Monthly Archives: January 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman – Lyric Hammersmith

Faustus That Damned Woman - Lyric Hammersmith

The lure of immortality has been at the heart of the Faustus legend for centuries and its themes speak to the greed and despicable nature of a man who would sell his soul for so little. But is human nature so easily derided, can a bad deed in fact be used for good, or at least to clear the innocent? Chris Bush’s new version of this ages-old story reimagines Faustus not just as a woman – which has of course been done before – but couches it in the context of witchcraft, plague and the limited promise of Restoration England for the very poorest in society.

Bush’s choices upend the play to a considerable but psychologically satisfying extent, giving Johanna Faustus a true purpose and agency in selling her soul. The action begins with the stage being set for a ritualistic act in which our protagonist is plunged into water in order to see the final moments of her mother’s life, a brutal trial for supposed witchcraft in which her guilt is, of course, already assured by the men examining her. The young Johanna, appalled by her mother’s treatment, still retains a shred of doubt as to her guilt and must satisfy herself on whether she truly worked for the devil.

It is an interesting and well-realised perspective, giving the story a firm context that adds a new depth and purpose to a familiar tale, and in opening-up the female experience of this era it reinforces the decision to switch the gender of the central character – noting subtly that a male and female Faustus would have experienced this century very differently. For this is an era of active persecution for women, a pre-scientific age still dominated by religion where suspicion was easily fed. Director Caroline Byrne creates a sense of the inexplicable particularly well as magic and fear of devilment possess a community.

The doubt which lingers in Johanna’s mind feeds a determination to find proof, a fascination with progress, knowledge and using invention to defeat the idea of the devil, a concept which feeds through the rest of the play. And here in the first Act, the exploration of female powerlessness and supposed culpability is well executed as Bush leads Faustus to the door of a man who desperately wants the devil to appear and uses the female body in various unseemly and thankfully unseen ways to entice Satan to his door where he hopes to exchange his soul for the riches he craves.

That Johanna enters this man’s employ of her own volition and in the full knowledge of his practices suggests she holds few allusions about her own sinful tendencies and this is vital to the duality of the Faustus character in the remainder of the play where determination to do good is scuttled by an essential human weakness as she plots to outmaneuver her hellish master. Likewise, the scene in which Johanna eventually contracts her future is staged as a richly discussed bargain, where Johanna is not foolish enough to give away her essence merely to be sure of her mother’s purity but, like Marlowe’s original, this Faustus also has designs on immortality of a kind.

Bush’s writing in the first half is at its strongest, the contextual information that sets the scene so particularly in 1665 with plague raging and Enlightenment thinking a century ahead grounds Faustus: That Damned Woman and gives its central character a fierce yet historically credible purpose. And the skill with which Bush subtly unpicks and lays bare the attitude towards and the limited opportunities available to women in the Seventeenth-Century is very well achieved, examining the semi-religious notions of Eve’s temptation and the inherently sinful nature of seductive women that were commonly espoused in the literature of this period.

The evident fear and secrecy of the country women who rally to Johanna while protecting her gift as well themselves from detection, and her father’s distrustful warnings about creating medicines from plants once the pair decamp to London for fear of accusation add texture to the play, making sense of and adding justifiable reasoning to Johanna’s determination to summon the devil while seeking to know what better life he offers.

Alas for Faustus, and for the audience, Act Two does not bring the satisfaction we crave and the carefully cultivated intensity of the early scenes is lost in time-travelling confusion as Bush’s scope expands. Much of the second Act focuses on her attempt to achieve her ambition of planting the seeds for good and as Johanna is granted 144 years of further life to be taken at any time, Mephistopheles takes Faustus first two hundred years into the future and then much further. These rapidly changing period settings make the remainder of the play feel less substantial in its attempts to chart both the progress of science – allowing Faustus to achieve the Doctor moniker and pursue a means of cheating death for all of humanity – and the changing position of women since her original era, such that better women than Johanna have used the gifts of intelligence and persistence to earn a place in society without selling their souls.

These rather pointed statements are jarring however, far less delicately woven into the fabric of the play as they were in the sections set in the 1660s. So the encounter with the Britain’s first female medic Dr Garret in the 1860s and later with Marie Curie who she lectures on sharing the spotlight with her husband while despairing the slow advance of women feel clunky and unnatural compared to what has gone before. Later still, the science-fiction influence of the modern day and beyond are imaginative in their consideration of how Faustus may attempt to defeat her fate but somehow feel conceptually empty, merely dress-up reinforced by Johanna’s changing costumes to mark the transition from era to era. The atmospheric drive of Act One is lost amidst conversations that feel diminished just at the point where stakes should be higher and higher as time runs out.

None of this should detract from the vigor and commitment of Jodie McNee’s leading performance that burns with energy from her first entry onto the stage. She is every bit the complex and intriguing Faustus whose righteous outrage for her mother is ever contrasted by her failures to accept her lot or to behave as men expect. It is a hugely enjoyable performance to watch as McNee’s Faustus takes purposeful command of her life in the Seventeenth-Century, refusing to believe that her own free will is entirely at Lucifer’s disposal.

There is a wonderful bloodthirstiness that consumes this Faustus as her powers are first realised, setting out for vengeance against those who have crossed her family, but McNee is particularly adept at showing the strain and befuddlement of good deeds gone wrong, aware of how entirely the devil will interfer, so as the centuries pass away, Faustus becomes consumed by her bigger plans, the effort of which starts to take its toll on her physical and mental stamina, developing a fatigue in McNee’s layered performance that does much to hold together the wayward second half.

The secondary cast work hard in a variety of roles that help to create the intensity of the first Act as well as the time-hopping nature of the rest. Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles and Barnaby Power as Lucifer take a high camp approach to their respective roles, a heavy dose of the dandy that earns some laughs. And while their initial appearance momentarily breaks the atmosphere of solemnity with which the first scenes are played, Wynter develops a wary resignation as the servant resentfully forced to help Faustus while fatalistically knowing her struggle against the devil to be hopeless. Having Lucifer and Johanna’s father played by the same actor wants to add a dimension that could be better explored, and while the play tends to portray men as weak creatures -Tim Samuels is suitably detestable as Faustus’s employer Newbury – Faustus’s devotion to her father yields little insight into his role (and therefore that of the devil) in her mother’s demise and Johanna’s own temptation.

Emmanuella Cole is especially good as the betrayed Katherine, wretchedly tortured in the opening moments of the play that sets the scene well for what follows. Katherine Carlton and Alicia Charles complete the cast, having more success with the small but better written roles of the village women who help prepare Johanna’s original ritual, later conveying their fear as they pretend not to know her, than in the more diluted characterisations given to them in the Twentieth and Twenty-first century scenes.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set design is marvelously inventive, a curved skeletal wall that looks as suitable for the wooden homes of the 1660s as it does for the more futuristic settings later in the play. Its flexibility is enhanced by Ian William Galloway’s video design which projects pattern and texture including what appears to be the inky form of a devilish shadow, and later helps Faustus to rapidly absorb a visual history of the years through which she lives.

The exploration of the black arts and the role of women which so meaningful ties Act One together are lost in the second half where the focus switches entirely to a quest for science to grant eternal life, and although Faustus’s 144-years of life must take her into the future, the loss of that carefully conjured 1660s setting is sadly missed. Doctor Faustus is a play that continues to intrigue us with its tantalising propositions of heaven, hell and immortality – see also last year’s Dark Night of the Soul evenings of female responses to Marlowe’s work – so it is really interesting to see it reimagined with such purpose here by Chris Bush, and by adding the specifically female context of witchcraft it expands Marlowe’s tale to make sense of its re-gendered protagonist. But eventually every Faustus must concede the inevitability and invincibility of death, and whether you give your soul to God or the devil no science or magic can bring eternal life.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is at Lyric Hammersmith until 22nd February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Uncle Vanya - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Life is the same only worse,” a sentiment that seems to reflect so much about our mood in the last few years, spoken by Uncle Vanya in Conor McPherson’s new version of the play. Notably departing from Chekhov’s original here and there, this adaptation, which has a little settling to do ahead of its Press Night later this week, emphasises the comedy scenarios and personalities in Chekhov’s timeless play while still drawing out its major themes – ageing, purposelessness, the challenge of intellectualism in rural societies and, modern audiences may be surprised to note, even climate change.

Uncle Vanya is a play that rarely leaves the West End for long with at least three major productions in a decade. In fact, Chekhov has felt very much in vogue of late with several productions in the last few years taking illuminating approaches to his best-known works. Famously heavy-going and often encased in oppressive sets and stifling costume, a new wave of directors and designers have liberated the emotional undercurrents that thrum through Chekhov’s plays, a fragile humanity clinging to existence and lost in the travails of daily life. The clarity of these new directional approaches is finally cutting through the period fustiness in which his work had been too long preserved.

Ian Rickson’s latest attempt essentially situates Uncle Vanya in a similar social and political existence as last year’s sensational Rosmersholm. A vast, light-filled room on a sizeable estate outside of which the world is struggling; the local community are poverty-stricken and plagued by illness while in the house long-buried emotions rise to the surface prompted by and maypoled around the arrival of Yelena, wife to Vanya’s brother The Professor, staying temporarily to complete his latest paper. Like Rosmersholm, Rickson lays bare the intricacies of the household, its politics, familial resentments, assumptions and buried passions as the characters contemplate lives of unfulfillment in which endurance rather than happiness is their only satisfaction.

But McPherson’s approach is far lighter than the themes of the play might suggest, recognising not just that audiences want to be entertained as well as moved, but also that Chekhov’s work has always had its skewering moments of social satire that examine the ridiculous pomposity of individuals or situations. McPherson emphasises the lightly comic overtones to Acts One and Two by giving Vanya a clown-like levity as he criticises the dry scholastic achievements of his brother and, in Act Two, enjoys a a period of drunken revelry with neighbour Dr Astrov and dependent Telegin, a well-managed high-point in a show that finds humour wherever it can.

This focus also gives this adaptation a more relaxed feel than previous attempts, thereby creating a more credible group dynamic among the various residents, guests and visitors to the family, people long established in each other’s company who descries the stiff conventions of polite society that so often govern interactions in Chekhov productions. McPherson applies this in equal measure to the language in his script and while the characters are not quite speaking in colloquial patterns, the formality and artificiality of traditional language is something McPherson eschews in favour of a more natural selection of words and phrases. It is a subtle but meaningful decision that trades the sometimes archaic construction of most translation for an everyday speech that once again reflects and reinforces the over-familiarity of these people with one another.

Humour, then, runs to a degree throughout the play and while the conversations naturally darken as the dramatic currents are resolved (or as much as Chekhov’s characters earn any form of resolution), McPherson gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of extreme behaviours, especially when Vanya and the Professor go head-to-head in Act Three. Yet, ahead of Press Night, there is a downside to this approach which sometimes cuts into the emotional subplots and dramatic intensity. This is not, for example, a production that feels like a grand tragedy with even some of the significant emotional revelations and confrontations provoking smatterings of laughter. McPherson writes these elements well – and perhaps controversially gives three characters brief monologues to the audience to explore how they are reduced and caged by the events of the play – but as the balance tends primarily to the comic, it comes slightly at the expense of its other drivers.

For Uncle Vanya – like many of Chekhov’s plays – is ultimately about the essential nature of people and their inability to escape the confines of themselves. They talk frequently of freedom, the hopeful future ahead, the joys of nature and better lives in the cities they will never go to, but their existence is bound by the room in which they stand. Drama, respite and ultimately self-realisation comes from the introduction of characters temporarily taken out of their rightful context and here, in Rickson’s production, duel ripples are created by the regular visits of Dr Astrov and, more determinedly, by the presence of Yelena.

The core individuals in this play are seeking some kind of release or escape from the frustratingly ordinary routines of their daily life by looking to others who fail to observe their emotional needs, a strand to which McPherson and Rickson bring considerable clarity. Passions are deeply felt but isolated and unrequited for the most part, the object of their affection does nothing to instigate or encourage a feeling they don’t return or even notice. Sonya’s six-year affection for Astrov, Vanya and Astrov’s infatuation with Yelena are all doomed, with much to say about the blindness of characters to see beyond their own state or truly read the feelings of others. The selfish and arguable lack of empathy with which this group view one another is striking here and it is only through rejection that self-realisation is possible for each of them. Ultimately Chekhov argues, no one can save you but yourself.

And while comedy dominates, the emotional heart of this version of Uncle Vanya, surprisingly is not the sweet but insipid affection of Sonya who cannot even speak of her feelings, or the ephemeral presence of the sleepwalking Yelena, but it is the reawakening of Dr Astrov whose dormant connection to the present is full-bloodedly revived. From the first moments of the play we glimpse something broken in Astrov, almost a hint of PTSD emerging from the terrible medical sights he’s seen and his recent failure to save a particular life that haunts him. The middle of a struggle is a tough place for an actor to begin, but Richard Armitage perfectly hits the intense sadness and interior confusion that introduce the tragic doctor to the audience in the earliest moments of this play.

Astrov is a man who cannot bear to live in the present, and looks only to surviving his lot in order to play his part in a better future, a frequent refrain being the improved quality of life the population a century hence will enjoy which brings him an existential comfort. His attempts to stem the tide of local deforestation erupt in lively exclamations from Armitage who blossoms through his enthusiasm for nature, while acutely living without love or purpose within his day-to-day profession.

Having shut-down all emotional responses or belief in personal happiness, Armitage is especially good at showing Astrov’s complete indifference to Sonya, not only avoiding her evident feelings but seeming to have no knowledge of them at all. So passion, when it does come, surprises and confounds him as entirely as it consumes. It burns slowly at first, a few shy glances in Act One at Yelena, as though testing his ability to withstand it, before erupting into something more fervent and soulful as he urges her to acknowledge the feeling between them. Armitage is wonderful and moving in his distress, forced to repack his armour by the end of the play, almost perplexed by his own conduct and the emotions that momentarily and so violently poured forth. His experience is really the emotional centre of the production and a meaningful return after a five year stage hiatus.

Toby Jones’s Vanya has to navigate quite different extremes of character, layering a sheen of foolishness over the inner turmoil his character experiences in the early sections of the play. Obsessed with the advancing years at 47 and what in retrospect appears to be a wasted life, this put-upon Vanya jokes and blunders his way through various conversations, always assuming the role as family jester. Jones enjoys the comedy easing the audience into the play with warmly received asides and sarcastic jibes that emphasise his displeasure but only reinforce the set structure in which the family has organised itself, working to support the Professor as the most intellectually gifted.

It is only later in the play that this Vanya shakes off those expectations and stakes a claim to an estate that he has worked hard to maintain, a moment that surprises others with its ferocity and hysteria. Jones and Ciaran Hinds’s arrogantly self-serving Professor have a bitter conflagration, one of the production’s most dramatic but enjoyably staged sequences. Within the performance, Jones could do a little more to seed these frustrations earlier to make sense of the scale of Vanya’s reaction here and the same with Vanya’s oft-declared love for Yelena which seems less deeply felt than the production implies, leaving the audience appreciating her exasperation with the slightly empty neediness that Vanya exudes. The tonal approach tips the balance slightly too far into the comedy, fractionally drawing intensity away from the crescendo of desperation and unhappiness that mark Vanya’s final transition later in the play.

The female leads contrast well as Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya suggests an unimposing innocence that prevents her from attaining her dream of being Mrs Astrov. Sonya is ever the peace-maker, attentive, capable and kind but Wood aptly demonstrates her lack of courage, her failure to find a strong insistent voice that can take charge of the squabbles around her or even to fight for a different kind of life for herself, instead preferring resignation and acceptance. Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena is by contrast an accidentally destructive force and clearly marked out from the others by a quite different style of dress that simultaneously embraces but pretends to ignore her sexuality. This Yelena drifts abstractedly from room to room, suffocating in the country air and barely able to exist, yet is equally unmoved, bored even by the ardent attentions of others that she seems to feel have nothing to do with her. There is neither encouragement nor censure in Eleazar’s measured, dreamlike performance that creates a riveting otherness in Yelena with only the smallest hint of untrammeled depths in the play’s final scenes.

With no scene changes, Rae Smith’s painterly design, lit beautifully by Bruno Poet, is full of rundown charm, a great house fallen to disrepair but full of comfort and solace. The streaming sunlight through the large windows adjoined by the forest that forces its way into the house reflect the play’s themes while, as the drama unfolds, the ensuing darkness and change of seasons is visibly reflected when summer gives way to autumn in every sense. This Uncle Vanya is more roundedly entertaining than other recent productions and while that detracts a little from the emotional undercurrents of the original, the fluidity and richness of Rickson’s production, performed by an excellent cast, ensure a satisfying Chekhovian conclusion where life, as Vanya states, is the same but worse.

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 2nd May with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 

The Tyler Sisters – Hampstead Theatre

The Tyler Sisters - Hampstead Theatre

The New Year as well as being a time of resolution is often one of reflection, a chance to reassess any achievements, progress or setbacks over the previous 12-months or longer. But when you look back across your life, what is it you really remember? Often it will be the big landmark occasions, the birthdays, graduations, weddings, births, funerals and anniversaries that shape your biography – and why, because we are taught to believe that all narratives should have shape and meaning, that a story should have a beginning, middle and end. And so we impose order and self-determination on what is essentially a random accumulation of personal experience over time and it’s through these key “achievements” or steps that we come to define ourselves as individuals, families and as a society.

But while the externally imposed notions of marriage, children and these other milestones are things we feel we should do, life is really the bits in between, the day-to-day experiences and interactions that don’t make the memoirs or highlights reel, as Alexandra Wood’s new play The Tyler Sisters explores with skill. Configured as an annual conversation between three sisters over 40-years, Wood’s focuses is on the present moment at any given time to burrow deep into the changing but nonetheless enduring relationship between quite different siblings whose lives take them in unexpected directions but always draws them back together.

And what is so interesting about The Tyler Sisters as a concept is how rarely Wood chooses to elaborate on the those big defining moments, in fact much of the sisters’ lives happen off-stage, and as the years go by we are given only fleeting glimpses of the arrival of partners, children and tricky parental relationships, none of whom ever appear in the play. Instead, Wood uses her two hour run-time to explore the bond between these women and how time affects their interactions by setting one scene in every year from 1990 to 2030.

In the smaller downstairs space of the Hampstead Theatre, the staging area is a long, thin rectangle but director Abigail Graham maintains a minimal feel to the production with a sparse stage designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen with only a giant beanbag, set of steps and a small screen to notify the audience of another year passing as well as occasionally offering a contextual location. This simplicity easily – and convincingly – takes the audience into the homes of each of the characters, to galleries and campsites, as well as to numerous international locations for holidays and temporary emigrations. But, purposefully devoid of distracting scenery, Wood and Graham want the audience to understand that the location of the scene is all but irrelevant, it is the interaction between the sisters that is important.

Each scene differs in length, covering 25-years before a brief interval and the remaining 15-years in Act Two. As tensions boil and subside over four decades, the screen counter supports the production’s momentum and rather than either distracting the audience or weighing down the drama with how far the story has to go, Wood employs a great deal of variety across the play, giving some periods considerably more time to explore a particular issue or life event – all of which purposefully occur off-stage – and using different techniques to convey information about the emotional or familial backdrop to the segments of conversation the audience is privy to.

And that is the crux of The Tyler Sisters, what we see and hear are 40 partial insights that like a patchwork form a larger and more complex whole. Wood deliberately sidesteps the soapy major dramas, so lovers, marriages, children and other life events come and go but we only hear about them in everyday conversation, almost asides to the real lives these women are living together. And while the reality of other characters is almost as concrete as the three people on stage, what we know about the other characters is what Maddy, Gail and Katrina feel about them at any given moment, their anticipation or excitement about a future with a new partner, the disappointment at their failure and lasting resentments as long-forgotten encounters suddenly re-emerge.

There is also sufficient variation across the play to prevent the style becoming too repetitious and not only do scenes flow continuously from one to the next with the actors taking only a breath before relocating to a different time, location and emotional perspective but Wood leaves events often unresolved. Conversations end without conclusion as characters storm out, go silent or change the subject, the details of that interaction and that year’s particular drama less relevant than the overall effect of families continually falling out and coming together. The play, in a sense, is full of  these unresolved cliffhangers but this is not where the audience should be looking for the dramatic drive. Instead Wood is writing moments that show the unity of the family regardless of the events of that year. This concept extends to alternative scenes including a karaoke night and a tender scene of silent sandwich-making that is heavy with unspoken and unexplained grief that says much about the supportive connection between the sisters.

It’s fascinating writing that reverses expectations of storytelling, subverting our dramatic assumptions about progress between milestones and the journey towards major revelations, making instead the small, everyday lived experience the focus. There is something of My Brilliant Friend in the scale and ambition of The Tyler Sisters with the same actors playing the sisters across the years with only the subtlest alteration to personality and acceptance of responsibility, but Wood and Graham are more successful in creating characterisation that the audience can invest in, while resisting the temptation to play out the pop culture references of the passing years. There is purposefully no talk of external politics, world events or societal strife, no nostalgic soundtrack, or distracting film and TV references, no attempt to differentiate the future with technological changes or dystopian vision, instead Wood creates something that could almost cover any 40-year period, with each scene a domestic building block reflecting on a lifelong connection.

It’s not easy to achieve but no one character is any more or less interesting than the rest. Giving each of the women a distinct personality, personal ambition and an equal share of the narrative is skillfully achieved. The eldest Maddy (Caroline Faber) is 20 when we first meet her in 1990 and turns 60 as the play concludes. In many ways, she is the most traditional of the three, is married young to a fellow teacher and embarks on a quiet life of family, motherhood and obligation. For much of the earlier part of the play, Maddy remains almost in the background, a sensitive, quiet and unassuming woman who resignedly takes everything life throws at her with very little complaint.

Yet Faber slowly introduces two quite intriguing elements to the performance that build into a more complete picture of Maddy as the decades pass; first there are subtle hints of disapproval at the romantic choices that both her sisters make, especially Gail whose discussion of sexuality causes notable concern for Maddy expressed through looks to the floor and slight withdrawal into herself as Faber’s body-language conveys her discomfort. These are more pronounced as Gail’s choices take her further away from Maddy’s idea of how life should be, and, while largely unspoken, become a longstanding source of underlying tension between them.

Second, as Maddy ages the disappointment and frustration she feels with the behaviour of her own family is increasingly vocalised and she finds both an inner strength and confidence to force a break with the past. In the later stages of the play, with the build-up of years of sacrifice and dedication behind her, this gives Faber a chance to plausibly let loose revealing more about her character’s struggles to determine a new way ahead for herself. It’s a subtle but meaningful performance from Faber about the consequences of a life lived in the shadow of other people’s achievements.

Bryony Hannah takes on the role of middle child Gail, 18 at the start of the play and returned from university for the summer to fight with her younger sister about bedrooms. Gail is the sister whose future seems clearest, a university education, good job and future prosperity that should satisfy her early hints at ambition. Hannah gives Gail a flinty side too, one that emerges more strongly as the years go by, unwilling to settle or be taken advantage of, and certainly a quiet confidence that rarely allows her to question her choices, an approach that occasionally brings her into conflict with her sisters.

Of all the sisters Gail moves most easily through her life and while it brings troubles enough, she pragmatically accepts the major changes and opportunities that come her way with relatively little fear. Yet Hannah also reveals Gail’s pivotal role as a classic middle child, a mediator who most notably escapes the traditional family dramas but increasingly takes on the responsibility of bringing the family together for trips and activities, or to arbitrate between the extremes of her relatives. She is the most independent sibling yet the one who feels increasingly drawn to the importance of family stability, support and continuity as they age.

As youngest sister Katrina, Angela Griffin is also the most open-hearted, supporting her sisters’ choices and enthusiastically welcoming news of partners, children and achievements. But Katrina, who is just 16 when the action begins, has a different trajectory that takes her from self-centred teenager and free-spirited young woman who enjoys partying to a responsible career-orientated businesswoman. Griffin gives Katrina a sharp wit, and much of the play’s humour derives from her sparky one-liners, while also showing someone whose emotions are fairly close to the surface – a trait that hardens over time as Katrina develops her own confidence and pride in her achievements.

Later in the play, as Katrina builds her business and her reputation – she also comes later to family stability –  she resents the openly patronising attitude of her sisters who niggle and dismiss her slow climb to the top, while as the women enter their 50s a more supportive role emerges as she finds pleasure in the achievements of her sisters and their extended families. Griffin makes Katrina incredibly likeable, grounded and hard-working as she explores a life that starts and ends in very different places.

There are not a huge amount of sibling plays, Shakespeare enjoyed brothers and sisters in disguise, Branden Jacobs Jenkins recently delved into the stirred hornet’s nest of a conflicted family in the high drama Appropriate, while Chekhov’s Three Sisters were primarily troubled by the restrictions on women’s lives and their inability to return to their childhood home in a period of extraordinary military upheaval – all of which take place in delimited time frames – so Wood is filling a notable gap in charting the experience of just being a sister day-to-day and year-to-year. With plenty of new voices emerging in regional and fringe theatre, starting a new decade with a play about women’s experience created by a largely female team is to be welcomed and while across cultural representations, women continue to seen as wives and mothers first, in Alexandra Wood’s new play they are also individuals and sisters who discover, without the traditional drama tropes, that they are already leading pretty interesting and meaningful lives.

The Tyler Sisters is at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 January; all tickets are £14 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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