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Switzerland – The Ambassadors Theatre

Switzerland - Theatre Royal Bath

On St Martin’s Lane shows related to two of the twentieth-century’s greatest crime writers are currently playing side by side. Both women who navigated a male-dominated literary world and experienced the political, economic and social fluctuations of the post-war era that changed their writing. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is in its 65th year making it the longest-running play in the West End by some way, endlessly attracting audiences entranced by her ability to create engaging and innovative scenarios with character-driven mysteries. Next door at the Ambassadors, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland arrives in the West End for the first time, putting Patricia Highsmith in the spotlight with an intriguing duologue about the nature of the authorial voice.

Christie and Highsmith like Conan Doyle before them are authors arguably eclipsed by their greatest creations, works of fiction so tangible they have taken-on a life and momentum of their own. Hercule Poirot has been frequently reinvented on screen and while David Suchet’s interpretation seemed definitive it hasn’t stopped a new Kenneth Branagh film franchise, or an impending BBC adaption of The ABC Murders scheduled for Christmas with John Malkovich as the illustrious detective. Likewise, there is a Sherlock Holmes for all seasons and whether you want a classically imperious Basil Rathbone, an intimidating Jeremy Brett or the social awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch these are characters like James Bond and even Harry Potter that have escaped the confines of their author’s imagination and entered the collective consciousness, public property obscuring their creator’s purpose and sometimes even their wishes.

These characters can be a burden as much as they are a boon to their author who after years of being tied to the same kind of writing try unsuccessfully to break free. Poirot and Holmes were both killed-off before Conan Doyle was forced to relent and brought the latter back, while Poirot has a second life in Sophie Hannah’s new novels endorsed by the Christie estate. Switzerland is the story of Patricia Highsmith’s struggle with her own famous creation, the chancer and sociopath Tom Ripley who consumed and dominated a career of voracious and variable productivity. As a representative from her American publishing house is dispatched to convince the irascible Highsmith to pen one final Ripley novel, the writer is torn between the unwelcome expectation to deliver and fascination with revisiting a character that has always inspired her creativity.

In Lucy Bailey’s wonderfully full production, transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, the emphasis is firmly on the process of invention and the great cost to the writer in trying to inhabit the world of the novel. Highsmith’s reluctance seems to stem from both a concern that she has lost the ability to write Ripley as powerfully as she once did, as well as fearing the effect of re-entering the mind of a character that thrills her. Switzerland is a taut piece of drama that uses Highsmith’s circumstances by the mid 1990s, living in self-imposed exile from the United States in a famously neutral country with limited human contact and a need for drink and cigarettes, to consider the entire dedication of self needed to become a truly great writer.

Genius is often partnered with arrogance, unpleasantness and a desire to flout social norms, and here Highsmith displays a disregard for any form of social structure or rules that directly reflect the character she creates, a charming young man who does the same but with murderous and self-aggrandising outcomes. Who is the most dangerous person in this scenario, the fictional creation or the mind that created it? This is a dominated theme in Murray-Smith’s piece, and something that Bailey seizes upon to play with tone and the boundary between author and character.

Driven by the arrival of Edward Ridgeway, Bailey utilises Switzerland’s three “chapters” to first show us the famous Highsmith in command of a life she is only prepared to live on her own terms and refusing to be flattered by the adoring young man who arrives at her door. In the middle section, we feel the power shift as Highsmith and Edward find a common ground, her respect growing as his fear of her diminishes, allowing him to show his erudition and engage in a lively debate about the literary lifestyle. The final act should not be spoiled, but Bailey’s experience of staging crime drama including the impressive Witness for the Prosecution is brought to bear in a subtly developing tension that has the quality of a Highsmith novel spilled over into her real life, making a crucial point about the indivisibility of the author from their fiction.

Running for 95-minutes without an interval, visually very little changes in William Dudley’s set so, like the perfect crime, all the elements must be there from the start. Highsmith has been given a fully furnished flat full of books and a space for writing, but it is the secondary details that become the focus. Every wall has a collection of weapons on display which, reflecting the text in which the central pair debate the most powerful guns to commit a murder, suggests more than a hobby, rather a collective obsession for the writer who thinks society gets too het-up about killing. The exterior world of snowy mountain ranges is also visible through the flat, and, while this initially feels like a calm retreat, it soon morphs into isolation and exposure, helping to wordlessly shift the atmosphere to something more sinister as the relationship between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes gear.

A work not driven by plot but almost entirely by character can be hard to sustain, even more so with only two actors who spend a lot of time chewing-over ideas, making this a very talky play focused on debate and engagement of theory more than storyline, so it is credit to Bailey and her performers that they hold the attention throughout, utilising every word to inform our understanding of character, tone and context.

As Highsmith, Phyllis Logan is a dominant presence, lone and comfortable in the room she has so carefully constructed to hide from the world. Throughout, the audience is never quite sure how seriously to take her assertions of independence, her hatred of the New York publishing scene and the racial prejudice she occasionally exhibits. Ridgeway accuses her of posing, of espousing views that she doesn’t believe for effect, so Logan uses the performance to quite skilfully make us wonder whether this is a writer who assumes her characters’ traits in lieu of her own, and if “Patricia Highsmith” is just one of many personas she adopts.

Murray-Smith also has much to say about the lifestyle of the writer, the single-mindedness and knowledge of their own rhythms that sets them apart. Logan uses this to suggest a touch of the Hemingways, an author almost on the run from reality, ever aware that her lifestyle and predilections cannot find peace in ordinary society. There is a huge vulnerability that underlies Logan’s characterisation, helping the audience to see through the hard drinking and aggressive manner to something more fragile, a fear of being inconsequential that makes so much sense of Highsmith’s behaviour. Logan’s trick is to keep us guessing on how that will eventually manifest itself – breakdown or murder?

The combative relationship the novelist develops with Edward Ridgeway is central to Switzerland, challenging the pair to an interminable battle in which the stakes only ever seem to get higher. Calum Findlay’s growing confidence is well charted, balancing a nervous excitement at meeting an idol with strong desire to prove his intellectual worth on all her favourite subjects from weaponry to books and the New York landscape. Findlay’s performance takes Ridgeway in the opposite direction to Logan’s Highsmith and while time reveals her essential fragility, it shows his inner steel, hiding beneath a veneer of polite awe.

Any fans of crime fiction will know never to trust a stranger who turns up unexpectedly, but Findlay’s approach is to be entirely disarming, a chastened young man in cosy jumpers, a literary nerd eager to please his celebrated host. Yet Ridgeway’s wardrobe evolves as his true character comes to light, and Findlay grasps the darker moments in which the pair consider a new Ripley plot to suggest deeper waters beneath the surface. Almost from the start Ridgeway is a collection of conundrums and contradictions, a sweet boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Highsmith’s back catalogue, a harmless fan who helps to concoct a dastardly murder plot for the new Ripley that trips too easily off the tongue, as though considered long ago.

Bailey has firm control of the ebb and flow of power as the production unfolds, retaining a degree of mystery and danger, a tipping point that could just as easily be dismissed as paranoia or could develop into something much darker. Switzerland is a fine tribute to a writer of psychological fiction whose own life was full of drama and incident. Side-by-side with Agatha Christie on St Martin’s Lane feels appropriate for two authors who entirely reshaped the crime novel and deserve to be remembered with as much enthusiasm as the characters who eclipsed them.

Switzerland is at The Ambassadors Theatre until 5 January and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.    

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Hadestown – National Theatre

Hadestown - National Theatre

The UK and America have a fairly health theatre exchange programme which every year allows audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to enjoy the very best shows that each has to offer, as well as facilitating the transfer of creative talent. From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK premiere at the Young Vic. Now the National Theatre has a vibrant production of the musical Hadestown which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.

A little over a year ago it was a musical that rescued the Olivier Theatre from a difficult run of substandard new plays. Common and Salome had reviewed poorly, the much-debated tricky staging proving an insurmountable challenge to these productions. And then Dominic Cooke came in with Follies and made it look so easy, a glorious piece of work that is rightly returning for an additional run in February. Suddenly the Olivier was alive again and whether sat in front row of the stalls or the back of the circle, every heart-aching moment filled this enormous room. Success breeds success and 2018 has subsequently seen the Olivier host a wonderful version of Translations, an engaging discussion of death in Exit the King and a stylishly impressive Antony and Cleopatra which will play in repertory with latest arrival Hadestown.

A much anticipated production that earned rave reviews in New York, Hadestown is a concept album turned stage musical by Anais Mitchell about the Orpheus and Eurydice’s legend that comes to the National prior to a Broadway run. The story unites the travelling Eurydice, brought by the Fates to a particular bar on the day that the Goddess Persephone returns to the world bringing Spring and Summer in her wake. Eurydice, a realist who sees things as they really are, is charmed by the song of Orpheus, a young musician who dreams of better worlds. As their love deepens, Persephone must return to an unhappy marriage with husband Hades in the Underworld, a God of ominous power. With Orpheus distracted by his music, Eurydice is alone and hungry with nothing to sell but her soul.

Hadestown smartly relocates this Greek myth to a pseudo 1920s / modern day New Orleans-like bar, which offers plenty of visual and musical influences that make this such an intriguing and unusual experience. Structurally, the show is narrated by the rather kindly but portentous Hermes (an excellent Andre De Shields), the messenger of the Gods, who becomes the master of ceremonies and wry observer, ushering-in as well as commenting on unfolding events. Along with the three Fates who stalk the action – musically a 1960s-esque girl-group (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) – Hermes is a reminder to the other characters that their own agency is limited by a bigger plan for them all, which creates a driving sense of inevitability that forces the show to its conclusion.

Along with the inescapability of fate, Hermes also represents our desire to see a different outcome from the same set of circumstances. There is a strong idea of the cyclical nature of the world in various guises, so in one respect we constantly revisit and retell stories like the Orpheus and Eurydice legend applying their meaning to our own times, but there is also a meta-reference in Hadestown to the show itself playing its story again and again every night, as one version ends, another is soon to begin. All of this contributes to a restrictive containment from which the characters can never break free.

These cycles also appear in other areas of the show. Rachel Chavkin’s production is notably about the effect of the seasons, predominantly the recurrent climatic change that eternally rotates fecundity and bloom with deciduousness and decay. The characters come to life with Persephone’s arrival freed from an extended winter that references turbulent storms and prolonged cold, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Hades. Her presence in the world brings warm light in Bradley Kings design, a sense of freedom and happiness that they forget is time-limited, ever hopeful that the cost will be deferred, but Persephone must always leave, even against her own inclination.

The seasonal theme is also used as a metaphor for human ageing and attraction, as the bloom of womanhood in particular fades to be replaced by the lure of a younger option. The is one of Hadestown’s most interesting themes as the God of the Underworld puts strain on his rotten marriage by pursuing the innocent and troubled Eurydice. Persephone’s former glory, the previous allure with which she entranced Hades in a garden is repeatedly referenced, asking questions about the expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, about the unreasonable power of memory and the value of maturity. There is clear resonance with the #MeToo experience as well, particularly in the ways in which powerful men casually coerce and corrupt impressionable women.

The action takes place in two overlapping locations, a bar in America and a foundry in hell for which Rachel Hauck has designed one multipurpose and characterful set that easily travels between the real and devilish worlds with a change of lighting and some ingenious use of the Olivier revolve. Multiple locations are often created across separate sets, turning the full stage to each them, but designers and directors are becoming increasingly creative in the way they envisage its use, most recently with an entire ship’s hull swinging into view in Antony and Cleopatra like a giant shark fin. Pleasingly, Hauck has conjured something entirely different for Hadestown, keeping the main stage entirely stationary while two smaller middle circles rotate at differing speeds in opposing directions.

Here, Chavkin places the ensemble as workman on the outer revolve to show the ongoing and repetitive nature of their daily grind with choreographed segments in Hades’s foundry. Then, in selective bigger moments, a smaller section of the drum rises up to create a platform which has a rock concert glamour that varies the height and tone of the performance, drawing attention to particular songs or moments that require some added visual spectacle.

The music for these ensemble numbers is high energy country and blues with hints of calypso and echoes of Cuban Salsa that make the full cast numbers impactful with strong, memorable songs. This includes the excellent title number Way Down Hadestown, a growly piece that has a down and dirty feel, while the impressive When the Chips are Down reveals the enduring slog of the ironworks and the hopelessness of existence for anyone who sold their soul. Equally enjoyable are the songs specifically for Hades, a Johnny Cash-like country king with an astonishing bass and domineering character that is reflected in the slow, almost spoken rhythm of his numbers.

If Hadestown has a fault, it is the weakness of the lead character and the generic boy-band pop he has been given to sing. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a rather lacklustre hero aimed at teenage girls raised on One Direction, but far from the manly hero needed to stand up to the God of the Underworld. There is a David versus Goliath element, but it is impossible to believe that this Orpheus was tough enough to travel from the surface, through the dark and dangerous routes to hell entirely unscathed, while his cool songwriter vibe seems mostly affected.

Likewise, his song is supposed to charm the entire world, and while part of the plot focuses on his development of the music – which he finishes just in time to take on Hades – when he finally comes to sing it in full, your first reaction is likely to be ‘is that it’. Epic II is an underwhelming tune that isn’t even the best song in the show never mind the most important track of all time, one that brings about peace, love and happiness, stopping a terrible monster in his tracks.

Eva Noblezada fares a little better as Eurydice, a much stronger sense of her own independence and a self-sufficiency that gives the character depth. More than a damsel in distress, Noblezada shows us a woman driven to an impossible deal by hunger and poverty, but not quite savvy enough to realise the consequences in that moment, but admittedly there is little chemistry with Carney’s Orpheus, giving their relationship a naivety that makes it hard to root for them as a couple.

The real interest is in the surrounding characters, particularly Amber Gray’s multi-layered Persephone and Patrick Page’s show-stealing Hades. Persephone becomes a highly sympathetic character, and Gray encourages us to appreciate her vibrancy, vivacity and mature reflection, a celebration of the autumn years of the woman who brings Summer with her. She is also a conduit for a comment on climate change, attributed here to her absence from the earth, while Gray uses her proximity to Hades and the breakdown of their marriage to bring a bitterness to their scenes, especially when his eye wanders to the younger Eurydice.

Page is a superb God of the Underworld who uses his strong and easy stage presence to emphasise the commanding and unforgiving nature of his character. With his pale snakeskin boots, there is something coldly reptilian about Hades as he stalks the stage demanding deference from anyone in his path, but Page retains a shred of humanity that makes his attachment to Persephone credible and allows the audience to think he could be reasoned with.

Hadestown is an overall for success for the National that uses the tricks of the Olivier’s stage to great effect and creating the right balance of spectacle and story to sustain its 2.5 hour run time. Its visual and musical innovation makes up for an underwhelming central character, which after a slow start brings the show to life and demonstrates what a great space this theatre can be with the right approach. With productions of this quality coming from America, our theatre exchange programme is looking pretty healthy, and with stars like Sally Field and Bill Pullman heading our way in 2019, there is plenty more to come.

Hadestown is at the National Theatre until 26 January and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Film Review: Widows

Widows - Steve McQueen

It is hard to believe that director Steve McQueen has only made four full-length films, a process that has taken 10 years. The former Turner-prize winning artist is now so renowned as a filmmaker that his latest release, Widows, opened this year’s London Film Festival and arrives in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow. Hunger in 2008 announced McQueen’s arrival as an exciting new director with an almost forensic appreciation of character psychology and an eye for cinematography that directly reflects that insight. A decade on and McQueen has flourished, evolving from his early indie roots to tell stories on a much broader canvas, earning him critical acclaim and a sack-full of awards. His skill has always been to retain the personal world view of his characters and although Widows has blockbuster scale and a gorgeous ensemble cast, it is always the intimate story of three desperate but resourceful women.

In one way or another McQueen’s films are always about desperation, people trapped in their lives either for political, social or character reasons and unable to make the changes they so clearly need. There is always a considerable jeopardy for the individual, a life or death battle as principle, justice and duty are challenged by often quite brutal external forces. Sometimes, that jeopardy is more contained, one person trying to overcome compulsions that come to define their entire life, trying to break unchecked patterns of behaviour that could precipitate a complete breakdown or collapse of the individual’s balance.

Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are examples of the first kind of desperation where the protagonists have a particular cause to follow and, whatever the rights and wrongs of their situation, contextually McQueen showcases the unrelenting waves of prejudice, inhumanity and injustice that prevent their escape, while focusing tightly on the enduring belief that sustains their resolve to the end. For Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison, a belief that a sacrificial act, a hunger strike, was the only form of protest open to him, while for Solomon Northup that his freedom from wrongful enslavement was his right by law. By taking us into the minds of these characters, it gives purpose and agency to McQueen’s political context.

He takes this in a very different direction in Shame examining the addictive nature of sexual compulsion, and while not overtly political in the same way, his character lives in a cold, emotionless New York, full of consumerism, immediacy of gratification but removal of intimacy, creating a context in which lifestyle and appearance are more important than the unravelling human life beneath. Widows feels like the culmination of this work combining as it does a well-realised and restrictive political and economic context with the emotional and psychological consequences of grief, fear and the daily burden of the female leads.

Based on the 1980s mini-series of the same name by revered crime-writer Lynda La Plante and co-adapted with Gillian Flynn famous for her own galling novel Gone Girl for which she penned the screenplay, McQueen has spoken enthusiastically about the effect of this show on his view of female-led narratives. The transposition to modern-day Chicago is perfect and after a high-stakes opener full of violence, danger and energy, McQueen carefully unveils a small but corrupt suburb of Chicago and how it continues to shape the options available to the women who live there.

What makes Widows so interesting is how these two elements run together throughout the film, interconnected and increasingly intrinsic to the ways in which the story unfolds. As we get to know the characters better we understand more about the world in which they live, which in turn reveals more to us about the characters. It is a wonderful balancing act that combines Gillian Flynn’s screenplay and McQueen’s visual approach with not a scene wasted, every moment feels carefully designed to tell us about someone or to reveal key information that drives the plot.

Of course, this is a heist movie so the planning, execution and aftermath of the crime are the basis for the story, along with all the elements the genre demands – big set pieces moments, plans going wrong mid-job and shadowy meetings in remote locations. All of this McQueen handles with aplomb, utilising the frenetic energy of the two heists to bookend the plot, the kind of coordinated chaos and sense of power that he elicited from the riot scenes in Hunger. But where this departs from – and arguably improves on – the genre is in the creation of time and place that situates the second heist in the grimy underbelly of Chicago organised crime and its all too real link to political office.

This approach is also notable for how it alters the purpose of the heist film, changing the casual lark for personal gain into something far more dangerous and driven by external forces. A million miles from the recent Oceans 8, Widows is not a flamboyant jaunt undertaken by a bunch of super-cool criminals, but a forced endeavour by people with no idea what they are doing, held to ransom by the failures of their now dead husbands to protect them, suddenly thrust into a criminal world they never knew existed with serious life or death consequences if they fail to act

Because the women don’t know each other, it gives Flynn and McQueen the chance to explore their quite different lives in more details. First, Veronica (Viola Davies) as the wife of male heist leader played by Liam Neeson, in which we see the couple’s relatively comfortable lifestyle in a beautiful, stylish apartment with stunning views across the city. But as with Brandon’s flat in Shame, these uncluttered interiors belie an emotional emptiness that makes it a cold and unforgiving place. Cleverly, not all of that is about Neeson’s early death and although we see plenty of intensely romantic flashbacks of the couple as Veronica remembers what appears to be an intense intimacy and connection she shared with her husband, a pre-existing grief was always between them, making their surroundings elegant but remote.

And that is exactly how Davies plays the role, her Veronica is beautifully, and expensively, tailored at all times in rich fabrics designed to set her apart from the women she eventually leads. But her desperation and dissatisfaction with her life strongly emerges as Davies shows us Veronica’s painful realisation of the truth, first about the need to repay the debt owed to the crime boss left by her husband’s failure to complete the original heist, and second as the truth of her former life comes into focus through her grief.

It’s a fascinating performance from Davies, brusque and remote with the other women, the skills of a leader but with a fragile side that she hides from the world. As the story unfolds and reality dawns, Veronica discovers an independent strength that Davies makes quite sympathetic, and you start to root for these women battered by the choices and consequences of the very male world in which they must operate.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is from another side of Chicago entirely, a working mother with a different kind of hardness that keeps people at a distance from her. After the death of the husband she never really needed, Linda comes in one day to find her dress shop being repossessed and no way to feed her family. Struggling to keep afloat, she accepts Veronica’s proposition as a last resort but remains aloof from the other women, sharing nothing about herself with them, only focusing on the work.

While Linda is a difficult character to warm to, and we never really see her grieve for her marriage, Rodriguez at least makes you respect her and understand the limitations for working-class single parents having to make the best of it.  She is also the avenue into another of the film’s themes about the small business-owning aspirations of women in the community, including her friend who runs a salon, and a confined ambition that improves their ability to sustain their family. Linda’s environment may be less flashy than Veronica’s, but it is also warmer, integrated into the wider society of this part of Chicago, a matriarchy of working women none of whom the politicians ever really help.

Finally, Elizabeth Debicki is the most innocent of the group, a beautiful but penniless young woman whose release from her marriage creates further problems that catapult her into the paths of other men. Forced into a high-class semi-prostitution within weeks of his death, Alice quickly becomes involved with a businessman who eventually proves useful but initially just takes advantage of her fear and nervousness.

But Alice’s development mirrors Veronica’s as she comes to terms with what her life must be, growing a form of independence as her confidence improves. There is much to like in Debicki’s performance, you feel for her as she falls back on the only thing she thinks she has, her beauty, while enjoying some of the film’s more comedic scenes as she successfully tracks down equipment for the heist. Balancing that humour with the deep tragedy of her circumstances is really well done and watching her emerge from within herself has considerable pathos.

Widows is still a man’s world, and there are some colourful supporting roles for a great male ensemble, including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s less than perfect husband. There is real depth in the way McQueen and Flynn create the circumstances of Chicago, including the crime boss Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning running for office to challenge the hegemony of the established political family who believe their seat should be hereditary. Nothing is black and white here, and while challenging the elite should be a good thing, Jamal hires Daniel Kaluuya’s sociopathic henchman to put the frighteners on the women and their associates, muddying his own campaign.

Equally fascinating is the relationship between former political leader Tom Mulligan, an imposing Robert Duvall, and his reluctant son Jack the sitting candidate aiming for re-election. They could easily have become the pantomime baddies, but instead we get a difficult and credible father-son relationship in a family that has played every move in public. Colin Farrell’s Jack may be a generic politician but, like the women, he has never really had the life he would have chosen, desperate to leave politics but sublimating his own needs to the Mulligan cause.

All of this context is so valuable in understanding why characters are hemmed in by other people’s choices, unable to act freely, and McQueen is so good at creating characters that you may not approve of but showing you their psychology. Widows is so successful because it manages to tell an entertaining story that rattles along extremely well using the characteristics of the heist film, while revealing the political, economic and social structures that have led to inequality, racism and deprivation in this part of Chicago. He may only have made four full-length films but what an astonishing body of a work they are.

Widows was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas nationwide on 6 November Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


TV Preview: The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl - BBC

We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.

A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.

Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.

With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?

Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.

An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.

Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?

There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.

Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.

Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.

The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.

And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.

Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.

Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!

The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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