Film Review – Bridge of Spies

 

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The latest collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies is a superb film and already one of my favourites of 2016. It is perhaps more incredible due to the fact that it is based on actual events, depicting one man’s determination to do what is right despite the risks to himself, during a politically dangerous time in the twentieth century.

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Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel) & Tom Hanks (James B. Donovan)

Set during the height of the Cold War, the film recalls the arrest of a Russian KGB spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in Brooklyn in 1957 and his subsequent trial. Determined to present the image of a fair process, an insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is chosen by the government to represent him. A man of principle, Donovan is confronted with bias and brick walls as he mounts his defence of a man the whole country wants to see hanged. This clearly causes problems for Donovan (and indeed his family) in how he is perceived by the American public, especially once Donovan’s commitment to justice is viewed as contrary to the mood of the nation.

However, in a plot that perhaps seems as if created for a work of fiction, Donovan’s role in historical events became even more important as, on the downing of an American spy plane by the Soviet Union in 1962, it is he who is entrusted to negotiate an exchange – Abel for the U.S pilot Francis Gary Powers. However, Powers is not the only American prisoner, as the East German police have also recently captured an American economics student Frederic Pryor in Berlin. With no official acknowledged support from his government, Donovan puts himself at great risk to secretly travel to East Berlin (at the time of the building of the Wall), in the company of the CIA, to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers with the Russians. However, being the honourable man that he is, he is also determined to find a way to bring Pryor home too. He has no guarantee he won’t also be captured, as he finds himself in a dangerous and unstable country, as East is cut off from West Berlin.

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The film also highlights the panic in Berlin as the Berlin Wall is erected

As is to be expected by a filmmaker of the calibre of Spielberg, this is a film of the highest quality. The screenplay by Marc Charman and the Coen brothers is a tense, thrilling story, which has you on the edge of your seat as Donovan takes ever more risks, negotiating with the Russians and the Germans in order to secure a fair exchange. Having the negotiations in Germany rather than Russia means the films is able to highlight what it was like in Germany following the second world war. I found it incredibly interesting to think about that period of history from the perspective of those living in Berlin and found the scenes in which the Wall is erected, causing desperate panic, especially moving. The film also wonderfully captures the relationship that grows between Abel and Donovan, who come to respect each other’s sense of duty and service the longer they know one another.

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Tom Hanks is the perfect choice to play Donovan

The casting is also first class. Tom Hanks is the perfect choice for the principled Donovan and brings a weight and gravitas to the screen in a way that makes the audience truly admire him and feel invested in his journey. You almost hold your breath as he makes his way shivering through the snowy streets of East Berlin. His chemistry with Rylance is also crucial, as it is their relationship as Donovan and Abel that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Donovan may have only been assigned to the case initially, but Hanks is able to convey how he quickly grows to like and respect Abel as a man.

As a huge admirer of Mark Rylance for a number of years through his superb stage career, it is wonderful to see his talents recognised by a wider audience (and indeed he has been nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar this year). He is excellent as Abel, bringing out the sense of humour and even kindness in a man who many at the time saw as evil. It is also an understated performance of a quiet man, which is perfect for Rylance, who can convey so much through so little. The film in fact begins with us following Abel going about a relatively quiet existence. You can see how he has managed to be a successful spy for so long – simply blending in with his surroundings and not drawing attention to himself. However, it is a relatively small role, which only makes me wonder at what would happen if filmgoers were to see him show just how much he is capable of as an actor in a larger part.

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Mark Rylance gives a wonderfully understated performance as Rudolf Abel

I’m thrilled to see Bridge of Spies nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. It certainly deserves the recognition, although I doubt it will win. We are all so used to Spielberg (and now even Spielberg and Hanks together) producing films of this quality that I suspect this expectation will work against it in terms of awards success. That aside, Bridge of Spies remains one of the most intelligent, thrilling, absorbing and deeply interesting and emotive stories I have seen in a long time. I felt uplifted by the end, as through this inspiring man, I was reminded of what we could all be capable of if we have the courage and the belief in ourselves to do what is right. Whether you still catch it at the cinema or see it on DVD, I cannot recommend this film enough.

Bridge of Spies is still showing at certain UK cinemas and will be released on DVD on 28th March 2016. Watch the trailer here.

Film review – The Revenant

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Continuing with my aim to have at least seen all of the Best Picture nominees before this year’s Oscars, on Wednesday I went to see the film with the most nominations, The Revenant. I admit that I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the prospect of sitting through this film after the trailer had set the scene of this being a pretty dismal slog. That said, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.

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Leonardo DiCaprio & director Alejandro G.Iñárritu

Alejandro G.Iñárritu’s epic is inspired by the experiences of real life 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who at the film’s start is a fur trapper amongst a party of American settlers. The danger they face couldn’t be made clearer than by the almost immediate, brutal attack by Arikara Native Americans, which brings to the screen some truly incredible, if not graphic scenes. The small group who survive look to their guide, Glass, to find them a safer route back to camp. However, not everyone likes Glass or his son Hawk (whose mother was Native American) as is made clear by John Fitzgerald (an almost unrecognisable Tom Hardy).

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The infamous bear attack is incredibly realistic

The grizzly bear attack is now widely known about and it is this horrific incident (which goes on for quite a long time and is frighteningly realistic) that results in Glass being mauled so badly it seems impossible he’ll survive. Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) cannot bring himself to kill Glass and instead offers money to those willing to stay behind until he dies so that he can be given a proper burial. When one of those volunteers is Fitzgerald you know things will not end well. Events take a tragic turn when he (unbeknownst to the young Bridger (Will Poulter) who has also remained) murders Hawk, with Glass powerless to intervene, before leaving him for dead. Bridger, fearing for his life if he stays reluctantly follows Fitzgerald.

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A fight for survival for Hugh Glass

For the next two hours we are observers to Glass’s incredible journey to avenge his son’s murder. Never have I seen a film that captures better the almost inhuman ability of man to face the impossible and find the will to survive. We watch as Glass literally drags himself along, using all his survival skills to keep himself from death (whether from his wounds, the Natives, the Frenchmen in the area, wildlife or the elements). The further he gets on his path, the stronger he becomes and the more his resolve hardens. There seems no question that a showdown between him and Fitzgerald will happen. After all, it’s what Glass is living for.

The story of this film may seem dull to some, but I found this to be an incredibly cinematic experience. This feels as if it’s more than a film (perhaps aided by watching it on a huge IMAX screen). Due to the stunning, wild landscapes (the film mainly being filmed in Canada, including Alberta around Banff National Park) and the directing style of the film there were moments when I could almost believe I was actually there. I understand the director insisted on using natural light rather than electrical light and that choice certainly adds a weight of realism to the film.

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The film beautifully captures the rich, vast, natural landscapes of its setting

This immersive, sensory feeling is thanks to the brilliant work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (surely looking at his third Oscar in a row), who together with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brings a brutal, visceral, but also visually rich and beautiful film to the screen. In between the violent scenes there are moments in which we watch the sky change colour, the rain start to fall from the clouds and the snow melt off the leaves. It could almost be a nature documentary in these quiet moments. It was this blend of tense action sequences, with calm, tranquil ones that took me the most by surprise and it works brilliantly in breaking up what is quite a bleak story. I would however say the film is too long, but then again by the end you really do feel the length of Glass’s arduous journey, which is perhaps the point.

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Tom Hardy gives an impressive performance as the cruel and cold Fitzgerald

There are some strong performances as well. Much has been said about whether this will finally earn DiCaprio his Oscar (this is his 5th acting nomination). As someone who thinks he should have won already (The Aviator in 2005 was his year in my opinion), he certainly deserves the award and his performance in The Revenant is worthy of the honour (impressing me in a very different way to Eddie Redmayne’s superb turn in The Danish Girl, a review of which will follow). He carries most of the film on his own, with many scenes having him completely alone, but he needs few words to bring the audience in to Glass’s world (just as well given the raspy voice he has after the bear attack leaves his throat slashed). The level of fitness DiCaprio must have needed is unimaginable, as Glass is both a hugely exhausting role, both physically and emotionally. He brilliantly handles scenes where everything is conveyed in his eyes – pain, despair, anger, loneliness, fear and determination as we watch him suffer horrible injuries, drag himself through the dirt, almost drown, be shot at with arrows by Natives and resort to unimaginable lengths to survive. Bear Grylls seems like an amateur after watching Glass! As an audience you are rooting for him every step of the way, which is all due to DiCaprio’s portrayal.

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There’s strong support from Will Poulter

Tom Hardy is also deservedly nominated for a supporting role and through The Revenant he continues to impress due to his versatility as an actor (right from his early days in Stuart: A Life Backwards for the BBC). His performance as the grizzled, half scalped, cold and self-serving Fitzgerald is impressive and believable. This is a man who puts himself before all others no matter the cost (which is almost understandable in this dangerous, unforgiving land) and you certainly see why characters such as Bridger are scared of him and what he is capable of. It’s such a complete performance; not just in terms of appearance, but the lilt of his gruff, often almost unintelligible voice, his posture and his ability to speak volumes with few words. I loved the moment you know he has realised Glass is alive and no doubt coming after him. It may be one of this man’s first real moments of fear in his life and it shows.

Praise also needs to go to Will Poulter as Bridger, whose character is caught between doing the honourable thing and his fear of death. He may go along with leaving Glass, but you never really blame him. He faces an impossible choice for someone so young and clearly intimidated by Fitzgerald.

The mood of the film is also greatly enhanced by a fine score by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner). It is a powerful, haunting and rich soundscape that captures the essence of the period in which the story is set and well as the rugged beauty of the wilderness.

Overall I really did enjoy The Revenant. It is truly a cinematic experience and although used too often in my view, a film which truly deserves to be called an epic. It is hugely ambitious in scope, but its director, cast and crew deliver with its action, emotion and its superb way of capturing the natural beauty of the setting. There certainly aren’t many films made like The Revenant these days. You may not think it is your kind of film, but I definite urge you to see it, especially on the big screen.

The Revenant is on general release across the UK. View the trailer here.  

 

Film Review – Spotlight

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As the Awards season rumbles on, yet another film nominated for all the major awards opened in the UK last week. However, this powerful film is one that deserves attention regardless of nominations, as it shines a light on a dark, unsettling, unimaginable, but sadly very real crime – one which must never be ignored again.

Spotlight is based on the true events that took place in Boston during 2001, when the Boston Globe newspaper’s specialist investigative team, Spotlight, began to investigate the circumstances surrounding a local Catholic priest accused of multiple cases of child abuse. A story previously given little attention by the paper, its new editor believes it is surely something worthy of closer scrutiny. What they initially think to be a dreadful isolated case becomes a far larger horror, with almost 90 priests in the Boston area uncovered as being potentially linked to abuse of children, some going back decades and across different parishes, with the added revelation that this was something the wider Catholic Church was not only aware of, but also covered up. Such incredible investigative journalism earned the Spotlight team a Pulitzer prize and now their story has been brought to the screen (a process in which the original team were fully involved).

spotlight-xlargeIt is a sad fact of today’s society that over the last decade since this discovery, the link between Catholic priests and child abuse is no longer a revelation to anyone. We all know it happened, even though it still seems hard to comprehend. However, it was through crucial events such as the work of Spotlight, that this dreadful truth was revealed. The events depicted on screen caused a domino effect as more and more victims came forward. Indeed one of the most powerful aspects of the film when a list of places worldwide in which similar abuse has since been uncovered is shown during the closing credits – it is three columns of locations, for three separate screen shots. The message is clear – this was not an isolated occurrence and is happening everywhere. It is certainly a chilling visual for the audience to take away with them.

I thought this was a superb film. It is engaging and engrossing and the tension is built gradually as the team’s discoveries grow and more and more evidence falls in to place. It’s a thrilling look at investigative journalism and the audience is with the team every step of the way, as they trawl through old church directories and conduct door to door interviews. Crucially, you like the team and admire them as individuals, especially as it becomes clear that the wider community is putting pressure on them to stop. The Church is a huge part of Boston and priests seen as a higher authority. Court documents disappear and people close ranks, emphasising the power of the Church is this very Catholic community. A scene in which Robby (Michael Keaton), Spotlight’s editor, is at his former Catholic school, facing pressure to “get on the same page” as the people now in charge, is a frightening reminder that any child could have been unknowingly at risk. The priest in question coached hockey. Maybe, Robby says, they are all lucky none of them picked the hockey team.

90Scenes in which Rachel McAdams goes house to house asking questions and is confronted by an elderly former priest who freely admits his actions, but thinks there is nothing wrong with them, as he got no personal pleasure from it, is only made more chilling by how normal he appears and also be the fact that a few houses down there is a school, with children coming and going. Rachel McAdams wonderfully conveys the horror of the possibilities without uttering a word.

This is indeed a superbly acted film. One of its greatest assets is the strength of its ensemble cast, anchored by the performances of the Spotlight team of Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and Mark Ruffalo. Each plays a very different personality, but together they are a strong unit, conveying the commitment and passion with which these individuals carried out their work over so long (the origianl story broke in the paper in January 2002). Like many critics (and indeed awards voters) I was particularly impressed by Mark Ruffalo. Playing reporter Mike Rezendes, he is horrified by the revelations and is relentless in his pursuit of the evidence. The scenes in which he doggedly tracks down court documents are quite thrilling and as his anger grows, you feel it too, as it’s exactly how you feel yourself.

untitledThere are also strong performances from Stanley Tucci who plays the Armenian lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, determined to bring these claims to trial and Liev Schreiber as the paper’s new editor, an outsider to the area and also, as a Jewish man, someone able to have a more objective view on the Catholic Church. He seems surprised the case that starts the investigation wasn’t given more attention locally. It soon seems apparent that deep down no one in this heavily religious community really wanted to think about what could be happening, which is highlighted by neither him nor Tucci’s Garabedian being Catholic.

What also impressed me was how un-Hollywood the film is, for which praise must go to its screenwriters Tom McCarthy (also directing) and Josh Singer. The subject matter needed to be handled sensitively and clearly they have put a great deal of thought in to how to make a commercial, engaging film, which audiences can sit through, without sensationalising the events. There are no explicit scenes of what victims suffered and no lengthy scenes in which we hear the experiences of any one victim. The filmmakers treat the audience with intelligence – we know what is being spoken of without them needing to resort to scenes which would have felt sensational and unnecessary. Instead the focus is on the challenges Spotlight faced in bringing the evidence together in way which would be irrefutable by the Church.

I was hugely impressed by Spotlight and it is a very worthy contender for Best Picture this year. More importantly, it is a vital film in bringing such an important story to the wider film-going public. It’s true that this isn’t an easy subject to hear about, but as the film makes very clear, ignorance and looking the other way went on for far too long. Everyone should see this film. I certainly won’t forget it.

Spotlight is on general release in UK cinemas. View the trailer here.

Television Review – The X-Files – “My Struggle”

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The X-Files is back! I admit as a fan since the age of 12 I never thought I’d get to write that again let alone review a new series! Thanks to an American friend with a US iTunes account, I’ve been able to start watching the series before it airs here in the UK. The fact it is still yet to air here (starts 8th February) or Germany, two of its strongest fanbases originally, still seems crazy to me, but next week UK viewers will finally be able to tune in on Channel 5 and continue the search for the truth.

As I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to start watching already, I thought it was time to review the three episodes aired so far, starting with the series premiere. If you’ve yet to watch, then be warned there will be spoilers.

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Gillian Anderson & David Duchovny are reunited at last as Mulder & Scully

My Struggle is a traditional mythology story to kickstart series 10. Written by Chris Carter, it’s a bit ridiculous and in my view the weakest of the first three episodes. It is however, an enjoyable reintroduction to the finest partnership on television (for more of my thoughts on that click here) and the basis on which the subsequent stronger stories can be built. My message then? Don’t give up if you don’t enjoy episode one!

Where are they in 2016? Still where they were at the end of the last (somewhat disappointing) film – Scully is still a doctor, assisting at a hospital with complex surgeries on young children and Mulder is still holed up in the little house we found him in the last time we saw him. The catalyst for bringing them back on to the investigative track is a call from Skinner, informing them that a internet/tv conspiracy theorist is keen to talk to Mulder, who of course refuses to go without Scully joining in the fun.

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Ted O’Malley (Joel McHale)

The said conspiracy theorist Ted O’Malley has some out there ideas about the government’s involvement in a greater conspiracy and over the course of the story manages to change Mulder’s beliefs yet again and refuel his desire to find out the truth once and for all. The latest mythology strand is back to the government, not aliens, being behind it all and it is them who wish to destroy mankind as we know it, not little green/grey men or super soldiers (although their reason is unclear, or at least it was to me!). I admit over the years it’s taken a lot of concentration to keep track of the mythology and it seems this complex web is clearly set to continue.

The vital puzzle piece in the story is a young woman, Sveta, who was apparently taken and tested on by the government. She, Mulder says, is the key (so the new Gibson Praise then). However, who she is and her part in the search for the truth is perhaps a bigger mystery than Mulder realises.

Overall, I enjoyed many aspects of this episode, but it also frustrated me as well. Acting-wise, David Duchovny effortlessly steps back in to Mulder’s shoes and I realised just how much I’d missed him. He’s still paranoid (taping over the webcam on his laptop), but seems to no longer know what he believes. The episode at least gives him the spark to get back to work. Gillian Anderson is just as brilliant as ever as Scully (although the wig drove me mad). Older and wiser, she clearly misses her work with Mulder and is still the equal to him on the screen. Their characters may have separated in the romantic sense when we meet them again but, crucially their chemistry is just as electric as ever and there was always so much more to their relationship than romance. It was always the show’s finest element and that’s certainly the case in this story. It’s also wonderful to have Mitch Pileggi back as Skinner (still an A.D after all these years, the poor guy) and I hope he continues to pop up over the series.

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David Duchovny & Mitch Pileggi (AD Skinner) back in the basement office

The visual effects are better then ever thanks to the modern technology available. The UFO crash in the teaser looks great and seeing Mulder up close with an ARV (alien replica vehicle) is quite a thrill. There is also the return of Mark Snow’s eerie musical tones, underscoring the scenes just as perfectly as before. Plus I loved that they have reinstated the original title sequence with the 1993 badges for David and Gillian and simply added Mitch in. It gives the series a classic feel, which will no doubt make long-term fans happy.

However, there were weak aspects to this story. Ted O’Malley (played by Joel McHale) is a rather two-dimensional character, who I found an unlikely catalyst for bringing the duo back to work and felt weak against the two of them. Would Skinner really have taken this man seriously enough to contact the agents about meeting him? The scene in which he and Mulder set out the latest conspiracy theory does feel incredibly far fetched too. Yes, I know this is part and parcel of the show, but I preferred earlier arcs where things didn’t seem quite as OTT. Also when Mulder returns to his office the cases are meant to still be there. Really? After 14 years? Then there is Scully’s revelation about her genetic makeup – surely she would have run such tests before, after all she’s been through? I find it surprising to know that she hasn’t.

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The sets and visual effects now available to the series look great

By the end of the episode The X-Files are open again, with Mulder and Scully back on the FBI payroll running them. I’m sceptical the events of this episode would have resulted in the reopening of a division of the FBI. Plus would our duo be able to just walk back in to their old jobs years later? This is where Carter’s writing is a bit lightweight for me, with so many unlikely elements that stand out, but I suppose ultimately we’re not meant to care about the how – the fact is the basement office is back open for business and after watching episodes two and three (reviews to follow), I can safely say it only gets better from here.

Yes, “My Struggle” is a little silly and doesn’t make complete sense, but it’s an enjoyable hour in which the key strands of the show are reintroduced, old characters re-established (who didn’t love seeing the CSM at the end like old times?!) and a new course is set for the remaining stories to be built on. From what I have already seen the show is still more than capable of brining both creepy and comedic classics to the screen. Welcome back Agents – I have truly missed you and can’t wait to see where the journey takes us next!

The X-Files begins in the UK on 8th February on Channel 5 at 9 p.m. Even if you’ve already watched it, tune in to get its ratings as strong as the US to show there is still an audience for the show here! If you’ve yet to see it enjoy (and even if episode one seems silly, stick with it, as so far the rest have been fantastic)! For a flavour here’s a trailer.

 

 

Theatre Reflections – The RSC’s King and Country cycle at the Barbican

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Last weekend saw me back at the Barbican to enjoy the final cycle of the RSC’s tetralogy of History plays, which began life in October 2013 with Richard II. Although this was the culmination of the London run, I couldn’t ignore such an achievement on this blog and have reviewed both Henry IV and Henry V separately to accompany this reflection on the spectacle as a whole.

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The beginning of the cycle at Gloucester’s funeral in Richard II. Photo: Keith Pattison

The King and Country cycle gave audiences the opportunity to delve deeper in to the fabric of four of Shakespeare’s Histories, by seeing them back to back over three days. Although each works as a standalone, seeing them performed as one, with the same actors, set and wonderful musicians added so much more to the viewing experience, perhaps more than I anticipated. This unique way of watching these plays was thrilling, as the pieces slotted together and the wider picture became clear.

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Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, whose development is so much clearer during the cycle experience. Photo: 

The development of characters was more profound, particularly Bolingbroke through to King Henry IV and his son Prince Hal, who grows so much to become the King he is by the end of Henry V. The political intrigues and manoeuvres are more obvious and easier to follow; you see Northumberland aid Bolingbroke, Richard predict how he will later turn against his new king, only for this to occur in Henry IV and with Sean Chapman in the role across all the plays, the character had a depth to him which would not have been as evident to the audience on viewing just one instalment.

Characters you have heard referred to in one play appear later, making your understanding of their role in the larger picture so much clearer, for example Worcester, who we hear Harry Percy speak of in Richard II and then meet in Henry IV as he takes his place in rebellion with his nephew. In the case of Aumerle (who became the Duke of York on the death of his father), he disappears from the story, but the moment the Duke of Exeter describes his death on the battlefield at Agincourt in Henry V has an extra level of poignancy when only two days before you saw the tragic arc of his character in Richard II.

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This powerful image from Richard II is mirrored later in Henry IV. Photo: Elliot Franks

The use of imagery across the cycle is also very clever, with the audience spotting echoes of earlier moments in the history in later plays. One example that stood out for me was when Falstaff and Shadow in Henry IV mirrored the image of Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. Then there is the simple image of each new king seated on the same throne, which when watched in so short a space of time highlights the transient nature of the crown during this period in our history. Some of the casting choices also resulted in wonderful imagery, such as Matthew Needham in Henry IV Part II playing Mowbray, who is standing next to the Archbishop of York as he reflects on the death of their brave Hotspur. It seems to emphasise the spirit of Harry Percy having Needham in that role. It’s also lovely to bookend the cycle with Jane Lapotaire on the stage – at the start in mourning, all in black and at the end as Queen Isobel in a light grey gown in happier times. Then of course there are the recurring references to the death of Richard, with Henry V still trying to atone for his father’s earlier actions years later. So many of these moments resonated much more when seeing the whole story told as one.

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Jane Lapotaire bookends the cycle. Here as Queen Isobel with Simon Thorp & Alex Hassell.

One of the other thrilling aspects of the King and Country cycle for me was watching all the hard work and dedication of the ensemble come together. Having seen all of the plays in their original stand-alone runs, you see how much they have all developed their performances, but also their confidence as actors, particularly the younger members of the company. This was one of the highlights of the 2008/2009 RSC ensemble and is something I haven’t been as excited about since then. When you also remember that most of the company is playing at least one understudy role in each play, the level of their skill and commitment to the project is even more incredible.

It’s fantastic to see such young talents at the early stage of their careers and imagine all the roles that you may see them perform in the future. Olly Rix stood out in the original Richard II run (in fact he impressed me much more than David Tennant during those early performances of that production in Stratford-Upon-Avon). Matthew Needham has joined in these later stages of the cycle and commanded his scenes as Hotspur in Henry IV, as well as making that character much more of a presence in Richard II. The first trio of Bushey, Bagot and Greene (Sam Marks, Jake Mann and Marcus Griffiths) had a whole run to finesse their roles and it’s a shame Martin Bassindale, Nichols Gerard-Martin, and Robert Gilbert don’t have as long. However, each of these actors gives strong performances across the cycle as a whole and I particularly enjoyed Gilbert’s Greene in Richard II and Bassindale’s Boy and Gerard-Martin’s Orleans in Henry V.

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One of the ensemble’s strongest members throughout the cycle. Sam Marks as Aumerle. Photo: Keith Pattison

Of the original trio of Richard’s flatterers only Sam Marks remains and he became a firm favourite for me from this company. Sam has grown so much over the last two and a half years at the RSC, resulting in confident, developed, nuanced performances in every role he has in the cycle. His Aumerle is a match for Olly’s, bringing his sense of conflict to the fore much more and creating with Tennant an even more emotional connection between their two characters (something I really didn’t think was possible). Poins remains a lovely sidekick to the partying Prince Hal and their friendship feels genuine and warm and his Constable of France is also a strong presence, who you feel sorry didn’t survive the battle (or I did anyway)! I genuinely cannot wait to see what projects these actors move on to next, but I’ll certainly be buying tickets. It is a unique aspect of the RSC’s company approach that has helped foster such talent with Ed Bennett, Sam Alexander, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon being actors I now make a concerted effort to see in every role after watching them on stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

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Director Greg Doran with David Tennant

I realise that people who didn’t experience the King and Country cycle, or who perhaps haven’t yet appreciated how special Shakespeare can be, will find the idea of four plays in three days an effort. For me however, I loved every moment of this very special project and would have happily stayed on for The War of the Roses tetralogy had that been an option. I’ll have to make do with series two of the BBC’s Hollow Crown for this in April!

Although the UK run of the cycle is over now, the plays are off on an international tour. Henry IV and V can be seen next (albeit with some slight shuffling of the cast for this leg of the tour) in China, first in Beijing, then Shanghai and then Hong Kong. They will then be joined by Richard II in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I am thrilled to be going to the final New York cycle in April to enjoy them all one last time and if you are able to go yourself, I would certainly recommend you buying tickets for the tour too!

For further information on the international King and Country tour visit the website here. Richard II and Henry IV, as filmed in Stratford-Upon-Avon, are available on DVD from the RSC shop and the usual stockists. Henry V will be available in due course. 

 

Theatre Reflections – Henry V (RSC) at the Barbican

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(Photo via the RSC)

Following on from yesterday’s post about Henry IV, on then to Henry V, which is of course the culmination of everything that has gone before in this tetralogy of plays. The party prince Hal, who realises to lead he must leave his past and Falstaff behind, goes on to become a King his people can be proud of and seeing this within a day of Henry IV only highlighted how far he comes in such a short period of time.

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Daniel Abbott, Alex Hassell & Dale Mathurin. Photo: Keith Pattison

Alex Hassell is excellent in this production and there’s no doubt playing all three back to back strengthens his performance. It also enables the audience to appreciate the subtleties of his portrayal. At times during Henry IV, his Hal comes across as a bit stilted, but when you see the three together, you can see the development of the man. So much about him changes, his mannerisms, physical movements and even his voice, as he grows from Eastcheap lad to soldier and leader. In the opening moments of the play, on being presented with the evidence of his claim to France, he is overwhelmed – battling to keep a façade of control, but you see it in his face; the boy still adjusting to the man he must be now.

When you compare this to the confident soldier he is at the play’s conclusion you realise how far he and indeed Hassell have come. Everything Hal has experienced results in him being a better King. The mistake the French and no doubt some in his own Court make is to see his Eastcheap escapades as a sign he will be a weak ruler. In fact it is those experiences that give Henry the insight in to his people and then the ability to rally them to victory against all the odds and Hassell’s passion during those iconic battle speeches on Sunday was the best I’ve seen him perform them yet.

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus. Photo: Keith Pattison

The staging is also wonderful. Beginning and ending with the bowels of the Barbican backstage area on display, it fits perfectly with a play, which through the inclusion of the Chorus (here played by the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies) invites the audience to accept this is a retelling of a great tale and to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I still love Oliver Ford Davies picking up the crown to put it on, only for Hassell to appear and snatch it from him, to the raised eyes of the older actor! It’s a wonderful start to what is a truly wonderful production.

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Joshua Richards as Fluellen. Photo: Keith Pattison

Drawing on the strength of this ensemble all of the performances are spot on throughout. Joshua Richards is especially brilliant as Fluellen and his scene with the soldiers from Ireland, England and Scotland is a particular highlight, showing through its humour how perhaps the English viewed the other realms of the British Isles at the time. Simon Yadoo’s Scottish soldier is hilarious in that you don’t understand a single word he says!

The members of the French contingent are also very good too. Robert Gilbert is ridiculously silly as the Dauphin, flicking his hair and preening like a peacock, so arrogant in his supposed position of superiority over Henry (and indeed those on his own side). Sam Marks is again a strong presence on the stage as the Constable of France and his relationship with the Dauphin, filled with friction is brilliant to watch (particularly as they use the tactic of emphasis on syllables in words to fire barbed insults at one another).

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Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine. Photo: Keith Pattison

Jennifer Kirby is wonderful as Princess Katherine (or Kate as Hal calls her – quite modern and fitting in a world with our own royal Kate). Her ability to bring humour and fun through her early scenes while speaking French is impressive and her playful chemistry with Hassell in the final scene of the play is a joy to watch (indeed on Sunday, Alex Hassell almost had her in stitches). It could be a very modern scene, a testament to the brilliance of the playwright who wrote it 400 years ago!

I loved this production in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it has only improved over its Barbican run, resulting in a triumphant final fanfare yesterday, of which everyone involved should feel incredibly proud.

The King And Country productions can still be seen on their international tour. Henry IV and V first in China next month and then all four plays go to New York in March. For details and ticket information visit the RSC’s website here. Henry V will also be released in due course on DVD. My post reflecting on the King and Country cycle as a whole will follow shortly.

 

Theatre Reflections – Henry IV (RSC) at the Barbican

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Last week saw me return to the Barbican to see Henry IV (which I’d first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon and then again at the Barbican a year ago). Now back as part of the King and Country cycle I was looking forward to seeing it again. I’ve written at length on this blog about the RSC’s Richard II (click on the tag Richard II for all posts), but in terms of the other plays of the cycle, it was Henry IV that I enjoyed so much more this time around. My overall thoughts on the cycle as a whole will appear in a separate post within the next day.

 

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King Henry IV & his sons prepare for battle in Part 1

Antony Sher’s Falstaff, although very good, hadn’t captured my attention and emotion in the same way as Roger Allam had, but on this run I found his performance so much stronger. The voice he uses for Falstaff (which I admit I did find a bit OTT) had been taken down a notch or two and it was a much more settled performance, which I actually very much enjoyed. He still has a lovely relationship with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal, especially early on and the playful jokes between him, Hal and Poins were lovely to see again. You do indeed see the Eastcheap gang as a family and perhaps understand why Hal enjoys being part of it rather than the Court. This makes the end of Part II all the more poignant as Hal turns away from his former life and his dear friend. Sher’s “I will be sent for” was so sad, as you sense that perhaps even Falstaff knows that’s a lie.

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Matthew Needham was a brilliant Hotspur alongside Sean Chapman as Northumberland

The other key character within Part I has to be Hotspur and although Trevor White’s manic, bleach-blonde performance was certainly different, it did grate on me after a while and I preferred Matthew Needham’s portrayal of this young man through Richard II and Henry IV Part I, which I thought was fantastic. He was able to convey the moments of humour, anger and frustration perfectly, resulting in the audience (or certainly me anyway) liking him and admiring his courage and bravery – putting him in stark contrast to the revelling Prince Hal. This added a different dimension to their final confrontation and it was thrilling to see these two men sword to sword. You yearn for circumstances to be different between these them, here set on opposing trajectories, as you can imagine how perhaps they could have been a great source of strength for each other had they been on the same side. Having seen Needham on stage previously in comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (and on crutches no less after an injury) I knew he’d be a great addition to the ensemble and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Sarah Parks also gave a wonderful Mistress Quickly and Emma King’s Doll was a feisty Scottish lass, whose scene with Anthony Byrne’s Pistol was great fun.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff wth Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

I’m still not a huge fan of Henry IV Part II, but I really enjoyed it on Saturday. It was funny, but not ridiculous and the growing ill health of the King was perfectly captured by Jasper Britton, whose final speech was a key, stand-out moment of the weekend, particularly after you as an audience has travelled with that character over two days through from being Bolingbroke to the dying King Henry. Playing Bolingbroke has certainly enhanced his approach to Henry IV and seeing his decline from confident rebel to weak, dying man was particularly poignant during the cycle. Britton’s wonderful, fatherly relationship with Needham’s Hotspur in Richard II highlighted the distance between him and his own son at the start of Henry IV and seeing them side by side on his deathbed in Part II, at last with an affection that they may never really have had was delicately played by both Britton and Hassell.

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The 2014 cast recording is available on DVD

My main reason for never enjoying Part II as much as Part I is the interlude away from the main plot to see Falstaff’s visits to Shadow and Silence and on previous visits to this production, as much as I love Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, it still didn’t really appeal to me. However, as part of the cycle experience they felt like light relief in a much broader way and were much more enjoyable during this viewing. I still don’t think they serve much purpose and for me the play wouldn’t suffer from their absence, but the actors were on fine form on Saturday. I also appreciated the moment Falstaff and Shadow mirrored Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. It was a moment I would only ever have picked up on by watching the whole cycle as one.

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Scenes between Jasper Britton’s King and his son Hal (Alex Hassell) were even more poignant as part of the cycle

Another favourite of these productions was Sam Marks’ Ned Poins, who although in Henry IV for only a few scenes, captures the closeness and brotherly affection between him and Hal and the banter and fun of their world, draws the audience in. This only makes it a little more sad to be aware that such frivolity will clearly never last once Hal becomes King. Credit also needs to go to Emma King as Lady Mortimer, whose ability to speak and sing with such emotion in Welsh was incredibly impressive.

Overall, although it’s still my least favourite of the three stories of the cycle, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to this production, much more so than before and it paved the way wonderfully for Henry V.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 can next be seen in China and then New York as part of the King and Country tour. Details can be found here. For those who missed the shows in the UK, an earlier 2014 performance was filmed and is available to buy on DVD from the RSC and all the usual retailers.

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