Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican

Basquiat at the Barbican

Artist Jean-Michael Basquiat became a member of the infamous 27 Club in 1988 when he died from a drug overdose, joining stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Kobain and Amy Winehouse after. Together with numerous others, the much-lamented lost talent of the 27 Club represents a group reaching the height of their power and abruptly cut short. Basquiat’s work as a painter, graffiti artist and musician is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Barbican which, now thirty years on, demonstrates Basquiat’s role in using art to communicate the politicised anger of America’s poorest communities and their recognition of the now-empty American Dream.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Barbican’s excellent new show is how carefully it builds the case for Basquiat’s influence on modern art, and how the simplicity of the surface appearance of his art belies a considerable depth, understanding and passion for a wider-range of subjects. Starting on the upper level of the Gallery, Curators Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne walk the viewer through Basquiat’s life, represented through his pictures, from his early days as an anonymous graffiti artists leaving pithy statements across New York, to his emergence onto the 80s club scene, mingling with Madonna and other recognisable faces at the The Mudd Club, an important meeting place for a particular wave of young, disenfranchised creatives, and becoming friends with his hero Andy Warhol.

But this is more than a chronologized life-story, and in the lower galleries, the Curators skilfully unpick the huge range of influences and knowledge that infuse Basquiat’s work in several themed areas intended to explain the deep research, use of symbolism and cultural markers that are referenced again and again in his work. Taken together, they result in a strong sense of the context in which his work was created, as well as its development over time, and the complex relationship between his own self-image and the layers of meaning beneath the surface. The result is one of the most intelligently considered and genuinely insightful exhibitions you will see this year.

For Britain and America, the late 1970s / early 1980s was a period of economic uncertainty, deprivation and political instability. Long before the financial boom of the 80s, people suffered as large-scale industries started to close due to overseas competition, strikes and protest became more frequent, and there was a sense that traditional structures were breaking-down across society, and not for the better. It was a time when the gap between rich and poor felt wider than it ever had, and the process of social decay, initiated by the debt-ridden aftermath of the Second World War was in its death throes.

Into this space came of wave of young musicians and artists whose work, even now, still feels full of the anger, fear and disillusion of those days. Rebellious bands like The Jam (who were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Somerset House in 2015) and The Clash, and artists like Basquiat provided a social record of the failure of their parent’s generation to resolve the outcome of war, and the desire to speak-up for those without an artistic outlet for their impotence. The punk aesthetic that feeds in to Basquiat’s work became a way to envision those feelings of powerlessness, using a deceptively simple style or creating a “tag” for his graffiti creations that generalise the social comments he’s making. These are the work of one or two men, but the voice of many.

And you see this again and again in the photographs of his graffiti statements, scrawled across garage doors, walls, door frames and windows crying out for an end to the facile, drudgery of 9-5 work or the externally imposed expectations of society to behave in a particular way. In the second room entitled ‘Samo©’, the Barbican have collated an insightful series of images of these slogans and declarations created by Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz under the character of Samo©, that peppered parts of New York in 1978. Like waiting for a new Banksy to appear, the Samo© pieces touched on the pointlessness of life, ‘for those of us who merely tolerate civilization’ and the sense that each day is just ‘another way 2 kill some time’. Taken together in this room, they are a remarkable outpouring of fury but offer unique access to the ideas that drove the rest of Basquiat’s work.

A sense of community was also important, bringing together others who felt the same and helped to enhance Basquiat’s work which the Barbican demonstrates in the next two rooms on the Canal Zone loft party where he met several like-minded people who he went on to work with, and on display are the colour-photocopied postcards he made with Jennifer Stein that use 3-D objects, layering and collage to create a series of striking pieces that mock the obsession with brand and image that dominated America at the time. Likewise, his frequent appearance at The Mudd Club put Basquiat right at the centre of the underground scene, where he performed as a musician and there are various images from this period which give the viewer a strong impression of Basquiat’s lifestyle.

Passing through a documentary he made which shows the desperate poverty of New York and a trip to LA that resulted in the acidic yellow ‘Hollywood Africans’ [1983] which satirises the empty wealth of an area built on slavery and references the enduring racism of film, the section on Basquiat’s time with Warhol is one of the best in the show. Most fascinating is the double portrait ‘Dos Cabezas’ [1982] in which Basquiat has inserted a highly simplified self-portrait with wild hair next to a much more flattering and considered Piccaso-esque image of Warhol. It shows the beginning of Basquiat’s desire to reduce his own image to a symbol, increasingly simplifying his appearance in pictures until he is reduced to a silhouetted figure or just a crown of dreadlocks. This picture tells us something about the way Basquiat saw himself and, despite his simplistic style, that the image of Warhol proves he had a talent for anatomical drawing, more of which we discover downstairs in the exhibition.

Having established his style and the world as he experienced it, the second part of the exhibition delves deeper into Basquiat’s continued self-education and the ways in which he incorporated broad interests into his work. From previous shows, including the excellent Constable exhibition at the V&A, we know that artists have always looked to their predecessors to learn the fundaments of perspective, shape and colour, and a whole section is dedicated here to Basquiat’s attention to art history.

Alongside original copies of his books, Basquiat’s detailed anatomical images draw on the work of another hero in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ [1982], classical elements are picked up from Titian, and Manet, while the semi-abstract style comes from Picasso and Matisse. As well as ‘Untitled (Pablo Picasso)’ [1984], an eponymously titled portrait of the young Picasso with strong jawline wearing the striped red jersey of his later years, artists’ names appear like graffiti in several other pictures displayed here.

Basquiat, Barbican

This is a technique Basquiat uses repeatedly, whether he’s hailing the heroes of early Jazz like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, figures from Greek tragedy or Old Testament Christianity, or Voodoo symbols, his work in the second half of the exhibition is detailed and intriguing, displaying an astonishing range of influences. Pieces such as the triptych ‘Ishtar’ [1983] or ‘Glen’ [1985] are like maps covered in little notes, drawings and images as all of the information in his head spilled onto the canvas. It’s the kind of detail that Grayson Perry has become known for more recently, as both artists attempted to capture a particular theme or period.

It ends with more of Basquiat’s notebooks and an examination of his engagement with classic film, both in its ongoing influence and its rather stilted portrayal of black lives which still feels particularly pertinent. Aspects of Basquiat’s work may utilise the childlike doodles of the untrained artist, but as you wander through this exhibition, something much deeper than that emerges. The curators have done well to convey not just what life was like in a particularly downtrodden area of New York, filled with creative people living an underground existence, but how these things shaped the work of an artist who continually strove to read and understand more to give his pieces political backbone. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Basquiat: Boom for Real is worth a chance, and by the end you’ll understand why his death at the age of just 27 feels like an abrupt conclusion for an artist with plenty more to say.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Please note the Barbican now has a no bags policy (not even small handbags) in the Art Gallery so leave extra time to queue for the cloakroom. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Ink and the Case of the West End Transfer

Ink at the Duke of York's Theatre

For most theatres, a West End transfer is the Golden Ticket, the chance to take their work to that tiny patch of illustrious venues from Shaftesbury Avenue to Covent Garden. Sometimes these are a roaring success; the new transfer of Ink, such a joy at The Almeida, is every bit as perfect at its new home in the Duke of York’s, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet retained its lovely intimacy in the bigger Harold Pinter space and anyone who saw the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge in any venue couldn’t help but be astounded by its impact. But a transfer is also a gamble, and every year numerous plays fail because the decision to open the performance to new audiences is predominantly a commercial one, with artistic drivers taking second place.

There are three main types of West End transfer; the ones that move within London from the high-performing venues that attract the mainstream critics, best described as “off-West-End”; there are regional transfers from the powerhouses of the Theatre Royal Bath, the Bristol Old Vic, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the RSC in Stratford and the like; and there are the shows that come from Broadway. The latter two categories seem to suffer more often in the glare of the West End, partly, as Lynne Gardner recently pointed out because a 5 star show from Edinburgh feels very different when you put it in London, and partly because transfers are too often a poor fit for their new space. Crucially then, context is all.

Ink and Hamlet may have successfully sidestepped these problems, and arguably off-West End transfers fare better because they’re in front of exactly the same set of critics as their original run, but not all of them succeed. This year the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Love in Idleness proved a sell-out at its tiny London Bridge home and critical applause meant a transfer was inevitable. Yet, when it finally landed at The Apollo, it’s evident original charm felt a little lost on the bigger stage, playing to a less than full house on a Friday night. Likewise, plaudits rained in for the RSC’s production of Queen Anne in Stratford but although the story was interesting enough and well performed, in the less-than-full auditorium of the capacious Theatre Royal Haymarket (TRH) on another Friday night, it felt meandering and stilted.

Last year’s Alan Ayckbourn revival of How the Other Half Loves also fell foul of the TRH effect, drowning its comedy in acres of space. Perhaps the critics don’t notice from the visual comfort of the Stalls, but siting in the Upper Circle or Balcony the action felt more remote than it should. Yet, it’s not always this way and plenty of shows manage to play as effectively to the top of the house as to the bottom, so what is happening? The answer is that too often shows are transferring kit and caboodle, without taking the time to think about how they fit into their new space. Transfers can happen months after the original run, by which time the Director and Designer are on to other projects, but without more considered input into how the show will play in the new space, you end up with reams of discounted seats. It’s no surprise to hear that you could barely get into Hamlet at the Harold Pinter but the TRH were practically paying you to see Queen Anne in its final weeks.

Shows fail to dazzle in the West End for other reasons of course and perfectly decent productions of well-known plays with star names can represent some of the very best work in their region. But with just so much choice, so many approaches to performance and younger theatres pushing boundaries, some of these transfers can seem a little too safe, traditional and even old-fashioned. When London theatre-goers are offered the choice of seeing the umpteenth version of Hay Fever or The Importance of Being Ernest with a star of yesteryear, or Ivo van Hove, Jamie Lloyd or Robert Icke deconstructing an equally classic play and blasting new life through it, its innovation that usually wins. The same applies to Broadway transfers, like this year’s The Mentor for example, which in many ways play much safer than London shows and don’t always achieve the same level of critical appreciation they had in the States.

The point of all of this is to show that a West End transfer is not an end in itself, and the shows that do well have to earn their audience in exactly the same way as any new play opening in WC2. There are soaring successes that can equally come the few miles across town, from across the country or across the pond, but they work so well because they pay attention to their new context, to a different size stage, to a theatre with multiple seating levels and to the audiences hungry for interesting stories told in exciting ways.

Recently, the American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie made a spectacular impact at The Duke of York’s, Ian McEwan and Patrick Stewart’s toured in No Man’s Land before finally arriving for a triumphant run at the Wyndhams late last year, while Oslo is doing great business at The National Theatre and is sure to triumph at the Harold Pinter as well. Within London, shows of incredibly quality have also earned their place in the West End; who hasn’t been impressed by The Ferryman which came from The Royal Court, and re-watching Hamlet at the Harold Pinter last month, the production had matured beautifully from its original Almeida run, retaining its intimacy, as if Andrew Scott was holding you hand and whispering his soliloquies into your ear, a private excoriation of soul between you and him.

This is the context then for the transfer of James Graham’s fantastic new play Ink which received its Golden Ticket to the West End after a sold-out and highly acclaimed run at The Almeida from June. Seeing it back then, it was instantly clear that Graham’s work was a masterpiece, a perfectly constructed piece of theatre that months on is still worth gushing about. Happily, every word of this original review still stands and it’s transfer not only provided another opportunity to see it, but, with enormous competition, proved that so far it is undoubtedly this year’s best new play. That banner has already been handed to The Ferryman, which in a big year for new work set a high bar, but although excellent and expertly directed, didn’t quite hit the emotional pitch or degree of darkness that the early scenes implied would come. Even with promising shows like The Network and Graham’s own rival new play Labour of Love still to come, Ink is an extraordinary piece of writing that has easily made the leap into West End history.

With almost the entire original cast still onboard, the show’s elaborately staggered design by Bunny Christie looks like a seedy den of journalistic compromise with desks and cabinets piled high, and feels like it was built especially for the Duke of York’s, so snugly does it fit the stage. It’s video screen backdrop plays host to Sun headlines from its first year of operation, as well as indicating scenes set at other newspapers, and offers a trail of dripping ink as the mood darkens, which seems more noticeable than it had been at The Almeida, adding much to the changing tone.

A second viewing means the story is familiar so there’s plenty of time to enjoy all the subtleties of director Rupert Goold’s production and the extensive research that shines through the writing. The opening scene, two men spotlight from the back, feels more like a deal with the devil than it did before, while Goold brings out the growing sense of camaraderie that Sun Editor Larry Lamb builds from scratch among his team of Working Class outsiders, showing how that team ethos was a driving force behind the success of The Sun in the early months. But crucially, although they stand together in the good times, in the second half when things take a darker turn rifts develop among them, based on taste, and slowly the play devolves into a series of smaller and smaller conversations until Lamb is alone onstage once again, isolated by his own choices.

Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb is every bit as repellently fascinating, sympathetic and hateful as it was earlier in the summer. In Coyle’s performance Lamb is the embodiment of The Sun, a traditional fleet street man turned on his head by the populist cavalcade he unleashes. Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes the leader he needs to be to make his mark on the clubbable world of Fleet Street, and Coyle shows him unleashing a monster as he seeks the next sensationalist headline that will ensure he meets his target of outselling his rivals.

Bertie Carvel’s Rupert Murdoch is equally fascinating, a slightly twisted sliver of darkness that sets in motion the biggest sea change that journalism had ever seen, but manages to keep culpability at arm’s length. It’s a very physical performance, with a slight stoop and way of holding his head to the side as he rails against the Establishment that won’t ever accept him. One of the most intriguing aspects of Graham’s characterisation is seeing this aspect of Murdoch, the innovator who brings business-thinking to the newspaper industry, modernising its approach but all the while knowing the audience will understand the consequences so many decades on.

With many of the cast members reprising their original roles, there is an excellent support for the leads which ensure this remains a fantastic ensemble piece with not a character wasted, each one adding layers to the drama and background to the newspaper business that made The Sun’s approach so radical. There are great supporting performances from Sophie Stanton as formidable Women’s Editor Joyce Hopkirk who holds her own in a world of men, Justin Salinger as Brian McConnell the crime writer turned right-hand-man to Lamb, one of the lads who fears the paper’s direction, and Tim Steed as the buttoned-up Bernard Shrimsley whose love of fonts adds much hilarity.

Ink has made the most of its Golden Ticket to the West End and remains one of this year’s most unmissable shows. Happily situated at the Duke of York’s, the staging fits the space entirely and the multi-level aspect of the set plays to all the theatre’s seating levels. Beautifully constructed and superbly performed, Graham’s play is a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most important industries and the period that set it on a new track. Getting a West End transfer right may be a huge gamble, but by prioritising the artistic transition toits new home, Ink shows how it should be done. And that’s one bit of news that isn’t fake.

Ink is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6 January. Tickets start at £15 for day seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1       


Oslo – National Theatre

Toby Stephens in Oslo, National Theatre by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When we look back at the last 100 years of world history, all you really see is battlefields and bombs. From the first total mechanised war to the modern day, our history seems to be the invention of new forms of death, of fear and an increasing inability to know who the villains really are. But behind all of the things that you think have shaped the world we know, there is one startling fact, that change didn’t really happen in any of these places of death. It germinates there, it is the trigger, but change and the tide of history that accompanies it, really happened in a succession of secret rooms, among a select group of privileged men (mostly men) sitting round a board table with the fate of their countries in their hands.

There is the Versailles Treaty of course at the end of the First World War, an ineffectual conclusion that only paused European hostilities; There was the Wannsee conference, dramatised so well by the BBC in 2001, which brought together the various German war leaders and administrators to chillingly agree the Final Solution; There was the Potsdam meeting with Stalin, Attlee and Truman at the end of World War Two, and in 1993 there was Oslo, the secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government that offered the first real possibility in 50 years of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.

For lovers of political theatre, the autumn season has plenty to offer with the West End transfer of Ink opening next week, James Graham’s other new play Labour of Love opening for previews before the end of September, despite a rapid recasting, and this hotly anticipated production of J.T. Rogers’s Tony-award winning Oslo arriving from Broadway with a fresh cast for a brief showing at the National Theatre before it takes up residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the rest of the year.

The new season has definitely begun, and the National Theatre is bringing out its big hitters, with the incredible Follies opening to a slew of 5-star reviews and Ivo van Hove directing The Network with Bryan Cranston in November, Oslo is the latest of its big sell-out shows this autumn. Even with Press Night some days away, it’s already clear why America loved Rogers’s play, a fascinating insight into a secret negotiation process that started as a forum for economic cooperation but became the main channel for peace, unexpectedly put together by a Norwegian academic and his wife in the Foreign Ministry.

It’s 1993 and Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen develop a plan to aid the Middle East peace process that is floundering in Washington. With the wrong people at the table, too much distance between the principle players and officious American control, Mona and Terje secretly bring together representatives from the PLO with a couple of economics professors from Israel for unmonitored face-to-face discussions. Terje’s charm and Mona’s Foreign Ministry connections ensure progress is rapid, forcing both sides to see each other as people, putting their enmity aside for the chance to achieve something historic. But as more senior Israeli ministers engage in the process, the demands increase with both peace and secrecy coming under threat.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Oslo has made a very easy transition to the expansive Lyttleton stage, giving a sense of the smallness of the people around a tiny table in a grand room making huge decisions. There may be greater intimacy when it transfers to the Harold Pinter, but there is something about the scale of what Juul and Rod-Larsen were attempting that fits this space so well. Sher ensures that the roundness of the characters, their foibles and frustrations, as well as their political views are not lost in the space, and the audience sees a surprisingly human story of a big political moment.

Political theatre is never easy to pitch, but Rogers has this just about right with narration throughout from Mona who talks to the audience, explains some of the events happening in the region as well as introducing the key players. Her guidance offers just enough context to those who know nothing about the conflict, supported by projected maps, photographs from the war zone, video footage and some ornamental designs to give a sense of venues changing from the negotiating room, to the Larsen’s flat, to a restaurant. The rapidity of this helps Sher create a sense of pace that bleeds scenes together and makes the 3-hour run time pass unnoticed.

Although this is a play about a major political event, it feels like a character piece and its strength lies in defining the unlikely collection of people it brings together. It was, we are told, Terje’s idea to create a sense of bonhomie where outside the negotiating room the men would talk only of families, drinks and food. And it is in these moments that the audience gets to know them as well, and as the need for narration fades, the humour, warmth and genuine desire to achieve a lasting settlement in each man becomes clearer. People who were once sworn enemies, finding a way forward becomes the play’s dramatic drive.

The question that hangs over it all, and remains delightfully unanswered, is why Mona and, particularly Terje, did this at all. We know that the idea for Oslo came when Rogers met Terje and became fascinated by his, now forgotten, role in this peace process, but Rogers leaves his motivation open to interpretation. Toby Stephens plays this ambiguity perfectly, channelling the mix of ego and desperation that seem to explain Terje’s investment in the business of other countries. Still boyishly handsome, Stephens utilises all the gentlemanly charm that Terje needs to keep everyone onside, smoothing every ripple as the ultimate genial host. But there is a darker undertone to Stephens’s performance, suggesting Terje ultimately wants to be known as the architect of peace in the Middle East which results in occasional outbursts of temper, as well as fear that his military guests might turn on him.

Less overtly ambitious is Lydia Leonard as Terje’s diplomat wife Mona who, unlike her husband, has an official role in the foreign policy of her country. Having previously played Anne Boleyn onstage in the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Leonard has plenty of experience of holding her own on a stage full of men and Oslo is no exception. A softer presence than her husband, Mona is a level-headed force throughout, tactfully navigating the explosive characters in the boardroom and thinking fast to solve unexpected problems. But she’s also carefully balancing a need to protect her career, and Leonard ensures we see that Mona is more than a competent administrator, but someone who’s also risking everything in the affairs of others.

With a large cast surrounding them, it would be easy for the key figures to blend into one another, but Rogers play deliberately gives real insight into the men around the table, and what begins as a series of shouting matches about various contractual sticking points, slowly evolves into growing friendship and believable camaraderie. Leading the Palestinian contingent is the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie desperate to establish the legitimacy of the PLO and make the territorial gains he needs. But, he is also full of a humour, enjoying Norwegian hospitality and finding unexpected commonalities with his enemies to which Polycarpou gives warmth and feeling, both charting shifts in Qurie’s opinions while demonstrating the appeal of his own character for others.

Philip Arditti as Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, arrives half-way through the negotiations as the first senior figure to get involved. Initially he’s a pretty cool customer, unwilling to make concessions, but like Qurie, develops a genuine investment in the people and the outcome of the talks. Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold do well as the vital Israeli Professors unceremoniously cast aside by their military superiors and resenting their usurpation, while Nabil Elouahabi as Palestinian communist Hassan Asfour and Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) add considerable texture when ideals meet cold hard process, turning their dreams of peace into practical reality.

At the end of Oslo as the characters explain to the audience what happened next, both politically and personally, and you’re left in no doubt that however long peace lasts, it is the decisions made in rooms by small groups of people that explain how history happens. So often, these hinge on the mixture of personalities brought together unexpectedly with a common will to enforce change. But, Rogers wants us to know that these processes are also fragile, that they depend on individuals to keep them on track, and once those people move aside, everything they’ve gained is once again up for grabs. Ultimately though even if the players change, the game remains the same and whether its terms of surrender or the cessation of war, decisions aren’t made on the battlefield but in the boardroom.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October – 30 December, tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Una

Una -with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendlesohn

The transfer of a hit play to film can be a tricky process and those that have attempted it enjoyed varying degrees of success. It can add further layers to a well-constructed plot or by contrast stifle the immediacy of emotional engagement that works better in the theatre – and this is one of the problems that frequently dog Shakespeare on screen. But when the topic under discussion is particularly troubling, then these difficulties can be magnified and Benedict Andrews’s new film Una suffers in exactly this way.

David Harrower’s play Blackbird deals with the volatile issue of child abuse and dramatizes a confrontation years later between a woman in her late 20s who tracks down the man she had a relationship with 15 years earlier when she was 13. Although this is clearly abusive, the film hinges on whether Ray was genuinely in love with Una, as he claims and she continues to believe, or whether he was serial predator of which she was one of many.

The original play, devised entirely as a two-hander between then accuser and the accused was written in 2005 and won several theatre awards, including recent ‘Best Revival’, ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ Tony nominations for the acclaimed Broadway version starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in mid 2016. Much of its tension lies in the conflicting emotions the confrontation triggers as the characters fight it out in the break-room of Ray’s office, unable to leave until their shared past is resolved.

Andrews’s film takes a slightly different approach, playing down its theatrical roots and adding extra layers by personifying additional characters including Ray’s colleagues and wife, as well as looking at the context around the pair, with scenes set at Ray’s house during a party, with Una’s frantic mother and recreating some of the events of the past. This greater exposition is both its strength and weakness as a film because in ‘colouring-in’ the wider lives of the characters to add meaning and depth for the audience, it simultaneously drains the scenes between them of the raw power and degree of unease that they had on stage.

We first meet Una during a sordid nightclub encounter with a random man before she makes her way back home at dawn to her fragile, fussy mother. Clearly in her late 20s, she then dresses carefully, paying particular attention to her clothes and make-up – a telling statement of the confusion to come – and drives to Ray’s warehouse workplace where the two meet for the first time. And the past comes hurtling back with startling force as the two relive not just the long-term effects of the abuse but the mutual attraction that still exists between them.

The complex and difficult subject matter is handled with sensitivity by the cast, ensuring the many shades of grey in Harrower’s affecting text are given their due on screen. In a particularly intriguing performance, Ben Mendlesohn gives us a man who is ashamed of what he did but struggling to maintain the fiction that it was a single-incident based on a specific attraction to the young Una. He tells her over and over that he’s not ‘one of them’, i.e. not the men who do this regularly, but Mendlesohn offers just enough doubt in his voice to keep you wondering whether he believes it.

On the surface, Ray is a man who has shaken off his past, created a new identity, remarried, moved on, and supposedly not been tempted since, yet he is clearly alarmed by the ferocity with which his old feelings re-emerge when he sees Una again, forcing him to confront an idea of himself that’s he’s not comfortable with. And Mendlesohn’s performance is remarkably sympathetic given that it treads a dangerous line, openly acknowledging his actions 15 years before. He fully admits to doing the things he’s accused of but it’s interesting to see that this doesn’t make him a blanket monster, and both the script and Mendelsohn’s interpretations show us the complexity of feeling Una’s reappearance creates – from fear to attraction, confusion to self-disgust – as Ray tries to reassess himself.

More problematic in this version is the character of Una, played with some detachment by Rooney Mara and given the wider setting of the film is slightly in danger of altering the perspective on her character. When Una arrives at the office she clearly wants answers, she wants to know if Ray ever loved her and what the last 15 years have meant. In a really insightful interview with Michelle Williams who played the role on Broadway this year, she argues that Una wants revenge too; making Ray pay for abandoning her but in the course of their conversation the whole things becomes much bigger than she expected and she loses control of the situation. But, there’s no question that she is a fragile woman, damaged by the abuse and, unlike Ray, trapped forever – as Williams says ‘she never leaves that room’.

Initially we see this in Andrews’s film and the first hour or so when it’s largely Una and Ray in the break-room their relationship is compelling and unnerving. Generally Mara is an actor whose characters are hard for me to get to grips with; she has a remoteness in her performances that take away from the emotional impact of her roles – as happened with Carol previously. But here, for the most part, that coolness is put to good use as Una faces her abuser head on and continues to struggle with her emotional responses thereafter. That sense of trying to contain her feelings under a semi-icy exterior seems right and the power-shift between her and Ray is believable and engaging.

Less successful is the last section of the film set outside the office at the homes of Ray and another colleague during a party scene. Here Andrews allows Una’s revenge to take place, but in doing so marks a significant shift in her character that doesn’t serve her well. One critic wrote that Una here becomes a stereotypical crazy female who has lost her mind and is out for vengeance, which is unfortunately how this plays out on screen. Having understood the consequences of the relationship with Ray, outlined in the earlier conversation and told in flashback, Una seemed vulnerable and pitiable, but in pursing him to his house (deliberately not something that happens in the play, she chooses his workplace for the meeting) the sympathy shifts, wrongly, to Ray who is now being pursued in a way that seems almost sensationalist and undermines the mental and emotional impact on him of their earlier meeting. The wrong message to send an audience home with is that Ray can be excused because Una is a lunatic, but the final section of this film can be read in that way.

Another failure of widening out the exposition is the additional characters this version adds into the mix. In theory this could work well but none of them is given enough substance to make their presence necessary or even insightful, not to mention is a shocking waste of a very good supporting cast. Most unfortunate is Ray’s boss Mark played by Tobias Menzies who has next to nothing to do except stalk the corridors like a hungry velociraptor after Ray fumbles an important presentation. Menzies is fantastic at it, but you want to see more of him and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for him to have played Ray given the usual intensity he brings to his work. Equally wasted though are Natasha Little as Ray’s unknowing wife and Tara Fitzgerald as Una’s equally brittle mother neither of whom add much to the plot. It seems a shame for Andrews to have created these additional layers but not given them enough substance to really come alive.

The stage to film translation is not always an easy one, and the two necessarily require different approaches. Given its subject matter and the two-handed nature of the play Blackbird is a particularly difficult thing to bring to the screen without somehow lessening the impact of the original. Andrews navigates some of these issues quite cleverly including the subtle use of flashbacks to tell 13-year-old Una’s story, but some of the present-day expansions are not quite as successful. A film that’s worth seeing, but if a West End revival of the play were likely then maybe that’s the place to start.

Una was premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 1 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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