Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein – National Theatre at Home

Frankenstein - National Theatre

The National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein is one of the great pieces of twenty-first century drama, a rare combination of directorial vision, gripping storytelling, outstanding production values and two great actors at the top of their game alternating the lead roles night after night. A repeat favourite for NT Live screenings that consistently sells well, the decision to stream both versions as part of the National Theatre at Home series is a canny one. Intending to unite a community of theatre-lovers online, the programme began with the cheeky brilliance of One Man, Two Guvnors attracting over a million viewers on the first night, but for the three screenings since then viewing figures have dwindled. And while showing plays for free has been a welcome and public spirited act by one of our foremost theatres, there are big financial drivers – fewer viewers mean fewer donations at a crucial time.

Understandably then the announcement that Antony and Cleopatra would be preceded by a double bill of Frankensteins caused a bit of a flutter, combining one of their most recent productions staged just last year with unarguably one of their greatest. A very public boost for the NT, this rare two-premiere week aired Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature on Thursday night, followed by Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature on Friday, making both available for seven days. Other than a general preference for one actor over another, is there any benefit in seeing both versions and was role swapping any more than a gimmick?

The audience certainly didn’t think so, and Cumberbatch’s version had attracted close to 800,000 views in the first 24 hours, while Miller racked up a further 300,000 by Saturday night. Regular theatre goers will often see many versions of the same play each year, the sunnier months are packed with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while some years you can barely move for Hamlets and Macbeths at every playhouse. And excepting musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen where the young leads rotate, in drama unless an understudy is required to assume the role from an indisposed star, you are rarely afforded the chance to see the same show transformed by an alternative actor.

So, seeing both versions of Frankenstein in quick succession is a fascinating experience, the sets, blocking and text are all the same, yet the whole concept of the show is cast anew by the differing interpretations of the actors. The similarities and differences in their approaches are considerable and while it is tempting to try a ‘who played it best’ game, it is far more interesting to consider how interchanging the actors speaks purposefully to Danny Boyle’s vision for a show in which creature and creator are one and the same, and the extent to which Cumberbatch and Miller take their distinct interpretations of Doctor Frankenstein into their performance as the Creature.

The conceit of the actors sharing the primary roles is more than a fun gimmick intending to lure audiences back a second time, and, even years later on film, it is clear that the concept gets to the very heart of Boyle’s approach, the idea that all men are simultaneously man and monster, creator and destroyer. Thus, in each version we see not only how Frankenstein and the Creature are two sides of each other, but, as the posters for this show so carefully suggest, how each actor finds a similar balance within themselves as their different but valid and meaningful approaches to both roles come to life.

The Creature

Cumberbatch’s Creature begins with a childlike wonder at the world, his body may be formed but his mind is in infancy therefore much of the early part of the show involves the basic stages of human development, learning to walk, make sounds, form words and to assimilate behaviours. There is a wonderous joy to the Creature’s fascination with weather as he plays in the rain or clutches at the snow, while the bond he quickly forms with Karl Johnson’s gentle and caring De Lacey is full of pathos. And the viewer feels how decisively Cumberbatch’s Creature is severed from his own innate goodness and innocence which draws on the religious themes of the play, a symbolic Adam enjoying the Garden of Eden but cast out to become a destructive force.

Cumberbatch’s approach gives this version of the play an almost magical or supernatural quality, a warped fairy tale of man corrupted, playing-out against the heightened reality of Mark Tildesley’s stunning set design in bold reds and orange, or cool mystical whites. The rippling effects created by Bruno Poet’s lighting design emphasise the electrical spark of life, governed by an array of lightbulbs above the stage that pulse and shine with an other-worldliness suggestive of an unseen  God observing and eventually punishing Frankenstein’s folly. Cumberbatch’s Creature charts a path of tragic inevitability, the man who didn’t ask to be born labelled as physically, emotionally and mentally unsuited for society while forces beyond his control shape his destiny.

Contrast this with Miller’s earthier approach which fundamentally alters the air around the stationary elements of this production. His Creature is born a fully formed man, his gestures and movements are not those of tender discovery but of pre-determined certainty, while his mind which is under-developed at the start, is an adult brain struggling to form thoughts and expression, limited by the particular stitches and connections of the anatomy created for him. But most importantly there is a physical heft to Miller’s performance that draws out the dangerous side of the Creature much earlier, making sense of the fear he engenders in others. While he is capable of kindness and soulful contemplation, this Creature is instantly corrupted by Frankenstein’s abandonment and full of rage that good principles and intellectualism will never subdue.

Miller’s approach comments on the fallacy of human society, a veneer of behaviours and imposed moral values that attempt to control and contain the inner beast. Suddenly Tildesley’s set and Poet’s colourful lighting no longer seem full of twinkling possibility and the comforts of God, but dark and unyielding markers of a violent and desolate world. So, as the burning red of De Lacey’s farmhouse gives way to the eerie placidity of Lake Geneva, the tone is far darker, a hopeless landscape of endless fire and ice. The staging is exactly the same, the lighting cues just as they were in Cumberbatch’s version but Miller’s very distinct interpretation casts the whole story quite differently. This is why Boyle’s duel approach is so fascinating, as innocence and darkness contend across the two productions.

Frankenstein

By necessity then, both approaches also affect how the actors play Frankenstein, although there are more similarities here because the famous doctor is described by others in the play as aloof and distracted, there are nonetheless subtle differences in the degrees of cruelty that the performers introduce into their interpretations. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is in some ways a deliberately harsh figure, he berates the small mindedness of those around him, angrily dismisses the ‘little people with their little lives’, words he spits out to his creation and actively emphasises his mental superiority to those he supposedly cares for, including his fiancee Elizabeth. Cumberbatch’s arrogant and occasionally smugly superior Frankenstein has a distinctive God-complex, thrilled by his ability to control life and death.

His interaction with the Creature doesn’t make him any humbler, holding fast to the idea that his creation has no right to independence, no fatherly compassion for his suffering or vision beyond his own academic needs. In line with Miller’s more masculine interpretation, Frankenstein’s determination to destroy the Creature comes from a cold scientific belief that he has served his purpose and no longer matters, treating the world, as Elizabeth shrewdly points out, as specimens to be studied and disposed of.

Miller’s Frankenstein has a similar arrogance about his talent as a scientist but he seems more bemused than bewitched by his ability to create life. There is a sense of burden on the shoulders of Miller’s Frankenstein – which sits in the context of Cumberbatch’s Creature emphasising the external drivers of destiny – of weary inevitability that forces his absence from the world. The aloofness that frustrates his family comes from a place of fear and an inability to forge human connection that instead drives his desire to create in the hope of locating his own emotional centre.

The confrontations with the Creature, then, are less affect by the imposing bulk of the man but a powerlessness in Frankenstein as a new sense of responsibility and consequence overwhelm him. Rather than revel in his God-like potency, Miller suggests how Frankenstein is weighed down by his fate, and in trying to fight against it, must eventually give himself over to the certainty of eternal punishment by coming to accept the independence and right to existence his Creature has earned. Thus, the outward signals of these two Frankensteins are similar but the interior life the actors create gives them a different emphasis.

The Creature vs. Frankenstein

Seeing two distinct approaches to the same character proves fascinating and your preference for one version over the other will depend on which actor you like in general and the tone that best suits your interpretation of this famous story. Yet, the two productions really function as intricately calibrated complimentary pieces in which the performers explored the notion of duality. The innocence of Cumberbatch’s guileless Creature fascinated by the simplicity of his own existence contrasts with Cumberbatch’s intense and compassionless Frankenstein, all the goodness and wonder of the world stored in his creation, with all the arrogance of man’s corruption in his creator. Meanwhile Miller’s more brutish Creature who accepts the base nature of his fellow men is met by the emotional uncertainty of his own Frankenstein, a man trapped by circumstance and resigned to his fate.

Boyle’s production is the star and makes you long for the director to return to stage (and slight mourning his Bond that never was). The National Theatre’s decision to stream his two productions is a smart one and they offer a huge amount of insight seen side-by-side. This is the theatre at its very best and on screen, both productions are gripping, using the camera work to richly convey the abstract shapes and grand vision of its boldly beautiful staging, while allowing the connection between the lead actors to shine. Most interesting of all is not whether Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller is ‘better’ in a particular role but what each actor reveals and emphasises within the two roles they play, and where they think the monstrous nature of man truly resides.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature is available until 7 May while Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature is available until 8 May on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel for free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

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

1917 and The Modern War Movie

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

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

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

Theatre Influences

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

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

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

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

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

The Reality of War

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

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

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

No Cuts Drama

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

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

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

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


TV Preview: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II –BFI Southbank

The Hollow Crown Season 2

‘…let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’, so speaks Shakespeare’s Richard II on his return from Ireland to find his kingdom carried away in his absence. And this is arguably one of the major themes of the BBC’s Hollow Crown season which opened with Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V back in 2012 and returns to TV with a two part Henry VI and Richard III this month. Previewed at the BFI Southbank last week with some of the cast and crew in attendance, the new season opens with a two part digest of Shakespeare’s Henry VI which we watched back to back in a 4 hour marathon with Q&A, and seen in the context of the four earlier productions, emphasises how volatile this period of history was with innumerable deaths, lunges for power and cutting betrayals culminating in, as Richard II described, a series of ‘sad stories of the death of Kings.’

Henry VI becomes King at 9 months old when his father Henry V dies not long after his famous Agincourt victory, and the realm is governed for the next two decades by the Duke of Gloucester as protector. But the adult Henry is too weak to relinquish his Lord Protector and continues to defer decision-making, much to the chagrin of the warring houses of Lancaster and York. In the meantime, Richard Plantagenet, a senior statesman in the House of York decides to press his suit for the monarchy and what ensues across the two plays is a complex and intricate web of political and family intrigue as the young King is unable to hold back civil war – exacerbated by Henry’s loss of the French territories his father fought so hard for – which threatens to consume his entire kingdom.

I’ve never seen a stage version of these plays and the first thing Google tells you is that Henry VI is considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful works and there is considerable doubt that he wrote all of it. In the Q&A held alongside this screening, adaptor Ben Power and director Dominic Cooke discussed the ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature of the original text which they have reshaped and slimmed. The result is a gripping and engaging two part story that helps the first-time audience keep all the key figures straight without too much erroneous sub-plotting. Both parts bristle with danger as powerful men jockey for position as their King stands helplessly by.

Ton Sturridge, in his first Shakespeare role, gives Henry just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and, interestingly, a fear of trusting his own judgement. He is easily influenced by anyone who offers him counsel, and we see his opinions change with the breeze as different poisons are poured into his ear. Sturridge’s Henry is timid and trusting of anyone who appears to have more political strength than him, and on the few occasions when he seems to be flexing his monarchical muscles his determination is short-lived.  For a character with almost no monologues (in this adaptation anyway) it’s difficult to completely understand his reticence but Sturridge is affecting, not least in Part II when his wish to be an ordinary man is granted but after enduring a grim life in the Tower the chance to be King again brings a moving flicker of hope – the echoes of Richard II are startling. Visually too Henry is shown to be an onlooker always, sitting back as more knowledgeable men debate the issues at court, and also hiding among the trees watching as his own troops fight for him as he has never fought for himself.

There are great supporting performances, not least from Hugh Bonneville as perhaps the only decent man at court, the innocent Duke of Gloucester, loathed only because he has the ear of the King – proof that at this time innocence couldn’t save you from the malice of others. Ben Miles is absolutely superb as the loathsome Somerset, a Lancastrian who intrigues to marry Henry to a French princess only to take her as his own lover and between them manipulate the King to forward the Lancastrian cause – Miles of course was recently a much praised Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a worthy rival to Mark Rylance’s TV incarnation. Sophie Okonedo is equally fantastic as the scheming Queen Margaret, strong, vicious and revelling in the chance to crush her enemies, even actually fighting in the final battle scenes.

Not everything about this works perfectly and while the political scenes are tense and engaging, the numerous battles are somewhat lacklustre and hampered by budget constraints. It’s pretty clear in every single fight scene that there are only about 20 extras which fail to sufficiently convey the thousands engaged in these civil war battles and the notion of a nation in crisis. There’s also some dubious CGI suggesting ships on their way to fight with France, and even worse ‘epic’ music that’s straight out of Hollywood-battle-scenes-by-numbers, and is completely at odds with what the Henry VI plays are actually about. Strip away the sword fighting and all of Shakespeare’s history plays are intimate in scale, about extended branches of the same family rowing about who should be King and this music implies a level of heroism in the battles which didn’t exist in this tawdry and sullied world of political double crossing. As much as these events are nationally affecting, the epic sweep approach seems inappropriate and these adaptations are at their best in these domestic scenes among a tiny elite which just happens to have wider dynastic consequences.

It’s also clear, at times, that these were made before Justin Kurzel’s movie of Macbeth was released, about which I was unapologetically gushing. A game-changer for the way Shakespeare can be filmed (and also on a reasonably small budget), these Henry VI adaptations are being aired in a new context. The problematic battle scenes mentioned above, feel less successful because Macbeth showed how a small cast produced something that is both horribly brutal and still somehow visually poetic. And even away from the battlefields, very occasionally these long adaptations want for dynamism – how many more times do we want to see a group of middle aged men shouting at each other in a variety of grand medieval halls? Is there a more exciting way to present some of this material?

One of the highlights for many will be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Richard III which follows this two part Henry VI, but Richard actually appears for the first time in Henry VI Part II so we got to see a little of the background to the character to come. The physical traits of damaged arm and twisted leg are present and Cumberbatch will clearly be a desperately evil Richard with the early signs of his bloodlust and coveting of the crown very much in evidence. Initially it’s a little bit panto villain but by the time he delivers the only lengthy monologue at the end of the 4 hours it’s clear his Richard will chills us – ‘he plays a good psycho’ as Cooke and Power joked during the Q&A where most of the talk was about Richard III, much too Sturridge’s irritation who, quite rightly, wanted to focus on Henry. But it’s going to be an interesting season finale when it finally airs.

The Hollow Crown season has been a big success for the BBC and these long-anticipated new adaptations won’t disappoint. Playing these stories concurrently has offered the viewer something you rarely get in the theatre, a chance to see an entire sweep of history and the recurring themes that punctuate these plays – the relationship of fathers and their sons be they monarchs or nobility, the price of wanting and obtaining power, as well its fickle nature as you see prime movers in one play unceremoniously dispatched in the next and a new generation of players assume the political stage. This preview at the BFI certainly got me thinking again about Richard II and all those sad stories about Kings that followed. In the Hollow Crown we find that the old adage is true, power corrupts and whether it be mere soldiers or mighty monarchs nothing will stand in its way.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II will be shown on the BBC in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This event took place at the BFI Southbank – visit their website for more TV previews. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Black Mass – London Film Festival

Depp

The gangster flick is one of cinemas oldest genres with its origins in the film noirs of the 1930s and 40s which set the template for many of the films we know today. Films like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Key Largo and even Gilda have had a long legacy with their focus on the perpetrators of organised crime in America. Originally reliant on menacing character rather than overt violence, the implication of threat and perhaps a hammy punch or two were all the censors would allow, these films were incredibly moral with the good guys and bad guys getting the right ending.

And in the years since, while the films first became increasingly brutal with often graphic depictions of violence (think Scarface, Goodfellas or even Reservoir Dogs), they have graduated to presenting the gangster as a glamorous figure living in a world of power and respect, which recent films like Legend have done much to perpetuate. How refreshing then that Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass which received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this week may signal a return to depicting this world as grim, dangerous and non-aspirational, punctuated with moments of alarming violence that seem a far cry from the arty portrayals of recent years.

The story is a true one, that of the American gangster Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) whose growing dominance of Boston is depicted in three key stages in the 1970s and 80s, during which time he developed an ‘alliance’ with the FBI, nominally as an informant but actually in extracting information from the Bureau to neutralise his competitors. Bulger managed this through his relationship with John Connolly who grew up together in The Projects choosing different sides of the law. But when Connolly approached Bulger to work with the FBI to bring down the Mafia, it opened up a new world of prosperity and unchallenged dominance for both of them. Running alongside this, although not fully explored, is Bulger’s relationship with his Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a clear affection for his sibling if an ambiguous knowledge of his criminal activities. So Black Mass as well a biography is the story of the blurred boundary between crime and law enforcement where the allure of power and loyalty is far from black and white.

Coming to this with virtually no knowledge of Bulger it’s episodic style takes a little while to get into the story and piece things together, but you’re very quickly drawn into the this excellent no-frills gangster movie. It success comes through the intriguing characters that keep you engrossed as the sense of danger ebbs and flows throughout. Central to this story is actually Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend who returns to the neighbourhood as an FBI agent and hopes to use that relationship to entrap bigger criminals with information Bulger can supply on their activities. What transpires is much more interesting than a straightforward story of gangster-tuned-nark and it is Connolly who becomes attracted to and embroiled in Bulger’s affairs while simultaneously protecting him from his FBI colleagues. This is where Edgerton’s performance is particularly effective – this portrayal of a man whose head is turned by the excitement of the gangster’s world and the sense of complacent respect it gives him. You see him frequently walking into the FBI offices as though his is untouchable and fobbing his colleagues off to keep them at bay while he manipulates the ’intel’ he supposedly receives from his friend. In a key moment his increasingly fearful wife notes that he’s wearing a new suit and his stance has changed to a swagger, showing how he’s morphing into one of Bulger’s henchmen. Later in the film as the net closes in, Edgerton is also very good at portraying the desperation and fear that his web of deceit has created.

One of the great things about a film festival is how often you see work where actors have upped their game. I recently noted that Helena Bonham Carter had given her best performance in years in Suffragette and here her regular Burton-film collaborator Johnny Depp does the same as Bulger. Like Bonham Carter, it’s nice to see Depp in a straight acting role, no gimmicks, no quirks, no ticks, just a pure performance and it’s a great reminder of what he’s capable of. His Bulger is a constant seething presence in this film, almost always restrained, totally controlled so when he does lose his temper it’s terrifying. There are lots of classic gangster tropes to navigate – relationship with mum (see also Legend), relationship with son, volatile relationship with wife and beloved by the community that he protects by helping old ladies across the road with their shopping (again see Legend) – but Depp takes all of that and still makes you believe that his Bulger is a ruthless killer and convincing leader of a crime empire.

There’s good additional support for a host of famous faces including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss whose suspicions of Bulger increase as time goes on, as well as actors you’ll recognise from House of Cards and The Newsroom. In a small but interesting role Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger a local Senator who has an affectionate relationship with his brother and is one that retains a significant degree of ambiguity. With both men still alive it’s clearly difficult to imply that a former Senator would have knowledge or even engagement with criminal activities, but while Cumberbatch gives a good performance as the authority figure / family man, it does seem a shame that such a fascinating avenue remains unexplored – particularly as two brothers chose such completely different paths. It would also have added a stronger leg to the gangster-FBI-politician triangle which implies a level of corruption allowing all three to prosper.

Those tiny caveats aside this is an excellent film and one that successfully manages to convey just how grim that time was – Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the design decisions almost make this look as though it was filmed in the 70s and 80s. Best of all, it never looks glamorous which seems to be a departure from the usual style of modern gangster movies making this actually much grittier and believable because of it. It’s certainly a far cry from Legend (which admittedly had a slightly different agenda), and in fact has more in common with the look and feel of A Most Wanted Man Anton Corbijn’s similarly grainy adaption of John le Carre’s novel staring Rachel McAdam and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Black Mass is a great addition to the gangster film collection, packed with fantastic performances and a thoroughly engrossing story. Even the concluding notes will leave you with plenty of questions about the nature of corruption and justice. And who knows, this may signal a turning point in the presentation of gangster violence on screen ushering in a bleaker style that more accurately reflects the threat of that world.

Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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