Tag Archives: Damien Lewis

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

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American Buffalo – Wyndhams Theatre

It’s not exactly James McAvoy unicycling in his underwear, but watching Damien Lewis sporting a 70s handlebar moustache and wearing a giant paper hat that he’s just made out of newspaper, ranks pretty highly on the list of things I was not expecting to see this year.  American Buffalo has just opened at the Wyndhams and is a sure sign that 2015 is disappearing fast as this marks the fourth of the ‘big five’ performances I earmarked in my Christmas review post. That means we’ve already had 3 months of a serenely comic McAvoy in The Ruling Class; a second stint for much deserved Olivier award winner Mark Strong in the epic A View from the Bridge; Ralph Fiennes is already two months into his brilliant philosophising bachelor in Man and Superman and that brings us up to date with Damien Lewis. The only one left is Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which although booked long before any of the above, is still several months away. Thank God Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick season is in the bag or the autumn would be looking very grim.

Anyway back to Lewis, who is joined in David Mamet’s American Buffalo by John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in this comedy-drama about three very different men planning a heist. Don (Goodman) owns a junk shop and he’s just undersold a rare coin – the American Buffalo – to a collector, except it wasn’t until afterwards that he realised his mistake. Feeling cheated, he enlisted the help of his young friend Bob (Sturridge) to find the customer’s address and steal his coin collection. As the play opens Bob has found the man and the job is on for tonight. At this point Walter or ‘Teach’ (Lewis), Don’s poker buddy and apparent local gangster, arrives and convinces Don to letting him do the job instead as Bob isn’t the brightest lad. As the three men wait for night to fall they discuss the ways of the world while their greed starts to get the better of them.

Mamet’s play is about the engagement of three very different forms of masculinity, and its central characters could not be more different. Each separated by age, but drawn together under the umbrella of ‘business’, they depict a very particular kind of male friendship – one that isn’t necessarily based on personal interactions or shared experiences, but on a level of trustworthiness. They all live and work in the same area and like colleagues have developed a reliance on one another that on the surface seems quite superficial. They play cards together, eat breakfast in the shop and complain about their friends, but never openly discuss their families, feelings or aspirations. Yet without necessarily realising it they need each other, drawn together by the limitations of their lives, metaphorically trapped in Don’s junk shop with no way out.

John Goodman makes his very welcome West End debut as Don, the pseudo father figure who runs the shop and plans the job. He’s friendly and extremely tolerant of Bob’s inability to grapple with more complex thoughts, caring for him. Initially he doesn’t seem that strong or much of a criminal mastermind, but Goodman brings a quiet authority that somehow makes the others do what he says, even though Teach in particular could overpower him.  Don is the centre of the play, it’s his shop and his heist, card games take place in his place and the others come to him. But Goodman also brings out the anxiety of a man seemingly unused to criminal endeavour to great comic and dramatic effect.

Tom Sturridge has quite a small role as Bob but one he makes the most out of. There is farm-boy quality to Bob, lost in the big city and not quite an adult. Even in the course of this one day, he frequently comes to Don for money and Sturridge cleverly implies that the others have underestimated his ability to grasp what’s going on and act on it. His performance ranges from wide-eyed innocence to a slightly hard-edged need to be recognised / rewarded for what he’s done, and he makes for an interesting contrast to the two more worldly characters.

Teach completes the trio and this is Damien Lewis as you probably haven’t seen him before – the sharp aubergine suit, flares, moustache, and sideburns indicate a man who has a lot of outward confidence, as well as a love of style. A softly spoken American gangster accent pits him somewhere between John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Christian Bale in American Hustle and a Tarantino character. His arrival onstage alone heralded a peel of laughter from the audience, but Lewis instils Teach with a dangerous quality – he may be calm and compliant among his friends, but you get the feeling that one wrong word and he would brutally lash out. And later in the play you begin to see more of his frustration about being respected come to the fore. Still, it’s interesting that Teach obeys Don and tells you something about the hierarchy operating here which comes across nicely in Lewis’s layered performance, as well as that slightly deluded sense that this man thinks he’s more important or tougher than he really is.

The set and costume designer Paul Willis has had great fun, and once you get used to Lewis’s suit you can marvel at his brilliant version of Don’s junk shop. This feels like a deeply masculine environment, echoing the themes of the play really well. It’s full of bits and pieces all over the floor and stacked around the room, with a feeling of grease and age, so imagine a garage full of old stuff but turned into a shop. Above is a dense canopy of old chairs and bikes suspended from the ceiling to emphasise how confined these men are in their little world – the can never go up because above them there’s even more junk.

American Buffalo is sure to be another hit and will have crowds flocking to see its three lead actors. We may hear about other characters, some of which are even women, but Don, Teach and Bob are drawn together by need disguised as ‘business’. Despite their differences in age, character and attitude, there is also a timeless feel to this production and you know if you came back to them in 10 or 20 years, they’d all still be here, dreaming big but always losing. They may never exactly say what’s on their minds, but they have each other so by the close of Act II you know that whatever words pass between them, however vilely they act to one another, they will always be friends.

American Buffalo is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 27 June. Tickets start at £22.25 for a seat and standing tickets are available from £17.25. For a cheap ticket if you’re going alone or don’t want to sit with your friends, I recommend Seat A1 or A26 in the Balcony – a sideways seat separated from the main block which has a perfect view and a small but private space with no one nearby. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Silent Storm – London Film Festival

There are a rare few actors who I trust not only to deliver high-quality performances every time but whose careful judgement consistently selects projects that I will like. So with almost no thought at all, I can go to the cinema and be assured that whatever is screened I will enjoy. But there are lots more great actors who do a good job in a so-so or poor film.  There are a lot of reasons for that, sometimes good concepts just don’t translate to film, or projects are selected based on family commitments, availability or need to pay the mortgage. So whilst I think very highly of them as performers, I can’t always trust their taste.

Damien Lewis falls into this latter category, an actor whose ability can often be above the quality of the material he’s given and The Silent Storm is his latest offering written and directed by Corinne McFarlane. It’s the story of an extreme preacher, Balor, supporting a mining community on a remote Scottish Island before World War II, and his relationship with wife Aislin, locked into domestic slavery by her husband’s views. As the mine closes and the inhabitants migrate to the mainland, Fionn arrives at the preacher’s house to carry-out a form of community service, and needless to say a chaste affair with the entrapped Aislin ensues.

At best this is a really mixed bag, and at worst a total mess. Starting with the positives, the acting performances of the three leads are excellent even if the characterisation is ropey at times; Lewis is very impressive as the tightly wound Balor, utterly convincing as a zealot imposing his views on his community. He acts in a kind of frenzy which is compelling to watch, especially when pulling down his kirk by hand to rebuild it on the mainland – a sort of reverse idea to William Golding’s The Spire, but equally foolhardy. I loved how bleak the film felt in his presence and how much warmer it was when absent. Andrea Riseborough is also notable as the initially meek and cowering Aislin and new-comer Ross Anderson as Fionn is very engaging.

The scenes between Lewis and Riseborough are often tense and compelling so it’s a huge shame that somehow the plot just doesn’t deliver. It’s a rather hackneyed love triangle, with Lewis’s character conveniently disappearing mid-film to allow the others to spend time alone. In a manner that would make Beyonce’s head spin in less than five days Aislin goes from obedient wife to independent woman. Not forgetting that this is all set in the 1930s where of course women were free to run away from their husbands, get divorced and experience a near hippy lifestyle with their young lovers – good grasp of period detail there!

The cinematography is beautiful but it’s so often used to detract from a load of nonsense elsewhere – a prime example being Adore from last year’s festival which was utter garbage. There are some good ideas about God in Church and God in Nature, which although rather obviously drawn out, are quite interesting themes and potential insights into the husband and wife. There is so much in that relationship that could be explored and this is the huge missed opportunity of the film. Aislin is obedient but in Riseborough’s excellent performance, she is afraid of him yet still drawn to him.

I’m also going to say something quite shocking now so you may want to get a strong cup of tea and come back later – what if we brush the cliché aside, and Aislin and Fionn become friends, just friends. I know a man and a woman just being friends is an outrageous suggestion but that would have been more likely in this context. The director’s stated purpose is to make a point about the subjugation of women but having Aislin embark on an affair means she is entirely defined by her relationships with men, rather than having an ending either where she seeks complete independence or develops a more balanced relationship with her husband.

The plot and the characterisation aren’t well executed here as a result of a number of poor decisions. An interesting, bleak tone is later betrayed by a ridiculous happy fairy-tale-like ending that just doesn’t suit it, and the inclusion of a scene where Aislin and Fionn drug themselves and wander about the meadows is utterly ridiculous and misjudged. It probably all looked a lot better on paper, and I suspect that explains the support of Bond supremo producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. I don’t agree with another viewer leaving the cinema who described it as ‘shockingly awful’, it’s not – the acting is superb and there are great elements, just not enough to make this worthwhile. It feels as though this film started with an agenda and wrapped the story around it, and that guides it away from better exploring the human relationships and extremities of character that should have been its focus. So next time one of your favourite actors has something coming up, best ask yourself, how much do you trust them?

The Silent Storm may well get a wider cinema release if only to pay the cinematographer. To explore the Film Festival programme, visit the website  and tickets are still available until Sunday when the Festival ends, but look out for further film reviews from the programme on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.


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