Category Archives: Film

From Cruise to Cabaret: Changing Theatre in 2021

Cruise; Cabaret; South Pacific; Spring Awakening; Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels

It has been another complicated year for theatres with venues unable to welcome in-person audiences for more than five months of 2021 and the tail end of the year returning to enforced closure and performance cancellations as Covid once again affects lead cast members, their understudies and backstage crew. In spite of a returning familiar dread, there is, however, cause for hope as we end the year in a more interesting position than we started it with greater representation of all kinds of voices and experiences on our biggest stages, the effects of hybrid theatre continuing to expand audience accessibility and the transformation of the musical with several major works receiving a ground-breaking twenty-first century rethink.

New Voices and New Work

The long closure of theatre buildings has had far reaching consequences, and while the 2020 lockdowns and birth of hybrid forms gave regional theatres a national platform that transformed engagement with their work, promising much for future audience reach, in 2021 the eventual reopening of auditoria from May meant that any fears producers would only bet on safe, cash-generating productions with established performers in well-known plays were partially allayed.

In fact, one of the most inspiring trends this year was the refreshing arrival of fringe productions at major West End venues, a charge led by producer Katy Lipson through her Aria Entertainment company who brought Public Domain and then the brilliant Cruise to temporarily abandoned playhouses usually taken up with long-running shows. Cruise, which began as an online monologue, is one of the shows of the year, an outstanding one-man piece by Jack Holden about living through the Aids epidemic in 1980s Soho – a story that entirely deserved its West End platform representing as it did an essential period of modern British history. Lipson also oversaw the hugely acclaimed transfer of The Last Five Years from Southwark Playhouse to the Garrick where its stellar central performances from Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson played to packed houses. Shows that would almost certainly have been denied a transfer in the pre-Covid West End proved to be a shot of adrenaline, demonstrating a need to keep thinking differently about the shows that can attract audience and critical respect if given this wider platform.

Concerns that new plays and voices opening directly in major venues may be overlooked were quickly stamped out by super-producer Sonia Friedman who was among the first to promote new writing at the reopened Harold Pinter Theatre with the Re:Emerge season, a triple bill of plays from playwrights debuting in the West End – Waldren (though the weakest) was later filmed for a cinema release, the lively J’Ouvert set at the Notting Hill Carnival had a digital pre-life in the BBC’s Lights Up series and the superb Anna X was also filmed for Sky Arts and screened over Christmas. The latter in particular used innovative video design to underscore its central premise about the fluid nature of contemporary identity and image creation.

Established writers also offered plenty of challenging new work including Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried which simultaneously proved to be a fascinating political piece about the thoughtless extremism of youth while providing one of the biggest treats of the year by uniting two of theatres most luminous rising stars Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in a memorable theatre moment. Likewise, James Graham’s Best of Enemies was an absorbing exploration of current political debate, tracking back to the late 1960s to chart the origins of celebrity-focused and sensationalist news media in the entertaining but deeply thoughtful style that has become Graham’s trademark

Dramatic Revivals and Hybrid Approaches

But new work was not the only place where theatremakers applied novel interpretations, and several impressive productions offered fresh insight into well-known plays. The National Theatre’s revival of The Normal Heart became a companion piece for Cruise in its first production for more than 30 years. This significant staging was notable for its strong performances including an emotional central character for Ben Daniels, another increasingly fascinating choice for Daniel Monks and an accomplished role for Luke Norris, collectively finding meaningful dimension in a play that not only reasserted its position as a modern classic but also its credentials as activist theatre.

Similarly, Lyndsey Turner’s reworking of Under Milk Wood also at the National proved extremely meaningful in a frame by Sian Owen uniting father and son to overcome memory loss with beautifully pitched performances from Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen. Antony Almeida made an equally distinct impression with his English Touring Theatre production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opening at Curve Leicester that proved a fiery and gripping portrayal of self-destruction that relished Tennessee Williams’s heat-oppressed classic.

And while the reopening of theatres in May has reduced the availability of streamed content, playmakers have continued to respond creatively to the possibilities that digital theatre offers. A major highlight was Athena Stevens’s binge-worthy drama Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a fascinating multi-part duologue released in daily 5-8 minute doses in February that used exquisite visual design to enhance its story of coercive relationships, toxic masculinity and female culpability in a memorable and genre enhancing collaboration with the Finborough Theatre – notable that smaller venues are still making big leaps in helping the industry to broaden its creative approach to storytelling and engagement.

Likewise, the National Theatre’s productions of Romeo and Juliet as well as the latest instalment of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England series Face to Face, took advantage of the empty Lyttleton to rethink the presentation of theatre stories. Working in partnership with Sky Arts and making these works available for free on the channel to a worldwide audience as well as selective cinema releases, they were filmed in usually unseen backstage areas, blurring the boundaries between stage and screen. These works continue to experiment with alternative staging models, thinking differently about theatre buildings, as well as how and where playing spaces can and should exist – a train of thought that should continue to evolve as the balance between audience engagement in specific rooms and wider forms of international engagement continues to expand.

A New Golden Age of Musicals

Throughout the pandemic, musical theatre responded best to the hybrid opportunities presented by theatre closure and, throughout 2020, it was notable how rapidly the industry reacted with new work, concert sessions and anthology shows like The Theatre Channel taking advantage of sophisticated filming techniques long before their drama counterparts. In 2021 two key themes dominated the year – promising new work performed in streamed concert try-outs and the rethinking and reimagining of classic musicals for a twenty-first century audience, picking up on a thread from 2019-20, by setting aside performance history and returning to the original text and songs.

Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s Gatsby: A Musical was a digital highlight of the 2021 lockdown, performed as a streamed concert from Cadogan Hall in February, focused on Daisy Buchanan in the years after Fitzgerald’s story. This elegiac and smart reimagining became a full staging at Southwark Playhouse that runs into next year. In the same month, Ricky Allan premiered an early working-version of Treason: The Musical, also streamed from Cadogan Hall, which promises much as the creators continue to work on their potentially explosive Gunpowder Plot story, even releasing a selection of teaser songs on 5 November. The development of this show is one to watch in 2022.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has led the way with fresh takes on classic shows in recent years with reworked version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jamie Lloyd’s production of Evita. This year, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was given a contemporary shakeup, tackling the issue of domestic abuse head-on by allowing barker Billy Bigelow to feel regret but denying him the happy and heavenly redemption arc his creators intended. This darker vision of the story set in a Lawrencian working class community proved a welcome counterpoint to the bubbly Hollywood version that had dulled these themes, helping audiences to engage with the show’s troubling underbelly and behaviours.

Equally revelatory, Chichester Festival Theatre produced a thrilling retelling of another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, South Pacific directed by Daniel Evans that addressed the story’s racial stereotyping while excising the romanticism from the arguably coercive and exploitative relationships between American soldiers and young native women. Choreographer Ann Yee found meaningful ways to express the concept of occupation and invasion – of which the American forces were equally guilty – to create a more forbidding adaptation that allowed South Pacific to confront its demons. The show will be streamed for £15 on New Year’s Eve, followed by a UK tour and residency at Sadler’s Wells in 2022 ensuring this significant restaging will reach a much wider audience.

But this astonishing year for musical theatre was not quite done with two late additions cementing a new direction for the genre. The Almeida’s Spring Awakening, opening in mid-December, has an extraordinary youthful vigour generated by its enormously talented early career cast who have found a deep maturity in this coming-of-age tale of doomed romance and disaffection. As fresh and purposeful as theatre can be, choreographer Lynne Page created some of the finest work of the year in a powerful and definingly simple version of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s show that is testament to everything musical theatre can be.

And defining is precisely the word for Rebecca Frecknall’s breath-taking reworking of Cabaret, one of the greatest shows of any year. If a single production can exemplify the combined advances and visionary approaches applied to theatre in 2021, then Cabaret has distilled them all by entirely reconsidering its source material and offering a more representative cast particularly within its two dance crews. Frecknall – notably a drama director – has brought an incredible new resonance to the story, exploring the shadowy tones of Isherwood’s original novella to bring an added emotional and social depth to Kander and Ebb’s version of Cabaret. This innovative interpretation will certainly affect future engagement with this piece which is everything you want a successful revival to do.

So what does this mean for theatre in 2022? There are positive signs that if venues can remain open then the variety of work we are seeing, how it is cast and, crucially, the platform it is given continues to change while engagement with hybrid styles have a significant role to play as venues commit to streaming some evenings across the run, while looking to innovative television and film partnerships to make work more widely available. The work itself is likely to continue the pre-pandemic trend for simplified staging which will help classic play and musical revivals to mine their original text for greater emotional, political and social resonance.

With big productions of The Glass Menagerie staring Amy Adams, Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the resumption of Jamie Lloyd’s season including a return for Cyrano and The Seagull, as well as Kit Harington in Henry V for the Donmar, Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Cock directed by Marianne Elliot at the Ambassadors, and a further collaboration between Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove (The Human Voice) at the Harold Pinter, there are plenty of major shows lined up all with the capacity to rethink approaches to these plays for contemporary viewers. This year has demonstrated that West End audiences are more open to a broader selection of shows, voices, experiences and performers representing different communities and identities. So the message for 2022 is a simple one – just keep making room.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Film Review: Death of England: Face to Face

One of the great theatre series of the past eighteen months, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England universe adds a new perspective by bringing together characters Michael and Delroy for the first time in a hybrid film, Face to Face, given a one-night only cinema release ahead of its free Sky Arts broadcast on 25 November. Building on two fierce monologues premiering either side of the first lockdown, this latest edition extends the vivid world of two friends struggling to connect when race, identity, family ties and concepts of Britishness come between them. Filmed in the closed Lyttleton Theatre, Face to Face joins the the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet as a co-production with Sky Arts that blurs and extends the boundaries between theatre and film, being made available to audiences for free in one of Dyer’s first projects as Deputy Artistic Director.

Although a piece that can standalone, there is value in some familiarity with the preceding plays with the story picking up shortly after the conclusion of Death of England: Delroy which memorably (and briefly) reopened the National Theatre last autumn and christened the Olivier’s in-the-round space. Fascinating explorations of working class masculinity and legacy, the separation of the two friends stems from Michael’s rant at his father’s funeral, directed at his best friend, and from Delroy missing the birth of his baby daughter due to an officious police stop and search detailed in his monologue.

The expectation that Face to Face will involve a decisive clash between Delroy and Michael is part of the set-up as Dyer and Williams look to explore notions of male rage and the recourse to violence that stems from feelings of isolation and otherness that merely perpetuate rather than resolve issues. Filmed in Delroy’s flat during the course of several hours in which Michael unexpectedly brings his niece to see her father for the first time, Dyer and Williams’ third instalment is primarily a linguistic piece in which (as is their style) both characters report events in retrospect while dramatically reproducing voices of other unseen characters and each other’s. As a director, Dyer retains this approach to a point but uses film techniques to create drive and visual interest by placing multiple versions of Delroy and Michael on screen simultaneously.

We see the pair in the present speaking to the viewer and casting aspersions on the other’s testimony while at the same time looking back to hours before to replay the scenario they are describing. Only, when Michael remembers these events, he continues to speak for Delroy with his voice coming from Delroy’s lips and vice versa, linking back to the original stage plays in their use of mimicry to tell multi-character stories. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but is used sparringly enough that it rarely jars but references the particular theatrical language of Dyer and Williams’ writing style.

The version control of Michaels and Delroys at different points in time is also drawn from this context, and a feature of both earlier Death of England stories has been this tendency to talk about events in retrospect during which the individual slips into dialogue as though it were the dramatic present. In Face to Face, that idea is given a visual signature by editing and layering shots of the actors together to imply the present and past versions co-existing rather than using flashback techniques or a more simplified chronological structure. Here, it also creates a jauntiness that highlights the comedy in the writing, where Delroy or Michael can comment on their own behaviour in the recent past and, crucially, each others by raising an ironic eyebrow or appearing from unusual places.

The overall effect can be hit and miss but it does two important things; first in utilising camera techniques unavailable if this were purely a stage piece that offer an alternative visual means to tell this story, while, secondly, questioning the veracity and integrity of the storyteller. One thing audiences have learned from meeting Delroy and Michael separately are the areas where their accounts complement or contradict one another through the information they choose to share or omit. As a theatre studies exercise, placing these three plays side-by-side like oral history testimonies highlights these differences, suggesting an ultimate truth lies somewhere between all of them while acknowledging the validity of individual interpretations and, most importantly, noting that each successive play offers character as well as dramatic development in the overall story.

There is an integral he said / he said structure at work, but both Delroy and Face to Face chronologically move the story on, so while Alan’s funeral and Michael’s speech as well as Delroy’s confrontation with Michael at the hospital where his daughter is born are continual references, key turning points in the friendship and the narrative, each new play takes place months later, giving the story fresh momentum. The comprehensiveness of this universe and the vivid nature of the surrounding characters is such that new scenarios for them appear to grow organically from what has gone before. By the end of Face to Face, we know both men a little better, not only how they have dealt with the consequences of their individual stories, guilt and separation, but the audience is shown their friendship, how they interact and respond to one another when their pal is physically present in front of them which moves the Death of England series from memory plays in which individuals look backwards, to a construct where activities in the present equally shape the outcomes and suggested future direction of their relationship.

We see this shift from past to present, from reflection to forward-looking across the film through the change in their friendship, which seemed hostile and broken beyond repair, moving first to common ground and rapprochement and then to camaraderie and mutual support as the pair must unite to take care of the baby and deal with the persistent angry neighbour upstairs. And it is a slow thawing as the issues of identity, race, family and betrayal play out, so while these were already rich and multifaceted characters, from their interaction, the banter and teasing, comes an extraordinary affection as well.

These two people know each other incredibly well, best friends for more than half their lives and as the previous instalments have demonstrated, they can hurt each other more deeply than anyone. But underneath the bile, outrage and anger, these men are forever connected, not quite two halves of a whole but a partnership that may change or even lapse yet remains solid at its foundation. Face to Face reminds Michael and Delroy that for all the things they have allowed to come between them and to distinguish them, ultimately they are more the same than different, grown in the same soil of their East London neighbourhood and better together than apart. And while all of that may sound grandiose or even overly romantic, Dyer and Williams rarely make it so in practice, couching their tale in explorations of male violence and the effects of bandwagoning when so much else is at stake.

When we meet them in Chapter 1 entitled ‘The Aftermath’, Delroy’s flat is in considerable disarray as though an altercation of some kind has taken place. With it comes certain expectations about the cause of that disruption against which Dyer and Williams must work, managing and subverting our expectations about the next 80-minutes. And, eventually, there is a well-staged confrontation that looks at why men commit violent acts, notions of tribal loyalties and the results of these encounters which only ever escalate rather than resolve a dispute.

More interesting though is the impulse control the leads experience in which the tendency to violence erupts instinctually and almost in spite of themselves. Too limited time is ultimately given to this debate but there are character insights into the nature and cultural expectations of modern masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with a nurturing or caring role for Delroy’s new baby. This muddies the waters for them all and suggests a future direction for these stories exploring manliness in transition as age and responsibility alter their view of themselves and their primary purpose as men.

Face to Face is a chance for Giles Terera to return to a role that ill-health prevented him from playing and was instead assumed by his understudy Michael Balogun who gave an astonishing performance to reopen the National Theatre with Death of England: Delroy – now both actors are touring in a two-character piece. Terera has lost none of his feel for Delroy and here the character has somewhat mellowed, taken beyond the painful and incendiary circumstances that preceded the birth of his child. Stuck alone in lockdown, Delroy is now calmer, more at ease with his paternal status and ready to revisit his feelings about the Fletcher family.

Terera plays the street-smart Delroy as a man maturing as the story unfolds, able to put the past into a different perspective to find the long connection to it, the integrated experience of shared memory and friendship with Michael and sister Carly that will continue to shape his future. But Delroy is also concerned with legacy and the world that he is creating, so while Terera finds comedy in the appearance of Alan’s mouth on his baby which links seamlessly with the conclusion of the previous play, he also acknowledges the impact of the baby’s presence in defining not just who Delroy is but who he now needs to be.

Neil Maskell also inherits the role of Michael from Rafe Spall who launched the series in terrific style with the powerful series opener in February 2020. But Michael too is a different man now, chastened and regretful about his past actions and seeing his niece as an opportunity to make amends with his best friend. Maskell’s Michael is almost a broken man by this point, certainly some energy or feeling within him has died since the manic funeral oration that severed his friendship. We got an inkling of someone trying to turn their life around through Delroy’s earlier monologue and Maskell gives him an inner calm and compassion, a man who has learned things about himself that he doesn’t particularly like and now wants to atone.

He feels like the junior partner sometimes, waiting for Delory’s lead but while ashamed, he recognises the value of this long friendship in defining who he is now, their shared memories and experiences integral to Michael’s personality and confidence. But Michael is still haunted by his overbearing parents and we briefly glimpse both mother and father in cutaways – played by Maggie Saunders and the wonderful Phil Daniels. These flashes of memory and unresolved issues with Alan continue to shape the lives of both men, while Maskell also draws on the greater exploration of the relationship with sister Carly (Amy Newton) who now connects the friends. This strong Fletcher family dynamic drives Maskell’s Michael, seeing their new blood link as a means to repair the relationship and, while tentative, Michael is the most forward-looking of the two as he seeks reconciliation and a more stable future connection, something he is prepared to physically fight for.

Death of England: Face to Face may be most meaningful to those with an understanding of the character histories but does offer both a satisfying conclusion and future possibilities for the series. Should Dyer and Williams turn their hand to a female voice, then Carly seems an obvious choice, although domineering Alan may eventually earn his own prequal. Primarily, the continuation of this story in a new hybrid format after showing Delroy for free during the second lockdown, further emphasises the growing adaptability of the Death of England collection as it explores the changing demands of British identity.

Death of England: Face to Face was screened in cinemas on 2 November and will be broadcast via Sky Arts on 25 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Dune: Coming of Age in the Period-Future

Dune by Denis Villeneuve

Released just weeks apart, two major movies have been tasked with the job of luring people back to the cinema after the pandemic delayed their original release dates. No Time to Die has done brisk business from its first weekend with fans arriving for midnight and early morning screenings that close the book on the Daniel Craig era in some style. Now, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of Dune is set to continue the cinema-going momentum with a film that speaks equally to the fan base who hold Frank Herbert’s original novel close to their hearts, and the casual viewer attracted by a stellar cast coming to the material for the first time.

On the surface, they may seem like entirely different propositions but Bond and Dune have a great deal in common; the growing appreciation for cinematography and the beautiful possibilities of light have been characteristic of the 007 movies since Sam Mendes took our breath away in Skyfall, while the insistence on real stunts and locations has been a calling card of the franchise over more than 60 years while other blockbusters have leaned in to CGI and backlot filming approaches. A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune adopts much the same approach, and while some CGI is required – it is a space film after all – the director situates his narrative style in the reality of locations and stunt-work that make this a very satisfying cinema experience.

At a small UK preview, screening at the BFI Southbank, Villeneuve described his setting as the “period-future,” a place that is recognisable in its visual aesthetic, with technologies in particular as well as costume design that reference medieval, Middle Ages and incongruously (but rather brilliantly) the 1980s, while simultaneously presenting a futuristic vision of inhospitable alien planets, sleek design and what is assumed to be cutting-edge assault weaponry. Together, this visual approach from Patrice Vermette creates instant familiarity for the viewer, easing us into a story that has just enough elements of identifiable human existence to introduce and frame the characters without needing to spend too much expositional time trying to get to grips with the context in which they are operating. Instead, with a bit of societal and political explanation, the story can hit the ground running.

Villeneuve’s masterstroke is to combine classic depictions of machinery but wrap them in futuristic packages, so many of the helicopter-like ships and guns are drawn from 1970s and 1980s references with buttons to press, monitors to track altitude, while the film also has an interest in the effect of knives, poisons and swords as well as the more explosive armoury that gives the film this depth. In fact, the influences from the big action movies and space films of these decades are clear, not only Star Wars of course, but, surprisingly, Top Gun which set a standard for the way in which the aerial attack and tracking sequences take place.

Villeneuve draws on Tony Scott’s prior work in showing both the high stakes perspective of the craft under attack, taking an internal and external cockpit perspective that shows the strain on the pilot – be it protagonist Paul or mentor Duncan (Jason Momoa) – as well as his view of enemy ships preparing to hone-in on their target. The quick cuts heighten the tension in these aerial battles, adding jeopardy in the same way that Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ experienced in simulator flights and MIG attacks which is an interesting reference point for a film set thousands of years beyond the action of Top Gun.

We see similar influences in Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s Medieval meets Middle East meets centuries from now dress design that also take-in a responsiveness to the desert elements so vital to the credible creation of place and character in Dune. To cope with heat and the often destructive sand-filled wind, fabrics are loose, blowsy or draped for both men and women when venturing beyond the Palace compound while drawing a determined class distinction between those growing up off-world (and in regal surroundings) and the Fremen desert community led by Javier Bardem’s Stilagar, seeking to protect themselves from the imposition of different colonialist communities.

The references to flexible and even fight-proof Medieval / Early Modern costume design are vast, most obviously Game of Thrones, The Witcher and films like Outlaw King, Macbeth and The King (also Timothee Chalamet), mixing with futurist and, even more notably, religious influences that favour high-necked, floor-length gowns for women at court. The famous stillsuit that protects fighters in battle, allowing them to breath in the spice-infused desert air, are built as grey exoskeletons, costumes that are given a uniform look and feel to strengthen the sense of conformity and military force – like the X-Men bodysuits from First Class but with added safety features in camouflage colours.

Villeneuve’s vision is complete and evocative, weaving these varied influences seamlessly together and then blending them with a sprawling dynastic story about the imposition of rulers, climate change and interplanetary political conflict that must display differences in class, culture, experience and belief while taking the hero on a coming-of-age journey that by the end of Part One leaves him ready to assume the responsibilities he has been born to, as well as those prophesised for him by believers seeking Messianic intervention and deliverance. That astute combination of visual spectacle, context creation and narrative development is achieved in a film that Villeneuve makes both epic and intimate, complex and driven specifically by Paul’s evolution and growing understanding that makes Dune an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema.

The family unit is an important construct in the first part of Dune, creating an interesting sense of inherited entitlement for a House given the opportunity to return to and rule their homeland, noting the generations before who, like Paul, have learned to fight, to participate in political counsels and to understand the culture of leadership. This coming-of-age trope is familiar, even in space movies where the hero is required to put those skills into practice before the end of the film to demonstrate his worthiness to inherit the mantles of his historic forebears.

Along the way, there must be trial and tribulation, suffering to shape the young protagonist, often with the sacrifice of a beloved item or companion, that gives personal depth to his quest. This, Dune manages particularly well as Paul adjusts not only to his new home but also to the budding responsibilities that his future requires of him. The sacrifices that inevitably accompany this before the end of Part One must leave him in a position to relinquish the past, knowing the his future is not only to apply his training but to forge a new path alone.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul, carrying the film with considerable ease, and Villeneuve has been savvy in choosing an actor capable of great depth ad capacity. Action and Sci-fi movies have given gravitas to their subject matter by countering the CGI and action scenes with character development and, crucially, psychology. This has been best achieved with respected actors including McKellen and Stewart in the original X-Men series and then Fassbender and McAvoy (the more recent films suffering by moving away from their compelling chemistry). Likewise, Marvel has taken the once small role of Loki and, based largely on Hiddleston’s performance, created a beloved character with his own spin-off parallel world. Chalamet has those same qualities as an actor, able to express so much with few words while bringing a seriousness of purpose and grounding to the dialogue that helps to embed the film’s more fanciful tropes.

As he did with The King, Paul is also a creation feeling the burden of his father’s expectations and wanting to find a different, more responsive path. Sensitive and alive to the implication of conquest that his family’s presence represents, Chalamet’s Paul is initially dismissive of the various prophesies and predictions that accompany his arrival. Part of that coming-of-age journey is to recognise and understand the fallibility of his parents as he learns more about the religious background of his mother and the powers that his dual heritage brings.

Crucially, Chalamet has that double capacity to carry those weightier scenes involving family, politics and the future of an empire resting on his shoulders as well as credible action sequences as his character learns to fight, to escape and ultimately to lead as the events of Part One unfold. And charting Paul’s development across this film merges perfectly with the changing audience perspective so we, like the people of Arakkis see Paul evolve in Chalamet’s performance, absorbing the official lessons as well as the circumstantial changes that help his protagonist become a credible action hero by the end of the film, one who becomes an accepted and blooded fighter in a crucial test of mettle that leaves the story and the character on the cusp of significant change.

And part of this coming-of-age development is to live through and instigate the breakdown of pre-existing social structures, aided by those purposeful action sequences, discussed earlier, in which the life Paul has known and his support system are effectively curtailed. War in the later stages of Part One results in changes to the medieval hierarchy which had divided into three classifications, nobility, military services and established religious leaders, who held power within the court. In taking Paul through the story, a democratisation occurs both in his thinking and his position that leaves him closer to the forgotten native people of Arrakis, a point at which the character encounters the feared Fremen tribe and becomes synonymous with the natural world and the political emancipation and education that will seemingly determine his future path and the future stability of the planet.

Like Bond, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser create a beautiful and artistic visual style for the film, most obviously referencing the epic desert films Lawrence of Arabia in the sheer scale and intensity of the landscape as well as The English Patient, notable particularly for Antony Minghella’s aerial shots that captured the undulating sand dunes which Villeneuve nods to here. But Fraser creates a place that is both glossy and forbidding, a dreamscape almost, often obscured by the particles of sand in the wind that blend the unmistakable location footage with the fantasy world of Arakkis. Together, these visual choices and production decisions give the film its authentic feel that help to underpin and properly situate the Atreides family saga.

With plenty of political, social and scientific messages in Herbert’s original novel as well as meaningful performances from a fine cast including Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stelland Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Golda Rosheuvel plus cinematic influences from a huge range of action movies, there is plenty of depth and scope to Dune. The thoughtfulness of Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and the wide-ranging directorial, historic and aesthetic influences that combine to create this two-part production are hugely appealing, providing enough familiarity to root the story in a recognisable period-future context that enhances the central coming-of-age narrative.

Dune is released in cinemas on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Last Night in Soho – London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho - London Film Festival

The allure of Soho may have dimmed in recent decades as chain coffee shops, pubs and restaurants have taken over the tiny patch of land between Shaftesbury Avenue and north Oxford Street. But the tiny cobbled streets are filled with an exciting social and cultural history, particularly from the immediate post-war era until really the 1980s that drew countless men and women eager to drink and dance, a place they could be themselves or even someone better. The exciting revelry and alternative culture found in its subterranean bars, members clubs and residential housing is endlessly attractive to dramatists looking to tell stories of wide-eyed youngsters finding new lifestyles in those heady days of abandon and happy oblivion.

But this vision of Soho was never real, it is a backwards projection, an attempt to recapture the nostalgia of times that felt free and unencumbered before everything decisively changed. And whether that was the economic depression and anti-corruption work of the 1970s or the terrible toll of AIDs in the 1980s, cultural projections of Soho are trying to bottle a single spark, a moment not dissimilar to that last Edwardian summer before the start of the First World War, as we try to retrospectively impose order on the chaos of the past, as though somehow the people there should always have know their time was running out.

Soho was a very dangerous place in the 1960s and Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, released later this month and previewed at the London Film Festival, has an astonishing craft and seems designed to specifically jolt the audience out of its romanticised image of the era. Filled with people who had nowhere else to go, Wright’s historic Soho is alive with dangerous men who exploit women, preying on their fantasies of being someone special, luring them along darker paths to a kind of soulful and bodily destruction. A place of lurking shadows and lurid faces, Wright’s Soho is a grubby abyss, and, strangely, far easier to believe in than its glamorous alternatives.

The Duality of Women

It is a strange concept for a movie, using a young fashion student, Eloise, arriving from Cornwall to train as a designer at the University of the Arts, arriving in present-day London for the first time filled with hopes and the inevitable dreams of escape from the solitude of her country life. The film uses those sleeping visions as a means to awaken her to her own innocence. And Wright’s method for doing that is not just an aggressive welcome from the, somewhat underwritten and distinctly high school movie, bullies in her fashion class, or by giving her a terrible love affair with a suave but underserving rake, but by utterly terrorising Eloise with the timeslip biography of a fallen women whose body the young student unwillingly inhabits each night.

1960s Sandie is everything Eloise is not, confident, driven and certain that she will make it big from the moment she first steps into Soho. Seeking out a spot as a singer and dancer, Sandie is assured with men, dresses with flair and refuses to be second best. She wants everything right now and she is determined to get it. Eloise, by contrast, is initially rather homely, calmed by the easy rhythms of the 60s music she listens to endlessly, and isolated by her shyness from those around her, feeling out of place and particularly ‘uncool’ next to her more worldy course colleagues.

Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do something quite interesting in merging these characters together and, while played by separate actors, in the early part of the film, they share a personality with Eloise subsumed into the body and image of Sandie, allowing her to see and experience those Soho nights as though they are really happening to her. We see the two traditionally assigned sides of female personality in these characters, the vamp and the virgin or, as Mad Men referred to it, the Marilyn and the Jackie.

Yet, the writing doesn’t linger too long here and as the film heads in some darker directions, we see personality development in both characters that frees them from the stereotypes being projected onto them, largely by others in the story. There is vulnerability within Sandie, a deep wound that grows as circumstances play out, and we see her become almost greyer as the continual round of suffering wears down that bubbling confidence. Similarly, Eloise becomes increasingly frightened but in doing so, reaches a greater degree of independence and resilience than she did before, finding her way in the present day and, quite quickly, developing her own distinctive look to reflect the growth of her character.

Ultimately, Wright and Wilson-Cairns do much here to reinstate the more negative and seedier side of 1960s Soho and its less appetising consequences for young women threatened and coerced into performing for men. Those wistful Soho memories of drinking and carousing in this garish light now become male-only stories while the history for women at this time was quite different. And, despite what is so often recounted as a positive era of sexual liberation, for the waitresses, nightclub singers and hostesses of Soho, their bodies were not their own.

Creating the Whirl of Soho

Working with Art Directors Victoria Allwood, Tim Blake, Emily Norris and Oli van der Vijver, Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, Soho is beautifully rendered and warped on screen, asking the audience to consider which version of the area is the true distortion. As Eloise and Sandie experience 60s Soho for the first time at the Cafe de Paris, it is a vision of colour as Sandie’s striking coral dress stands out against the rich scarlet drapes and plush seating in the club, filled with mirrors and light in which the women can see one another. It’s exactly what we have been told these spaces looked liked, elegant and charismatic, filled with energy and life.

But as the film unfolds, those visual choices and Wright’s camerawork becomes increasingly erratic, imposing on and disorientating our perspective as events blur. The past and present shatter and fragment, bleeding into one another, while the growing sense of foreboding, of something sinister building, strips away the gloss of those early scenes. That much of this reflects a kind of madness in Eloise, a manifestation of the disintegration between her daily life and the night terrors that grip her is interestingly achieved and, while likely to be divisive, Wright’s approach is unashamedly bold, all the more so for hitting the mark more often than it misses.

Modern Soho has a more pedestrian feel in the daytime but looks increasingly appealing in the night shoots as Eloise comes to appreciate some aspects of her present day life. The use of neon signs and interior light here makes Soho look more welcoming than in the earlier decade while some of the rain-based shots that create colourful reflections are lovely. The parties may be less stylish to look at, but Wright still creates that consistent sense of crowds drawn to small rooms in this part of town to drink, dance and forget, adding energy to the present day that retains Soho’s liveliness.

Staging London Past and Present

Taking place, then, in two versions of Soho, the very recognisable present day and, grafted on top, the initially more beguiling 1960s version, Wright’s time-bending film pays tribute to the exact geography of the place. With street names unchanged, we see both Eloise and her earlier counterpart Sandie tripping down the same roads on their way to adventure-filled encounters, both nervous but open to the possibility of what lies ahead. Wright heightens the late 1960s era just a touch, creating different shop fronts and street furniture that brings a keen eye to the changing physicality of the district but purposefully draws geographical consistencies between the decades in the warren of streets.

For the keen-eyed Londoner there is much to delight-in and those familiar with Soho and the surrounding areas will note a true rarity in film, that characters are seen to walk through genuinely connected streets, turning corners and arriving at exactly the right place. A minor distraction in many films and television shows set in familiar places and the cause of much post-viewing debate when, for example, Parliament is ludicrously visible from Tower Bridge. So this wonderful precision about Wright’s decision-making here enhances the story, adding an awareness that the filmmakers want their version of Soho to be as credible as possible for those who will notice.

However, Fitzrovia does pop into the film on occasion with Goodge Place as the lodging house for both women and Eloise’s student halls, while one notable scene tracks Sandie through a little known alleyway leading from Rathbone Street, which are technically beyond Soho. Yet, some suspension of disbelief is permissible in a film that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the area it depicts.

The End of the Night

Wright’s film is on far shakier ground as it draws to its horror-infused conclusion in which Eloise is first tormented by the ghosts of the past and then confronts a possibly predictably reality, one that feels a little too cartoonish in execution to fully shock. The film has built the premise that the past and the present are entwined and there are many precedents for the kind of haunting we see here, but the approach tips almost into parody in the hunt for a conclusion that goes slightly too far, becomes too melodramatic to satisfy the greater nuance and multi-layered storytelling that has gone before.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s star continues to rise and she is stunning as Sandie, a character we only see snippets of but who feels rounded and alive. Taylor-Joy is especially good at showing the wear in Sandie, almost as though she’s turned off the lights from the inside which affectingly captures the lot of many Soho women in one short scene. Her counterpart Thomasin McKenzie is a very likeable heroine, emitting a palpable outsider status and growing discomposure as the truth emerges. Matt Smith is charmingly vicious as 1960s manager Jack and Diana Rigg gives landlady Miss Collins some interesting edges. Synnove Karlsen could be better used as Jocasta, a rather one dimensional character for an actor capable of carrying a TV series, while a very unexpected and unnecessarily brief cameo from Sam Clafin seems a waste of another talented performer in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, some of which must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Last Night in Soho celebrates the craft of filmmaking; it is vibrant, ambitious and in marrying together a stylistic approach, storytelling and the physical layout of a beloved part of London, feels like something really new. The ending and the slightly overblown effect of the horror tropes may be forgivable given the interesting things the film has to say about our cultural memories of Soho and the experience of the forgotten women who suffered for it.

Last Night in Soho opens in UK cinemas on 29 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


%d bloggers like this: