Monthly Archives: November 2018

NT Live Screening: The Madness of King George III

The Madness of King George III - NT Live

The notion of monarchs as divine beings may have died on the scaffold with Charles I but the idea of the Royal Family as somehow “other” persists. We seem strangely delighted to learn that they have the same human foibles and failings as the rest of us, that life in its different ways has been difficult for all of them, that however much wealth, power of privilege we believe they have, tough choices have had to be made, terrible events lived through and hard lessons learned. And while many of our monarchs are consigned to historical caricature, they too were once rounded and complex people balancing their constitutional responsibilities with a myriad of political, personality and family pressures that shaped their reign.

Interest in the real people beyond the symbolic role has been revived in programmes such as The Crown, exploring the effect of great events on our most famous family. War, acts of Parliament and social change are important, but the way to engage audiences with them is tell human stories about their effects. Shakespeare knew that only too well and his monarchical plays last because they set aside the great events (which predominantly happen off-stage) and focus instead on dysfunctional relationships, personal betrayals and the psychology of Kingship where the individual must or cannot subjugate their inner self to the role of sovereign, as Henry V tries and Richard II fails to do. This pull between the needs of the body politic and the physical body of the ruler is fruitful ground for drama.

The revival of Alan Bennett’s 1991 classic The Madness of King George III at Nottingham Playhouse couldn’t then be more relevant, a play that speaks to our interest in the people who govern us as well as concerns about fitness to rule, mental health and its treatment. Notably screened via NT Live last week, this is a first for the National in its attempt to represent regional productions among its London-centric output. While the process of screening plays is now a well-established practice, and one that is becoming increasingly ambitious in terms of the productions it films and the international venues to which they are transmitted, for the actor, the presence of cameras presents a number of different challenges that can affect everything from the blocking to the scale of the individual’s performance.

Adam Penford’s production came alive on screen as surely as it must have for the audiences able to witness it first-hand, and what you lose in the communal atmosphere and immediacy of being physically present among the actors waiting to entertain you, you gain in a proximity to the action denied even to the front row. The NT Live cameramen have become an extra character on stage, panning between the wide-angled shots that show the big set pieces and evolving stage management, and the intimate close-ups that so few get to experience which are more redolent of cinema. What we see on screen hundreds if not thousands of miles away is a distillation of the director’s ultimate vision, a broader canvas often skilfully boiled down to a series of shots chosen by the NT Live team that usually reflect the decisions taken independently about what views are the most appropriate at any given time. Crucially, as a cinema-goer rather than a member of the live theatre audience, what you see and when is chosen for you by someone not involved directly in the original production.

The result is nonetheless impressive and despite a slow start, the barrier between cinema audience and the Nottingham stage soon dissolves. The intimacy of Penford’s production comes to the fore, emphasising the savage treatments meted-out to the ailing King George in an era that still mixed Enlightenment thinking and scientific endeavour with medieval beliefs in leeching poisons from the body to restore balance. In close-up, those seem even more torturous, burning the man’s body with cups, letting his blood and forcing his digestive and excretory system in an attempt to remove the possession that grips him. Penford doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of these procedures, suggesting both the thin veneer of respectability that society operated under, stylish, mannered, held by the conventions of politeness, but still capable of outrageous barbarism to the physical body in the name of medicine.

While Dr Willis is a perceived saviour, guaranteeing a cure with alternative means and a more nuanced understanding of the human mind, his methods seem no less distasteful. Bennett gives him plenty of dialogue that references “breaking-in” like a horse or wild creature needing to be tamed rather than an anointed monarch. The drama of the King’s restraint at the end of the first half is powerfully achieved, a clear affront to body, dignity and majesty that still shocks, and while Zadok the Priest is remarkably overused, it has a cinematic impact that signals a notable change of tone at the this point in the story.

Of course, this is also a political play about the thinly balanced majority of a governing party that is all to resonant in every age, and not least our present circumstances. What comes across so effectively in the NT Live screening is how disposable the person of the monarch really has been, susceptible to political tides and corrupt motives regardless of their status. The subplot involving the Prince of Wales and his Westminster ally Charles James Fox essentially attempting to bring down the existing regime is not a particularly subtle one with the potential for plenty of panto villainy – which is indeed how Nicholas Hytner’s arguably definitive 1995 film portrayed them, a pair of grotesques making a selfish play for power.

This production is a tad softer, and while the disruptive effects of “the fat one” and his co-conspirators is still played as a dastardly plot with little but self-aggrandisement at its heart, the role of the King and incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, are by no means heroic. Penford draws attention to how the deep divide between father and son ripples through this constitutional crisis to disastrous effect and with fault on both sides. Likewise, the dour Pitt is less a leader than a reed blowing in the wind, resting on past glories and unable to encourage the unification of party so desperately needed – sound familiar?

One of the advantages of an NT Live screening like this one, with its close-ups and focus on individual reaction, is to show just how personal the political was in this era, how significantly the day-to-day business of government is affected by the personality and sanguinity of the monarch. Even in an era before public enfranchisement, the importance of charismatic statesmanship in the building of alliances between party members and across the governing aristocracy was vital, a little bonhomie could go a very long way. As much as The Madness of King George III is a story about the cruel effects of poorly understood medical procedure on the body of the sovereign, this NT Live showing in conjunction with Penford’s directorial approach suggests that any kind of physical or constitutional weakness creates an opportunity for others to fill the void in a ruthless and unsympathetic grab for power. Kings may need time to recover but politics waits for no man.

The fact Mark Gatiss shines in the title role should be of little surprise and while his other stage performances have been more obviously comic, there is a far greater tragicomic balance in King George that builds on the character-roles he has played on television While ethical questions persist about the portrayal of mental health and changing expectations since Bennett penned the play in the early 1990s, Gatiss finds just the right balance between the regal leader commanding court and country with practised ease and the slow dissolution of mind that undoes the King’s grasp of himself over time. Crucially, George retains his knowledge of people and place, able to name everyone in his presence but cannot control his reaction or the speed with which brain and speech connect, which Gatiss shows with distinction.

Here, the presence of cameras is Gatiss’s ally, allowing him to display the subtle expressions and flickers of thought that you would never see from the back of the stalls. Already a consummate performer on TV and film, Gatiss shows how to pitch a performance simultaneously to the top of the balcony and to the intimate cinema audience, merging the big gestures of outrage and anger with the psychological effects of his condition and medical torture that create plenty of pathos. His attempts to regain control and frustration with himself are extremely sympathetic, while the humbleness that develops alongside his recovery becomes very moving as George learns that entitlement means nothing without kindness. The shock of his own fragility and the reconciliation process that should make him a more human monarch mark this as easily Gatiss’s best performance.

Equally skilled in managing stage and screen acting is the ever-wonderful Adrian Scarborough as the blunt Dr Willis. Such a superb character actor, the production actively steps-up a notch with his arrival towards the end of Act One with his no-nonsense approach that seems as controversial as it was effective. There is something independent in Scarborough’s portrayal that marks the doctor as quite a different influence from the court and political factions, refusing to be swayed by anything but his own belief in the science of his method, and a certainty of mind that borders on arrogance.

Yet, the audience remains largely on his side, almost preferring his advocacy of restraint and control to the horribly brutal leeching and burning caused by his fellow doctors. Scarborough’s Willis never asks to be liked but remains certain that he will cure the King, giving enough command that we believe him. Yet his own psychological state is not for discussion, so Scarborough ensures that the man we see is only a scientist, with everything else deliberately closed-off, even from the intrusive glare of the NT Live camera.

The surrounding cast have a more mixed experience with the cameras; Debra Gillett brings spousal affection to the role of Queen Charlotte, exasperated by her husband’s failing state and exerting a maternal protection that is quite affecting. Nicholas Bishop’s emotionless Pitt displays plenty of world-weary resignation as he desperately clings to power, but Amanda Hadingue in the dual role of court doctor Sir Lucas Pepys and Charles James Fox, along with Stephanie Jacob as Sir George Baker and Sheridan are a little stagey up-close, their comic buffoonery playing to the bigger audience in the room rather than the physical proximity of the cinema screen.

With plenty of enthusiastic reviews and the honour of an NT Live showing, a West End transfer for this Nottingham Playhouse Production shouldn’t be ruled out, capitalising as it does on our ongoing interest in humanising the Royal Family. With a change of monarch relatively close at hand, any new sovereign is something of an unknown quantity which, even within the limited powers they now hold, has consequences right across government. The story of George III and his son tells that whatever you think of monarchy as an institution, an established but indisposed king might be preferable to a louche one – better the devil you know!

The Madness of King George has now concluded its run at the Nottingham Playhouse, but details of NT Live Encore screenings throughout December are available on the website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Switzerland – The Ambassadors Theatre

Switzerland - Theatre Royal Bath

On St Martin’s Lane shows related to two of the twentieth-century’s greatest crime writers are currently playing side by side. Both women who navigated a male-dominated literary world and experienced the political, economic and social fluctuations of the post-war era that changed their writing. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is in its 65th year making it the longest-running play in the West End by some way, endlessly attracting audiences entranced by her ability to create engaging and innovative scenarios with character-driven mysteries. Next door at the Ambassadors, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland arrives in the West End for the first time, putting Patricia Highsmith in the spotlight with an intriguing duologue about the nature of the authorial voice.

Christie and Highsmith like Conan Doyle before them are authors arguably eclipsed by their greatest creations, works of fiction so tangible they have taken-on a life and momentum of their own. Hercule Poirot has been frequently reinvented on screen and while David Suchet’s interpretation seemed definitive it hasn’t stopped a new Kenneth Branagh film franchise, or an impending BBC adaption of The ABC Murders scheduled for Christmas with John Malkovich as the illustrious detective. Likewise, there is a Sherlock Holmes for all seasons and whether you want a classically imperious Basil Rathbone, an intimidating Jeremy Brett or the social awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch these are characters like James Bond and even Harry Potter that have escaped the confines of their author’s imagination and entered the collective consciousness, public property obscuring their creator’s purpose and sometimes even their wishes.

These characters can be a burden as much as they are a boon to their author who after years of being tied to the same kind of writing try unsuccessfully to break free. Poirot and Holmes were both killed-off before Conan Doyle was forced to relent and brought the latter back, while Poirot has a second life in Sophie Hannah’s new novels endorsed by the Christie estate. Switzerland is the story of Patricia Highsmith’s struggle with her own famous creation, the chancer and sociopath Tom Ripley who consumed and dominated a career of voracious and variable productivity. As a representative from her American publishing house is dispatched to convince the irascible Highsmith to pen one final Ripley novel, the writer is torn between the unwelcome expectation to deliver and fascination with revisiting a character that has always inspired her creativity.

In Lucy Bailey’s wonderfully full production, transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, the emphasis is firmly on the process of invention and the great cost to the writer in trying to inhabit the world of the novel. Highsmith’s reluctance seems to stem from both a concern that she has lost the ability to write Ripley as powerfully as she once did, as well as fearing the effect of re-entering the mind of a character that thrills her. Switzerland is a taut piece of drama that uses Highsmith’s circumstances by the mid 1990s, living in self-imposed exile from the United States in a famously neutral country with limited human contact and a need for drink and cigarettes, to consider the entire dedication of self needed to become a truly great writer.

Genius is often partnered with arrogance, unpleasantness and a desire to flout social norms, and here Highsmith displays a disregard for any form of social structure or rules that directly reflect the character she creates, a charming young man who does the same but with murderous and self-aggrandising outcomes. Who is the most dangerous person in this scenario, the fictional creation or the mind that created it? This is a dominated theme in Murray-Smith’s piece, and something that Bailey seizes upon to play with tone and the boundary between author and character.

Driven by the arrival of Edward Ridgeway, Bailey utilises Switzerland’s three “chapters” to first show us the famous Highsmith in command of a life she is only prepared to live on her own terms and refusing to be flattered by the adoring young man who arrives at her door. In the middle section, we feel the power shift as Highsmith and Edward find a common ground, her respect growing as his fear of her diminishes, allowing him to show his erudition and engage in a lively debate about the literary lifestyle. The final act should not be spoiled, but Bailey’s experience of staging crime drama including the impressive Witness for the Prosecution is brought to bear in a subtly developing tension that has the quality of a Highsmith novel spilled over into her real life, making a crucial point about the indivisibility of the author from their fiction.

Running for 95-minutes without an interval, visually very little changes in William Dudley’s set so, like the perfect crime, all the elements must be there from the start. Highsmith has been given a fully furnished flat full of books and a space for writing, but it is the secondary details that become the focus. Every wall has a collection of weapons on display which, reflecting the text in which the central pair debate the most powerful guns to commit a murder, suggests more than a hobby, rather a collective obsession for the writer who thinks society gets too het-up about killing. The exterior world of snowy mountain ranges is also visible through the flat, and, while this initially feels like a calm retreat, it soon morphs into isolation and exposure, helping to wordlessly shift the atmosphere to something more sinister as the relationship between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes gear.

A work not driven by plot but almost entirely by character can be hard to sustain, even more so with only two actors who spend a lot of time chewing-over ideas, making this a very talky play focused on debate and engagement of theory more than storyline, so it is credit to Bailey and her performers that they hold the attention throughout, utilising every word to inform our understanding of character, tone and context.

As Highsmith, Phyllis Logan is a dominant presence, lone and comfortable in the room she has so carefully constructed to hide from the world. Throughout, the audience is never quite sure how seriously to take her assertions of independence, her hatred of the New York publishing scene and the racial prejudice she occasionally exhibits. Ridgeway accuses her of posing, of espousing views that she doesn’t believe for effect, so Logan uses the performance to quite skilfully make us wonder whether this is a writer who assumes her characters’ traits in lieu of her own, and if “Patricia Highsmith” is just one of many personas she adopts.

Murray-Smith also has much to say about the lifestyle of the writer, the single-mindedness and knowledge of their own rhythms that sets them apart. Logan uses this to suggest a touch of the Hemingways, an author almost on the run from reality, ever aware that her lifestyle and predilections cannot find peace in ordinary society. There is a huge vulnerability that underlies Logan’s characterisation, helping the audience to see through the hard drinking and aggressive manner to something more fragile, a fear of being inconsequential that makes so much sense of Highsmith’s behaviour. Logan’s trick is to keep us guessing on how that will eventually manifest itself – breakdown or murder?

The combative relationship the novelist develops with Edward Ridgeway is central to Switzerland, challenging the pair to an interminable battle in which the stakes only ever seem to get higher. Calum Findlay’s growing confidence is well charted, balancing a nervous excitement at meeting an idol with strong desire to prove his intellectual worth on all her favourite subjects from weaponry to books and the New York landscape. Findlay’s performance takes Ridgeway in the opposite direction to Logan’s Highsmith and while time reveals her essential fragility, it shows his inner steel, hiding beneath a veneer of polite awe.

Any fans of crime fiction will know never to trust a stranger who turns up unexpectedly, but Findlay’s approach is to be entirely disarming, a chastened young man in cosy jumpers, a literary nerd eager to please his celebrated host. Yet Ridgeway’s wardrobe evolves as his true character comes to light, and Findlay grasps the darker moments in which the pair consider a new Ripley plot to suggest deeper waters beneath the surface. Almost from the start Ridgeway is a collection of conundrums and contradictions, a sweet boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Highsmith’s back catalogue, a harmless fan who helps to concoct a dastardly murder plot for the new Ripley that trips too easily off the tongue, as though considered long ago.

Bailey has firm control of the ebb and flow of power as the production unfolds, retaining a degree of mystery and danger, a tipping point that could just as easily be dismissed as paranoia or could develop into something much darker. Switzerland is a fine tribute to a writer of psychological fiction whose own life was full of drama and incident. Side-by-side with Agatha Christie on St Martin’s Lane feels appropriate for two authors who entirely reshaped the crime novel and deserve to be remembered with as much enthusiasm as the characters who eclipsed them.

Switzerland is at The Ambassadors Theatre until 5 January and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.    


Hadestown – National Theatre

Hadestown - National Theatre

The UK and America have a fairly health theatre exchange programme which every year allows audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to enjoy the very best shows that each has to offer, as well as facilitating the transfer of creative talent. From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK premiere at the Young Vic. Now the National Theatre has a vibrant production of the musical Hadestown which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.

A little over a year ago it was a musical that rescued the Olivier Theatre from a difficult run of substandard new plays. Common and Salome had reviewed poorly, the much-debated tricky staging proving an insurmountable challenge to these productions. And then Dominic Cooke came in with Follies and made it look so easy, a glorious piece of work that is rightly returning for an additional run in February. Suddenly the Olivier was alive again and whether sat in front row of the stalls or the back of the circle, every heart-aching moment filled this enormous room. Success breeds success and 2018 has subsequently seen the Olivier host a wonderful version of Translations, an engaging discussion of death in Exit the King and a stylishly impressive Antony and Cleopatra which will play in repertory with latest arrival Hadestown.

A much anticipated production that earned rave reviews in New York, Hadestown is a concept album turned stage musical by Anais Mitchell about the Orpheus and Eurydice’s legend that comes to the National prior to a Broadway run. The story unites the travelling Eurydice, brought by the Fates to a particular bar on the day that the Goddess Persephone returns to the world bringing Spring and Summer in her wake. Eurydice, a realist who sees things as they really are, is charmed by the song of Orpheus, a young musician who dreams of better worlds. As their love deepens, Persephone must return to an unhappy marriage with husband Hades in the Underworld, a God of ominous power. With Orpheus distracted by his music, Eurydice is alone and hungry with nothing to sell but her soul.

Hadestown smartly relocates this Greek myth to a pseudo 1920s / modern day New Orleans-like bar, which offers plenty of visual and musical influences that make this such an intriguing and unusual experience. Structurally, the show is narrated by the rather kindly but portentous Hermes (an excellent Andre De Shields), the messenger of the Gods, who becomes the master of ceremonies and wry observer, ushering-in as well as commenting on unfolding events. Along with the three Fates who stalk the action – musically a 1960s-esque girl-group (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) – Hermes is a reminder to the other characters that their own agency is limited by a bigger plan for them all, which creates a driving sense of inevitability that forces the show to its conclusion.

Along with the inescapability of fate, Hermes also represents our desire to see a different outcome from the same set of circumstances. There is a strong idea of the cyclical nature of the world in various guises, so in one respect we constantly revisit and retell stories like the Orpheus and Eurydice legend applying their meaning to our own times, but there is also a meta-reference in Hadestown to the show itself playing its story again and again every night, as one version ends, another is soon to begin. All of this contributes to a restrictive containment from which the characters can never break free.

These cycles also appear in other areas of the show. Rachel Chavkin’s production is notably about the effect of the seasons, predominantly the recurrent climatic change that eternally rotates fecundity and bloom with deciduousness and decay. The characters come to life with Persephone’s arrival freed from an extended winter that references turbulent storms and prolonged cold, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Hades. Her presence in the world brings warm light in Bradley Kings design, a sense of freedom and happiness that they forget is time-limited, ever hopeful that the cost will be deferred, but Persephone must always leave, even against her own inclination.

The seasonal theme is also used as a metaphor for human ageing and attraction, as the bloom of womanhood in particular fades to be replaced by the lure of a younger option. The is one of Hadestown’s most interesting themes as the God of the Underworld puts strain on his rotten marriage by pursuing the innocent and troubled Eurydice. Persephone’s former glory, the previous allure with which she entranced Hades in a garden is repeatedly referenced, asking questions about the expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, about the unreasonable power of memory and the value of maturity. There is clear resonance with the #MeToo experience as well, particularly in the ways in which powerful men casually coerce and corrupt impressionable women.

The action takes place in two overlapping locations, a bar in America and a foundry in hell for which Rachel Hauck has designed one multipurpose and characterful set that easily travels between the real and devilish worlds with a change of lighting and some ingenious use of the Olivier revolve. Multiple locations are often created across separate sets, turning the full stage to each them, but designers and directors are becoming increasingly creative in the way they envisage its use, most recently with an entire ship’s hull swinging into view in Antony and Cleopatra like a giant shark fin. Pleasingly, Hauck has conjured something entirely different for Hadestown, keeping the main stage entirely stationary while two smaller middle circles rotate at differing speeds in opposing directions.

Here, Chavkin places the ensemble as workman on the outer revolve to show the ongoing and repetitive nature of their daily grind with choreographed segments in Hades’s foundry. Then, in selective bigger moments, a smaller section of the drum rises up to create a platform which has a rock concert glamour that varies the height and tone of the performance, drawing attention to particular songs or moments that require some added visual spectacle.

The music for these ensemble numbers is high energy country and blues with hints of calypso and echoes of Cuban Salsa that make the full cast numbers impactful with strong, memorable songs. This includes the excellent title number Way Down Hadestown, a growly piece that has a down and dirty feel, while the impressive When the Chips are Down reveals the enduring slog of the ironworks and the hopelessness of existence for anyone who sold their soul. Equally enjoyable are the songs specifically for Hades, a Johnny Cash-like country king with an astonishing bass and domineering character that is reflected in the slow, almost spoken rhythm of his numbers.

If Hadestown has a fault, it is the weakness of the lead character and the generic boy-band pop he has been given to sing. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a rather lacklustre hero aimed at teenage girls raised on One Direction, but far from the manly hero needed to stand up to the God of the Underworld. There is a David versus Goliath element, but it is impossible to believe that this Orpheus was tough enough to travel from the surface, through the dark and dangerous routes to hell entirely unscathed, while his cool songwriter vibe seems mostly affected.

Likewise, his song is supposed to charm the entire world, and while part of the plot focuses on his development of the music – which he finishes just in time to take on Hades – when he finally comes to sing it in full, your first reaction is likely to be ‘is that it’. Epic II is an underwhelming tune that isn’t even the best song in the show never mind the most important track of all time, one that brings about peace, love and happiness, stopping a terrible monster in his tracks.

Eva Noblezada fares a little better as Eurydice, a much stronger sense of her own independence and a self-sufficiency that gives the character depth. More than a damsel in distress, Noblezada shows us a woman driven to an impossible deal by hunger and poverty, but not quite savvy enough to realise the consequences in that moment, but admittedly there is little chemistry with Carney’s Orpheus, giving their relationship a naivety that makes it hard to root for them as a couple.

The real interest is in the surrounding characters, particularly Amber Gray’s multi-layered Persephone and Patrick Page’s show-stealing Hades. Persephone becomes a highly sympathetic character, and Gray encourages us to appreciate her vibrancy, vivacity and mature reflection, a celebration of the autumn years of the woman who brings Summer with her. She is also a conduit for a comment on climate change, attributed here to her absence from the earth, while Gray uses her proximity to Hades and the breakdown of their marriage to bring a bitterness to their scenes, especially when his eye wanders to the younger Eurydice.

Page is a superb God of the Underworld who uses his strong and easy stage presence to emphasise the commanding and unforgiving nature of his character. With his pale snakeskin boots, there is something coldly reptilian about Hades as he stalks the stage demanding deference from anyone in his path, but Page retains a shred of humanity that makes his attachment to Persephone credible and allows the audience to think he could be reasoned with.

Hadestown is an overall for success for the National that uses the tricks of the Olivier’s stage to great effect and creating the right balance of spectacle and story to sustain its 2.5 hour run time. Its visual and musical innovation makes up for an underwhelming central character, which after a slow start brings the show to life and demonstrates what a great space this theatre can be with the right approach. With productions of this quality coming from America, our theatre exchange programme is looking pretty healthy, and with stars like Sally Field and Bill Pullman heading our way in 2019, there is plenty more to come.

Hadestown is at the National Theatre until 26 January and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Film Review: Widows

Widows - Steve McQueen

It is hard to believe that director Steve McQueen has only made four full-length films, a process that has taken 10 years. The former Turner-prize winning artist is now so renowned as a filmmaker that his latest release, Widows, opened this year’s London Film Festival and arrives in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow. Hunger in 2008 announced McQueen’s arrival as an exciting new director with an almost forensic appreciation of character psychology and an eye for cinematography that directly reflects that insight. A decade on and McQueen has flourished, evolving from his early indie roots to tell stories on a much broader canvas, earning him critical acclaim and a sack-full of awards. His skill has always been to retain the personal world view of his characters and although Widows has blockbuster scale and a gorgeous ensemble cast, it is always the intimate story of three desperate but resourceful women.

In one way or another McQueen’s films are always about desperation, people trapped in their lives either for political, social or character reasons and unable to make the changes they so clearly need. There is always a considerable jeopardy for the individual, a life or death battle as principle, justice and duty are challenged by often quite brutal external forces. Sometimes, that jeopardy is more contained, one person trying to overcome compulsions that come to define their entire life, trying to break unchecked patterns of behaviour that could precipitate a complete breakdown or collapse of the individual’s balance.

Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are examples of the first kind of desperation where the protagonists have a particular cause to follow and, whatever the rights and wrongs of their situation, contextually McQueen showcases the unrelenting waves of prejudice, inhumanity and injustice that prevent their escape, while focusing tightly on the enduring belief that sustains their resolve to the end. For Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison, a belief that a sacrificial act, a hunger strike, was the only form of protest open to him, while for Solomon Northup that his freedom from wrongful enslavement was his right by law. By taking us into the minds of these characters, it gives purpose and agency to McQueen’s political context.

He takes this in a very different direction in Shame examining the addictive nature of sexual compulsion, and while not overtly political in the same way, his character lives in a cold, emotionless New York, full of consumerism, immediacy of gratification but removal of intimacy, creating a context in which lifestyle and appearance are more important than the unravelling human life beneath. Widows feels like the culmination of this work combining as it does a well-realised and restrictive political and economic context with the emotional and psychological consequences of grief, fear and the daily burden of the female leads.

Based on the 1980s mini-series of the same name by revered crime-writer Lynda La Plante and co-adapted with Gillian Flynn famous for her own galling novel Gone Girl for which she penned the screenplay, McQueen has spoken enthusiastically about the effect of this show on his view of female-led narratives. The transposition to modern-day Chicago is perfect and after a high-stakes opener full of violence, danger and energy, McQueen carefully unveils a small but corrupt suburb of Chicago and how it continues to shape the options available to the women who live there.

What makes Widows so interesting is how these two elements run together throughout the film, interconnected and increasingly intrinsic to the ways in which the story unfolds. As we get to know the characters better we understand more about the world in which they live, which in turn reveals more to us about the characters. It is a wonderful balancing act that combines Gillian Flynn’s screenplay and McQueen’s visual approach with not a scene wasted, every moment feels carefully designed to tell us about someone or to reveal key information that drives the plot.

Of course, this is a heist movie so the planning, execution and aftermath of the crime are the basis for the story, along with all the elements the genre demands – big set pieces moments, plans going wrong mid-job and shadowy meetings in remote locations. All of this McQueen handles with aplomb, utilising the frenetic energy of the two heists to bookend the plot, the kind of coordinated chaos and sense of power that he elicited from the riot scenes in Hunger. But where this departs from – and arguably improves on – the genre is in the creation of time and place that situates the second heist in the grimy underbelly of Chicago organised crime and its all too real link to political office.

This approach is also notable for how it alters the purpose of the heist film, changing the casual lark for personal gain into something far more dangerous and driven by external forces. A million miles from the recent Oceans 8, Widows is not a flamboyant jaunt undertaken by a bunch of super-cool criminals, but a forced endeavour by people with no idea what they are doing, held to ransom by the failures of their now dead husbands to protect them, suddenly thrust into a criminal world they never knew existed with serious life or death consequences if they fail to act

Because the women don’t know each other, it gives Flynn and McQueen the chance to explore their quite different lives in more details. First, Veronica (Viola Davies) as the wife of male heist leader played by Liam Neeson, in which we see the couple’s relatively comfortable lifestyle in a beautiful, stylish apartment with stunning views across the city. But as with Brandon’s flat in Shame, these uncluttered interiors belie an emotional emptiness that makes it a cold and unforgiving place. Cleverly, not all of that is about Neeson’s early death and although we see plenty of intensely romantic flashbacks of the couple as Veronica remembers what appears to be an intense intimacy and connection she shared with her husband, a pre-existing grief was always between them, making their surroundings elegant but remote.

And that is exactly how Davies plays the role, her Veronica is beautifully, and expensively, tailored at all times in rich fabrics designed to set her apart from the women she eventually leads. But her desperation and dissatisfaction with her life strongly emerges as Davies shows us Veronica’s painful realisation of the truth, first about the need to repay the debt owed to the crime boss left by her husband’s failure to complete the original heist, and second as the truth of her former life comes into focus through her grief.

It’s a fascinating performance from Davies, brusque and remote with the other women, the skills of a leader but with a fragile side that she hides from the world. As the story unfolds and reality dawns, Veronica discovers an independent strength that Davies makes quite sympathetic, and you start to root for these women battered by the choices and consequences of the very male world in which they must operate.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is from another side of Chicago entirely, a working mother with a different kind of hardness that keeps people at a distance from her. After the death of the husband she never really needed, Linda comes in one day to find her dress shop being repossessed and no way to feed her family. Struggling to keep afloat, she accepts Veronica’s proposition as a last resort but remains aloof from the other women, sharing nothing about herself with them, only focusing on the work.

While Linda is a difficult character to warm to, and we never really see her grieve for her marriage, Rodriguez at least makes you respect her and understand the limitations for working-class single parents having to make the best of it.  She is also the avenue into another of the film’s themes about the small business-owning aspirations of women in the community, including her friend who runs a salon, and a confined ambition that improves their ability to sustain their family. Linda’s environment may be less flashy than Veronica’s, but it is also warmer, integrated into the wider society of this part of Chicago, a matriarchy of working women none of whom the politicians ever really help.

Finally, Elizabeth Debicki is the most innocent of the group, a beautiful but penniless young woman whose release from her marriage creates further problems that catapult her into the paths of other men. Forced into a high-class semi-prostitution within weeks of his death, Alice quickly becomes involved with a businessman who eventually proves useful but initially just takes advantage of her fear and nervousness.

But Alice’s development mirrors Veronica’s as she comes to terms with what her life must be, growing a form of independence as her confidence improves. There is much to like in Debicki’s performance, you feel for her as she falls back on the only thing she thinks she has, her beauty, while enjoying some of the film’s more comedic scenes as she successfully tracks down equipment for the heist. Balancing that humour with the deep tragedy of her circumstances is really well done and watching her emerge from within herself has considerable pathos.

Widows is still a man’s world, and there are some colourful supporting roles for a great male ensemble, including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s less than perfect husband. There is real depth in the way McQueen and Flynn create the circumstances of Chicago, including the crime boss Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning running for office to challenge the hegemony of the established political family who believe their seat should be hereditary. Nothing is black and white here, and while challenging the elite should be a good thing, Jamal hires Daniel Kaluuya’s sociopathic henchman to put the frighteners on the women and their associates, muddying his own campaign.

Equally fascinating is the relationship between former political leader Tom Mulligan, an imposing Robert Duvall, and his reluctant son Jack the sitting candidate aiming for re-election. They could easily have become the pantomime baddies, but instead we get a difficult and credible father-son relationship in a family that has played every move in public. Colin Farrell’s Jack may be a generic politician but, like the women, he has never really had the life he would have chosen, desperate to leave politics but sublimating his own needs to the Mulligan cause.

All of this context is so valuable in understanding why characters are hemmed in by other people’s choices, unable to act freely, and McQueen is so good at creating characters that you may not approve of but showing you their psychology. Widows is so successful because it manages to tell an entertaining story that rattles along extremely well using the characteristics of the heist film, while revealing the political, economic and social structures that have led to inequality, racism and deprivation in this part of Chicago. He may only have made four full-length films but what an astonishing body of a work they are.

Widows was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas nationwide on 6 November Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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