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In which I try to speak about The National Theatre’s astounding Amadeus and instead reveal only why I love theatre: it lets me feel things without the need for all these stupid words.

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No matter if you’re the most arrogant human or the most self-effacing, full of talent or lacking it entirely, within all of us lies some conflict in which we are simultaneously the centre of our own little Universes, yet understand our total insignificance to the real Universe.  Amadeus, a play about genius and envy taps into our human desires.  We are mortal, so crave immortality.  Most of us not in a literal sense, but most of us hope our life has some meaning or impact.  When in truth, most of our lives don’t.  There are countless ways people may hope they have impact or leave some legacy and Antonio Salieri hopes he can leave behind music of such divinity that it and so he will be immortal.

Salieri initially strives only to celebrate and worship his God by creating exquisite music.  Maybe not the most noble wish, but admirable enough, understandable and relatable.  He asks his God to be able to be a composer and to be granted sufficient fame to enjoy it in return for being a good man.  Both of these things Salieri is granted.  His long years of toil and efforts at being a good man result in a successful, respected career, but they do nothing to make his adequate yet popular art transcend to the sublime – a fact he’s not really aware of until along comes young Mozart, spilling out music of the Heavens in the middle of toilet jokes with the ease of breathing, making it abundantly apparent, even if just to himself how mediocre Salieri is.  Salieri initially tries to deny Mozart’s genius as a preposterous, impossible notion.  Talent is a gift from God surely?  Who would God bestow gifts upon?  Surely the most reverent, noble, good and deserving people.  This creature who Salieri part-snobbishly, part with cause deems disgusting and distasteful surely could never have been so favoured?  But once Salieri acknowledges that Mozart’s talent is not some fluke, that he is extraordinary, he becomes first bitter, then cruel.  His quest for sublimity twists so he wants to destroy the thing he simultaneously loves: Mozart’s music and eventually, Mozart himself.  Until instead of desiring to be a sublime creator, Salieri craves only fame, then, even infamy will do.  In the end Salieri’s bitterness turns on himself, eating and destroying him as it drives him to become banal, petty, turns him callous and cruel and by the very end, leaves him finally pitiable.

Amadeus reaches up to the best and the worst of what we humans are: from the pure sublimity of Mozart’s music, to the basest pettiness and cruelty that can lie within our hearts.  It is a play in love with music and it is a play for anyone who loves art (surely everyone sitting in a theatre?!) and who is not-Mozart.  So, for all of us.  We all (I think?!) have a yearning within us to reach “the unreachable” and very occasionally art actually reaches it.  Mozart most definitely did and for me, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus does too, especially in Michael Longhust’s stunning, music-filled production.

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And music truly is a huge character in this play.  The musicians are almost always there, whether being Mozart’s actual orchestra, or more like ghosts of Mozart’s music.  They are serious, then playful, woven in completely amongst everything else going on on stage.  The music is everything from pure Mozart, to sound effects, to opera-cats, to sultry jazz and augmentations of Mozart via amped up drum accompaniments.  It’s reverent, modern, entertaining and moving.  As in the production still above, the music physically bears down upon Salieri, the stage sometimes moving as a literal representation of the psychological and emotional weight of Mozart’s music upon him.  The story of Amadeus is entertaining, witty and by the end heartbreakingly sad, but often moments in the play where it really pierces your heart, the music is at the fore.  Before saying anything else about this production, I wanted to get across how amazing it has been to just feel the power of these musicians and the way the music has been used in this production of Amadeus.  Thank you so much to all of the musicians, Simon Slater, Paul Arditti and all others involved.

“Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.” may be an apt quote from the play to reflect upon.  But while it surely is true that talent is unrelated to “goodness”, neither Amadeus nor this production of it are so simple in what they truly express.  Is Mozart a bad person and Salieri good?  Most definitely not!  In fact it is Salieri who is driven to be despicable in utterly inexcusable ways.  But even had Salieri not been driven to be so: are you good person because you simply do not allow yourself to act on “sinful” thoughts or desires, though you continue to feel them?  In any case, while it is easy to understand why Salieri would find Mozart irritating, Salieri is clearly the more deeply flawed human here.  And there is, I think, a definite pureness not only to Mozart’s music, but to his spirit.  But neither can you say that Mozart is without sin or flaws.  He is far from it.  And ultimately, what human is without flaws? No-one.  This is a play about two deeply flawed humans and all the more poignant for this.  Surely Peter Shaffer himself must have reflected upon the sublime in relation to his own work.  And perhaps every artist may think on this and find themselves lacking, from their perspective?

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There are other plays I’ve loved and I hope there’ll be many I’ll love in the future, but I know I’ll never see anything quite like Amadeus again. It was so special to me.  I want to shout it from the treetops and thank it and I adored it so much that I want to write something to remember it forever.  I feel so privileged and grateful that I got to experience and love this wonderful production, filled with glorious, moving music and impeccable performances by and stunningly also between Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen – both actors whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to this play (so thank you too Amadeus for introducting me to their work.)  It was a theatrical form of Mozart’s music for me.

And you should STOP HERE if you read this, because this truly is for me and about the things this has meant to me and will be a boring pointless chore to read any more.  I’d definitely skip all the blue and purple BRUISE-of-shame at least, for it has little to do with the production and is just me recounting my history with Amadeus.

I share now a memory of the tiniest moment during the final performance as I experienced it.  I first saw Amadeus on 27/10/16 (SO LONG AGO, WOW!  I just looked it up and discovered it only opened on 19th October, so I literally did spend almost the entire run of Amadeus with it.  Was that the night after press night?  I see reviews of the first run are dated 27/10…?!?  I obviously only had my one ticket initially, but I just could not get over the play.  I guess I was lucky to have seen it early in the run as the National Theatre released more tickets for the latter part of this first run later on.)  I should have written something about the play then, as I went on to see it a few more times in the first run and at a NT Live screening and *cough* slightly more than a few times in the second run…!  That is between me, the NT box office and anyone who noticed me!  I last saw it on its closing night, 24/04/18.  I say this because I want to convey how it’s impossible to write about something you’ve seen a lot, because…

For the final performance of Amadeus, I was sat far to the right of the stage.  In order for this to make sense: a little context.  Mozart has just discovered his Father has died and Salieri has offered solace and support in an almost Fatherly way, seeming to Mozart as if he were his friend, whilst still in truth desiring Mozart’s downfall.  Now, while we hear Mozart’s music, Salieri discusses and craves his extraordinary gift.  

In the scene I speak of, Mozart conducts a fragment of Cosi Fan Tutte and Salieri speaks of Mozart immortalizing sisters Constanze and Aloysia, transforming two average girls into divinities through his music, which we hear and feel for ourselves as we hear the singers and musicians.  Salieri rails at God, asking and praying for God to provide him with Mozart’s gift and for the soaring spirit of Mozart’s music to be present in even one piece he might compose.  Salieri ends the music, stopping the singers himself, pushing them to the floor, desperately shouting to God to “Grant this to me!” “I do not need you Salieri! I have Mozart! Better for you to be silent!” is God’s response.  Mozart laughs & Salieri says this is God’s laughter.  

Mozart has his back to the audience at this point, but because Salieri was delivering his performance to the centre of the auditorium and as I was so far to the side, as Salieri is roaring at the world in anguish, I glanced Mozart’s way and could see his expression as he stood atop the piano, arms still aloft post conducting.  Upon Mozart’s face as he looked skyward was, as I saw it, equal anguish: desperation and a terrible kind of horror and sorrow.  It stuck with me, that look.  I don’t know if it was Mozart’s sorrow or the actor’s as Mozart’s face could be seen by very few in the audience here, even if glancing that way.  Here in the play, once his Father has died I’ve felt a change in how Mozart conducts music – gradually the music controlling him, where before he controlled it.  And this anguish does fit the torment and fear which begins to consume Mozart from here on in the play.  I’d just never seen this here until this final performance.

This desolate look, as desolate as Salieri then speaks of feeling as he plans his final aim to destroy Mozart entirely is followed by Mozart lying down on the piano and hanging himself upside down over the edge.  If you’ve seen the play, you’ll know it gets a laugh.  But something about the sad point-of-no-return of that desperate expression of Mozart’s when atop that piano in the final show stayed with me.  I don’t know how to explain.  I suppose it was something about a fear in Mozart when juxtaposed with that glorious music I’d just heard… and which was silenced by Salieri like a physical attack. I suppose Salieri saw Mozart as not only being the creator of sublime music, but as being granted this gift by God’s grace and so possessing the only thing Salieri had ever wanted and asked God for himself.  He remains blind wilfully or otherwise to the reality of Mozart’s suffering, but there it was, plain to see (so it seemed) to me.  And somehow so much was there in this look that I felt for the first time in this last performance.

Part of why I wanted to share that moment was to remember it, because already more than a week has gone and memories fade.  Even now, how clearly is this what I remember and how much is what I think I remember?  Also I wanted to convey why I can’t properly write about The National Theatre’s Amadeus: When you see a play lots, you become too close to it.  You notice tiny details which you read into because of your own experiences as well as seeing intent on stage.  A great play always has more to give, but I think there is a truth to the response you have the first time you experience a play and it is impossible now to recount my first experience.  I watched too many times.  Yet, now it is over, I cannot let Amadeus go.  It feels like a phantom limb.  I am yearning, aching, lovesick for it.  I want to leave something in words to remember forever what it has been to me.

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Amadeus itself meant a lot to me as I used to adore and watch the film over and over from when I was a young child to when I was doing my GCSE’s when I’d watch it instead of revising, telling myself “Well, it’s related!” well aware and without a care for my self-deception.  Then, Mozart’s Requiem was in my actual music exam and I felt like Mozart himself had helped me out in some ghost-like magical manner.  I don’t believe in God, but I’m perfectly happy to believe in the spirit of Mozart helping little old me out in my school exams.  I always remember the feeling when Mozart played in the exam.  Now, I’ve experienced it, the stage version far surpasses the film for me, but while I was really excited when I heard the National would be staging Amadeus, when I arrived to see it for the first time, I had some trepidation too.  I’d not watched the film recently, but I’d seen it so many times, film and performances in it were seared upon my consciousness which I think if anything would make it harder for this version to impress me?  Therefore, what a joy it has been to experience a story which has been so dear to me since I was little, brought to life in such a new, immediate and perfect way.  And this is what Amadeus has over any other play I can imagine ever being written and put on.  What other play could not only get to me so much due to what it is, but could the story have meant a great deal to me as long as I remember?  Yet as well as this, Amadeus on stage has provided and revealed things to me anew and beyond all that meant so much to me already, since I was a child.

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Alright, here goes the (even more) awkward bit where I try to praise everyone without sounding like an idiot (too late!)  Amadeus had absolute powerhouse performances.  Lucian Msamati’s Salieri grinds at your soul with a performance of passion, pain, cruelty, beauty and hubris.  Lucian is fearless and holds the play, barely leaving the stage in three hours.  As the audience listen to Mozart’s music, performed live and feel it utterly, so Salieri listens.  You see Lucian’s Salieri feel the music, just as you do.  You hear and experience him articulate precisely your own experience:  his desire, his agony, his yearning, his pain are also ours.  You could also watch Lucian at any time when Salieri is not the focus of the drama.  His reactions and disgust at the infantile Mozart as he voyeuristically listens from hiding places is just one example.  I have loved the shifts in his nature – how one moment he lets slip the true adoration he has for Mozart and his music and the sensitivity of Salieri’s soul, the next he is stake-your-own-heart cruelty.  Love and hatred are definitely closely entwined in Lucian’s Salieri.  The Olivier stage is vast, yet close to the audience and it holds wondrous possibility for connection. This is Salieri’s story, and if you happen to be near the front, he sometimes tells a fragment of it directly to you.  It is such a special thing to experience yourself and to see happen to others: as though you have been gifted a tiny bit of the play, especially for you.

Salieri is intent on destroying sublime art and there is no excusing it.  That he recognises the extent of Mozart’s genius only makes it worse.  It’s made even more awful as Mozart is in many respects innocent, and Salieri not only destroys Mozart, but does so while making Mozart believe he is his final friend, even a kind of Father figure when Mozart loses his own Father.  So, you while you can certainly empathise for Salieri and his plight, you feel no pity him at all – what he does is inexcusably cruel and unforgivable… until the very end of the play, when it is too late to pity him.  Just as Salieri cannot pity Mozart until too late.  Thank you Lucian.

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For me, Adam Gillen’s Mozart was the utter astonishment of Amadeus though.  He’s punk rock anarchy. A whirligig of physical energy.  A revolutionary and a rebel, both utterly assured of the truth of his own talent, yet needy as a child for the reassurance and acceptance of his Father.  He’s a toddler or teen: spinning and whirring, naughty and innocent, knowing then trusting.  He’s all instinct and he understands the workings of the important things in life, with nothing to reign it in.  He’s frustrated to exist in a world where he is ahead of his time so others cannot yet recognise what he himself knows to be true about his work.  And much as Mozart gets what life is without needing all those words, he’s out of depth in social and practical contexts: always a bit (a LOT) too much for anyone.  Saying too much, doing too much, being too much and resultantly offending those he needs on his side from every angle from The Emperor to his own wife.  It’s a big performance: physical and out there, yet also clearly considered and specific.  Mozart has the conflicting and unrestrained qualities of a child and the instincts and sensitivity of an adult.  It’s no surprise that this Mozart’s music should be sublime, when it comes from someone so spiritually free.  Yet in the first half of the play, while I have to admit, I did not find Mozart annoying personally (for me, from the start there’s too much sweetness there for Mozart to not be touching right from the beginning), I know others did and you do see precisely why Salieri would be irritated and I can see why some audience members might concur.

The first half of Amadeus is mainly entertaining and comedic.  Of course there’s seriousness in there and the music breaks your heart, but it’s spectacular and fun overall.  Then, after the interval Adam’s Mozart gradually more fully lets you in to somewhere deeper.  I’m not sure how the performance opens up to become so completely heartbreaking such that you come to really detest Salieri for what he’s doing, but alongside the large scale, the performance allows a more intimate connection too with the audience.  And I think this shifts gear rather suddenly: when Mozart’s Father dies.  In a breath, Mozart turns from irreverent joker to heartbroken orphan.  His security is ripped away and he becomes fragile and in need of support.  He’s still the same Mozart: it isn’t like a suddenly different man, but now we see more obviously the vulnerability in Mozart which was always there and it begins to seem as though the music within him is almost too much to contain.  Where in the first half of the play, Mozart was full of childish, puerile energy, bouncing off the walls and off all of the people in Court, now it beings to feel as though this is almost this vast music inside of him which can’t be contained within the shell of a mere man.  I spoke before of how I began to feel as though the music were controlling Mozart rather than he it from this point.  And in a few, yet poignant moments throughout the whole play you also begin to understand fragments of the sensitivity and kind of mind that can create this art.  Mozart does not possess Salieri’s verbal eloquence, but he does speak the occasional deep and heartfelt truths about music and life, even if no-one really listens.  Adam is brilliant both at the largest and smallest scales and for me his performance deepens the play.  Mozart possesses a childlike innocence and fragility, at odds with Salieri’s cunning so it is therefore not only the destruction of a man who creates such sublime music which rips through your heart, but the destruction of a soul essentially pure and tender, as his music is.

I loved so many touches in Adam’s performance.  Mozart’s wit and humour, his unawareness, Mozart’s punk bravura at the piano; the fact that he makes it work that Mozart is simultaneously grown up, in true love with his wife, yet also childlike not only in comedy and crudeness, but in an innocence and sweetness.  I love how Mozart conducts music and just as you could spend a whole night watching Salieri listening to Mozart’s music and reacting to those moments he is observing, you could spend forever watching Mozart conduct.  Adam doesn’t so much conduct how Mozart might have, but instead gives his conducting the utter spirit of Mozart.  His performance is both lightness and intensity, comedy and pathos and I cannot imagine it is an easy role to get right mainly because it’s painted so out there by Peter Shaffer, but also because despite that this is a fictional story, you are still playing actual Mozart!

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I say I love theatre, but there aren’t a vast swathes of performances that blow me away entirely and this performance certainly did it.   It’s even more rare that I’d try to enter the cheese churn (is it called a cheese churn that makes cheese?!) of writing like this about it.  But thank you so much Adam.  Through Lucian Msamati’s commanding Salieri we connect to our own experiences, through Mozart’s music we feel his genius and through Adam’s performance we feel Mozart’s complex humanity and Mozart becomes way more than the genius of his music.  And when Lucian and Adam are acting together on stage it really is glorious.  Just spellbinding and joyous to be able to sit there and watch this craft.

The rest of the cast are brilliant too.  I particularly enjoyed that the few roles who were played by new people when Amadeus returned to the stage were all performed (I thought) in somewhat of a different way to how they had been in the first run.  Yet they all worked wonderfully in both versions.  Can I say that I once dreamed of Hugh Sachs’ pompous Count Orsini-Rosenberg judging me.  Or maybe it was just Mr Sachs himself?!  His character was so judgy that I can’t help feel it directed at me too!  I loved both Emperor Joseph II’s and Constanzes.  And that live music.  How has Amadeus ever been staged without live music?!  I simply cannot envision it.  There was not a single performance of Amadeus I saw where I was not deeply moved at some point by the music itself on stage, and the brilliant singer-actors: often hilarious, always excellent!  Thank you all, and a special thank you from me to the lead oboist – Anna Belei from the programme I think: you got me good every time, to the funny and fabulous Matthew Hargreaves (I think I have the right person there?!) and the magnificent Fleur de Bray.

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I shed many a tear over Amadeus.  After the final day I discovered I’d bitten the inside of my cheeks to shreds, trying to stop myself crying, which I’d not even realised I’d been doing.  But I know the first time I saw the play on stage I spent the majority of the second half sobbing snotty tears so hard I felt I ought to apologise to my seat-neighbours and I found the final scenes between Mozart and Salieri so difficult to watch I could barely bear it and could hardly see the stage through my tears.  It could and did still make me sob at the end of the run.  And this is bearing in mind, I obviously wasn’t surprised by the actual story even on first watch as I did already know it well. Still the play had this power.  Even a year and a half after I first watched it could make me sob.

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What would be the point of plays if you could feel what they were from anything I might say?  I give you fragments here because it is all I have.  One of my favourite moments in Amadeus is The Magic Flute section.  What encapsulate’s Mozart’s spirit and the spirit of this production more than The Magic Flute?  It’s utterly beautiful and entirely magical, just like this production.  It’s reverent, yet modern.  Everyone is on stage and I’m pretty sure never has a fluorescent pink zebra with a recorder been so oddly moving.  Then, when Mozart transforms his dead Father through his music from an accusing, judging ghost to be feared into a forgiving, loving benefactor – The High Priest, and as such does the epitome of turning life into beautiful art, the music and actors themselves bestow the absolute beauty of what art can express, be and convey upon us.  Every time, during this section of the production I found myself smiling with joy and crying simultaneously.  The best feeling.

After loving Amadeus so much during the first run of the play I read the play text with a friend and was surprised to discover that it doesn’t break your heart to just read it.  Amadeus is a work that comes to life on stage in a way the words on a page alone cannot.  I don’t know what witchery it is, but it seemed that way to me when I read it.  Is all of this magic there, hidden on the page, just waiting for the stage?  How much comes from Director Michael Longhurst, the actors, the musicians, everyone else involved in design and creation of the play?  Who knows.  Not me.  I don’t know how it works, but I do know it is magical.  I wish Peter Shaffer could have seen the play.  I’m sorry for writing about it.  There’s something distasteful and sad about writing about art.  Art is to feel and you don’t need words for that, but I just want to remember.

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If I were Empress, I’d have Amadeus gracing the stage eternally.  It is the best and worst of humanity.  And for a little girl who had loved and felt music her whole life (I begged my Mum to take me to the dancing school at the end of my road before I was 3 and still remember the images the music the pianist played would conjure up for me in my mind at that age) Amadeus conveys true love of music.  Maybe I loved it so much as a child because it was the first thing to put into actual words what music had always meant to me?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Amadeus is a play about genius, yet is for every person who is not-Mozart, so for everyone.  And what better example of genius is there?  What music has purer beauty and emotion than Mozart’s?  And what play has spoken to me more purely than this?

Thank you SO, Amadeus.  I am missing you so much.  A beauty of theatre is in its transient nature, but I’d have loved to be able to experience this one forever.  But it’ll stay with me forever.  I even keep thinking about times walking away after a show, looking back at the National Theatre lit up, or standing by the river for a bit watching the water, just keeping the feeling of the show there before the evening had to end.  I couldn’t really have conceived it would end then.  I sing in a daft little choir and we sang Mozart’s Requiem during the run of this play.  This whole Spring has really taken me to some weird Mozartian place.  I love all kinds of music, but had it not been for this play, quite likely I wouldn’t be playing a Mozart piano sonatas CD in the car right now, so it hasn’t just been the experience of the play itself: it’s sort of seeped into all of my life in some way: music like water, filling the cracks in me.  I hope many people involved in the making of theatre saw this production of Amadeus and that perhaps it may inspire more shows involving music (and all art forms) in so integrated and wonderful a way.  I hope Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen have the most spectacularly fulfilling careers ahead of them, as they deserve.

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Amadeus has been absolutely exquisite and there’s no way I can really describe how it’s felt for me to simply be able to sit and watch this magnificent show.  I feel really sad that I’ll never get to feel the way it made me feel again.  Thank you to everyone involved.  And Lucian Msamati and Adam Gillen, you are both utter wonder.  I’m going to have to stop talking about Amadeus as I haven’t been able to shut up about it since the play ended and this is so many words, whoops!  But my heart is so full or love and sadness that I’ll never get to experience this on stage again.  I love Amadeus so much that I’m sorry for how much it was to me, because I think I loved it too much.  I want to hold on to it.  I really do hate endings.  However, I am thankful to you Amadeus and to everyone who made you happen.  I am thankful like the big sun of the set and every time I am in the Olivier auditorium in the future, I’ll think upon this production.  No pressure, productions of the future… if any of you are mediocrities, Salieri will absolve you. xxxxx

Photos by Marc Brenner: www.marcbrenner.co.uk

I can’t imagine anyone read, but though it is too late now to catch Amadeus on stage, you can still view it at the National Theatre Archive should you wish. xxx

PS I was totally not going to post this yet.  I was going to try to shorten all these daft thoughts down, but it seems to me if I don’t just post it all I’ll do is add another pointless thousand words, when so many folk have more poignantly got to the heart of Amadeus in 1/10th of this drivel!  Oh well, sorry! And I have feared a hundred thousand things, none of which I shall actually say here, but anyway – there it is! xxx

I’m so late writing about this, but I thought maybe someone may like to hear my ramble.  Now, having written it I am sure nobody will because as always I should have been succinct, but once I begin, on I go until you despise my existence.  Oh well, sorry! I can only say, the fact that this has been secret a month does show if you ever have a secret you need to tell anyone but you need to know it’ll be kept secret, I can keep all secrets – be they yours or my own. I may have no other value whatsoever, but I can be the secret keeper, never fear.

Anyway, Bertie Carvel’s Masterclass at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was so lovely that I am unable to keep my promise to myself to keep the presence of idiot-me there secret as I’d like others to be able to share in a little of the warmth of what was expressed, so I hope in my rambling I am able to convey at least a fragment of the afternoon’s essence even though this is very belated. I nearly didn’t go to it.  I was so scared for manifold reasons, but looming large I felt (rightly) it was for actors and I am just an irrelevant being so felt like such a fraudulent potato I have no idea how I forced my feet through the door, but nobody threw me out and I am so happy I did attend that I don’t really care if I shouldn’t have gone (sorry!) Mr Carvel spoke openly and honestly about acting and was so supportive & encouraging towards young actors & everyone in the industry. I want to express how beautiful I found this and it made me want to exclaim my love of theatre too.

Bertie championed the imagination & spoke of theatre & art as a collaborative experience the audience want to engage in. It was just Mr Carvel on the stage talking to the audience. I imagine it may well have been rather scary for him to do something called a “Masterclass”, particularly given that there was nobody else there guiding it – just him on stage talking and answering any questions from the audience.  Bertie kept asking everyone to raise hands if he was still making sense as though he wasn’t engaging in intelligent thoughts ranging from his own experience to the philosophy of Plato – Plato’s Cave if you’re interested.  Linked as I may make a hash of Mr Carvel’s thoughts as I try to recollect, but let us spare you from my interpretation of Plato! (I did read something about the Platonic bicycle pump in a programme for something recently though and it is annoying me that I can’t recall where I read it..?)

This will not be in any order or logical form…

I loved a small moment when Bertie spoke along the lines of something that can be really empowering for an actor is that people are paying to see your imagination.  He spoke of how a performance on stage will always have a uniqueness to it specifically from you & how that is something beyond the play’s text, beyond the most intellectual academic analysis, different to even a real person or what a documentary could articulate.  What a wonderful gift to an actor I think – to say the most important aspect is simply your imagination.  And it is totally true: why would we go to theatre if you could get the same thing from reading the play/book/about the play/about real people?  The unique aspect is every part of the transient performance you experience.

It is really hard to articulate everything Bertie spoke of as I am struggling both with memory and to find ways to put what I do recall it into words.  Lets see – he spoke of forming a character and how if you strive to completely *become* that character – be it a real person or some idealised notion of the perfect fictional character, you can only fail.  You will only ever be striving to reach the ideal.  You can do things to change how you look, or alter your voice for example, but you’ll never look or sound as like a real person as the real person looks like themself! And you’ll never reach the ideal notion of a fictional person due to the fact that it is a subjective thing (he didn’t say that – I just said it right now, TADA!)

So, the jist is that art offers something different and sometimes/hopefully something beyond even the real or, say documentary footage: sometimes it can express truths about people and the world that you can’t get from plain facts, or perhaps that even real people might not know about themselves.  I guess this is because, in essence, art deals with who we are inside which is not a thing you usually get to know about many people in life. Many people don’t know it even of themselves.

So, if you stop striving to reach the perfect character and instead just use what you have in your imagination and inside you to respond… AAAARRRRGGGHHHHH.  I know what I mean but how do I say it?  Anyway, it was all totally true and, I would imagine that the ideas expressed for an actor would be really liberating.  I hope you can get an idea of where that thought was going even though I stopped in the middle of it… uhm…

Bertie also said he does very much enjoy altering himself physically too on the counter side (as you may imagine, since Bertie is currently portraying Rupert Murdoch in Ink a lot of the questions and discussion involved what it is like to portray a real person) – he spoke of how he shaves his hair and wears false eyebrows and contacts for Ink but he said altering your appearance is only valid to the extent you feel it is adding something to the performance.  It isn’t what the performance is ever about. And if you start to feel what you’re altering is no longer adding anything… well then you’re just walking around for months on end with a daft haircut.  Bertie definitely did not use the word “daft”.

Bertie spoke about the purity of art & I can’t for the life of me recall his context but digression-alert therefore I shall talk about the purity of art because literally nobody wants to hear that but I’m doing it anyway! I am just a rubbish good for nothing snail, but I do love theatre. And I love all art. And the one thing that offends me above all else is when something (in my opinion) taints the purity of art. The play I hated most of the plays I have seen I felt sullied the purity of art.  I’ve felt it of films too.  I think the purity of art can express and convey the complexity of life, people & humanity and the complexity of the artist can articulate the purity of art. I can’t really explain it because it is a feeling.  But there is a purity of truth I think in what plays (or art in general) can express that is way more muddied in reality. In a way I suppose I’d call it an emotional purity or perhaps something even deeper – about things we know deep within us to be true about being human (though I confess, in recent months I have begun to realise just how different we all are deep down in many ways – a concept I find pretty terrifying…) Oh, I wish I had the words to explain the meaning of this feeling further.  I suppose theatre/dramatic art allows you to make connections: actions have consequences; emotions have reasons and roots.  Theatre can get at what it is to be human, but in a more comforting way than reality because in real life so much happens with no reason at all. Real life tends towards chaos.  Not a thing my tiny mind enjoys for sure. I think probably one of the conflicts within us all as humans stems from the fact we seek order and reason in our existence where in truth there is none.  But stories, I think, help shape truths into an order that you can understand and recognise.  Theatre and stories get to real truths but they can do so in ways where you can understand people and events.  Whereas in real life it isn’t always so possible, for many reasons.  Well, I don’t have the words to explain it.  But I was thinking this week on a related note – I am sure stories must be a large part of how we first come to experience empathy and truly relate to beings other than ourselves when we’re tiny new humans to this world?  Anyway… end-of-digression…

Back to how encouraging Bertie was, and before I get into that, might I add, he really listened both when anyone asked a question or made a comment and thought about what they said before responding.  Bertie spoke of how it can be difficult to go on stage to act as you can imagine the audience are sat there having spent lots of money for the privilege and they’re all judging you, thinking perhaps the worst, which would be what? Maybe that what you’re doing is a deceit.  He addressed the fear an actor may have that every audience member is sat there, ready to criticise, to regret the money they spent and perhaps to actively look for things to dislike.  However, Bertie said the truth is that while there will always be someone out there who has been dragged along against their will, in the most part, people go to the theatre wanting to love a show.  They want to be caught up in the world on stage.  They know you’re pretending and that this isn’t reality and they want to be a part of this imaginative journey.  They want you to succeed. And they don’t want a perfect depiction of reality, but something that feels true and that they can feel and imagine too.  Bertie said that if you go onto the stage with this idea that the audience are in this with you, already you’ll feel more confident and will & be freer and your work will be better.  He kind of opened himself up as he said this as if to suggest you can go out there standing proud because the audience is there with you.  And of course you’d feel better.  So, if you have done your research and know your lines, then you let your imagination fully fill out your character, people will go with you.  And I agree.

As a person who loves theatre I can 100% say that I always want to love every play. Sometimes I may have high expectations, sometimes I may have no expectations, but I always want to love your work. I am completely always in the audience, hoping this will be art I will fall in love with: that’s why I love art!  That’s why I spent money on a ticket.  I’ve even very occasionally revisited art (like maybe a film) I didn’t love and even then when I have not adored something and have watched again, I have done so with that hope that this time I may see or feel something new and I might love it!  I am always hoping the thing to love will strike me.  Art is subjective, so there is no art every person will love: but people visit art for it to connect with them in whatever way & every person I am sure is always hoping that will happen. We all want to love your work, always.

I know what I love in the work of an actor whether it be on stage or on screen. It is utterly simple. I love to feel. And from the actor’s perspective I think probably that translates to mean their work has to have some kind of meaning. Style doesn’t matter.  Bertie spoke of when he first stated working and was auditioning for TV commercials: Directors would say a performance was “too theatrical” and for a long time he thought this meant you have to be small on screen with what you do.  Now he doesn’t think this.  I can’t remember the detail enough to explain it all, so instead I’ll just say that from my perspective, when I think about work I have loved on stage and screen I’ve loved work done by folk who have completely transformed themselves and I love work by those who are naturalistic to the point of mumble.  Personally, I think that what matters for me is that what an actor does starts from (or includes) the internal: as in the truth I need to feel in acting is that what a character does starts from somewhere deep within them.  You’d have to ask each of the actors whose work I’ve loved to have any idea of what they’d done though.  How would I know.  But my absolute favourite thing is to feel the internal world of a character.  For me, this is what acting is about and it is the only thing that really matters.

I mean, it is all weird isn’t it – trying to put words into things that are maybe beyond words.  I was really interested in the talk of work in a theatre and how you make a performance work on stage as it is one thing I find fascinating.  I love to watch plays when I am close to the actors so I can see and feel and think about nuances of expression.  I know other people who prefer to be further away.  But I always find it interesting to see a play from right at the back of a theatre when you can’t see actors’ faces anymore.  Because some actors can totally carry what they do so it works both on the front row and at the very back of a giant theatre and others are doing brilliant work that has such impact when you’re close, but it doesn’t necessarily reach the back rows.  Bertie said once you have the emotion, you can rely on others to give advice as to how much to turn it up or down.  But that does not divulge the magic of it!  (I know you can feel Bertie’s work on a back row.)  I suppose the inexplicable things are the joys of life so I’ll just pretend it is magic, though I guess it is craft!

Someone asked a question about being an understudy and how you can give a performance of your own when you’re taking over someone else’s role in which they have already made and fixed so many artistic decisions.  Bertie spoke of such things as how impressed he is by dance which can be so artistically expressive even though every step and even (for example) the speed dancers must move is already fixed.  He said that if what you can physically do is constrained and not up to you, then what you are left with is the true essence of acting really – what you have inside.  And can I add here that I have been so impressed by the work of understudies several times (not that I have seen a huge amount of performances by understudies – but you know – at least 2 or 3 times!) but recently I gained a new appreciation of their work when during a performance of The Ferryman an actor was taken ill and had to leave the stage in the middle of a line.  The understudy had to get ready, come on and begin the play in the middle at what was for this character the absolute climax of his story.  Blew me away.  So impressive.  Did it matter whatsoever that it was a different person playing the character mid-play or a different performance in whatever way?  Not at all.  All that matters is that I felt it.

So, Bertie spoke of truth in acting too… Hmm… (oh no – digression-alert) in my view, truth is an easily misinterpreted word. You start to talk of truth and at the end of the line you get to conclusions such as the idea that if you haven’t felt or experienced something in real life, can you understand it in art (be it as creator or consumer.) I don’t think you need to have experienced anything to feel, convey or understand it in art. To suggest you do in the first place is insulting towards children before even going further… I can feel my digression… stop it, me!  But yes, there was lots of talk about truth and the fact that acting is by definition lying, yet it is also all about conveying something true and I think everyone can understand that, yes? Yes, so, Bertie’s talk was inspiring & moving. Basically he was telling actors: use your imagination & be free. And as Godspeed You! Black Emperor tell us: “What does anyone want but to feel a little more free.”

You know what I’d love to know from actors? I’d love to know whether acting feels creative. I mean, it must be wildly creative to form & shape a character & a play in rehearsals and in your mind for stage or for whatever other medium. But once that’s done, does it feel creative to perform the same play on stage for weeks or months, 8 times a week? I’m so curious how that feels.

For anyone interested in discussion of Mr Carvel’s own work more specifically, someone asked whether Bertie thought Leo Frank was innocent or guilty & whether he had to make that decision as a performer playing the role. Mild spoilers I suppose if you don’t know Parade. (Please watch a version of it if you ever can if you don’t know it!) I was doubly interested in this as I saw an absolutely beautiful production of Parade last year at Hope Mill Theatre which made me sob my little heart out. I have not seen Bertie’s Parade, but have listened to it & even just the audio is deeply moving.  I had wondered, particularly after the version I watched how the entirety of the interpretation and implication in the Donmar’s version when fully experiencing it had been. Bertie said that we can obviously never know the truth but that speaking about the real situation the trial was almost certainly unjust, which doesn’t mean Frank was innocent, but that he thought it likely Frank was innocent. But also, Bertie spoke of how a lot of seemingly fairly unbiased folk were happy to consider Frank guilty, so there must be reasons for this. Bertie said audiences would come to a play on the topic expecting Frank to be portrayed as innocent, so he had some amount of fun playing with this expectation & suggesting it wasn’t definitely true, but that he tried to play Frank as innocent of the crime he was accused of, but as as much of a horrible person as he could other than this.

Oh and someone asked about Strife & what it was like Directing. I’ve never made it explicit before, but Agave in Bakkhai, though so small a role is the thing that’s moved me most that I’ve seen Mr Carvel perform thus far on stage still… but of his stage work entire, I have to say, Strife broke me & I loved it so very much.  It made me feel I love John Galsworthy.  Not that I can have that opinion as I only know a few more things of his work/the man still.  Ho hum. Yet I do!  Anyway, I hope Bertie will direct again in the future.  I haven’t written Mr Carvel’s response when asked about Strife and I come to mention this last so I would be too much inventing it to write words.  He was generally very complimentary of the actors he worked with and talked about learning a lot I think.  I love theatre. There are many plays I love & when you love theatre of course you also see plays that are average or that you hate, but for me the best of plays you may eventually forget the details, but there is some feeling they gave you that you can recall forever inside. I can recall it of Strife with ease. And other of Bertie’s (& others’) work too.

If you’re an artist, I thank you for your art. I was always more of a theoretical person than a real human being, so what I’m afraid of in life, Art enables me to experience & feel. Real life is painful in bad ways is what life has taught me: in ways where avoidance or escape are best (of course it is also glorious in ways too!)  But art makes pain beautiful.  Essentially, as artists, you bring life to me. What more could you give? I am eternally grateful.

DISCLAIMER:

Here are my notes from the afternoon:

• Actors don’t talk about the empowering aspect that it’s your imagination people are paying to see – it is not the read/written Hamlet, but your unique Hamlet.*

• Plato’s cave – truth cannot ever be reached – art is about conveying a truth that even facts cannot

• Purity of art 🙂

• Acting is the outward expression of an inner life

Yeah, loads of notes, eh!  I should’ve just posted that list & been done with it shouldn’t I. Idiot me.

So anything else I have written is just entirely my fallible memory rather than being the words or thoughts of Mr Carvel in any way.  Sorry: no misinterpretation was intended though obviously there is loads of misinterpretation.  Bertie might not have said any of this.  And I am all too keenly aware of how many of my own thoughts I have unapologetically showed in here as well as if I were a broken dam, spewing out rubbish. Sorry!  I can’t imagine anyone got this far anyway!  I really hope at least some of these words were actually Bertie Carvel’s thoughts at least sort of…!

( * Bertie spoke a lot about Hamlet in fact which I have neglected to mention once. I want to see the Hamlet where the actor thinks he’s a bit of an idiot and plays him as such too!  As, well, he easily can be, eh! I’d say that’s why I personally think Hamlet works as a late teen/early 20’s – he just makes sense that way to me.  He spoke of Hamlet so much as there was talk of playing real versus not real people and so he used Hamlet as the fictional example in all of these instances. [The impression Bertie gave was that portraying a real or fictional character is in most respects the same kind of the same task.])

Alright, well, maybe I was wrong in my idea anyone might want to read this.  It was a month ago, but I am so happy I went to this talk.  Thank you Theatre Royal Haymarket, thank you Bertie Carvel. Thank you all artists whose work has ever made me feel.

Well, I thought I’d write a little bit about all of the films I saw.  Some I watched over a week ago so I can’t promise to recall everything I thought at the time.  And I saw so many, I might get bored.  We’ll see.  A lot of films have taken place between then and now as well as some actual life too, so… with that said, here goes.  Rather than putting photos in here, I am going to link to the trailers (if I can find them) so you can see for yourself what you think you might make of them!  I haven’t watched any of the trailer, so sorry if they’re wrong or anything…!  Errr…

I write in the order I saw them..

Friday 7th October

A Monster Calls 9/10

Please go to see this film when is is released.  It really is something very special indeed.  I was utterly emotionally unprepared.  Particularly by where it gets to by the end of it.

One of the films I saw at LFF was Their Finest which I’ll talk about later.  In said film, a character talks of (something along the lines of) people liking to watch films because they resolve life in satisfying ways, whereas real life is unpredictable and terrible things happen randomly and for no reason.  I found A Monster Calls refreshing because films don’t always speak truths, but this film dares to speak some really painful ones. It is about there being no easy answers and I found a bravery in where it goes to.

A Monster Calls captures how it feels to lose someone close to you in a lingering way, where you know it is coming with such startling truth that even as I think back now (I saw it over a week ago) tears come to my eyes.  It really is a beautiful film.  If I tell you Liam Neeson plays a Groot-esque (but a tad scarier) tree here to help you through grief, I think that really that should be enough to sell the film.  But there is so much more the film has to offer.

Firstly, the artwork and animation in the film are simply stunning.  I can’t describe how beautiful it is (although it is a little redolent of the animation in Deathly Hallows, but with ore colour.)  The film is about a Mother and Son who are artists themselves and I would be surprised if a child were to watch the film if they didn’t feel inspired to make art themselves following it.

But the film itself is simultaneously a coming of age story and about grief and what it is to lose someone.  The real monster in the film of course is Death and it looms large from the start.  Everyone tries to protect Conor from death, as we try to shelter not only children, but everyone if we can from death.  Through the tree and stories he tells, Conor gradually gains a new and fuller understanding of life, death and of his own family.  In a full cinema, I heard many sobs around me because it really is incredibly sad.  And the final story which Conor has to tell… I mean, I have felt that.  And it is a feeling so awful that I have never spoken about it with anyone, ever.  This film really does go to a very difficult place and it gets to a place of such truth by means of storytelling, art, imagination and creativity.  It uses art as a means of addressing pain and as a way through it.  What more could you ask from a film really?

I hope the film does do well. I do worry regarding its target.  I think it is refreshing that it seems to have been made without too much concern for the target audience: concern being only for the quality and truth of the film itself.  At the same time, despite it focusing on 13-year-old Conor and revolving around a tree-monster who tells stories, thus you might imagine it aimed towards children younger than this, emotionally and psychologically this is tough stuff.  I just checked and it is rated 12A.  I’d advise either reading it or looking up the details of the plot if thinking of taking children much younger than this.  Not that it would be too much as all depends on the individual.  There were some children perhaps a little younger than Conor sat beside me as I watched who had clearly read the book already.  It was hard to ascertain how they felt about the film, but I think it got the boy next to me considering that he had enclosed his entire head with his hood by the end of the film.  I believe all films are equal though and I hope many grown-ups go to see this without children too.  It deserves it.

This is a big film with special effects and big name actors and not a single concession with regards to how the film tackles its subject by the end.  It is difficult and beautiful to experience and if you’ve ever lost someone close to you it addresses your darkest feelings at the worst of times.  And, well, I can’t speak for how you will experience it, but I also found it strangely cathartic.

I didn’t talk about the cast, but everyone is great in it.  I have to mention though that Lewis MacDougall who plays Conor is brilliant.

If you want to see a heartbreaking film that deals honestly with the toughest truths of losing someone you love and uses fantasy and art to address truths and pull a grieving child through his pain… here is the film.

I promise I won’t write this much about all of the films!  Or do I….

King Cobra 7/10

From the sublime to the ridiculous?!  Yes, on my first day of LFF I went from a child’s fantasy-monster to help him with grief to a film about the gay porn industry.

It’s harder to write about films that you found fine than those you have a strong opinion on either way.  King Cobra is, I’d say more than fine.  I am embarrassed to confess I think I may have dozed off briefly in it though.  Ooops.  However, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Christian Slater and Garrett Clayton.

The film is based on a true story which I won’t say too much about as why not see it for yourself!  What the film does best is capture character.  There are four main characters (James Franco and Keegan Allen playing the other two – they’re great too in the film) and you get some kind of insight into the inner worlds, drives and emotional experience of all of these characters.

For me, Stephen (Slater) and Brent (Clayton) were the most interesting though.  Stephen is exploitative, yet pitiable.  He’s a pretty repulsive guy really, enticing young boys into the industry and clearly getting his own kicks from it all at the same time.  Simultaneously you feel empathy and sympathy towards him.  And the guy does know what he’s doing when it comes to making a ludicrous, yet popular porn film, it seems.   Slater really does have to do a lot of lechery.  Shudder.  The Director spoke afterwards and said the real Brent hadn’t seen the film yet as he wasn’t happy with artistic licenses they took making it so withdrew any support.  However, I feel Brent ought to be happy as the film portrays him pretty much in a positive light – as ambitious, yet not mean and callous like the rest of the folk here.  There’s a sweetness mixed with drive that makes for a pleasing and amusing little ending to the film.

Overall, the film doesn’t really say enough for you to feel you love it.  It’s just too light.  I mean, as light as a film about gay porn with minors, involving stabbing someone to death and burning things to the ground can be.  Y’know…  Just another Friday afternoon at the flicks.

Can I say, people seemed angry at James Franco in the Q&A afterwards.  Why are you angry?!  It seemed people were angry because James Franco is playing a gay man, but not a nice gay man: a not nice gay man.  As though that means he hates gay men.  I don’t get the logic.  He is producer on this film so surely a big (or even THE?) reason it got made…  If an actor played a load of murderers, would you say he thought all men were murderers?  I just don’t see the logic… Aaaanyhoooo….

Saturday 8th October

The Secret Scripture 4/10

[I cannot find a trailer…]

Oh dear, The Secret Scripture.  Some fine acting here and it all looks beautiful.  There’s certainly no problem in imagining the beautiful Rooney Mara as a lady all the boys desire.  But the actual plot?  Oh my, I found it madly, bizarrely, ludicrous.  It is simply loopy!

Mara plays Rose, who has been locked away in psychiatric care for a long time after (although we discover also before) supposedly murdering her own baby.  Rose has written her own “secret scripture” as in the title in her many years locked away.

At first you’re along for the ride. Here’s Rose: free-spirited and determined to do things her own way in a war-time society in Ireland where everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone would have ladies know their places and stay in them.  Every man loves Rose’s spirit and beauty and everyone wants her though, including the local priest who drives much of Rose’s fate.

Rose loves Michael (Jack Reynor) though.  He’s gone against the local feeling and has gone off to as a pilot to fight for the British in the war.  At one point, Rose imagines a plane flying overhead is Michael just flying over to let her know he’s OK.  Later in the film, a plane crash lands 20 feet from where she’s living and it is actual Michael.  What are the chances?!  No, I mean really.  What are the chances……  You wouldn’t get odds on it.  It was from this ludicrous moment onwards that I assumed Rose’s account of her past couldn’t be all there was to this story.  Your one true love is not in a zillion years going to crash land in your back garden.  This has to be the account of some severe psychosis or something, surely.  Is Mara going to get to do some really incredible acting here?  When will we get to the big reveal?

The film as well as being set in the 1940’s comes back to current day (ish) with Vanessa Redgrave playing current-Rose and Eric Bana playing an empathetic psychiatrist assessing Rose before she is moved to a new location after decades of being locked away here.

I may as well tell you so you don’t sit there, expectantly, like me.  There is no big reveal.  Rose’s story, as she tells it is, unbelievably, just how things were.  There is a twist at the end that rather than being a shocking revelation, just makes you want to laugh because it is even more ludicrous than the bizarre unreality of Rose’s account.

I mean, I am not sure, but I think I heard some people crying during the film, so clearly not everyone felt the same way as me.  But I just found it absolutely crazy and not in a good way.  The acting is very good, but really there’s no joy in that in a story that felt irritating and stupid to me.  Sorry, film.  Now I’ve written this, I want to mark it lower, but I think for the acting the film deserves 4/10 at least.

Quite simply, bemusing.  I was left simply shaking my head at it.

Manchester by the Sea 10/10

I’ve written more about this, here: My Manchester By The Sea ramble.

If you were thinking I couldn’t possibly have another word to say I didn’t already voice there, think again folks!

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the first film of its nature I ever saw (not that I’ve ever seen another quite like it since.)  I’ve loved Casey Affleck (and Andrew Dominik) since this time.  The idea he might win an Oscar for it has been the one and only time I was particularly bothered about anything earning an Oscar.  I can’t believe I got to attend a UK premiere of a film of Casey’s. And such a brilliant film too.  I feel so lucky.  Another day, another film full of grief….

I wrote about the film in the above post, but I didn’t say a lot about facts there, so here I’ll say the film introduces us to Lee Chandler (Affleck) as a janitor, doing what he has to: doing a good job where he can, with absolutely no concern for social niceties and no desire to interact with any other human in any way whatsoever.  Lee does his job then sits in front of the telly or at a bar, drinking alone.  He speaks only when he has to.  But after a few drinks, perhaps uncharacteristically given the rest of his closed nature, he likes to start fights.  As though he’s looking for someone to put him out of his misery and bring an end to him.

Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, but not unexpectedly and Lee is pulled from his one-room existence and forced to return to Manchester By The Sea, a place that was once his home, to inform and then look after his sixteen-year-old nephew.

When people talk of this as a film about grief, don’t get the wrong idea.  Joe’s warmth in life and his absence for those who remain is really felt strongly in the film, even though we never see him except in flashbacks for he is already dead when the film begins.  However, his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and brother cope with his death as well as could be expected.  I mean, better than you might expect in the main, really.

Remember where we began, with A Monster Calls?  Lee could be a character in one of the Monster-Tree’s stories for sure.  Once upon a time Lee thought he knew it all; had everything worked out.  Life taught him otherwise.  (Oh gosh, this is what happens when you write about 5873 films one after the other!)

Manchester by the Sea is pretty remarkable because none of the characters are particularly remarkable, yet the film reveals inner experience in so sharp and raw a way that you feel it as though the pain is your own and you want to fix it for it hurts you as it hurts them and if you can’t fix it for them you feel like your own life might not be on solid foundations and could also at any moment slip into this abyss.

I don’t think there’s any actor who can do what Casey Affleck does here.  Doubtless, there are many roles he’s not suited for too of course, but in this kind of role.  It’s the kind of performance where you watch another film the next day and the folks in it might be fine or even good but you feel like they’re false after experiencing this.

This film is pure magic.  You want to fix Lee as though his pain were your own.  Sure he’s funny, but if you hadn’t felt this world of pain inside him, you’d probably see Lee as not a guy you’d want to know.  He’s silent, uncommunicative, abrasive and closed.  And after this film, I’ll wonder about people I meet from now on.  Wonder about what brought them to where they are now.

Manchester by the Sea is a harsh but tender look at the worst place life can take a human to.  It isn’t particularly hopeful in its ideas about whether it is possible to ever recover or move on from something unspeakably terrible, yet, bizarrely, at the same time it isn’t entirely without hope either.  I sobbed a lot.  And it manages to do that thing where nothing can be happening, yet everything is happening.  By the end, I kept starting to sob again when a million nothings of things made me think or feel something physically (or emotionally I suppose, but it felt physical) unbearable.

If you want more of my thoughts on this one, I have them aplenty!

Surprise film! Sully 7/10

Wahey! I went to a surprise film!  This was a last minute thing.  To be honest, Manchester by the Sea left me in a place where I felt afraid.  I was staying in a place that was £30 a night in central London and not a hostel.  From this you can perhaps imagine the quality of the room I was staying in.  It was in a dodgy area and when I’d arrived to check in the night before, the police were there in reception as I got there.  I checked in amidst a lovely, altercation betwixt police and non-police-based-human, sort of trying to pretend it wasn’t happening!  Joy!  I’d sat in my dark, smelly room that night and I have to say here the poor staff on reception at this place were proper lovely.  Just one man at night and a lady in the day.  Having to deal with incidents where they have to call the police and they’re the only person there…  Anyway, Manchester by the Sea felt like it had pulled my heart out and squeezed it in an attempt to end it entirely, but more worryingly, it made me feel afraid of myself.  Afraid to go and be alone in this dismal room.

So I got a last minute ticket to see the SURPRISE FILM!  It was Sully.  I’d like to thank Sully, because it was just what I needed.  It keeps your attention and I don’t think it is a spoiler since it is based on a true story to say that it all works out OK in the end.  It is tense and involving and it makes you worry for the characters, but you never worry so much you can’t bear it.  It’s pretty safe.  It isn’t going to change my world, but it was just what I needed at that moment in time to restore me to a psychological location where I was able to return to my dismal life.  Thanks, Sully!

Actually, I’m doing it a disservice: It was very good!  I’d actually rate it higher than 7, but when I compare it with the films I have rated 8, I enjoyed or felt them more, so sorry Sully.  You’re a 7, but rest assured, I like all films I rate 7 and above!  I thought this one was really well done.  I only didn’t rate it higher as I am at a film festival so every film here, I am giving a mark in comparison with the others in terms of how much it made me feel.

The lady introducing the film told us all to stay in our seats as there’d be a very exciting guest on stage afterwards.  Then a Tom Hanks film Directed by Clint Eastwood came on.  We didn’t really think Tom Hanks would be there.  But could we see Clint Eastwood, all of us thought.  Poor Aaron Eckhart.  That said, I saw him in Bleed for This the following day and he really is great there and so different to in this film.

Sunday 9th October

Souvenir 8/10

Gosh, what a pick was this one.  Given my ranting on and on and the fact that I adore Casey Affleck, I am sure it is a surprise to no human that I watched Manchester by the Sea again the next morning.  I had actually felt like it would be too painful to rewatch when I watched first time, but bizarrely I enjoyed rewatching and revelling in the pain.  On second watch I also took the most tentative sense of hope as well from it.

Even so, Souvenir was just what I needed to counter the heaviness.  This is such a sweet film.  Isabelle Huppert plays a lady who works in a pate factory, but decades ago she was a singer in the Eurovision song contest, the same year as ABBA won.  A young boy of 22 at the factory recognises her (his Dad is a fan) and there begins the sweetest love story which works so delightfully because there is a true and warm chemistry between Liliane (Huppert) and Jean (Kévin Azaïs.)

Let’s be honest here, Liliane was never the greatest artiste the world has seen.  She was a young singer in a little pop contest, there more for her beauty and charisma than musical wonderment.  Huppert does all her own singing I think in the film and there is a real charm to it.  Jean acts as her muse.  He enables Liliane to rediscover singing and music and as such, to rediscover life really.  And she’s not brilliant now, just as she wasn’t then, but through being creative again, she discovers living and the world rediscovers her for a time.  And though this love affair, Jean begins to grow from boy to man.

The film could easily veer to sentiment or seem false or one-sided, but the two leads make you feel that the age gap is nothing and there is genuine feeling between these people.  It really is adorable.  By the end of the film, what is left is that you feel genuine feeling between Liliane and Jean.  It is a happy film!

I am NOT a fan of the feel good film.  So I think it says even more that I was with this one all of the way.  If you’re feeling a little sad, this is the perfect film to cheer you.  It is quite simply a joyous little delight.  And you’re sure to leave singing too!

Bleed for This 8/10

OK, so I had about 20 minutes from the ending time of this film to make my train at Euston.  It was possibly a mistake to go see it as I sat through the whole thing, feeling STRESS, but I’m really glad I did see it!

Bleed for This is a boxing drama about Vinny Paz.  Normally in a drama about a real person, you’d have all kinds of focusses.  Perhaps some relationship drama.  Something or other external.  However, Bleed for This doesn’t particularly bother with any of that.  It sets out with Vinny in the late 80’s and it sticks with him through it all.  It is quite a simple film, just about Vinny’s boxing career and an absolutely incredible achievement of him fighting to return to boxing following a near-fatal car crash.

It’s not a showy film, but what it does is it makes you really feel the grit and determination of Vinny. And it doesn’t do it in a big effort of a way with a load of heavy drama.  It is pretty matter of fact with it all.  Viny knows what he has to do,  He does it.  It is a pretty difficult watch at times though.  There was one point in the film when I really thought I was going to faint.  I nearly had to leave the screening, but I could tell that if I’d have stood up right then I would have fainted, so I just slumped in my seat a bit and eventually the feeling passed.  I am not sure quite why it was, since it didn’t happen during an excruciating moment, but a little time after it.  But yes, there are screws in skulls and it feels pretty gosh real! Wah!  Somehow it is harder to watch because it feels real more than there not being anything more gruesome out there if that makes sense?

I was surprised how moved I was by the end of the film.  It made me cry.  It is genuinely inspirational.  Vinny says something about the biggest thing he’d learned having been that it’s simple.  You set your mind on something and you go for it and you get there.  Vinny does that and it truly is inspiring.  It really got me emotional.  And that’s despite my watching in a stressed and not feeling brilliant even by the end state.

The first film I ever saw at LFF (I went once before in 2014) was Whiplash, at 10am one morning.  Interesting that that film with Miles Teller was about drive and so is this.  I don’t think this film has thus far gotten that great a critical reception, but I really, really loved it.  I can’t recall a lot about the film Southpaw now to compare with another recent boxing film, but I do know I liked this a lot more, because I felt engaged, inspired and it got me emotionally.

Just like what Vinny learned, Bleed for This sticks with the simple story and it tells it in a way that is both powerful and where you really feel it.  Great film and great performances.  I recommend.

PS I had to miss the Q&A to catch my train but since I really liked the film, I’d have loved to have heard it.  I saw they were filming it.  Does anyone know if and where I could watch it?  Thanks in advance if so!

Friday 14th October

Their Finest 5/10

[Can’t find a trailer…]

Oh no.  I want to say I loved the film.  The Director spoke after it and she seemed proper lovely.  And there was nothing wrong with the film at all.  Everyone’s great in it and it’s about a strong lady too which is always nice.  I give my rating on this one entirely from a subjective standpoint.  Objectively I’d say it’s maybe 1 or 2 marks higher.  But it is just the kind of story that really is not my taste.  So for me, I’d only rate it this.

Set during the second world war, Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, who initially gets a job writing the ladies lines in propaganda-ish films.  Oh, I feel like I can’t be bothered writing about it.  I mean it’s fine.  It all happens as you’d expect.  There’s a sad little twist at the end.  I couldn’t really tell you why I felt nothing from it.  Bill Nighy, I confess is delightful in it in particular.  But it just sort of happened around me and it was just alright.  I don’t have anything particularly bad to say about it.  Just really not to my taste at all.

I feel I should apologise to you, Their Finest.  I don’t want to say too much as I know it just isn’t my kind of film so I don’t want to be negative about it when it is me, not the film.

Brimstone 2/10

Oh dear.  A bit of an unhappy day at LFF.  Can we just begin with how much does Dakota Fanning in this film look like Marion Cotillard?  SO MUCH!  OK, I got that off my chest!

Unlike Their Finest, which is not to my taste but will be to many people’s, Brimstone is plain bad.  What was everyone thinking?  The most unfortunate element of the film, as I see it is that it is a very serious subject matter (incest and sexual feelings towards one’s own children and grandchildren) but it is handled in a rather bizarre way in which the film initially and at several later points, feels like a horror film where all the terrible things that happen feel as though they may have some mythological cause.  The Reverend (Guy Pearce) from the outset looms like a Vampire (accentuated by his accent – the family emigrated to the US from the Netherlands) whilst Liz (Fanning) wanders the landscape looking terrified, mute and using sign language and I’m thinking it is a very bad version of The Piano.

It’s such a strange film.  It feels like it lasts for about a day.  The structure I suppose works for the story.  But the story just keeps getting more and more awful, yet not in a way where you’re particularly shocked by where it goes.  But indeed in a very gruesome way.

I’m honestly not sure how to talk about the film.  I could talk about Kit Harrington who pops up briefly playing a proper Yee-Haw cowboy.  Don’t take it as too much of a criticism as I saw Kit in a play recently and he was great, but I couldn’t stop giggling at his comedy cowboy here.  And I assume he’s not meant to be particularly funny…?  But amidst all of the horror, I just wanted to giggle.

Almost everyone ends up dead.  It’s blooming miserable.  The reason Liz is mute is pretty grim and The Preacher is more like a Vampire than a human he is such a caricature of evil.  In fact at one point he gets his throat slit but still survives.  I think his throat was just not slit with enough force to kill him, but I think it would possibly have been a more interesting film had he been unequivocally dead and you knew all that chronologically followed this was more metaphorical than literal and Liz was driven to her own destruction due to the terrible events that had been her entire life until this point.

Ho hum.  It’s brutal, intentionally misogynistic, hopeless, gruesome, relentless and not a nice watch and it hasn’t got anything interesting to say that I took from it at least.  I give it 2/10 not 1/10 as I think Dakota is alright….  And the young teenager who plays young Liz (Joanna as she is known then), Emilia Jones  is particularly great.

But really, don’t watch it.  Unless you like to watch women and children (and the odd man too who has the misfortune to get too close to Liz) relentlessly tortured and killed for three hours, with no point at all to it all.

Nocturnal Animals 5/10

I think the cast and crew of this film stayed in the screening and watched it with us.  I think they may be the only people of all the stars of films I attended who did that.  I’m not sure if they did for certain as they didn’t come on stage again at the end, but they all sat down at the start at least and I love that.  Watch your films with us, please.  I’d have thought it’d be lovely to hear the audience’s reaction to your work.  When cast and crew come in, speak for about 10 seconds and leave, I mean, I think what’s the point in your having come at all.  May as well have not bothered with the air fares.  All it achieves is to make us, audience feel even more like the meaningless ants I have seen the film industry considers the general public to be.  Stamp on me!

Anyway, Nocturnal Animals.  It certainly has a couple of jump out of your skin moments.  It is sort of unfortunate in that it is a film which is involving as you experience it as you’re wondering where it is going to end up, but it makes you want to think about it afterwards, and the more you think about it, the more of a sour aftertaste it leaves.

The film begins with lots of naked, red haired, overweight and/or older ladies dancing in a burlesque style, completely naked.  Then they’re all lying on slabs.  Not in a sexy way.  In a way like they look dead.  It is art in Susan’s (Amy Adams) gallery.  She doesn’t think much of it.  It goes on for ages.  And when I think back on the film, I can’t shake the disconcerting notion that this is how this film sees women.  As meaningless pieces of meat.  It is certainly how it uses women….

The film’s main character is in fact Susan (does this make it better or worse?!)  She was married maybe twenty years ago, for two years to Edward.  Back then Edward wanted to be a writer.  Eventually Susan and he divorced.  Susan committed a heinous act.  She implied he was “weak”.  She got her just desserts though because now Susan is in an unhappy marriage and is generally unhappy with her life.  She receives a novel in the post, from Edward.  He’s about to publish it.  It’s called “Nocturnal Animals.”  Edward used to call her his nocturnal animal (she doesn’t sleep much.)  It is dedicated to her.

The rest of the film follows Susan reading the novel a lot instead of sleeping and it seeping into all aspects of her daily life (hence the jumps.)  Jake Gyllenhaal plays Susan’s husband in the past and also the husband in his novel which is filmed.  Isla Fischer though plays the wife in the novel rather than Amy Adams doing this too.  Not sure the reason for this, but there probably is one. …?

I shan’t tell all the details of the novel Edward wrote.  But basically, it isn’t brilliant and given the fact that it involves a character very like Susan herself who is brutally murdered, and Edward dedicated the book to her, it is difficult to ascertain quite what Susan is feeling and why this novel all of a sudden means that Susan decides Edward was the love of her life and she needs him back.  So she’s unhappy.  We get it.  But when your ex sends you a novel he wrote, named with your pet name, dedicated to you, in which you’re brutally murdered and callously discarded of in the first few minutes… why do you want to get back with him again…..???

The story Edward writes is quite odd too.  The husband in the book is just taken along by the cop on all the investigations.  Surely that wouldn’t happen?  I would have thought that at least at first the cops might have been a little suspicious of Tony (the character he plays.)

There are a couple of scenes of Susan and Edward in the past too and they genuinely do look decades younger.  It’s kind of disconcerting… Was it just me?

It’s all just pretty bizarre.  I’m happy those involved watched the film with us and I definitely jumped and was intrigued as I watched, but if it sometimes feels like the film-world sees the general public as ants, I can only assume those who wrote this film see women as the fleas on the back of an ant…?  I dunno…  I could easily have just not understood….???

It’s Only the End of the World 6/10

I saw Tom at the Farm at the cinema and I adored it.  I was so intrigued it lead me to discover the work of Xavier Dolan.  Dolan is the sole reason I discovered London Film Festival was a thing that existed in the first place.  The reason I attended in the first place was to see Mommy in 2014.  I even saw Mommy again at a foreign film festival.  I love Dolan’s work – how he gets you to feel.  I love the melodrama and big emotions but how at the depth he gets at something true.  (The only film of his I didn’t like quite as much was Laurence Anyways.  I still liked it but didn’t feel it quite as much as every other one.)  I think he’s incredibly talented and I adore Mommy, I Killed my Mother, Tom at the Farm and Heartbeats (which even though it is about lust essentially, I still feel something real from it.)

So, I am sad to say that I just didn’t like It’s Only the end of the World very much.  I am really sad to say it.  And when I say it, know that I mean I didn’t like it in comparison to Dolan’s other films.  I wasn’t horrendous.  I just didn’t feel much from it which is totally unexpected when it comes to Dolan.  All of his other films I really feel.

So the film is about Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) a writer who returns home after a 12 year absence to see his family and to tell them he is dying.  In the end he never does this.

What I felt from the film was how Louis wants to be there for his family and wants them to be there for him in an emotional sense.  And his family want Louis to be there in a physical sense.  They’d do anything to encourage him to stay.  They all dress up as if they could dress themselves up as the perfect characters that could keep him here.  Louis listens to everyone, sadly, but unable to really connect.  Home after all this time, memories flood in.  But he can’t stand being here and wants away.

It is like a never ending Christmas day, post lunch, when all the arguing begins in this film.  There is an awful lot of screaming.  Everyone is hysterical and shouts and cries and rails at each other and although there is some nice acting going on, it is hard to feel much from.  Both because everyone is screaming and because nobody is saying anything of much importance or truth.

There are some nice scenes, for example when Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) gives in and does a silly aerobics dance with her Mother (Nathalie Baye) – Dolan can always capture these little family touches.  I liked Catherine (Marion Cotillard) the only (other than Louis, I guess) quiet character – nervous and caring.  The most interesting character I think is Antoine (Vincent Cassel) – also the most prickly and difficult, he is the only character (and this definitely included Louis who I felt I probably understood the least about who he was inside) who you get something of a sense of who this man is as opposed to just how he is acting.  There’s something really sad about Antoine inside and it is like he’s covered it up with this other personality.  He also seemed to me to maybe understand Louis in a way none of the others do or can.

Really though, the only scenes where I felt much were Louis’ memories.  There are not lots of them, but when they impinge, Louis remembers a family picnic or a first lover and it is all colours of emotion, textures and fragments and is almost like you can smell the situation.  The soundtrack swells as memory takes over.

Maybe I just didn’t get it.  I felt how Louis and his family were pulled to each other yet Louis can’t live here (I mean, who could in this hysteria!!?!)  But it’s just not enough.  Dolan’s other films all have some sort of powerful feeling or atmosphere or something I feel deeply.  This didn’t.  At all.

Did all these stars say they wanted to work with Dolan and the project was picked that way rather than being something Dolan desperately wanted to do?  Does the play just not work so well as a film?  Is the play just not that great itself?  Is the film?  I don’t know.  But it didn’t do it for me.

I thank Xavier for being the only person in all the Headline Galas I saw at the Odeon Leicester Square who stuck around after the film and spoke for ages about it with interesting and insightful words.  But I am so sad I don’t adore the film like I do most of his work.  Also, when I think about the number of people outside when Mommy was first screened and compare it with the hoards we had to get through to get in this time it makes me scared to think this may be the first Dolan film some people have seen.

If you saw this and it was your first Dolan film, please watch his others.  Even if you loved this one, I find it hard to envision there’s not some other of his work you’d love more.

Saturday 15th October

Lady Macbeth 9/10

[Can’t find a trailer, sorry!]

The final film! And a great one!  You’ve never seen anything quite like this film.  I almost don’t want to tell you anything at all about it.  Florence Pugh is fierce and incredible.  Cosmo Jarvis has a little bit of the Tom Hardy to him.

Set in the days when a lady belonged to her husband, we quickly see Katherine (Florence Pugh) has a dismal time of it.  Even the way her servant harshly drags a brush through her hair, or painfully tugs at the laces in her corset convey harshness Katherine exists in.  Said servant is also told to watch Katherine so she doesn’t fall asleep before her husband comes to bed.  It all shows Katherine has no life: maybe less of a life than even her servants.

Katherine is always falling asleep.  She loves to be outside.  We’re in Yorkshire and she likes to wander the moors.  But none of the men want to let her outside or to do or be anything at all.

Katherine’s husband likes to get his young bride to undress.  But he never touches her.  One day away goes her husband and away goes his Father and Katherine is left alone with the servants in this sparse abode.  At last, out into the moors she can go.

A new servant arrives, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis.)  He’s a bit feisty.  But nowhere near as feisty as is Katherine.

The film is called Lady Macbeth so you can likely imagine what kinds of things begin to go on from this point.  There is an absolutely adorable little boy in the film at one stage, but don’t get too attached!

With difficult themes and mounting atmosphere, this film really, really works.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I loved it.  I don’t want to say too much.  Watch for yourself, but it is dangerous in the best kid of ways: a dangerous, unique film with fierce, always interesting performances.

I had another film to rush to but am so glad I stayed for the most delightful Q&A I have ever been present for, in which Florence sparkled like a star of true charisma, Cosmo talked about his dead pet cat, Polly and the filmmakers discussed having to wait ages to obtain a horse that died of natural causes and then having to paint said dead horse because it was a brown horse and the dead horse in the film was a white horse.  We all giggled away and kind of forgot about all the DEATH as we heard them talk about chemistry, Victorian soap and not washing before sex scenes due to being METHOD mateys.

A good choice.  Well done me.  Well done folk who made it.

Catch this film!

And that folks is all I saw!  Take from it what you will.  I do not know what I wrote, but I know it is a LOT! Ooof!  Clearly I am no film reviewer so these are just random thoughts as I recall them now.

I once literally ran about a city which is not my home in order to watch the film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints three times in one day. When it comes to film acting, Casey Affleck is the one for me. I love the love he is rightfully getting for his work in Manchester by the Sea, but from my experience Affleck always works from the inside. I don’t think anyone is able to express the internal depth and nuance of a character like Casey. He doesn’t need dialogue or that scene in a film. All he needs is for a character to have something to them in the first place.
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In Manchester by the Sea, wonderful serendipity occurs as an actor who is masterful at conveying internal experience works with a writer and Director creating a film where this is also the focus. The result is life in both its simplicity and complexity. The film takes both the mundane and the utterly tragic and rather than focusing on either, it conveys the impact of life upon people. I found it a very soulful film. With sparse beauty, script, actors and Director coalesce to crush your heart with the characters’ experience.

Manchester by the Sea lets us feel who Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is long before we know why. Affleck is light and understated, doing very little, yet searingly intense at the same time. Lee is a man who has closed himself off from life in every way in order to survive, but all that really separates him from an unspeakable and unfathomable abyss of pain is place. While divulging no plot, Manchester by the Sea focuses on a lead who is (understandably) unable to overcome an event that happened in his past. He has never addressed this event in any way and the only way he has been able to continue to exist following it is to remove himself from the place… and almost from existence entirely.

The film is aptly titled, for place is so important to it. Have you ever felt like you weren’t sure if you’d ever be able to live in or visit some place ever again because it held such memories? I know I have. Unlike Lee, the things that made me feel that way were not insurmountable. But I remember how it felt. Every second back in Manchester by the Sea is threatening: pulling forth memories, and Kenneth Lonergan offers no get-out clause. You crave some kind of resolution for Lee, or at least the vaguest possibility of hope, but such is never offered. For Lee, to go through a barrier to address his past would be self-immolation. mbts3

Sounding miserable? Like life, Manchester by the Sea contains much humour, too. Often it is laugh out loud funny. The absurdity and awkwardness of life in both mundane and tragic times is funny. The characters are often funny. I loved the band practices so much! There’s a warmth of humour to the film and to family interactions between Lee and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges: so convincing and sharing interesting traits with his Uncle) which I hope everybody has experienced at some time in life with their own family. The chemistry between Affleck and Hedges is perfect and gives so much to the film and I look forward to seeing Lucas Hedges in many films in the future for he’s wonderful here.

At a sad time in my life, I remember wondering how any human made it to old age. So many memories people must have, I thought. How did people bear even more of them? Manchester by the Sea uses flashbacks which eventually reveal what we’ve felt the impact of from the start of the film. You also know there is something to reveal since you see past and present are different. These moments from the past flood in suddenly. They are surely Lee’s memories, coming to him randomly but consistently, as memories do, forcing him involuntarily to remember and so to feel everything he has had to shut himself off from. He cannot afford to allow that, but at the same time he has responsibility and while Lee has closed off all possibilities for the future for himself, perhaps his brother knew that responsibility towards a person Lee will always be connected to is at least one reason for him to continue to exist.

Manchester by the Sea itself spends most of the film in the grip of Winter. Streets are lined with walls of snow and ice, which you feel after a while might be a permanent feature and may never melt. It seems stuck in a time which seems endless and inescapable. But while Spring comes for Manchester by the Sea, for Lee there is no release. Yet, there is another side to the place: a wild sea, and seabirds overhead. Birds always feel free and the life that takes place on the sea also is where there feels the vaguest sense of hope. Lee smiles here once: the first he’s smiled in present time that we’ve seen and so powerful because of the fact.

I personally felt Manchester by the Sea captured depression. A depression prompted by guilt and a persistent grief turned to melancholia, which will never be overcome. Lee has moments when a desire for self-destruction bursts out: violence the only way he is able to articulate his pain, but most of the time he just accepts a semi-existence, aware that this is all there will ever be for him. I also can’t stop thinking about the start of the film where Lee speaks to his nephew, jesting about something along the lines of being the one who has all the answers; who knows the map; who understands it all and knows how to survive. But the thing is, life is wild and humans are fallible. There is no map. There’s more to this, but I think it gives away more than I ought to speak of it if you haven’t seen it!

Manchester by the Sea gets right down to the depths of folk and the broken soul of Lee really destroyed me. I personally loved how this film, so focused on the deepest aspects of experience was scored with so much vocal music (and a fair bit of strings to boot) for what more articulates the soul than this? I also found the purity of the score a perfect match for the rawness and purity of pain. mbts2

Talking about raw, Lee is not the only character who is broken here. Patrick shows surprising resilience given what his character experiences, but Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi has a world of pain of her own which she conveys powerfully in relatively few scenes which span a decade in Randi’s life.

Manchester by the Sea is a film that I’d be surprised if you could easily get out of your head because it gets down to the difficult depths of what life does to us and how we can undo our own lives and it offers no map out. There are films that can have you sobbing but five minutes after they’re over you’re fine again. This one though lingers days after the credits. It takes its time to break you down (given that the subject matter isn’t happy from the start, it is some time before you’ll need a hanky!) but once it gets going, the tiniest of things kept making me shake with sobs. At the same time, as well as revealing a pain that feels physical even as a mere viewer, Manchester by the Sea gets to this place with warmth and humour and even to its most broken inhabitant, family is what matters.

Imagine how many Lee’s there must be out there. How many people are, for whatever reason, irrevocably damaged? How many people have had to limit who they are? How many people are merely existing? Manchester by the Sea made me want to fix everything and everyone so it was all OK. It made me feel afraid for the future. It felt more like life than art in its conclusion. Though tragic, the film, I felt, is not a tragedy: it doesn’t offer either positive resolution or cathartic release. It just is. It is why it feels almost unbearable at times. But, like life, people endure and it continues, its hurdles never easing, yet hope never completely vanishing either.

Strife is a play that made me feel angry inside, riled me up and made me feel I want to change the world.  (Not that I will affect so much as a pin of course, which rightfully makes me feel depressed about my pathetic self, but anyway.)  I also found it almost unbearably poignant at times and I was surprised to find that my heart kept breaking such that I couldn’t stop leaking tears.  This isn’t a review because all I can do is spew thoughts.  I’m no orator ;).  Understatement of the century!  That said, here goes…

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We’re comfortably sat in the lovely Minerva Theatre which holds not a seat which doesn’t have a wonderful view of the stage.  I am just thinking how unwise it was of me to reply to the comment of the lady next-but-one, who mentioned how the seat between us was one of the only empty in the auditorium with “Oh, that one’s for my imaginary friend!”  Don’t say things like that to strangers, self.  Did she find it weird?  Then I’m thinking, did she want to move into that seat, and now I replied like that, can she not do it?  I am all of a bewilder, when…

We’re plunged into sudden darkness and a glowing slab of seemingly molten metal rises on chains from a pit of smoke which billows across the steel-lined floor of the stage.  Light and smoke combine to make the metal floor seem momentarily liquidized too.  The huge slab rises and hovers, ominous and imposing, before settling to become the tabletop in the boardroom around which much of Strife will take place: that forged by the steel-workers made a literal foundation which the board members preside over.  Throughout the play this metal is used in other situations too, from which similar metaphors could be drawn – as a plinth from which steelworkers each make impassioned speeches and it sometimes remains on stage: boardroom in the background when the action moves.  A second sheet of steel, on one side like a mirror, on the other, tarnished is also used, for one example, the tarnished side as a monolith behind the women, the backdrop to their lives.

Alongside orange-glowy-steel’s venture, steel-talk through the years* gradually takes us back in time until the table is formed and here we are, in 1909.  (That rhymed. Hmm.)  There hasn’t been an actor on the stage yet, nor a word of plot spoken, but I am already far away from the world I was in, imagining my imaginary friend.  It’s a shock to be thrown into sudden dark and your senses then assaulted.  This expressionist** opening to the play is very effective in drawing you away from your world, into its, making you feel in a way other non-verbal art might.

As the programme informs, Strife “takes place on 7th February 1909 between the hours of noon and six in the afternoon, close to the Trenartha Tinplate Works, on the border of England and Wales, where a strike has been in progress throughout the winter.”  The battle is Board versus Workers, whose Union has even withdrawn their support, requesting compromise from both parties.  More specifically, the battle of wills is between John Anthony: The Big Boss and David Roberts (they both have such ordinary names!) an Engineer and the leader of the men who seeks true reform.  Both men are hewn from the same steel (eh!  Iron-cored!  What other analogies can I make?!) in the sense that they are both stubborn and steadfastly adhere to their own principles.  Anthony articulates his understanding of this and though I feel Roberts would be loath to admit it, he surely feels it too, by the end of the day at least.  Nothing will sway them from the belief in the rightness of their cause, nor is any cost too great.

Anthony has total command.  He is old and weakening, wheelchair bound, yet barely needs to murmur for his will to be obeyed.  Board members speak their minds quite freely, but Anthony follows only his own will, propelled by his unwavering belief that he should do what he always has.  At his most still, you’re still drawn to William Gaunt’s presence.  In fact, subsequently to writing these thoughts I watched Strife again and on second watch I often found it difficult to drag my eyes from Anthony even when he was only in the background, listening (or not listening!) to the others.  With the quietest utterance or smallest look, Anthony exudes power and when he draws himself from his chair near the end of his reign, he makes his final speech a last roar.

Ian Hughes as Roberts is impassioned and full of the fire of his conviction and to effect change.  Roberts has given up more than anyone and will have his way and he has the words and determination to get it.  Unfortunately, though his words lead his men, it is not enough when the steel of Roberts meets the steel of Anthony.  There is a particular speech Roberts gives towards the end of the first half of the play that truly encapsulates what kind of a man this is, and I suppose I felt also what he has the potential to be.  A man with such thoughts, such conviction and such a way of expressing himself is (or should I say, should be) a leader in a larger sense than he is able to be here, within the confines of his life.  This is not good versus evil though.  If anything, I felt from this play that principles are entirely separate to whether a person is good or not.  Roberts is willing to not only make personal sacrifice to achieve his aims: he will sacrifice anything and anyone else as well (as will Anthony.)  To be right, or even just unwavering is not to be kind or nice.

One thing I love about the play is that there is a vast array of viewpoints.  No two characters feel quite the same, and there are too many characters’ feelings and opinions we get to hear to discuss them all here.  While I cannot imagine there is anyone in the audience who doesn’t side with Roberts in the main battle, every character speaks with logic according to their own perspective.  There is no irrationality here.  There’s prejudice, ignorance, lack of empathy, lack of foresight, but not lack of logic.

One of my favourite aspects of Strife was the women.  I love how John Galsworthy writes women and how they are presented here.  Thank you, Mr Galsworthy, Mr Carvel and every wonderful actress in Strife.  The female characters in the play are all nuanced and powerful in their very different ways.  Although we also have a full range of characterisation in the men, the women are each essentially alone so must fight as individuals and they tend to show more understanding of the concept of and need for compromise (not that I think this play really says that compromise is good might I add): from Enid Underwood (Lizzy Watts) the daughter of privilege who wants to help and fight against injustice, but sees not how and is swayed both by feeling personally affronted by those she wanted to help, and by care and concern for her Father; through the angry, strong, potential reformer herself in terms of how she sticks to and articulates her ideals – Madge Thomas (Rosie Sheehy.)  For me, barring the extremely evocative opening sequence, the play really comes alive emotionally when we first encounter the majority of the women – the wives and family of steelworkers.  As with the men, there are a wide variety of natures on display, but now I would like to take some time to talk about Annie.

I don’t know if Annie Roberts is supposed to be the beating heart of the play, but she surely was for me.  Upon knowing the general theme of Strife, I did not anticipate it to be an overly moving play.  How wrong could I be?  I was streaming tears and even when Annie was not on the stage, events and things other characters said kept making me think of her.  And, though it could have been her story that moved me, for it is moving, it was not this that kept choking me up, but her very essence.  I completely adored how Strife conveyed who Annie is – both in terms of the beautiful work of actress Lucy Black, and in terms of the way her scenes are designed to convey everything about her very soul and who this lady is.  Just thinking about her now is making me feel upset.

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We are introduced to Annie Roberts (David’s wife) dwarfed beneath a steel monolith, her shadow blazed against it as we feel her frailty and struggle before the play tackles it.  Annie’s nature is kind and gentle.  She understands her husband’s cause and, tragically, she also understands her personal sacrifice.  The sacrifices Roberts has imposed upon Annie did not begin merely with this strike.  Roberts’ principles dictated that it would be wrong to bring a child into this world.  A thing we, and indeed Annie can understand.  We can’t deem him wrong, for a child’s sake – it is not the world for such.  Roberts certainly does not come across as desiring a child at all anyway and in fact when he encounters a boy he seems very uncomfortable.  Yet Annie holds this gaping void of the lack of a child within herself.  Her yearning is utterly heartbreaking.  And the agonizing way the play expresses what this absence means to Annie, juxtaposed with her own pure kindness is utterly unbearable.   You know Annie is not the kind of person who would ever have voiced her sorrow.  And through staging, lighting, acting and other elements than the mere text of the play, as an audience we feel this from her.  But nobody actually there sees (or wants to see) it.  There’s some beautiful use of a young boy (Cameron Sutherland) who plays Jan Thomas, but also (I hope it was the same boy now – sorry if not!) at another point seems to play an imagined child of Annie’s.   My heart broke so much for her that so often after this point in the play, Annie kept popping back into my head, sometimes for obvious, and sometimes for the tiniest of reasons and my heart would break all over again.

Annie is ill and other characters express concern for her, yet Annie herself is the one who is always genuinely worried for others.  Will this person sit?  How Annie understands the anger of the lady who opposes her husband and in so doing opposes all Annie has sacrificed.  Will Enid sit and have tea?  Has her husband eaten?…  Other people try to help Annie, which she can’t accept as she stands with her husband entirely.  But where others try to help Annie, in a way to help ease their own guilt, little things give away that they don’t care enough.  Annie will accept nothing for herself, but is giving in every aspect of who she is.  She holds no resentment or ill will towards her husband or anyone for what she has to endure and is with Roberts entirely in his cause.  That Annie is the character who suffers most is both inevitable and a true tragedy.  That Roberts’ principles let his wife suffer so terribly is something which it is impossible to not be bothered by.  It is as though his principles are really his child, the thing he hopes is his legacy to future generations.  Roberts speaks to this effect: that what he is doing now is for those that will come after and he cannot connect with his own wife on the deep level he does with the heart of who he is.  I wonder how he thinks about this beyond what the play shows…  Roberts made me think about what principles really are and how they are not necessarily related to morals.

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Another beautiful moment in design of the play comes during the aforementioned speeches by the steelworkers.  As spoken of, the workers take to the steel plinth to speak, whilst it snows upon them and the wall of the theatre behind, which had just looked vaguely steely too until now, suddenly (although it is still the same wall!  How is it possible!?  Applause for the incredible lighting in this play!) becomes a beautiful snow-laden-sunset of a sky.  I guess it really is a sunset in a figurative sense too at this point.  😦

I can’t find a more appropriate place to say it, but I also wanted to mention Frost, the butler (played by Nicola Sloane, who also plays Mrs Rous) who brings both delightful knowingness and such balance between etiquette and expressing opinion I found it a wry little joy to watch amidst the seriousness of the play.

In the end, compromise (in a way that feels rather futile) wins the day, at the expense of both pinions of principle.  I couldn’t help feeling if the men had just stuck with Roberts a few hours longer that all of their demands might have been granted.  I suppose, given that Roberts’ position of power is at this stage also gone, some might imagine the opposite scenario, on the side on Anthony?  Or at least, perhaps they may have done in Galsworthy’s day?  And despite siding with Roberts, as both men are left alone, I felt for them both.  They finally make a fleeting but poignant acknowledgement of each other here.  Both, I felt, in terms of respect and due to the fact that both men needed the other for their cause and their aims failed in the main because the other man was brought down.

But there’s a bigger picture here: yes, these kind of workforce battles are certainly relevant and still taking place today of course [and maybe we should stop and empathise as we do in this play more often than we may bother to even think about them in life?] but in a general sense, there is not justice and equality now and we are over a hundred years on from when this play is set.  The play, as I say, made me want to change the world.  It felt hard for me to reconcile the fact that it was written so long ago, yet we don’t feel far away from this world now still at all.  In any case, those at the top in the most part seem to only care about those below if there is some gain for them to me.  And whatever our own position, we’re all guilty at times I think of looking away rather than fighting any fight.  From the specifics of this play, I saw the sacrifice it took to even attempt to affect change.  I’m not sure in our current times there are many who would be prepared to sacrifice in this way.  Nor do I see why such sacrifice ought to be required for mere justice and equality.

How is it that we can live in a society that is still so unbalanced now?  Roberts says this in his speech against Capitalism:

“They’re welcome to the worst that can happen to me, to the worst that can happen to us all, aren’t they?  If we can shake that white-faced monster with the bloody lips, that has sucked the life out of ourselves, our wives and our children, since the world began.

If we have not the hearts of men to stand against it breast to breast, and eye to eye, and force it backward till it cry for mercy, it will go on sucking life; and we shall stay for ever what we are, less than the very dogs.”

But in reality, will we ever escape Capitalism’s jaws?  Well, a lovely, jolly ending for you there!  But as I stated at the start I shall make my true end: Strife is a play that got under my skin enough that it shook me into wishing I could change the very fabric of society.  I don’t think you can say such of too many plays.

Strife runs at Minvera Theatre, Chichester until 10th September 2016.  If you haven’t been put off by my rambling pretty much the entire play at you, nab your tickets here https://www.cft.org.uk/whats-on/event/strife!

PS At the end, when both Anthony and Roberts are left bereft, is there a really high pitched wail in the soundscape?…. Or was it the noise inside my head!?!  Panic!  I hope it was a real noise and not my mind and soul exploding, but…?
PPS I hope you don’t all think I am a sentimental fool that Annie got to me so much.  Of course Roberts’ plight is very moving.  And many steelworkers and boardroom members have much of interest to say (as a very tiny note here, one actor in the play (Tomos Eames) was in another play I saw up in Liverpool – Land of Our Fathers.  I didn’t write about it here, but if that play ever comes your way I urge you to go watch and I feel it an apt play to mention here too…) Actually, I don’t care what you think of me to be honest!  Life is both too little and too big to be concerned with such!
* Apologies for my ignorance.  I’d be googling steel information were I to try to discover where all of these clips were from precisely and I don’t think their specific content is the point anyway.  Or if it is then, like the steel itself, it flew over my head!
** I totally only know to use the term expressionist due to watching Director Bertie Carvel’s 2015 play, The Hairy Ape.  It feels disingenuous not to mention it, and the opening is redolent in style to this play in the way it works upon the audience.

PPPS… If you made it this far it is an actual miracle.  A provocation to end… At one point in the play, Enid utters this gem, teehee:

“People talk about sympathy with the working classes, they don’t know what it means to try and put it into practice.  It seems hopeless.”

The audience titters, amused and shocked at Enid’s awful words and easy dismissal of her cause and these people she says she wants to help.  But is this so far from how things actually are?  How easily does everyone turn away from all that is hard to look at?  Not funny.  More terrifying….

Sleep tight?

Finally, sorry for all my silly words.

Let’s talk about Unreachable: the most hilarious play I think I have ever seen… and a play which also left me deeply unsettled about what it means (or what it doesn’t mean!) to love, create and feel from art in a way that I can’t shake.

Unreachable is so alive.  I think that is why it was so utterly hilarious.   I know it was devised in the rehearsal room and a short time before opening it quite simply did not exist!  Is that why it had such life to it?  I couldn’t pretend to know.  Is any of it improvised on stage?  If so, how much?  I’d be really curious to hear from anyone who did see it more than once – did it change at all from night to night?  All I do know is that this had a spark to it in a different way to that which I have experienced in a play before, which really worked as far as humour goes.  The entire audience were doing the kind of uncontrollable laughter you just can’t prevent erupting, loudly.  I’m not proud of admitting I fear I can be a bit of a repressed person perhaps, but I couldn’t keep my guffaws inside me.  Even the cast seemed amused at numerous moments (were they actually amused or acting this? Who knows?!)  But also, the next morning, this play was still niggling away at me in an unsettling manner. And it still is a niggle inside me, bothering me.  Worth a little write about, I thought.

To get boring and literal for a moment, the play follows a film Director (Maxim, Matt Smith) & accompanying important folk working on said film as he attempts to follow up a Palme d’Or win he doesn’t feel he deserves, yet which he is equally certain is 100% his prize, not anyone else’s involved in the film!  I paraphrase as it has been a week and I don’t recall precisely, but at one point, Maxim laments “I know I must have made these films as my name is in the credits, but I don’t remember doing so. And I feel like if I did make films, these wouldn’t be at all the kind I’d create.”

So the play is about all of these… pretty repulsive in most aspects, albeit rather fascinating, self-centred, utterly hilarious people.  However, while all of these people work in a creative industry, I’d say they are all also in their ways, complete pragmatists.  And that is how the creative process is portrayed.  Practical.  Crazed, crazy, but practical.  Special mention to Jonjo O’Neill’s “The Brute”(/”The Moth” 😉 hee) – a terrifying caricature of a character who is actually the person in the play who ultimately shows more softness than anyone else too.

But Maxim, well, he’s searching for the (unreachable) light: you know the thing: magic hour perfection.  “The light” represents the epitome of artistic expression whatever the medium: it is that moment in a piece of music when you just feel everything & nothing & like that moment of music is the heart of what it is to be alive.  Anyone who knows me would know I feel that!  (As a teenager I once tried to play my best friend this bit of a Mahler Symphony at 4am.  It is just so perfect and heartbreaking it is almost unbearable.  I wanted to share the feeling of it as though I could transmit how it made me feel into others.  She fell asleep.)  So, “the light” is any transcendent moment in art.  A moment that you just feel deep within.  Those times when really get to you and it is beyond complete explanation – you just feel it.  I know my life is completely the strive for such unreachable moments, be they in art, in nature – wherever you can find them!

Unreachable was such comedy, I wondered if the play would even address “the light.”  But it did, just in the final scene.  And that is what unsettled me: because given what had just happened in the play, to go here right now was utterly horrific.  Maxim marvels in this beauty.  And so did I.  Yet at the same time it accentuated how “the light” is external to actual experience and importance.  And yet, this moment truly was beautiful… And transcendent!  And I did feel it just for what it was: unconnected yet deep rooted beauty.

I felt truly horrific and like a bad human for feeling this transcendence of the beauty of the stage (there is even a fox!) and awful that I don’t have that many real people in my life I see very often and I genuinely do reach out for those unreachable (but possible to feel fleetingly) moments of light, in art, in nature as though they are what matters in life.  Completely honestly, they are what matters to me.  I actually cannot remember ever feeling anything remotely close to that “light” feeling in mundane, day to day real life… or, more worryingly… from another person…

And… I don’t know…. Does it make me an awful human?!   It made me feel like maybe I don’t care enough about other people.  I hope it isn’t true, but that awful, unsettling fear: what is my life?!

The next day I still found confetti in my pockets.  Accentuating how it was all just a creation.  Yet, we all also know that “the light” truly is transcendent.  I do not know what to think about it.

In the end, does art matter at all?  Is it all really mere artifice?  This sheer romp of jollity for me said something more disturbing than some plays meant to plumb the depths of darkness delve into…

I saw the performance of Unreachable on Friday 29th July.  It finishes this Saturday, 6th August.  I recommend nabbing a ticket for the last few shows if you’re in London and if there are any left.  It is rather a curious play, but certainly one I won’t ever forget.  And if nothing else, if you don’t laugh I shall eat my toes!

I am editing this review to add youtube videos from The Royal Court.  Though they’re very different to the play, they certainly get at “THE LIGHT!!!”  Check out the Unreachable website here: http://unreachabletheplay.com/

PS A prop fell on my shoulder (or, was thrown.) Now it is mine!


 

 

 

 

What a beautiful, sorrowful play The Dazzle is.  The beauty and heartbreak of fraternal love.  I saw the penultimate performance so sadly the run at the evocative Found111 is now over, but if you notice this play being shown I’d urge you to go along as fabulous as were both acting and venue, what a beautiful creation I found the play itself.  It made me truly sob.  And not many plays have done that.

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The glorious thing about small venues is you can see every nuance of the actors and those intimate connections between characters really made this play for me.  The space made me feel as though I were in the Collyer brother’s living room.  I could smell the old books, close by on shelves and propping up the chaise longue (I was very lucky with the seat I managed to nab, admittedly!  The actors were on occasion so close I felt like I shouldn’t look at them!)  You can see the tears in characters’ eyes: not only in those most emotional scenes, but when they speak of or feel something smaller, yet which moves them deeply (or even when they’re moved by their own arguable over-philosophising..)  The glorious thing about great acting in a tiny space such as this is that there is nothing that the characters feel that isn’t transported directly into you.  A very special thing indeed.

I guess I can’t talk about the play without describing some of it.  There are but three characters: the Collyer brothers: Langley, an eccentric concert pianist (Andrew Scott), his brother Homer (David Dawson) who does Langley’s accounts… and pretty much everything else for him, and a rich yet damaged heiress who enters their lives as she falls in love with the artist, Langley (and/or as she is seeking a means of escape from her own troubled life), Milly Ashmore (Joanna Vanderham).  The play takes these three characters who are all simultaneously completely ordinary (not that they would like to think it!) and utterly extraordinary then shows us how they are connected and entwined with each other and slowly reveals the tragedy of their lives.

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Although this is really the brothers’ story it would not be the same without Milly’s presence, due to what she sees in the brothers, what she brings out in them and how they are with her.  Joanna Vanderham is poised, eloquent and articulate.  Milly seems to understand the brothers more than they are able to understand each other or even moreso, themselves.  By the second half of the play she is that tantalizing possibility we want to hold on to – that this won’t end how we know it must.  The tragic Milly becomes old and broken in spirit and physicality, yet she is still the same person in her nature.  She is still the one who sees what the men do not.

But the true story here is between the Collyer brothers.  Langley is a concert pianist and he is eccentric to the extent that he is incapable of functioning without the help of others, Langley is obsessive about the perfection of his (and all) music at the start of the play.  By the end he can lose a day to the contemplation of a pine needle and ultimately his fixation on the minutiae in life is the downfall of his career as a pianist.  Langley poeticises for aeons upon the dazzling complexities of a broken lacrosse stick like it is a long-lost friend, but he doesn’t notice let alone think of other people.  Am I alone in finding something unknowable about Andrew Scott often as an actor?  As though he can create some chasm within himself you can’t see into..?  I can imagine in other hands Langley being a fragile figure, but he is stranger, stronger and more complex than this here.  Andrew’s voice keens and Langley is one moment petulant, even callous and cruel, the next an innocent in a world that is too much for him.

Homer’s destiny was always to be to care for the brother who was special, gifted, but never would have been able to cope alone.  Homer always knew this is what his life would be and he is caught between the natural desperate desire to be his own person and his complete love for his brother.  Homer is on the surface a practical man, but he can barely conceal a gaping need inside stemming from the fact that he has never really had his own life.  His need to prove he has at least had meaningful experiences, that he has meaning of his own is like an ache he can’t contain.  Yet even without his Mother having informed Homer of his place in life, you feel his deep love for Langley would have meant he’d be in just this same place.  Homer is fractious and frustrated one moment, railing at his brother, then witty and optimistic the next.  Homer’s true tragedy is this knowledge of what his life will never be.  He wants to escape this inevitability, but the deep love he has for his brother holds him where he is and at the same time it is truly all he has.

David Dawson is utterly heartbreaking because underneath everything else that is going on for Homer, David conveys these two opposing desires of Homer’s – to protect the brother he loves more than anything and this resigned sorrow and indeed fear which he tries to bury, deny or let nobody see – that this is all his life is, all he is.  I would say these two desires were equal, but no matter the outburst he may have, Homer would only ever act on the desire that is to care for his brother.  And in fact we hear Homer did once try to begin his own life, but quickly he was drawn back to Langley.  Was it only that Langley needed him?  Or did Homer need Langley too?  Whatever the case, by the end of the play it is clear that not even his self really matters to Homer anymore.  And at just the same time we truly discover that Homer is all that matters to Langley too… and there we have the broken heart of the play.

Fraternal love.  Even though they argue and bicker incessantly, Homer’s love for Langley is clear beneath his every action.  His love is unconditional although simultaneously he resents Langley and his situation.  But the only thing Homer needs to live with this life is to know his brother appreciates him and returns this love.  But Langley is unable to say or express this.  The only concession from Langley truly (until the end of the play at least, and even then only the audience, not Homer get to witness this from Langley) is via gesture.  Near the start of the play, Langley, in a throw away manner ruffles Homer’s hair or touches his face or something (I forget precisely!  I only saw it once) and Homer leans into it or closes his eyes as though this is everything.  Later (again, I forget why!) the brothers are holding hands and Langley caresses Homer’s fingers.  The brothers are both brutal and tender with one another.  A climax of the play hinges on Langley’s unobservancy (I invented a word!  Woohoo!) of his brother, and Langley’s whole nature is that he doesn’t and can’t connect and express in this way.  But as I say, by the end of the play, at last we feel that Homer is everything to Langley too.

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This isn’t a play about characters who had infinite potential for whom everything goes wrong.  And I would say that despite extraordinary characteristics you could cite that all of these people are essentially pretty ordinary.  Their lives were always cast to be this way and their ultimate tragedy was inevitable from the beginning.  As the junk builds in their little room and it becomes a prison for Homer; as Langley’s music slows down to a tempo whereupon it leaves him entirely; as Milly’s poise is stripped away via one brutality after another to reveal the deep harm she’s always suffered.. as the junk builds it takes away the space in their room and correspondingly their lives become smaller and their demise becomes ever more inevitable and oh so terribly terribly sad that I was shaking with snotty sobs and trying desperately to not do loud crying by the end.

All this makes the play seem very sad indeed, but in fact there is a great deal of humour in The Dazzle.  It is witty, playful, inventive and clever.  It is often funny… but it is just very sad by the time you make it to the end.  There are enough facets to all of the characters that I can imagine everyone in a room full of people finding different things that they recognise in themselves and in others they know from each character.  And while Homer’s is the tragedy that starts gradually pulling at a thread in your heart from the outset and tears you apart by the end, all of the characters suffer utter tragedy.

“Look at the fire.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it took the whole room?  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it spread and spread and took us all?” Homer says at one point.  But for these souls life simply makes their already limited worlds smaller and smaller.  You get a tantalizing glimpse that a future could be possible for these three near the end.  Then, like a change in the wind, all possibility is over.  Each other was all these brothers ever really had.

I felt this play like fire though; the underlying emotion growing slowly from a tiny flame into something incandescent, filling the imagined lives of these people with almost unbearable poignancy and heartache.

Dazzling.

Photographs: Marc Brenner

[I saw the matinee performance on 30th January 2016.  I did only see this once so I could probably have written hippo, hippo, hippo and it would mean as much as this.  But it is 24 hours later and I can’t stop thinking about it, so…]

My thoughts on The Hairy Ape are here: https://wherewordsend.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/in-which-i-overthought-the-hairy-ape-until-my-tiny-mind-imploded/.

So, if you clicked this link, this bit isn’t actually about the play at all, but about family and ancestors.  I probably shouldn’t share it.  But now I have.  I won’t go over anything I said there.

In all honesty, at times, as the play went on it was hard to focus on entirely for me because I started to think about my Dad.  It made me want to share the story of my Father with the entire world.  I suppose The Hairy Ape offers the story of a man whose story would less often be heard.  Whatever the reason, it made me think of how wonderful my Dad was and how few people will ever know it.  I don’t understand why, for my Dad was absolutely nothing like Yank in any way.  But once you start thinking… as Yank could tell you, it is hard to stop…?  I think it was that bit when Yank is first on Fifth Avenue that got me.  Yank’s at-odds-ness with his location. Has anyone not known that in a sense in a similar way with others they’ve known?

Am I the only person to think of men from their family/that they know/have known while watching this play?  I said my Dad, but he isn’t the only one I thought of.  I really want to talk about some of what it made me feel, but I’m really confused about exactly what or how and it feels too personal to share.  But I am going to try to write something.

I never knew this man from my family, so it is easier to begin with him:

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His name was James (guess they probably called him Jimmy, but I know so little about him that I don’t even know this) and he was a merchant seaman.  No-one still alive knew him beyond when they were a very young child because he died during the second world war.  He was lost at sea.  But he worked on ships (before the war too) and there is this photo of him.  He looks so innocent to me.  He was 36 when he died.  Later, his wife (who had 6 children, the youngest two babies when he was lost) was invited to go to London to see the memorial there, but she could not afford the travel cost so never got there, never saw it.  When I think how easily I decide to just nip down to London, it seems crude, obscene.  I feel desperately sad for her and my life in comparison seems so easy I feel ashamed.  And for this man.  Look at him.  He didn’t know his own children.  I wonder what he was like.


It is a very personal thing to write about real people you knew.  My Dad is dead so I can’t imagine he’d care what I said.  I actually can’t imagine anymore what he’d think of any thing anymore.  Sometimes I wonder what he’d think of who I am now or what I do as he never knew what I’d be.  I’ve no idea.  It’d be so sad were I to write about him and nobody cared, but why would anyone?  The saddest thing of all, for he was so much better and more interesting a person than I will ever be.

My Dad had a scar across his knuckles from a time when he was a child and his older brother was chasing butterflies with an axe but my Dad, as his brother brought down the axe, put his hand in the way to protect a butterfly.  When this brother died, many years later, he sobbed in the porch.  He’d left the house because he didn’t want anyone to see him cry, but child-me found him there.  My Dad was kind and funny. When he died I felt I lost anything remotely humorous and fun within me too.  I don’t want to write much about him and I can’t bring myself to share any photograph. I shared that one thing really to highlight simply how unlike Yank he or his life was. Just to reiterate how it wasn’t the character himself who made me think of him.

But circumstances meant my Dad worked from when he was a teenager in a tobacco factory.  I know he hated it as he told me so.  He told me it was something he would have changed if he could have.  He didn’t even smoke himself (seems a bit weird to think of it I guess, considering the age he began working there?) & all sorts went on in said factory.  And it didn’t matter so much for him, for he had a life outside with family, football: he’d record himself singing his favourite artist’s songs (he’d insert my name in them sometimes and pretend he wrote ’em and we’d laugh!) and he rode his bike – his favourite place to be was outside – freedom.  He rode from Liverpool to France once.  Clearly his work did matter to him though, or he surely would not have mentioned it to me?

But my Dad had wanted to be a carpenter and he made all sorts of incredible stuff for us always.  At some point when he was still young, a man offered him an apprenticeship to do carpentry.  I don’t know if it was through work or outside.  Whatever the case, as he was over 21 the man was not allowed to take him on.  So my Dad worked in that factory his whole life.  Thankfully he took early retirement when I was still little, ’cause he didn’t live to be old.  But he made things.  He could have made that his life had he had the opportunity.  But he didn’t.  When I think about the wonderful man that he was, all the people he helped, how he could talk to anyone and how few people there are now who even know of him…  Even the idea that every person who will ever know me from this day forth will never know my incredible Father… If I think about it, it feels unbearable.

The play also made me think about what my parents gave me I guess.  My intelligent, insightful Mum and my kind, funny, full of personality Dad who both could have been much more than they were made my world such that I could do and be more than they had the opportunity to.  Not just that I never wanted for anything, but in the way they enabled me to see the world and my place and possibility in it.  Not that there is a single great thing about me (and they definitely didn’t succeed in raising my self esteem, clearly, haha!  But I blame ME for that!) but I could never thank my parents enough for all they’ve given me the chance to be.

So, while I was watching it, The Hairy Ape made me feel close to my incredible Dad.  Who has been gone for years so there is no need to be sad, but I will miss him always.  If you’d known him, you’d understand.  And while I fear this distracted me a little from the play and made me sad, I also thank the play for it as it is nice to feel close.

I am worried it is really odd that I felt this though.  And feel almost skin-crawly with shame that I wrote it down.  Sigh.

It’s way down at the bottom. You can’t grab it & you can’t stop it. It moves & everything moves. It stops and the whole world stops.

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I went to see The Hairy Ape last weekend and really wanted to write about it, but I don’t know if I can! I felt this play was about identity and it feels worrying how hard I’m finding it to articulate any thoughts or feelings at all. I feel confused and stupid. Please send help?

The play follows a stoker on a transatlantic liner.  There’s a part where all the stokers are… stoking the engine.  Gradually they gather so they move in unison, in rhythm, and in that moment they become a perfect machine: you feel what these men are to the vessel they drive.  At this point, I half wished it a silent play, scratching it’s rage on those finding it most uncomfortable…  There are many moments in the play where I felt and understood things via other senses rather than just dialogue: Loud sounds shock and confuse and the evocative soundscape throws you into a disorienting, unnatural world.  Brash colour encroaches and choreography and movement seem to me to follow emotional expression.

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Overall I found The Hairy Ape sad while watching, but I think even more troubling some time later.  It lingered with me.  While watching I felt sorrow for the protagonist Yank: through being shocked into questioning what had seemed to be his strongly defined sense of self, he is shattered into nothingness.  Later, I think I felt more how his rage and sorrow reflected that within surely so many people.

Yank works at the heart of a liner. He thinks he knows his worth: he is the engine driving the ship, the steel, building the world.  His ego is strong and he is able to feel he belongs and is above others (‘They above couldn’t do what I do.’) In the bellows of the ship, Yank has clear status: he commands respect, effortlessly leads and is listened to, he literally celebrates working in Hell (‘It’s a man’s work.’)

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Yank is power, physicality and his sense of himself is this physically driven force. He can’t understand how any means other than his brute force could garner respect. He doesn’t really have a complete sense of himself at all I don’t think (later in the play, he struggles to even remember his real name.) The play does present us with other views – there’s a politically minded stoker and another who harks back to ‘the good old days’ but Yank doesn’t understand either man, nor does have have time or desire to.  And he speaks at one point of how he doesn’t have a past or a future so can only exist now – maybe another reason he can’t empathise with such viewpoints?  But then, at the time, he seems not to really even listen.  Everyone knows what they think and are so convinced in their own rightness they need not listen to anyone else’s views. The men uphold Yank most as he has highest status more than because of what he says.

Though neither man’s ideas shake Yank’s foundations, a silly girl (I call her silly, but though she is utterly irritating, I felt very sorry for her too and found her also to be lost..?) unknowingly insult’s Yanks pride with her throwaway horror on encountering him.  This breaks his large yet fragile ego and he is thrown, bewildered, spiralling into confronting who he really is.  Where can he fit in?  How can he exist?  Can he fit in?  Can he exist?

I found the play additionally tragic as Yank has been trapped by matter of birth, but was able to carve so strong a position for himself in the life imposed upon him. Yet despite his extreme bravura and power when we first see him, he still is broken completely and reduced to nothing. It made me think of the sorrow in the world if every person had complete self-awareness of who they are and perhaps their insignificance.  Seems so futile and horrid.  I don’t mean to call everyone insignificant… err…!  A few people aren’t!  haha!  Sorry, I jest!  Sort of…  When this play was written, back in 1922, nearly 100 years ago, was one of the things it presented to it’s audience as it as I felt it now: asking people to question at the deepest level who they are?! Or am I talking drivel? And not only who they are, but how they judge others and assume things about who other people are.  (I hope the play made people feel a little uncomfortable…)

Anyway, Yank sets out, raging against this girl who has insulted him. But of course, he has misunderstood already that it is not she but something far greater he ought to battle against. He continues to try to fight the only way he understands – trying to physically exact revenge, time and again only being pushed further down physically and existentially himself. (I just used the word “existentially” then did an actual laugh out loud at myself! I permit you to do the same! Haha!)

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Bertie Carvel is both powerful and subtle as Yank.  I saw Bakkhai less than two months before and I don’t think he could be much more different.  It is a transformative performance. Yank is intimidating. He seems twice as tall as anyone else and is utter Ape in physicality: proud and brutal.  But later there is also childlike innocence and bewilderment which fits entirely with a man who probably became who he would remain when still a child (Yank himself speaks of just when the stokehole became home for him) and so of course this is still how he sees and understands the world. It is quite amazing I think that you come to feel the inner world of this character to the degree you do.  In real life Yank is not a man you’d be likely to get to understand.  Here, he is given a voice.  I am finding his confusion is confusing me just trying to think about it – I cannot imagine how you would go about conveying it and these completely opposing sides of power and loss of self at the same time.  Also, though he begins the play proud and strong, there is already an element of him that is pitiable. As he loses his sense of identity, Yank also begins to truly learn who he is, so on his way to inevitable doom, he becomes more eloquent in thought and understanding.

In a poignant way, there truly is a sense in which Yank really is that ape.  Yes, physically (from the outset Bertie Carvel holds himself ape-like), but where it matters most is in the way Yank tries to define himself, and in fact already sees himself.  It is almost funny and simultaneously very sad the way he thinks in some scenarios he is confronted with.  He desperately strives to find his place but goes at everything wrongly.  I found the play like ape versus steel, as though this industrialised world were become steel itself and no matter how Yank were to throw himself at it, he is mere animal, bashing against uncompromising metal. The world has birthed Yank into an existence in which he cannot mean anything, no matter how or if he may try to.

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A looming moon to give you nightmares. (Looming Moon could be the name of a band, no? LOOMING MOON!)

Thus, Yank no longer fits anywhere.  It is truly tragic.  It reflects on the way society pushes and holds down those at the bottom, driving the figurative these days if less often the literal engines… but I experienced it most as an individual story.  The world consumes Yank.  It is true of many people of all classes – I mentioned I felt sorry for Mildred too, but maybe everyone in the play is boxed and trapped somehow?

I don’t know whether to write this, but a few insecurities Yank displayed once he’s made it outside, I recognised.  They made me realise oddities about people I know or have known even are/were insecurities.  This and maybe other things I’ve already spoken of made me think about people from my life & past.  It is too personal & daft, but I wrote a bit more here. (Nothing about the play though. Depressing overshared rambling about my Dad and an ancestor from far earlier. I’d advise against clicking!)

Back to The Hairy Ape: Yank thought he was part of the steel, but the metal crushes rather than moulding to him. He is trapped, unable to escape what he is.  The delicate shattering of his steely sense of self is heartbreaking, because he is the steel that grinds the ship, but by the end of the play, he becomes nothing at all.  Worse even: though he didn’t know until he awoke to it, he was always really nothing at all.

Beyond Yank’s individual story, I felt the play gave a voice to countless men from any time who’d likely never express their rage & sorrow or how they felt about their place in the world.  Though it may be felt acutely they may either be unwilling or unable to articulate it, or they may feel it but perhaps not even know where such feelings stemmed from?

I can imagine people having very different thoughts on The Hairy Ape. I think it is quite a strange play in that it works on some weird level, like that liner, down deep in the sea. But something about it bothered me and lingers.   It made me sad.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  And I think it digs down deep to the soul of a man… which can extend as a kind of eulogy to the soul of anyone?  And of course, speaking directly I suppose it is simple.  Man comes from the ape and when the world and his own feelings about himself takes too much from him, there he descends again.

Before I end, I saw this play again and each time saw something new or a new link. The way both Mildred & Yank pick at the column on the stage; the way she is reprieved from the notion of Hell, yet Yank is told to go there. The way Yank articulates his inner world entirely by the end…

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And so much more, but ultimately, while each new discovery leads to deepening, it is feelings that matter I think.

Here I am, trying to express what I thought and felt about a play because no matter how stupid any of us feel, at the same time, we all feel as though our own feelings and experiences matter.  This play bothered me: the cages we put ourselves and others in; the idea that there are surely so many people in the world who are so lost or who could be more than they are but who never ever will be & no-one will ever hear their sorrow, their rage, or will even care.  And many people won’t even understand their own rage.  We can think and feel so much, but the majority of us are so limited in what we can be, or even experience.  And perhaps all, or at least most of us are ultimately alone.

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Alone and insignificant.  What a cheery way to end.  The play also, made me think of this ^, Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Which I imagine a lot of people would laugh at me for saying.  But oh well, they’d laugh no more at this than my words.  Perhaps I should have just posted that image and said here: here is what The Hairy Ape made me feel.  Because I think the only achievement of all this writing has been a small shattering of my own already limited self worth as I see the twaddle spill from my fingers. haha!

I know my thoughts as I tried to write them are not the most articulate or coherent, let alone put across in an interesting way.  I am not a writer.  But I love how plays make you think.  I wonder whether both the fact that they’re so direct as you experience them live and that you have to imagine more than say film or telly can make you think more than you might be likely to with other mediums?  As in you are left to complete it all yourself more?  I don’t know. Anyway, thank you to The Old Vic and everyone involved in this play’s existence.

  • Images are Production Images, thanks to The Old Vic
  • The Hairy Ape is on at The Old Vic until 21st November.
  • The Hairy Ape is by Eugene O’Neill.  Thank you to him for expressing who folks are, deep down within at the root of themselves and within the world around them.  I saw Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic this year too and found that play sweet, passionate & lovely… and pretty much the complete opposite of this play!