village, road, stream and hill in the area bringing with it an inevitable concern with borders. Accompanying them after a long absence, Owen has been enlisted to act as a translator, returning to the village and to the house of his schoolmaster father Hugh and brother Manus who hold regular classes in Latin and Greek for the community. As Owen works on the new maps with friend Lieutenant Yolland, an attraction grows between the soldier and local farmhand Maire which they both imagine will provide them with escape, despite the language barrier, with serious consequences for the villagers and for the future of Anglo-Irish relations.

Ian Rickson’s engaging new production balances the personal and political extremely effectively, opening out the rich life of the Baile Beag inhabitants filled with a range of feelings and aspirations, along with the increasingly complex cultural clash between old and new, that will have significant etymological effects. It’s not a development that Friel treats as wholly good or bad, and Rickson maintains that balance between the romantic and social importance of traditional modes of living and an optimistic future envisioned not just in Owen’s hopes for a collaborative, cleaner, more ordered way of life heralded by his English companions, but also in Maire’s eagerness to reach the freedom of America.

And the play’s structure reflects Friel’s concern with the way in which sudden changes in wider circumstances can quickly alter the future of the individual. In the early part of the show, these alterations are largely positive as a series of characters arrive into the action. As the class meet in the schoolroom, setting the scene as well as establishing the range of relationships, we must anticipate the expected arrival of schoolmaster Hugh whose importance as a leader in the village, passing on his erudition is contrasted by the permanently drunk and dishevelled figure who eventually arrives, but who is clearly trusted and admired by his pupils.

Owen’s wide-eyed return which follows is a surprise to the audience, and, having never been mentioned, we must get to know him only from what we see of his actions in the story and never from other character reports. It is a moment of happiness for all in which Owen is buoyed by the knowledge that he brings the future with him, while finally the arrival of soldiers Lancey and Yolland are starkly imposing, their red coats a beacon among the earthier colours of Baile Beag, while their friendliness suggests a peaceable mapping party who will soon be gone.

With so many arrivals, the third and final act must rebalance with a series of departures that drive the plot, and Rickson creates a notable shift in tone, suggesting something much darker, and more desperate, almost melancholic as the action, and its consequences, begin to play out. It feels considerably more dangerous, immersed in the tension-breaking rain that is always a feature of a Tennessee Williams conclusion, and bringing a multi-faceted concept of physical, emotional and geographical destruction. And while the play ends rather abruptly, you feel that Friel deliberately wanted to demonstrate a snapshot in time rather than neatly packaged story, knowing that all of the characters have unwittingly contributed to a very different kind of future for themselves, and for Ireland than beckons at the start of Act One.

While these strands of political and social history are clearly there, Friel insisted that Translations is a ‘a play about language, and here there are further complexities to uncover. Although all the actors speak in English (except where they quote Greek and Latin during their lessons) it soon becomes apparent that within the action of the play they cannot understand each other. Instead the audience is asked, quite convincingly, to believe that the Irish characters are largely speaking Gaelic and the soldiers English, with very little comprehension between the two. Owen’s deliberate mis-translations are a source of much of the play’s humour which is well managed here, while Friel equally never flags the times when the spoken language is exchanged mid-scene, for example when Manus and Hugh speak English with Lancey and Yolland, adding to the tension and sense of alienation between the two sides.

This focus represents the play’s central debate about the association of language and identity, and the extent to which ideas of modernity and standardisation are tantamount to cultural whitewashing. In the renaming of local landmarks around Baile Beag (which itself becomes Ballybeg), we see not just the systematic loss of native folklore but, sometimes quite humorously, the erosion of a more poetic sound for a clunky English replacement, as Hugh complains later in the play. But, there is balance in this argument with Owen making the case that regional names are based on impractical and unscientific stories no one can even remember, and Maire dreams of learning English as escape from the suffocation she feels at home. Friel leaves it to the audience to decide whether the replacement of Gaelic is a travesty or the inevitable Darwininan phasing-out of a dead language akin to Greek and Latin. Do the benefits of world-wide English outweigh the destruction of regional identities?

Spanning these two worlds Colin Morgan’s Owen arrives full of wonder at the home he left years before. Noting the lack of change, his delight at returning is amplified by a sense that he’s bringing progress in his wake, improving the lives of the people he once left behind. Morgan gives Owen an openness and a schoolboy enthusiasm for the work he’s undertaken with the British Army that allow him to act as friend to both sides, but there’s clearly an underlying pride in the beauty of his homeland that drives him to promote the beneficial effect he feels his work will have for the area and its people.

Clinging to his personal roots as a teacher’s son, his work is based on a scholarly rigour and understanding of both languages but as the action unfolds Morgan charts the problematic clash between two different worlds that marks a significant shift in his own character. His reabsorption into local life reawakens latent sympathies that in Act Three suggest Owen’s certainty has curdled and his own ambiguous final moments imply quite a different direction. Having brought the wolf to the door, Morgan’s Owen suggests he must now fortify his home for the greater battle to come.

Like his son, Ciarán Hinds schoolmaster Hugh arrives a little way into the play, and though implied to be a fearsome and academic man, his rowdy love of drink and ramshackle appearance contrast his reputation. Revered and even loved by his community, at the start of the play Hugh faces a bright future with a job leading the new National School and a visible elation at seeing his son again. But the ever-excellent Hinds brings a deep emotionality to the role of a man who can quote reams of classical scholarship and interchange between four languages with ease but needs something more to sustain him.

Hinds suggests a difficult relationship with son Manus, while the arrival of Owen, although tearful, brings with it suspicion and a shrewder understanding of its consequences than the villagers can distinguish. Of all the characters, Hugh is most alive to the destructive march of progress and in a captivating late monologue Hinds holds the audience in his palm with a moving discussion about the loss of customs and identity, where even a beautifully constructed language is unable to resist the changes of circumstance that will mark its end. It’s a very fine performance from an actor of substantial skill, bringing light and shade to a man who has spent his life with one foot in the past.

It is the villagers who open the show and this National Theatre production has created a warmly convincing community of individuals with distinct needs and concerns who discuss the fears of potato blight as easily as Greek gods. First among them is Judith Roddy’s Maire who dreams of a better life and believes that education is her path to freedom. Maire’s uncertain relationship with Manus (Seamus O’Hara) is quickly overthrown by an attraction to Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) that Roddy makes entirely credible, sweet and sometimes comic as the pair fail to communicate. O’Hara’s Manus is more restrained but there is a sense of deep feeling raging beneath his closed exterior, personally and professionally frustrated, an approach that can make him hot-headed and even cruelly dismissive of the more fragile emotions of those around him.

This is particularly poignant for Sarah, played sensitively by Michelle Fox, a mute girl that Manus is teaching to speak and who is clearly in love with him and has a notable role to play in the action. Dermot Crowley’s tramp-like Jimmy Jack Cassie excels in education and becomes a verbose drinking companion for Hugh, speaking to each other in Latin and Greek – that only adds an additional nonsense to the soldier’s assumption that locals are uneducated and worthy of conquest. Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey is an ominous presence even when attempting conciliation, while Edun’s Yolland makes for a convincingly lover, someone desperate to find a community and place to feel at home with which he equates Maire’s attraction to him.

After a couple of disappointing productions (Macbeth and Nightfall), Rae Smith’s set creates multiple levels for the characters to inhabit, and, while a tad caricatured, there is a sense of private and public lives happening in different rooms and changing weather across the expansive farmlands beyond the schoolroom – the National does love to fill the Olivier stage with dirt. But Translations is not a play that particularly needs much dressing and Rickson maintains an intellectual engagement with the text, allowing the conversations to draw out the political, cultural and historical aspects of Friel’s debate. It’s well paced, allowing the individuality and emotional arc of the characters to emerge, and for the audience to care, while keep the momentum across the two and half hours that flies by.

After a disappointing year in the Olivier with only Follies to write home about, Translations will be a much-needed success for the National. Friel’s interest in emerging identities and the fragility of local tradition will always feel relevant as political shifts and globilisation challenge our concepts of national boundaries. And while there has been so much focus on the political ramifications of what it means to be British in the twenty-first century, Ireland has spent centuries fighting hard to retain its own identity. As the country moves into a new era, Friel’s play remains at the heart of debate – how can a country maintain its essence while embracing the modern world?

Translations is at the National Theatre until 11 August. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    

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An Ideal Husband – Vaudeville Theatre

An Ideal Husband - Vaudeville Theatre

Of all Oscar Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband is arguably the most socially and politically relevant to the modern day. In post-war Britain, the rise of the tabloid newspaper and the political scandal appear to have gone hand-in-hand, and while Profumo-esque sex scandals will always be stock-in-trade for these publications, we are increasingly concerned with how MPs make their money. From the “cash for questions” affair in 1994 to the expenses debacle beginning in 2009, whether our Parliamentary representatives are taking legitimate steps to prepare for their future or feathering their own nests at the expense of democracy, reveals so much about the integrity of those we elect.

Wilde’s play still speaks to these important questions, asking not only about the financial legitimacy of those in the House of Commons, but also about the dangerous extent to which we idolise, and therefore sanitise, our public figures only to be disappointed when they are revealed to be all too human. And while building people up only to tear them down ranks high among favourite British past-times, as An Ideal Husband reveals, this can only happen when we put someone on a pedestal, bringing with it the corrective problem of subsequently setting them down too low, as Lord Goring aptly reminds Lady Chiltern of the punishment she inflicts on her once perfect spouse.

With such sharp relevance to political life in twenty-first century Britain, it seems a shame then that Classic Spring’s latest production, directed by Jonathan Church, though beautifully realised and worthy of many of its 4-star reviews, should muzzle its bite in a season that has, so far, failed to break the mould. Wilde is a wonderful playwright and a huge audience favourite – whether amateur or professional, there is almost certainly a production somewhere at all times, in fact there’s probably a by-law insisting upon it.

There is no danger of Wilde being forgotten, or his plays falling out of fashion, they remain as much a staple of the theatrical landscape as Shakespeare, so why then stage a dedicated London season without anything new to say? It is a money-spinner certainly, undoubtedly charming, witty and fun to play for the actors and directors, as well as a delight to watch, but audiences have seen it all a hundred times before, the approach taken in Dominic Dromgoole’s season to date has hardly set the canon on fire.

The three productions have all been very enjoyable with some great performances and high production values that have envisioned a series of charming room sets evoking comfortable wealth filled with beautifully dressed aristocrats. Eve Best as the titular Woman of No Importance along with a marvellous comic turn from Anne Reid in the same production were charming. Jennifer Saunders took no comedy prisoners to become the joyous highlight of a rather romantic take on Lady Windermere’s Fan. Here too, An Ideal Husband has a lovely gold and white set designed by Simon Higlett, whose costumes are a marvellous nod to the power of the female characters and the modish splendour of Lord Goring. But these wrappings reinforce the idea of Wilde’s play as a museum piece, which is far from the case. The class structure may be less pronounced, but Wilde’s view of humanity, and delight in mocking the pompous, vain, ambitious and scheming characteristics of society, are as prescient as ever. If any of Wilde’s plays were crying out for a modern spin particularly in a reverentially dedicated season, then An Ideal Husband certainly is. Enjoyable though it is, the overriding impression of this version at the Vaudeville Theatre is that Dromgoole et al have missed a trick.

And it’s a trick that would also have solved the other big issue that affects this production – it’s determination to depart from Oliver Parker’s wonderful 1999 film that set a high bar for subsequent interpretations. In some of the performances, it is clear that different decisions have been made in order to separate from the movie, but this only serves to weaken the personality of particular characters causing an imbalance in the play. A modern setting could have alleviated some of these issues, opening up the possibility of even stronger female characterisation than offered here, and tapping into a renewed devotion to political theatre that has been such a feature of West End productions in the last 12 months.

Sally Bretton’s Gertrude, for example, has become simpering and even shrill, barely suggesting the strength of character that should ultimately make her as much a match for the plotting Mrs Cheveley, as it does for her eminent husband. Where the text implies a passion for female liberation and, crucially, a true partner in a marriage of equals, Bretton’s Gertrude is a wallflower who relies solely on men to fix her problems. As a consequence, her scenes with Nathaniel Parker’s Sir Robert Chiltern have a whining quality rather than the logic of a devoted but sensible wife forced to recast her image of both her husband and herself.

Likewise, Francis Barber’s Mrs Cheveley borders occasionally on pantomime villain relishing the political hold she has over men, and Sir Robert in particular, but without fully convincing us of the sexual and emotional hold that she is fully capable of deploying to achieve her end. The supposed pre-relationship with Freddie Fox’s Lord Goring is a bit of a stretch given the age difference and while as a young man he may have “enjoyed” her company, it’s hard to believe the pair were truly in love enough to have considered marriage.

Where this production excels is in its approach to the comedy of Wilde’s dandyish characters and here the much-lauded appearance of father and son Edward and Freddie Fox is the backbone of this production. There is huge enjoyment to be had in the waspish bantering of the Gorings who find each other’s company irritating and unfathomable, entirely on different tracks but yoked together in a wonderfully bitter relationship that they cannot, and potentially would not, do without.

As Lord Goring, Freddie Fox builds well on his comic career to date, but his approach feels fresh, even modern in such a traditional take on the play. He has a feel for the rhythm of Wilde’s language, allowing him to make the lines seem like everday speech, natural conversation rather than a series of witty remarks strung together which is too often a failing of such stagings. Fox captures the arrogance and immense self-obsession that marks Goring’s character while still also suggesting a true generosity of heart that explains his desire to help his friends and ultimately himself to a more complex emotional life. It is a fine and vital performance that brings the various elements of the plot together with incredible skill.

Fox senior has considerably less stage time but enjoys every moment as the obstreperous Earl of Caversham, berating his wayward son and landing every insult with superb control. Nathanial Parker brings a nice sense of dignity to the set-upon Sir Robert Chiltern, hinting at the unrepentent conceit of a man who has scrambled his way to power by whatever means necessary, mixed with the fear of losing the respect of the wife he adores. Parker conveys Chiltern’s confliction, and despite becoming the face of honour and respectability, you still feel that he isn’t that ashamed of his murky past.

As we all now know, politics is (and always has been) a dirty business, and Chiltern represents a realistic portrait of how real power is founded, often not through essential decency, morality and achievement alone, but from dubious opportunity, whatever you make of it afterwards. It is something that Wilde clearly recognises in An Ideal Husband, that worth and duty can emerge from a less than auspicious start, that goodness is far more complex than idolisation imagines.

The modernity of these ideas is so striking that, in an otherwise charming and chic production, it can only be a shame that Classic Spring didn’t decide to take a risk with this interpretation. In a very traditional season and with tickets to sell, it is understandable, but the most remarkable theatre experiences come from innovation, from seeing beyond the surface of the text and every prior interpretation to find a new way to bring a story to the audience. In recent years several writers whose work has always been coddled, held captive by the era in which they wrote, have found new resonance, and if we can do that for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, then its also time to let Wilde free.

An Ideal Husband is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 14 July. Tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Red – Wyndhams Theatre

Red - Wyndhams Theatre

All art is ultimately tragedy, commodified, misinterpreted and subject to the whims of fashion, the greatest art will always mean the self-destruction of the individual, standing apart from real life but forced to see their work reduced by the people who buy it. Whether it is designed to stave-off fears about the fragility of human existence, or to rage against the artistic conventions handed down by generations of beloved artists before them, the creation of a single piece of art is a lonely moment of self-expression. Then again, it might all be self-indulgent nonsense?

John Logan’s Red returns to the West End for the first time since it premiered in 2009, exploring the complex separation between the fire which which something is created by an individual, and how it is subsequently viewed by the masses beyond the walls of the studio. Red is more than just a play, it is a conversation about driving an artistic vision, about purpose and fame and the weight of cultural context that can shape an artist’s profile allowing them to create something new, while simultaneously suffocating that expression of their world.

Set in the studio of Mark Rothko in late 1950s New York, Red opens with the arrival of new assistant Ken, a young artist, who is there to mix paint, clean-up and admire the senior painter. Told in no uncertain terms on day one that there will never be anything more than employer-employee relationship, Rothko focuses on creating a set of paintings commissioned by the new Four Seasons restaurant which he hopes will transform the room into a temple of art. Over two years, the men share few personal moments, but their discussions on the meaning of creativity come to shape them both irrevocably.

For all its high-minded discussion of artistic principles, Red is ultimately a very practical examination of the life of a working painter, taking in the day-to-day necessities of building and preparing canvasses, buying materials and plenty of thinking time. Michael Grandage’s revival may only be 90 minutes, but there is no sense of rush here, and instead the play – much like Rothko’s creations – is given room to breath, to slowly come into focus as a true picture emerges. What you see at first is not the finished piece, but something that takes shape through the conversations between Rothko and Ken, as they find a value in each other’s perspective.

And the mere existence of this relationship, based on little but a financial transaction of employment, becomes hugely significant in the shaping of Rothko’s character and the serious, methodical approach to his work. The first and last image we see is of the man alone, looking at his creations with nothing else in his life. Ken is almost the only person he speaks to in the play, and certainly the only one permitted to see the vision from the inside. Rothko’s essential loneliness (and preference for it), his devotion to creating the right low-level of lighting and to sealing off his creative space from any external influence, speaks volumes about the singularity of purpose Logan suggests is necessary to create eternal art.

At the same time, Ken represents a period of change in society, in art and in Rothko’s approach to the reception of his work. When he roars against commodification of art and condemns emerging Pop Artists, he is giving voice to his own fears of sudden irrelevance and ultimately his own mortality. The tragedy that Rothko fears, that suffuses his work, is exactly the kind of overthrow that his generation was once responsible for, when Cubism was edged out by Abstract Expressionism. The drama in Red comes from this struggle between historical past and present, and between art history and evolving concepts of creativity, for which the characters of Rothko and Ken are metaphors.

As the action unfolds, it’s fascinating to see Ken emerging in confidence as a person but also as an artist. We never see his own work, but where initially he received Rothko’s opinions in almost silent awe, over time he argues back, staking his claim to relevance in the here and now while stepping out from behind Rothko’s shadow into the light. And it is no coincidence that it is Ken’s own shadow we see reflected on the canvas later in the play, and, in the penultimate scene Ken stands alone on stage contemplating the work as he will soon do for his own.

But there is also a very modern relevance here about the disposable nature of contemporary living, with the sense of times changing, in Rothko’s view, for the worse. Even though Logan wrote Red in 2009, long after social media had begun to take root, Rothko’s criticism of the public focus on “likes” still feels prophetic, while his views on those purchasing his art just to be seen, to be known to have taste, or to keep up with Jones’s similarly speaks to more recent obsessions with Instagram lifestyles. If everything is design to capture a single moment, what are the future foundations of our society, where does history, tradition and experience fit in a world based on endless throwaway consumption?

In our new context, Logan’s argument that art matters because it transcends time and is carved from thought, pain and sacrifice is still quite powerful, that creative things should be loved because they have meaning and should inspire us to see and feel the world differently. Grandage’s direction uses the moments of silence to allow the audience to contemplate these discussions, so, like Rothko’s approach to painting, Logan’s frantic moments of debate are counterbalanced by the opportunity to sit back for a few moments and try to see ourselves more clearly.

Christopher Oram’s set is at once an open space, giving the paintings room to exist and to be considered, while suggesting a sealed vacuum, a dimly-lit chamber in which Rothko both actively separates and cautiously protects himself from the vagaries of the world outside. But it also reflects Ken’s experience to a degree as a white canvas, t-shirts and even a movable cupboard are slashed with red paint that subtly links to an important childhood memory.

Adam Cork’s music selection frequently reflects the emotive tenor of a scene, using carefully selected classical pieces to create a mood of frenzied work accompanied by heavy orchestral sounds or lighter imaginative sequences supported by sprightlier tunes. Ken’s conversion is complete when he breaches the walls, bringing in his radical jazz, intruding into Rothko’s private space and bringing new sensations and purpose with him.

Reprising a role that he played in the premiere production at the Donmar almost a decade ago, as well as his award-winning turn on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Alfred Molina playing the famous painter. He captures the full-range of contradictions, complexities and passion Rothko exudes, using every second on stage to suggest the mix of arrogance, artistic certainty and dedicated craftsmanship of a serious artist. Only 10% of the time spent creating great work is actually painting he says at one point, so Molina never just stands on the stage, he shows Rothko always thinking about the work, assessing how the piece is unfolding or actively preparing his materials.

Even in discussion with Ken, you feel his mind working endlessly, engaging with the conversation, absorbing every comment and thinking deeply about what’s to come. Yet, Molina remains almost still during these scenes, suggesting all the certainty of a man at ease with his status as a genius, a certainty that comes with age and success that feels imposing, almost intimidating. Molina commands the room, filling his Rothko with bitter rebuke for the less restrained era he lives in, unhappy with the inexperience of an audience unable to properly appreciate the levels of meaning and value of the work they are privileged to see.

Yet, in the new light reflected from Ken’s presence, Molina also suggests at heart Rothko is afraid, almost hiding away to protect his essential fragility. His use of black and red representing the encroaching darkness and frequent references to a sense of tragedy that seems to beset him. It implies a man fighting for his place in art history, desperate to be remembered and to be understood, using his overbearing personality to fake a certainty he is far from feeling. Molina’s trick is to make you wonder how much Rothko has even admitted this to himself.

Alfred Enoch as Ken charts a course through initial naivety and deference, to becoming more confident in his opinions and airing his frustrations. While references, and eventually a full description, of a childhood tragedy are the only aspect of Logan’s play that feel a tad false, as though the young man has been given a convenient backstory on which Logan can hang some of his themes, nonetheless Enoch creates a character who must be the audience’s way in to the story, he is our view of Rothko which shifts and evolves as Ken displays him to us.

Ken fulfils much of the practical activity necessary to run a studio, moving paintings, covering canvasses, mixing shades of colour which act as a tutorial for the emerging artist, and, as Rothko demands, we begin to see him contemplating his wider role in the creation of art from a philosophical and cultural perspective as the months pass. Enoch’s Ken actively grows in front of us until he can stand his own ground, and while Molina’s performance is exceptional, Enoch more than holds his own on the exposing Wydnhams stage.

Red is a show where the audience really needs to see the art work to understand Rothko’s near torment in creating it, so finding a seat with a decent view is important.* Like the Donmar where it first opened, the Wyndhams is a particularly useful choice with good sightlines from most seats, even in the balcony, allowing you to see the large replica paintings scattered around the stage. This may be one occasion where sitting higher-up in the theatre would be an advantage because it gives the viewer a chance to see the minutiae of studio work that won’t be as visible from the stalls, offering a wider perspective on the backstage creation of a single painting as the play intends.

The struggle for artistic integrity and the personal cost of creating art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating revival of Red shows us that to create is to suffer, but the tragedy is in knowing that what’s left behind may not mean as much to its consumers. Art, then, is tragedy to some degree, but for an audience this 90-minutes of engaging debate and conversation is pure joy.

Red is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 28 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

 

* In choosing good seats, the website Seatplan is particularly useful and user-friendly. It contains a comprehensive layout of every London theatre (and many others), with reviews, star ratings and pictures of the view from individual seats, all uploaded by audience members. Much like TripAdvisor, individuals can add their own experience, and it’s a great place to find tips on legroom, comfort and sightlines before you book. While not every seat has been rated yet – most have and are now colour-coded, so you can see at a glance – you can usually get a sense of the view from the next seat, and you can easily see which reviews also include an image which is invaluable, particularly in the older theatres where the curve of the auditorium or circle overhang can obscure large parts of the stage. The front page is now more focused on selling tickets but the search field for theatre layouts is obvious at the top


Film Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach

Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”

Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.

Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.

Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.

What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.

Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.

Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.

But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.

As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.

In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.

While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.

On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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