For the first time in quite a while I stayed up late in to the night (well early morning really) in the UK on Sunday and watched the Oscars. Arguably the biggest night in the film calendar, it’s always fun to see who looks great, who doesn’t, who gives a great speech (or not) and what the presenter has in store. At times the actual awards almost seem to be a secondary aspect of proceedings!
All in all we had a great night. Yes the ceremony was tamer than previous years but for me that was no bad thing. I tend to find Ellen DeGeneres quite funny and she didn’t fail to entertain us this year, bringing fun and humour to the show without too much uncomfortable digging at those present. As the night went on I loved the silly touches – the selfie was fun to watch unfold, especially seeing Peter Nyong’o take centre stage (getting a better position then even his sister)! I thought the pizza delivery was a great touch too, especially when you realised the delivery guy had no idea he was about to face a room of celebrities. Seeing Harrison Ford grab napkins from Ellen and Brad and Angelina tucking in to a quick snack was good fun and helped show that Hollywood shouldn’t take itself too seriously.
Photo by: Robert Gauthier
As for the speeches, they weren’t too bad. I did cringe slightly at the impromptu singing from the documentary film winner (which was the one result my friend was most annoyed at, after having recently attended a screening and Q&A for The Act of Killing) and I found Matthew McConaughey’s speech rather irritating (although I fully admit that the fact that I have never been a fan of his and was hoping Chiwetel Ejiofor would win may be factors working against him!). Lupita Nyong’o's speech was rather lovely and spoken with such grace and pose, clearly making many members of the audience tear up. Then there was the horribly embarrassing farce that was John Travolta’s attempt to introduce Indina Menzel. At least she can be proud of her performance! Finally top marks to Kevin Spacey arriving on stage as his darker side – Frank Underwood from House of Cards! I did think the Heroes theme was rather unnecessary – the Oscars is about celebrating film and therefore I really don’t think it needs an added theme at all.
As for the winners there really weren’t any surprises this year and it was satisfying to look back on a year that saw some fantastic films released and acknowledged. As my review from October last year after I attended the London Film Festival screening made clear, I thought 12 Years A Slave was a truly superb film, with some of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on film and it was certainly my best picture. Therefore I was thrilled that John Ridley’s script and Lupita’s performance were recognised and that the film deservedly took the Best Picture award and seeing Steve McQueen leap for joy was lovely. I hope this encourages anyone who hasn’t yet seen it to go to their nearest cinema. Due to its rather late UK release I still need to see The Dallas Buyer’s Club, so at this point I remain disappointed that Chiwetel missed out on Best Actor (and feel slightly sorry for poor Leo) and I would still have awarded Steve McQueen with the director gong. I’m also in the minority (I think) of people who weren’t hugely fussed about Blue Jasmine and was far more impressed by Meryl Streep’s multi-layered performance in August: Osage County than Cate Blanchett.
It’s almost more interesting to look at those not nominated. I remain surprised that Tom Hanks wasn’t nominated for the wonderful Captain Phillips, which I thought showcased his brilliance as an actor and I remain incredibly surprised that the cinematography category left out both this film and 12 Years A Slave, not to mention Emma Thompson for Saving Mr Banks.
Photo by: Hubert Boesl
The red carpet also saw some other bizarre moments, including Julia Roberts being offered a glass of wine, only for it to be a full bottle in one glass with a straw and Pharrell Williams in his ridiculous shorts (no no no!). For me though, there was someone else who stood out – as a longstanding fan of Benedict Cumberbatch it was lovely to see him at his first Oscars a little in awe of the occasion whilst still showing his fun side, leaping up behind U2 during photo (which it has emerged may have been done to fulfil a request from a friend to get a photo with Bono!). After quickly going virile the hilarious photo has led to the equally funny #Cumberbomb hashtag on Twitter, in which you can see Mr Cumberbatch appearing in all manner of bonkers places! I certainly hope we see him on that stage collecting an award in the future!
Finally, as for the fashion (it wouldn’t be the same without the glamour would it?!) my favourite dresses had to be Lupita N’Yongo’s beautiful Prada dress, in which she could have walked out of the pages of a fairytale picture book, Sandra Bullock’s gorgeous midnight blue Alexander McQueen gown and Cate Blanchett in Armani Prive. I was actually surprised that there weren’t any hugely dreadful frocks this year (even Lady Gaga looked relatively normal), with Liza Minnellli probably winning the worst dressed list for 2014.
So now it’s all over for another year, we can start to speculate on the films to watch for the next Awards season – I for one have my fingers crossed for The Imitation Game (no guesses who is in that)!
I have been a fan of the TV series Damages since it began in 2007 and it remains one of my favourite programmes. It was for this reason that I saved the final season five for over a year before finally watching it this week. Having reached the end of the series it occurred to me that there may be some out there who have never watched it, as let’s face it there is no shortage of TV shows to watch, especially with the increased availability through Netflix, Lovefilm and Blinkbox as well as satellite TV providers. Therefore I thought I’d take a moment to try and convince you to give it a try!
Damages is a legal drama centring on the formidable figure of successful high-stakes litigator Patty Hewes, played to perfection by Glenn Close, whose mission statement is to take on the big companies she believes are corrupt and each series features a different high profile case taken on by Patty. In the first episode we are also introduced to a young law graduate Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Byrne), keen to make a successful career for herself, who becomes the newest associate hired by Patty’s firm Hewes & Associates.
However Damages established itself as not just the usual type of legal drama through its structure. Rather than the story simply being told in a linear style, Damages makes effective use of flashbacks in order to give the audience more information than the characters without giving away the conclusion. Episode one of the first season opens with Ellen Parsons fleeing an apartment building covered in blood. Whose apartment is it? What has happened to her? These are questions the audience is immediately asking only for the story to jump back six months to when Ellen is hoping to join Patty Hewes. We therefore know where she is headed but still have no idea of the full picture or the circumstances. As the episodes progress, we are given flashes forward slowing moving backwards from the opening moments, as the timelines inch ever closer to each other, filling in more and more of the big picture, through many twists and turns.
By structuring the series in this way the creators gave the audience an exciting new show, with a plot where anything could happen at any time and that left you intrigued as to the final outcome. On top of this structure Damages always had strong characters, superbly acted. Tate Donovan is fantastic as Patty’s loyal associate, keen to make partner and prove himself out from her Patty’s shadow. Ted Danson was the central figure for the class action case Patty is fighting in season one and he proves to be a ruthless individual, very different to any character I had seen the actor portray before. Throughout its five seasons there have been a vast array of strong performances (John Goodman as a tough businessman and former soldier who will stop at nothing to secure the interests of his private security company, Ryan Philippe as a computer genius determined to leak secrets to the world in the mould of Julian Assange and Martin Short as a trusted lawyer and friend of a family under Patty’s scrutiny due to a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to name just a few).
However the key relationship in the show has always been that between Patty and Ellen, one which you had no idea as to the twists and turns it would take. Initially expected to be the usual mentor/protege relationship, it becomes very clear that there is much more to both women and the experiences they have during the series constantly shift the dynamic between them. Having two such strong female characters leading a legal drama certainly moved TV drama forward and Glenn Close has said herself that the strong female leads was something that set Damages apart from other shows. Look at the shows that have arrived since Damages – The Good Wife, and Homeland to name just two with strong female leads. It was also significant casting to see a successful, hugely respected film actress sign up for a television drama and was one of the finest programmes in what is now a long line of quality television drama attracting actors traditionally associated with films.
For me the character of Patty Hewes is one of the finest written for television and Glenn Close is simply stunning in the role. Patty is the best at what she does, a fierce lawyer and businesswomen, ruthless and manipulative, doing whatever it takes to win, which many a times takes your breath away. However no matter how devious her methods, you can’t help but admire her and at times even feel sympathy for her and I was always excited to see just what she would do next, right through until the final episode. She is certainly a character I will miss and I doubt television will ever see another character like her.
All five seasons of Damages are available on Netflix, Blinkbox and Amazon Prime Instant or the series can be purchased through all the usual retailers. If you have a spare hour and want to see quality television at its best then give episode one a try. I’m confident you’ll be hooked by the time the credits roll!
Photo by Alastair Muir
One of the productions I was most disappointed to miss in 2012 was Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, the first show under the Tricycle Theatre’s new Artisitic Director Indhu Rubasingham (who also directs the play). I was therefore thrilled to hear the show would be returning to the Tricycle before heading off to New York and swiftly booked a ticket. I was not disappointed.
Red Velvet tells the story of Ira Aldridge, who I admit I had never heard of. Mr Aldridge was a 19th century American actor who performed in theatres around the world, taking on many of Shakespeare’s biggest roles. This is made more significant by the fact that he was black and the play focuses on not only a key moment in his life and career, but also an unprecedented event in British theatrical history – when in April 1833 he replaced Edmund Kean as Othello on the Theatre Royal Covent Garden stage for two nights and the reaction of both the other actors and the fallout from his casting. At the time no other black actor had been seen on stage at one of London’s patent theatres and this also coincided with the campaign to abolish slavery in British territories (the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire was finally passed on 28 August 1833). Therefore asking Ira Aldridge to replace Edmund Kean in such a role had an even greater controversial impact and I admit I was sorry that I was not already aware of him.
The play itself is wonderfully structured, beginning and ending with an older Ira being interviewed by a young Polish journalist who questions why he has never returned to the London stage since 1833, which triggers him to remember his time at Covent Garden. He takes the audience back in time with him for us to gain an insight in to such a key moment in his life. It is interesting to see how the reactions of the other cast of Othello vary, with the younger members (particularly Henry played by Nic Jackman) excited to have such a talent joining them, whilst the older actors are shocked and to some extent appalled. This is highlighted most by Edmund Kean’s son Charles, who is playing Iago. He sees it as a disgrace that will ruin the play and is also angry that he has not stepped in to his father’s shoes. There is also Ellen Tree, the leading lady (and fiancee of Charles) who is faced with playing Desdemona opposite an actor with a very different style. The comedic rehearsal scene where Ira suggests Ellen looks at him to make an emotional connection rather than addressing the audience was very funny and also provided an interesting lesson regarding an old style of acting not seen today.
The play is superbly acted by all. Oliver Ryan conveys the intense anger and frustration of Charles, who is threatened by Ira’s acting talent but also by his more intimate style of acting alongside Ellen Chew. Charlotte Lucas is also excellent as Ellen, who although appears unsure about Ira’s very different style, grows in her admiration and respect for him as the play unfolds. Rachel Finnigan does a brilliant job in multiple roles, portraying Ira’s wife, a member of the acting company and the Polish journalist Halina in the opening and closing scenes and Eugene O’Hare is fantastic as the director Pierre Laporte, a long standing friend of Ira’s whose two handed scene with Adrian Lester in the second half of the play was a standout moment for me.
However it is Adrian Lester’s central performance as Ira Aldridge that steals the show and understandably won him the Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. Adrian conveys so many emotions over the course of the evening to present a multi-layered, utterly believable portrayal of Ira. We see how both his temper and passion made him seem intimidating at times, but also moments of his deep sadness and fear, which are extremely moving to watch. The closing moments of the play which see Ira preparing to play King Lear carry an irony that is also extremely powerful. The fact that Adrian himself has also recently portrayed Othello adds an extra emotional dimension to the production and I imagine gives the role an additional resonance now for him.
Red Velvet runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 15th March and there are a very small number of dates with seats still available. If you can purchase one or try for returns I would strongly recommend that you do so and I hope its success is repeated when it reaches America.
I haven’t seen that much site specific theatre as yet, but as soon as I heard about The Hotel Plays I knew I had to go and experience it for myself. Theatre company Defibrillator brings together three short plays by Tennessee Williams (The Pink Bedroom, Green Eyes and Sunburst), each of which is set within a hotel room and stages them within the plush surroundings of The Langham Hotel in London. The audience for each performance is no more than 25-30 people and you are guided around the floors of the hotel by member of staff, entering each room to observe the play before leaving again as if you had never been there in the first place.
Having the plays take place within an actual hotel is incredibly effective, placing the audience at the heart of the emotionally charged scenes that unfold inches from you, giving the evening a voyeuristic air that is made all the more powerful by the stories themselves. This is particularly true of Green Eyes (the second play of the evening), which sees the audience witness the charged atmosphere in the hotel room of a young American couple on their honeymoon, which grows more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. I would agree with most other reviews that highlight this play as the strongest of the three. The acting by Aisling Lofting and Gethin Anthony (best known to the general public for Mr Selfridge and Game of Thrones respectively) is excellent and I certainly had no idea what was going to happen next.
The acting in the remaining two plays is very strong as well. I was particularly drawn to Helen George (from Call The Midwife) as the mistress confronting her married lover of eight years in The Pink Bedroom. As you make your way from one floor to the next, you can’t help wondering what other stories are happening in the hotel at that moment and the inclusion of Linden Walcott-Burton as the hotel porter, who appears at certain moments in each of the plays, enhances the concept that many such scenes are possibly witnessed by staff in such hotels every day.
Overall I thought this was an innovative, exciting concept for site specific theatre, which is wonderfully staged and extremely well acted. Each of the plays provides a different set of emotions, whether sadness, anger, a threat of violence or even comedy and therefore at the end of the 75 minutes I certainly felt that I had experienced something unique that was incredibly satisfying.
The Hotel Plays continues at the Langham Hotel, London until 15th March, with three timed performance slots each evening (five on Saturdays). At £24 this is definitely a different theatrical experience well worth trying. Tickets can be booked through the link below.
The second production at the recently opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe is at the opposite end of the spectrum to The Duchess of Malfi, providing an incredibly entertaining, light hearted time at the theatre.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is effectively two (if not three) plays in one. There is The London Merchant, the play the acting troupe is attempting to stage, in which the merchant’s apprentice Jasper wishes to marry his master’s daughter Luce against her father’s wishes. In to this scenario a grocer and his wife in the audience insist that one of their own joins in as a heroic character and so the grocer’s young apprentice Rafe is thrust in to the spotlight to become a knight who, separate to the main plot, will make it his mission to do brave deeds as the Knight of the Burning Pestle (which in Pulp Fiction style is carried in a small box, which glows in golden light when opened!). The rest of the play revolves around the comical blending of these two strands in a hilarious, Monty Python style story, which sees all manner of crazy requests provided by the grocer and his wife for Rafe to act on stage, together with the perturbed company, who are also determined that their own tale should continue despite this unexpected insertion.
The hilarity of the piece suits the intimate setting of the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse perfectly, enhanced by the wonderful staging which sees the grocer and his wife sit throughout the show amongst the audience members in the Pit, providing a third aspect to the play as we watch their reactions to the action unfolding on stage, making this a truly engaging experience for everyone (and those sitting near them will also benefit from offerings of food and drink too)! Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn are wonderful as the couple whose interfering antics and whose relationship becomes central to the story. There is genuine warmth and affection between them and their interaction with the audience is brilliantly played.
The ensemble also contains some other strong performances. Alex Waldmann (whose King John for the RSC still burns brightly in my mind) was very strong throughout and gave a more confident performance here than in Malfi, clearly comfortable with the light tone of the piece and the freedom he has to explore the role. Due to Matthew Needham’s injury (more on that shortly) he also had to act the most bonkers stage fight I have ever seen!
At the start of Sunday’s matinee we were informed by the “stage hands” that Matthew Needham who plays Rafe had suffered an injury to his leg during rehearsals and that certain scenes had been modified. This resulted in a quirk which for such a farcical play worked sublimely – Matthew acted the whole play on crutches and during fight scenes the other actors undertook a master class in improvisation, throwing imaginary punches and hurling themselves about the stage, whilst the stage hands within the play called out to the audience what was happening (“Now Rafe is thrown to the floor and beaten” etc.)! It is unfortunate for Matthew that he is injured and I hope he recovers fully before the end of the run. However, I personally thought this creative solution to the problem worked fantastically well. The “fight” between Rafe and Jasper was one of the funniest I’ve seen at the theatre, particularly when Matthew turned to my side of the Pit and dryly commented how it was much easier this way and despite his injury I thought he performed the role of Rafe extremely well throughout.
Again, the unique atmosphere of the candlelit Playhouse added to the intimacy and at times made it feel as if we were all at one big party rather than the theatre. The comedic tone of the play seemed written for the space. I particularly enjoyed the entertaining start to proceedings as the stage hands (who become the Knight’s men and are played with prefect comic timing by Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan) light the candles, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The musicians are also excellent adding to the frivolity and fun.
The running time was 3 hours, which is perhaps still a little long but this is compensated for by four breaks (three four minute interludes and a 15 minute break). I also understand that this is already 15 minutes shorter than the first preview so I imagine by opening night it will be tighter and a little shorter. Also, thankfully, they seem to have added additional cushioning to the seats since my earlier trip to Malfi, meaning that I actually felt quite comfortable in the Pit.
Due to the small number of seats in the Playhouse and the relatively short run, this is likely to sell out very soon (most dates are already showing limited availability). Therefore if you want to see something a bit different that will leave you with a smile on your face I recommend you buy a ticket quickly!
The Knight of the Burning Pestle runs until 30th March 2014 and tickets are available at the Globe’s website:
Gina Giofriddo’s latest play, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, arrives in London after a successful Off-Broadway run and certainly provides food for thought for its audience, particularly if you are a woman.
The play focuses on the choices available to women today – career or family? marry or remain single? – and whether any of these possible choices will make you feel fulfilled or whether the grass is always greener. Such questions are debated though the tri-generational female characters within the story. Catherine, a successful writer and academic on the subject of politics, the rise of feminism and its links with pornography, her mother for whom she has returned home to care for after a heart attack, her old college roommate Gwen and the young free-spirited Avery, Gwen’s former babysitter.
Catherine is 42 and unmarried but with a very successful career, Gwen is a stay at home wife and mother, who also happens to be married to Catherine’s college love Don, now a junior dean at the local college, who numbs his mediocre life with alcohol, pot and porn and who helps Catherine start a summer school course in advance of her full time post beginning in the autumn.
It is through her classes, held in her mother’s sitting room (to which only two students turn up – Gwen and Avery) that the history of feminism, the role of women and their relationships with men are debated, in what to some degree feels like a lecture on the notable authorities on the subject such as conservative Phyllis Schlafly and feminist Betty Friedan. Admittedly this may feel too much like a history lesson for some, but personally I found these scenes in the play incredibly absorbing and thought provoking. Women do indeed have more options today but it is Avery who questions whether women are faced with an unsatisfied life whatever they choose. It is this question that becomes the focus of the story when the possibility of Catherine and Gwen swapping lifestyles is raised and which drives the emotional heart of the play through the second Act.
The performances of all five actors are excellent. Emilia Fox, in her first stage role for a decade, successfully conveys both Catherine’s strength and sexiness and her need to be loved, Emma Fielding is very good as Gwen, struggling to hold on to her family and Polly Adams adds light touches (not to mention Martinis) as Catherine’s mother (although her predominantly English accent throughout did seem odd). Adam James is particularly strong as Don, caught between his staid C+ marriage and the possible fresh start with Catherine and convincingly conveys his character’s inability to understand what he actually wants without feeling unlikeable. However it is Shannon Tarbet as Avery who steals the show with some truly sharp and witty one-liners and who you cannot fail to like.
The set works well, making effective use of the Hampstead space and thankfully on my second visit there seemed to be no issues with the mechanics, which on the day of the first preview had suffered problems, treating those of us there that night to a public dress rehearsal of sorts.
I found this to be an intelligent, sharply witty play, which at its heart is filled with the nuances of human relationships and emotions.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is at the Hampstead Theatre until 22nd February 2014. Tickets are selling quickly but there is limited availability towards the end of the run via the theatre website: www.hampsteadtheatre.com
When the National Theatre announced this production, to be directed by Sam Mendes and reunite him with the superb Simon Russell Beale I was rather excited to see the results, booking a ticket for Saturday’s preview. I admit from the outset that King Lear is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. However I thoroughly enjoyed this interpretation. It is very clear and would be easy to follow for anyone new to the play, something I think is hugely important in continuing to bring new audiences to theatre and Shakespeare in particular. One of my personal problems with King Lear is that I sometimes feel that it starts to drag on and I become distracted, but at 3 hours 25 minutes (including the interval), the fact this production also held my attention throughout and seemed to fly by highlights how engaging the production itself is.
This is primarily due to the strength of most of the cast and also some interesting and exciting choices of direction, which I’ll mention later. Staged in modern dress, the play opens in a corporate-style war room, evoking thoughts of military dictatorships in World War II. Indeed, Simon Russell Beale’s Lear begins very much as a dictator and I found myself drawing comparisons with his portrayal of Stalin in the Collaborators in terms of his movement and presence on stage in the early scenes. The opening scene is staged with Lear on stage with his back to the audience, sitting as if to pass sentence on his three daughters before him and Simon Russell Beale captures well the violent anger of Lear at Cordelia’s refusal to follow his orders, demonstrating that this Lear is already a little unhinged. As the play progresses, his performance captures wonderfully his loss of control and descent in to madness, as he becomes more and more childlike. I particularly enjoyed his later scenes with Cordelia and Kent and found his final moments very moving, during which you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.
There are also some other very strong performances. Olivia Vinnell follows on from her wonderful Desdemona with a strong performance as Cordelia. I still however find myself wishing that Shakespeare had given her a bigger role in the story. Kate Fleetwood is very good as Goneril and Stanley Townsend is a strong Kent, whose loyalty and friendship for Lear is one of the few genuinely warm relationships in the play. My favourite though was Anna Maxwell-Martin’s superb performance as Regan – brilliantly seductive and malevolent. The threat she poses and her desire for power is never in question and was a refreshing change from the light characters I have seen her play previously (plus she had some stunning costumes). Adrian Scarborough’s Fool comes across as being far less of a Fool than in other productions I’ve seen and his interaction with Lear works well. My one complaint would be that I wish that he had been used more.
Tom Brooke as Edgar was a surprising choice for me, in large part due to me imagining him as more suited to Edmund. I personally thought he played the role of Poor Tom far more convincingly than that of Edgar, which I just didn’t find believable in the early scenes. His portrayal of Poor Tom was very well acted and became incredibly moving by the end of the play. Sam Trougton is a fine actor and he plays Edmund’s deviousness well. However for me his portrayal lacked the depth needed to make the character a genuine threat, although this may develop during the run.
Overall I thought the modern dress staging and set worked well, with the military-style corporate mood matching the tone of the story and the grasping for power by different factions. I am however still undecided about the African plain-style setting for the final scenes, which caused me to start to focus too much on thinking about where the action was set rather than on the story itself, something that I hadn’t found myself doing up to that point. I did however find this to be an engaging and overall satisfying production.
SPOILER AHEAD – One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of this production for me is a change to the usual approach of a particular scene and so I suggest you do not read further if you wish to remain surprised.
This concerns the fate of the Fool, which I’ve not seen dealt with on stage in this manner before. The text simply has Lear refer to the fact that his Fool has been hanged, which seems unsurprising after the terrible treatment of Gloucester. Here however it is Lear himself who, in a violent outburst as he starts to deteriorate, murders the Fool in a scene that I found more shocking than the torture of Gloucester. It was in fact so unexpected that at first I did not quite believe he was dead. I found this choice by Sam Mendes to be very interesting and exciting, as it makes us think about the text anew. It is arguably very plausible that in such a deteriorated mental state Lear would commit such an act and then simply forget or not realise what has happened, choosing instead to believe the Fool met a different fate. This is another reason I love seeing Shakespeare on stage – there is always something fresh that can be brought to the stage to open it up for discussion. I will be interested to hear what other people’s reactions were to this directorial choice.
The production opens on Thursday 23rd January, with an initial run of dates announced until 25th March. Check the National Theatre website for availability. Further dates will go on sale in February and day seats are available at the box office each morning.