Film Review – The Fifth Estate (2013)

The Fifth Estate focuses on the early years of the website WikiLeaks up until its global impact after the leaking of thousands of US Government documents in the summer of 2010. WikiLeaks went from being relatively unknown to a worldwide news story. The film is based on the personal accounts of Daniel Domscheit-Berg and British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding and therefore focuses on the relationship between Berg and Julian Assange in the early years from 2007 and how their friendship eventually broke down.

I found this film to be quite slow, particularly to start with and I imagine many people seeing the film will complain that it is a lot of talk but I expected this. It isn’t an action thriller; it’s an intelligent dialogue-heavy film and therefore won’t appeal to everyone. I do however think that director Bill Condon builds the tension in certain moments well, for example, as we watch a character hoping to cross the Syrian border.

Ultimately though The Fifth Estate is all about the central performances and I admit my main interest in going to see the film was to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange. The central performances by Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl as Berg are very good indeed and raise the quality of the film substantially. Brühl is great at portraying Berg as a man caught between his ethical beliefs and his friend’s vision and belief in the transparency of all information no matter the cost. Cumberbatch is excellent as Assange, highlighting yet again his incredible range and versatility as an actor. There seems to be no role (on stage or screen) that he cannot do and his performance here is an extremely nuanced, effective portrayal of a man recognised worldwide but who still remains somewhat an enigma. His accent is very good in my opinion, but also each gesture and expression is thought through to transform him into Assange. In fact those who know him say it’s uncanny.

It would have been interesting to have a better understanding of Assange’s early life, which is only hinted at in this film, but the audience has to remember that as the film is based on Berg’s experience with him, such aspects could never fully be explored. I was also disappointed by how little we see some of the other characters, in particular Peter Capaldi and Dan Stephens at The Guardian. Both are great actors but don’t have much to do here.

Overall I enjoyed the film – it is an interesting insight into the central relationship behind one of the biggest news stories of the last decade and will be appreciated most by those who enjoy films such as The Social Network. I would probably describe it as an average film, which contains an excellent central performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, together with some notable supporting roles.

The Fifth Estate is out in cinemas now.

Film Review – 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Of all the films included at this year’s London Film Festival there was one in particular I wanted to see and that was 12 Years A Slave – the cast, director and the impressive critical praise it received in Toronto had me setting my hopes extremely high for this film and I admit that I was worried I may be disappointed. I couldn’t have been more wrong – every superlative expressed in relation to 12 Years A Slave is deserved, as it is nothing short of sensational. However it is by no means easy to watch and it will stay with you for days due to its emotional intensity.

12 Years A Slave is based on the diary account of Solomon Northup, a free black musician in 19th century New York, who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold in to slavery. On the promise of lucrative work as a fiddler he travels with two men to Washington. There they eat, drink, celebrate and on feeling sick he is put to bed to rest – only to awaken in chains in a dark basement with no proof of who is. For the next 12 years he is Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, who is passed from one master to the next, whilst desperately trying to stay alive long enough to find a way back to his wife and children.

This is an intensely powerful film from start to finish as we follow Solomon’s experience of life as a slave and director Steve McQueen (director of Hunger and Shame) presents a harrowing, honest, emotional exposure of slavery that has never been conveyed in such a way before. For a 21st century audience, seeing with how little regard human beings were treated in the not too distant past is frightening and truly heartbreaking, for example the cruel separation of a woman from her children for her to be told she’d soon forget them and the horrifying beatings and violence carried out by slave owners.

Through Solomon’s eyes we see a broad spectrum of slave ownership – his first master John Ford (wonderfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch) seems almost a reluctant owner. He needs slaves to work his plantation but he seems to do what he can to treat them honourably and he develops a respect for Solomon’s ideas for the land, much to the anger and jealousy of Paul Dano’s architect Tibeats and also gives him a violin on knowing of his talents. However, Solomon does not remain with Ford. His challenge to the authority of Tibeats results in an attempted lynching, which in one of the toughest scenes in the film has Solomon hanging from a branch, desperately trying to keep his feet on the floor whilst everyday plantation life carries on around him. McQueen’s brave decision to linger on this scene for so long, with little (or no) music delivers the scene like a punch to the chest. It is Ford’s need to protect Solomon from further harm that results in him being passed on to Edwin Epps (the terrific Michael Fassbender).

Epps is very different to Ford. Clearly a sadist, he enjoys punishing the slaves who work picking cotton on his plantation, never seen more clearly than in the most harrowing scene in the film, when a slave is whipped almost to death. What makes this scene all the more unbearable is that Epps forces Solomon to give the lashes until, dissatisfied with his efforts, he finishes the ordeal himself. The camera does not shy away from the realities of slavery here. We see every lash, hear it and witness the awful wounds caused. I had to look away several times as did most of the people around me.

Steve McQueen spoke after the screening of how such a significant part of world history has not been fully explored and that to him it was obvious that such a film should be made. He referred to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the existence of a black President in America and the anniversaries relating to the abolition of slavery (2015 will see the 150th anniversary of its abolition), saying that it was the ideal time for such a story to be told. He also spoke of the fact that it was his wife who found Solomon’s published diary on which the film is based. Hans Zimmer’s score is very good too, balancing delicate moments with harsher ones and contains a strong use of metallic chain-like noises which links perfectly with the tone of the film and is quite unique.

It is however the extraordinary cast that bring Solomon’s story to vivid life before our eyes. The contrast between his slave owners is perfectly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Cumberbatch’s all too brief appearance is of the quality and standard we expect of this superb actor and it is a dramatic contrast to the character of Fassbender’s sadistic Epps. He plays Epps superbly, with a lurking malevolence, which makes him truly frightening – we know the violence he is capable of and that it could be unleashed on a whim at any moment. Epps’s wife (played by Sarah Paulson) is another shocking character – her clear hatred of one of the slave girls (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) to whom her husband has taken an unfortunate liking is appalling and led to gasps from the audience at one particular moment.

Lupita herself is astonishing in her role, conveying the pain and anguish that her character Patsy feels. At one moment she begs Solomon to kill her to end her suffering and you cannot feel anything but sadness that this was the life people had to endure. Brad Pitt is also very good in his small but pivotal role, as a man against the inequality and cruelty of slavery and unafraid to say so to Epps and to do what is right.

However it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who is the centre of this film and his performance as Solomon is quite simply breathtaking and one of the finest performances you will ever see on screen. Through him we feel every beating and see just how strong the human spirit can be in the face of such terrible injustice and cruelty. I do not think I have ever felt as emotionally invested in a character in a film as his beautiful realisation of Solomon and I defy you not to be moved to tears by the final scenes of this story.

12 Years A Slave is certainly not an easy film to watch and is an intense exploration of, in Solomon’s words, “man’s inhumanity to man”. However it is a film and a period in history that very much needs to be given greater attention so that we never forget (in the same way as Schindler’s List makes us never forget the atrocities of war). Every element of this film is stunning – the script by John Ridley, the performances, direction and score and it reminded me how incredible a film can be. The screening received a standing ovation, something I’ve never experienced in a cinema, but which felt wholly appropriate for a film that delivers as strong an emotional punch as I’ve ever felt at the theatre and standing to applaud seemed absolutely right. It is the power and message of Solomon’s story that are important rather than any award, but in my opinion, no other films need be submitted for next year’s awards season. I have seen my Best Picture, Director and Actor (not to mention a number of incredible supporting roles) and I’m certain that anyone who sees the film will agree and I could not recommend it strongly enough.

12 Years A Slave is now on limited release in America but will not be released in the UK until January next year. I do however urge you to go and see it as soon as you are able and in the meantime the original diary of Solomon Northup can be purchased for as little as 77p (I’m reading it on my Kindle at the moment).

Watch the official trailer for the film here:

Film Review – Parkland (2013)

Parkland poster

Last night I attended the UK premiere of Parkland at the London Film Festival. Written and directed by Peter Landesman and based on the writing of Vincent Bugliosi (in his 2007 book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F Kennedy and, in particular, the chapters of that book that became the later release Four Days In November), the film tells the story of one of the most momentous days in history – 22nd November 1963 and the assassination from the perspectives of ordinary individuals who found themselves caught up in unimaginable events.

The film takes its title from Parkland Memorial Hospital, the hospital to which both the President and Lee Harvey Oswald were taken and pronounced dead within hours of each other. Its style chooses to shine a light on a number of different character strands that are interwoven throughout the film and one key strand is indeed that which takes place at the hospital, where the same doctors and nurses attempted to save both men. Other strands focus on Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm camera film would become one of the most scrutinised pieces of footage ever captured, as the only film to record the murder from beginning to end, the head of the Dallas secret service Forrest Sorrels, the FBI agent James Hosty, the secret service team and the family of Lee Harvey Oswald, in particular his older brother Robert.

Novelist and first time director Peter Landesman’s style for the film reflects his past as a journalist, as the film has a documentary style, with unsteady camera movements and the intercutting of actual footage from 1963, which gives the audience the perspective of someone present in the moment. The director indeed said in the Q&A after the screening that that was one of his reasons for working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who also worked on Captain Phillips), in order to give the film a feel of almost being in a war zone environment. It was also important to him and the producing team (Tom Hanks & Gary Goetzman) that the film was made only if it was factual – that everything included could be verified and confirmed. Therefore this is not a film that delves in any way in to the many conspiracy debates that still surround the assassination or adds artistic licence in the way Oliver Stone did with his film JFK. Instead it focuses on the smaller real life moments that are often overlooked when discussing these tragic events, for example, the lead nurse in the ER making sure Lee Harvey Oswald does not live or die in the same room that the President had been in just hours before or the practicalities of how to get the coffin on to Air Force One so that the President was not stored as if a piece of luggage.

I did find the film to be quite powerful, possibly due to the fact that it isn’t a glorified Hollywood movie and instead feels far more realistic, and it does contain some very moving moments. Paul Giamatti is (as usual) superb in the film, portraying a man whose name I knew but knew nothing more about. His portrayal of Abraham Zapruder is of a man who is utterly devastated by what he has witnessed and indeed is horrified that he has captured such a terrible event on camera. The shock he displays in the aftermath, as the secret service agents take him to have the film developed is very believable. I particularly liked the moment when the film is played and his grandchildren appear on screen in home movie footage. His apology to the impatient secret service for the delay is met with the touching response that it’s okay as this is his life and it looks like a nice one. You understand in that moment that Zapruder’s life has been altered in a way he will never be able to forget. You also understand that he is a man who is desperate to do the right thing but isn’t entirely sure what that is and his conflicted emotions as to what to do with the footage as the media offers flood in is well acted. The director explained at the screening that on the first day of the shoot they filmed Paul as Zapruder in Dealey Plaza in the actual location and that it was a very emotional experience for them all. Indeed the take in the film is apparently the first take as he let Paul do whatever came naturally in that emotional moment.

The other key individual for me was Robert Oswald, brilliantly portrayed by James Badge Dale. We see the character go through the shock of hearing of his brother’s arrest, to anger at trying to understand why he has done it, to frustration at his mother’s astonishing behaviour and reaction to events. This is certainly a person I knew nothing about and his performance felt very real and believable and I felt incredibly sorry for him and indeed the burial scene of Lee Harvey Oswald is very moving due to the focus on Robert. His desperate plea to watching press to help carry the coffin from the hearse to the grave in the absence of anyone else to help was very effective.

There are also some good performances from the President’s security team, who struggle to comprehend what has happened and what to do next. I particularly liked the moment when Tom Melling (of Smallville fame) refuses to allow anyone else to drive the hearse from the hospital to the waiting plane, his loyalty and attachment to the President clear. The scene that follows in which the secret service manhandles the coffin up the plane steps and through the door was quite an unpleasant and undignified moment. However it seems very realistic in its simplicity and felt true to the style of the film in highlighting moments that haven’t been given much thought before.

The hospital scenes are obviously very powerful due to the nature of the subject matte and there are strong performances from Zac Efron, Colin Hanks and Marcia Gay Harden as the doctors and lead nurse trying in vain to save the President when really they know it is too late. I would have liked to have seen more of the emotional impact on them outside the small emergency room in which most of their scenes occur. Billy Bob Thornton is also good as the head of the Dallas secret service.

This brings me to my main issue with the film. The performances of the ensemble cast are very good, there are some powerful moments and I liked the directorial style. However at 93 minutes long there isn’t sufficient time to give enough depth to a number of the characters included in the story. Ron Livingston for example plays James Hosty, the FBI agent who has been tracking Lee Harvey Oswald for 18 months prior to the killing and whose boss is full of anger that they did not predict what he was going to do and stop it. The FBI is very much side-lined in the film and it would have been nice to see more from Ron and this story strand, which felt very much unfinished. I agree somewhat with some views that this may have been better as a miniseries, able to delve in to the character strands far more deeply (which was indeed the initial plan by Hanks).

However, overall I thought this was an interesting film, which is effective in looking at such well known events from perspectives that may otherwise never have been considered more widely, albeit not with as much depth as I would have liked. It will certainly be a film that causes people to think about the tragedy in a new light.

Parkland opens in UK cinemas on 22 November 2013 (moved back from 8 November) to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination. It has already been released in America.

A link to the official trailer for the film is below:

Initial Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II – 10th & 11th October 2013


DavidTennant as Richard II for the RSC

David Tennant as Richard II for the RSC

I will start this review by saying that the new, much anticipated, Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II starring David Tennant is still in early previews and is continuing to grow and develop. Therefore this post is more a reflection of my first impressions after seeing the first two preview performances. The production marks the start of the RSC’s plan to stage each of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, which will reach an even wider audience than ever before due to the planned screenings in schools and cinemas across the world.

Richard II was first published in 1597 and is set in the final two years of the King’s twenty two year reign during 1398 – 1399. It is no secret that I think David Tennant is a fantastic actor and have been very excited about seeing this production since it was announced and, although I think the production is not yet as great as it will be, the ensemble is very good indeed and it is clear that everyone understands the play as a whole (no doubt aided by director Greg Doran’s style to have everyone read a different role during early rehearsals).

Greg Doran has created a production that I’m sure will be accessible to those with little or no knowledge of the text beforehand and it is certainly the most clear staging I have seen of the play, bringing a clarity and understanding to speeches and moments that I have not experienced before.

The set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superb in its simplicity – the use of visual projections to add depth and scale to the grandeur of the Westminster Hall backdrop creates the illusion that the RST space is even bigger than it is. Such visuals also assist with the changing scenes as does the lighting. Using a gangway to elevate the King is a great decision and makes the rise and fall of Richard all the more striking and I loved the staging of the prison scene towards the end of the play, particularly the initial moments when only the reflection of the defeated Richard can be seen by the audience. The starkness of how far he has fallen and how much he has lost could not be clearer. The costumes are superb, as is to be expected at the RSC, highlighting in particular Richard’s need to have an excess of beautiful things around him and indeed for such beauty to be a part of his image.

As for the performances, and as I said before this is only based on the first two previews, Michael Pennington is a strong John of Gaunt (and is much more suited to this role than Antony in Chichester’s production of Antony & Cleopatra) – his affection for his son is believable and his anger against Richard before his death is strongly delivered and made all the more striking by the King’s appalling attitude and behaviour during the scene, played well by David Tennant.

Oliver Ford Davies is wonderful as York (although I’d have been surprised if it had been otherwise!) – his ability to turn a Shakespearean line in a way you don’t expect and his ability to make the meaning of each word so clear is superb and he brought much needed humour to the later scenes with his wife.

Oliver Rix (last seen in the RSC’s Cardenio) is very good indeed as York’s son Aumerle and was one of the standout performances for me. He plays the character’s clear devotion to Richard superbly and the scenes between the two of them have a strong emotional impact, one which I haven’t felt as much on seeing other versions of the play. The staging of their scene together at FlintCastle when Richard realises there is no hope left and that he must submit to Bolingbroke is affectionate and deeply moving. Staged on the gangway above the audience, which for the second night had the centre railings removed (a clever decision as this removed a barrier between the two actors, who on opening night were acting between the railings, but also between the scene and the audience), it is a delicate, intimate exchange in which we see a softer Richard with whom we can start to sympathise. It is this relationship that is the most significant one for Richard, more so than that between King and Queen and it is this scene rather than his parting with his wife when you begin to feel sympathy towards him. Oliver is also understudy for David Tennant and is certainly an actor to watch over the coming years.

Nigel Lindsay is excellent as Bolingbroke – his confident stature on the stage is exactly right for the man who will go on to be King and he delivers the lines with a strong confidence throughout. He is everything Richard is not, both in appearance and actions and you see him as the leader that Richard can never be. His interplay with Tennant’s Richard during the deposition scene is strong, as he conveys many emotions with few words.

David Tennant himself does very well in what is a difficult role to play and was far stronger on the second night compared to the first, clearly growing stronger with each moment on stage. Richard is not the hero of the play and you are not meant to like him – he is an ineffectual leader who views himself as God’s representative on earth and therefore does not care about what is viewed as morally acceptable by others. He believes he has the right to rule in any way he chooses and loses his supporters through his misguided actions and by letting himself be led by the weak advisers he surrounds himself with. In early scenes they seem to hover around him, tweeting in his ear when he comes to make crucial decisions, emphasising his lack of leadership. It is therefore difficult to portray a character that is neither a hero nor a true villain and instead is someone you ultimately pity.

David is however always excellent with Shakespeare’s words, connecting with an audience in a way that opens the language up and makes it so much clearer and the flowing poetic verse of this play seems to suit him. As usual, he is also superb at adding touches of humour effectively and is able to convey a person’s thoughts with just a look, most powerfully achieved here when Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to confess his sins – the charged look that passes between Richard and Mowbray and the relief when the latter remains silent make it very clear that Richard is implicated in the murder of his uncle.

Furthermore, as an older Richard when compared with the others I have seen (Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar and Ben Whishaw in The Hollow Crown), Tennant makes the King’s poor judgment and lack of real leadership all the more apparent. Whishaw, and Redmayne in particular, could be partly forgiven for their choices as young impressionable monarchs ripe to be manipulated, but this Richard is the creator of his own destiny. He appears old enough to know better and Tennant’s portrayal enhances this to the audience, making his fall from power seem all the more pitiful. The well known speech in which he speaks of the death of kings and the hollow crown was far better the second time, as Richard’s conflicting emotions and fear felt far more real and compelling.

The deposition scene is also very powerful, as although Richard has clearly created his own fate, the strength from Tennant in this scene made me see another side to the character – at this moment he ironically seems in control for the first time in the play and the choices Tennant makes here result in the scene feeling incredibly poignant. I particularly liked how he appears to unnerve Bolingbroke, whose laugh to the court on Richard’s departure is one of someone who is trying to regain the control he had before Richard arrived. For me David Tennant is still growing in confidence and his performance is beginning to hint at the magic of his simply stunning Hamlet and no doubt by press night he will be on top form.

Overall I very much enjoyed this production and am excited at the potential it has to be truly great. I look forward to seeing how it has developed on my next theatre trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon next weekend.

Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company runs in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 16th November 2013 before its run at the Barbican in London from 9th December – 25th January 2014.

A review three years in the making – Revisiting After The Dance at the National Theatre Archive – 9 October 2013

Photo by Johan Persson

Photo by Johan Persson

Sunday 11th July 2010 will always be a special day for me for two reasons. It was my first visit to the National Theatre and it was the day I first saw After The Dance. I quite literally fell in love with the production, so much so that, with encouragement from a friend, I queued up for day seats for the final performance. Being on the front row of the Lyttelton for that last performance in August 2010 will be an experience I will never forget and always cherish.

Over three years later and I thought it was time to relive such a special production and today I visited the National Theatre Archive at The Cut in London to watch the production all over again and explore the background material made available.

This was my second visit to the Archive and I think it’s a wonderful facility offered by the theatre, as you don’t have to be a student or theatre professional to go. You simply need to have a genuine interest in the production you want to see and be respectful of the rules when you are there (no photography or recording, no food or drink in the viewing area and no pens, only pencils). The staff are very friendly and helpful and when I arrived the production was loaded on a monitor and ready to go, with the box full of additional materials next to it.

Mainly to make the experience of seeing the production last, I first turned to the box of materials. These provide a vast array of information about the creation of any production. I was able to read through the rehearsal script from April 2010, the Press Night blocking and cueing scripts, details of the props, production schedule, music and much more (there is even a “smoking plot” highlighting all uses of cigarettes in the production). The rehearsal notes were particularly interesting as they revealed insights into the thought processes of the actors when considering their characters – Benedict Cumberbatch requested his hankerchiefs be monogrammed and his lighter be a “Dunhill” style lighter and Adrian Scarborough had requested a distinct glass for his character to use throughout. The notes also make you realise how much thought and detail happens to bring a production to life and the production schedule highlighted how long the days could be, for example on the day of the first evening preview on 1 June, work started at 8:00 a.m. and there was a full dress rehearsal from 2:30 in the afternoon.

As for the production itself, after seeing it for the third time three years on it remains for me the greatest production I have seen to date.

After The Dance was Rattigan’s second play, following the success of French Without Tears and opened in June 1939 to critical praise. However weeks after its opening, the outbreak of World War II caused the play to close early due to the changing mood, which Rattigan wrongly saw as a reflection on the play itself, resulting in him choosing to omit it from his first collection of plays. This meant that over time the play was somewhat forgotten, which made Thea Sharrock’s revival at the National Theatre all the more significant. I have seen commentaries about Rattigan which refer to The Deep Blue Sea having the greatest depth of all his plays, but personally I think After The Dance is more than a match for it and for me it has the greater emotional impact.

Nancy Carroll & Adrian Scarborough

The play is a beautiful observation of a specific era in time, set just before the Second World War, which is on the horizon but not yet a certainty. In that moment it shines a light on two very different generations, the younger generation born during or just after World War I, and the slightly older hedonistic generation, who came to maturity in the aftermath of the war and whose attitude to life and to the responsibilities they have to society are very different.

These two attitudes are brilliantly brought to life by David and Joan Scott-Fowler, in whose plush Mayfair apartment the play is set and their friends, who have spent their lives on an endless circuit of parties, drink and drugs, never worrying about the wider world. Peter, David’s cousin and his fiancée Helen highlight how the world is changing. Peter is determined to make something of himself and find a good job to earn an honest living so he can marry Helen – he epitomises a generation which the Scott-Fowlers crowd see as a far more boring one than their own and referring to situations and people as being boring, or being afraid to appear boring are common themes throughout the play.

At its heart however the play is about love – the sadness of loving the wrong person, loving someone who you do not think loves you or to whom you dare not admit your true feelings or loving someone enough to realise the best thing for them is to walk away from them. It is this aspect of the play which has such an impact on me and very few pieces of theatre I have seen have moved me quite so much.

It is difficult to explain why the production is so wonderful, but I think it is due to a number of elements. Firstly, the entire ensemble is superb, which elevates the production to another level of quality and quite frankly the central performances are outstanding. John Heffernen (currently playing the title role in the National Theatre’s Edward II) and Faye Casteloe are wonderful as the younger generation, somewhat perplexed by the attitude of the older characters. Adrian Scarborough is a joy as John, the loyal friend of the Scott-Fowlers, who so convincingly plays both the comedic and emotionally moving moments and his Olivier win was much deserved.

Nancy Carroll & Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch, in his debut for the National Theatre (still unknown to the wider public at that time) is superb as David Scott-Fowler, displaying each emotion perfectly. I still find it incredible how he seems to transform into someone so much older than himself in this role. As David Scott-Fowler he not only looks older, but through his voice, mannerisms and the way he holds himself, you cannot quite believe it is the same person. The final act requires a great deal of emotion from him and he conveys it all superbly and you can’t take your eyes off him for a moment.

Then there is the sublime Nancy Carroll (who was the reason I booked my ticket in the first place). She is simply breathtaking in this role – bringing to life in Joan a woman you root for, who has hidden her true feelings of love for her husband for so long, for fear it will make her boring in his eyes. You so desperately want her to be happy. Nancy wonderfully brings to life the comic fun side to Joan, particularly in her interactions with John, but it is the heartbreaking moments in which she is most astonishing. In one scene, she simply stands for what feels like an eternity with her back to the audience and although you cannot see her face, you feel the emotion from her – you cannot fail to understand what Joan is going through in that moment and it had me in tears. Then there is her last scene with Benedict (which I won’t spoil for anyone still hoping to view the production), which is so simple and yet so beautiful. There are few words, and these two talented actors don’t need them to convey the feelings of each character in that moment. I could watch that scene forever. I was thrilled Nancy won an Olivier for her role and do still feel that Benedict should also have won.

John Heffernen & Faye Casteloe
John Heffernen & Faye Castelow

The play is obviously superbly constructed by Rattigan, who brings the world in which the characters live to life so vividly and I found it thrilling that at the beginning you think you understand what the play is about and how the plot will progress. However, as the carefree attitude to life starts to be revealed to be a façade, the true sadness of the characters becomes all too clear, transforming the play in to a heartbreaking look at a couple who have never truly understood each other and how much they mean to each other. This production, directed by Thea Sharrock, who took a risk suggesting that it be revived at the National Theatre gets everything right, not only the acting, but also the set that is so stunning you wish you could live there and the costumes (especially for Joan) and music.

At a recent platform event Nancy Carroll chose this as one of the productions most special to her from her career at the National Theatre and it isn’t hard to understand why. I intend to see many more plays and productions in the years to come and hope some will touch me emotionally just as much as this one. What is certain though is that I will definitely return to the brilliant National Theatre Archive again and that today won’t be the last time I see this powerful production. I would recommend that you do the same!

National Theatre at 50 – National Histories – Sara Kestelman & Adrian Lester – The Shed 8th October 2013


Tonight’s platform saw Sara Kestelman and Adrian Lester (fresh from his role in Othello) share their memories of the National Theatre, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The format for this series of platforms is simple – each actor is asked to consider the same questions, which are then shared with the audience during the event.

Sara Kestelman has a long history with the National Theatre, performing in Hamlet, Copenhagen, Square Rounds, Dalliance, The Threepenny Opera, Love For Love, Undiscovered Country, As You Like It, The Double Dealer, Bedroom Farce, State of Revolution, The Lady From Maxim’s, Strife and All About Me.

Adrian Lester has of course just finished playing Othello in the Olivier theatre, took the title role in Henry V and played Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd.

Question 1 – What were your first memories / experience of the National Theatre? 

Sara’s first memory of the National Theatre is seeing Uncle Vanya, directed by Olivier and starring Michael Redgrave, at the Old Vic in 1963. She spoke warmly of Michael’s extraordinary vulnerability in the production.

Adrian’s first memory occurred when he moved to London to attend drama school in 1986. He only knew one route from South London to Gower Street and so bought a travel card and wandered around getting to know the city and ended up walking along the Southbank on a Sunday afternoon. The National Theatre was closed, but he spoke fondly of peering through the windows of the building, reading the posters of the productions. He remembered that the building was empty, still and capable of anything at that moment. He also of course said that, starting out as a student, he did wonder at the possibility of performing there one day.

Question 2 – Who is/are your unsung heroes of the National Theatre? 

Sara spoke about the wonderful Michael Straughan, former box office manager at the theatre, who she said knew everyone in the building, both actors, staff and audience members alike and was incredibly generous with his time. She said he was sorely missed from the building.

Adrian spoke of the wonderful job done by the stage door and security staff and that they do far more than their job description. He recalled his first call from the stage door when they asked “Is Mr Adrian Lester there? There are guests for him.” On his reply that he was Adrian Lester, the stage door responded “if you could tell Mr Lester if you see him that his guests have arrived.” He recalled how at first he didn’t understand what they were doing, until he realised they were speaking in that way in front of whoever had asked for him in case he did not have guests he was expecting! He also spoke about how they lock up around you and accommodate you. 

Question 3 – Which individual performance at the National Theatre has left a lasting impression on you? 

Sara’s choice was Michael Bryant. She hilariously spoke of how naughty he could be, for example holding up signs in the wings saying “5 out of 10”. Both Sara and Adrian also spoke about “the Bryant spot” on the Olivier stage, a spot at which the actor can hear the acoustics perfectly in the theatre. Adrian described the incredible feeling of hitting that spot during the scene where he approaches Desdemona to kill her and how even though the lines were whispered, he could hear them perfectly because of the acoustics in that spot. Adrian also had Michael’s old dressing room during Othello, which only ever has a piece of paper with your name on the door, next to a plate with Michael’s name.

Adrian’s own choice was Julia McKenzie, who he worked with on his first production at the National Theatre in 1993’s Sweeney Todd. He recalled observing her rehearsing the song where Mrs Lovett first sees Sweeney Todd and how she went over and over it, ensuring each motion and action matched the song perfectly. He spoke of going to the very back of the Cottesloe space during tech week to watch her do this again and seeing how each action, no matter how small, was conveyed perfectly and how incredible that was to him. 

Question 4 – What was the most fulfilling National Theatre production you have been a part of? 

Sara said this was a very difficult question and referred to The American Clock and Copenhagen, which was an extraordinary event. However she chose 1978’s The Double Dealer, directed by Peter Wood and starring Ralph Richardson. She spoke of how Ralph always knew how much space he needed and that that may have felt controlling to some actors but that she thought he was incredible. She said Peter was a great teacher of the text and that she had probably learnt more from him than anyone else in her career and that she was possibly more frightened of him than anyone else too!

Adrian joked that he didn’t have a lot to choose from and that his choice was Othello. It was the hardest job he had done and cost a great deal emotionally, due to the emotional journey the character takes. He said how everything he had ever learnt had been put in to the character. He also spoke about how he thought it was difficult to believe how quickly Othello believes Iago’s suggestion that his wife is unfaithful during Act 3 Scene 3 and that selling that scene is so important. He also said he was still letting go of the character and although he missed it, he was relieved in part it was over. Sara, with a smile, said he would definitely play the role again! 

Question 6 – Which production do you most regret missing at the National Theatre?

Sara’s choice was A Flea In Her Ear directed by Jacques Charon at the Old Vic in 1966, as it is a production everyone always talks about. She explained how it only had a three week rehearsal time and how difficult farce is to do – it is a dance without music.

Adrian mentioned Copenhagen, 1985’s Pravda starring Anthony Hopkins and also the recent production of Frankenstein. He jokingly added that he and Rory Kinnear had promised to swap roles each night in Othello but it hadn’t quite happened!

Question 6 – Which of your National Theatre costumes would you choose for a fancy dress party? 

Sara chose one of her costumes from Undiscovered Country, which was an all black outfit with a huge black hat.

Adrian said it was an easy choice for him – his sailor outfit from Sweeney Todd, which he said seemed to be mentioned by everyone when talking about his performance in the production! 

Question 7 – Where is your secret / special spot in the building? 

Sara mentioned the balcony from the green room leading to a pass door up to the top of the Cottesloe, where she used to enjoy watching the opening minutes of the production in that space whilst waiting for her own call in one of the other theatres.

Adrian said his was the route you could take from the bar in the green room under the stage, which could lead you to the entrance foyer on the mezzanine level and that he could pick guests up from the green room and take them that way to have a drink without being disturbed. He said how the security staff would simply lock up around you, as you can use your pass to go back that way and exit through the stage door without a problem.

Adrian also referred to the Quad and the tradition of banging on the walls on opening night of each show and how for Othello this had also been done on the night of the NT Live broadcast. Sara also fondly spoke of “Ralph’s (Richardson’s) Rocket” and it was hinted that this may make a return on 22nd October…

Question 8 – What would be your fantasy programming for a day at the National Theatre? 

Sara’s day would begin with Lark Rise and Candleford, which she said had been a wonderful promenade theatre experience. Her matinee would be David Hare’s Plenty, which she first encountered through the speakers of the theatre when it was in rehearsal and how incredible it sounded. Her evening would be spent watching The National Health by Peter Nichols.

Adrian would like to start his day of theatre with Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which he thought was a beautifully observed study of people that he’d found heartbreaking. His matinee was August: OsageCounty and he spoke of the wonderful set and how important it was to have female centric productions with strong roles for older women. On being asked whether he would see the upcoming film, he said for him the play was still very fresh and he wasn’t sure if it would translate. His evening production would be by the physical theatre company DV8 entitled Just For Show, in which the performers displayed how emotions can be used to effectively convey feelings through performance in a unique way.

Question 9 – What makes an evening in the theatre for you?

Sara spoke of her appreciation of detail and that, although she is easily moved, she needs to find truth in a production or performance, otherwise it feels empty.

Adrian became visibly moved when answering this question and said for him, he can tell when an actor is lying, or busking it, or taking it easy during a matinee and that it is the use of intelligence, awareness and skill in order to share something human about yourself as an actor with the audience, using the words you have been given. He said the immediacy of sharing that real human connection and emotion was what theatre was really all about.

This again was an insightful and entertaining platform event and I continue to encourage anyone interested in theatre to pop along to one of the other scheduled National Histories events. Details can be found on the National Theatre’s website and I understand recordings of past platforms in the series will be available via the website as well.

Author Review – Carol Goodman

Cover art for Carol's debut novel

I have wanted to write a review for this blog about a novel by one of my favourite authors Carol Goodman. However this left me with the difficult decision as to which book to choose! As a result, I have decided to instead write a general review about her work as a whole and would encourage you to pick up one of her wonderful books and discover her for yourself.

I have been reading Carol Goodman’s books since her debut novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, was published in 2002 and since then have eagerly anticipated each new release. The Lake of Dead Languages remains one of my favourite novels, perhaps in part because it introduced me to a writer who since then has created fantastic stories that have enthralled me over the years.

Her books are all written in quite a distinct style. They are in essence thrillers, but the atmosphere and tone of them makes them so much more than an ordinary thriller. Drawing on her own background as a teacher, her central characters tend to be strong, independent women, who are usually teachers or writers and all of whom have a background or secret they are trying to forget. Throughout her writing, Carol brilliantly weaves haunting stories that cannot help but feel eerie, somewhat gothic and often poignant in tone, which I find, is due to the fact that her books usually include an element of reaching into the past, to some unknown or hidden secret or incident, which impacts on those characters in the present.

I tend to enjoy novels that have some element of shifting time periods, letting you in to two stories in one and so I love the worlds created in Carol’s books, when two characters separated by years and even centuries become linked in a way that binds them together. It is also this that adds to the eerie, gothic atmosphere of her books – whether it’s returning to a lake which holds terrible secrets from the past, as in her debut novel, or exploring an ancient buried villa, which holds the secrets to people and practices long since dead. Very few authors’ novels capture my imagination the way hers do and that is due to her wonderful writing and the incredible haunting atmosphere she creates.

To give a flavour of her work, I have included a brief summary of each of her novels that I have read below.

The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)

Her debut novel is a gothic thriller set in both the past and the present and centres on Jane Hudson, a new Latin teacher at the Heart Lake School For Girls. However Jane already has a connection to the school – she was a pupil there 20 years ago until she left after the mysterious suicide of her roommates. As memories from her past start to resurface, Jane realises that the events from all those years ago may be about to repeat themselves and the secrets as to what happened to her friends may finally be revealed.

The Seduction of Water (2003)

Another tense thriller, this novel follows teacher and writer Iris Greenfeder who, unsatisfied with her life, has decided to write the memoirs of her mother Katherine Morrissey, who was also a writer of two successful novels and who disappeared one night when Iris was a child, only to die in a fire miles away from home. Iris’s literary agent encourages her to return to her childhood home, from which her mother disappeared – the Hotel Equinox in the Catskills, in order to research her mother’s life and attempt to discover whether the much rumoured third novel in her mother’s trilogy ever existed. As the story progresses, we find ourselves following Iris’s search, but also following her mother’s own story, which may at last be about to be revealed.

The Drowning Tree (2004)

Juno McKay’s fifteen-year college reunion is approaching at Penrose College and the only reason she decides to go is to see her old friend Christine Webb. She has also agreed to help restore the beautiful stained glass window in the university’s chapel, which has become a symbol for the college itself and which was commissioned by the Penrose family 80 years ago. On her return to the college, Juno attends a lecture by Christine, an art historian who is researching the story behind the window for her thesis. Christine reveals possible insight into the lives of two sisters who belonged to the Penrose family and it is a story that shocks those present. The next day Christine disappears. Juno is determined to discover what happened to her friend and begins to explore for herself the secrets surrounding the Penrose family fearing her friend discovered a secret that may have cost her life.

The Ghost Orchid (2007)

Set in an artists’ colony in Upstate New York, this novel’s main character is Ellis Brooks, a first-time novelist who has arrived at the colony to seek inspiration for the book she intends to write about the colony’s mysterious founder Aurora Latham and the mystery surrounding tragic events that occurred there in the summer of 1893 – the summer when Milo Latham brought the medium Corinth Blackwell to the estate to help his wife contact the couple’s children, who had died the winter before in a diphtheria epidemic. However after a séance went badly wrong, Corinth and her alleged accomplice, Tom Quinn, disappeared, taking with them the Lathams’ only surviving child. As Ellis explores the past and the eerie grounds of the colony start to give up its dark past and hidden secrets, she and the other residents begin to uncover connections which may finally reveal the truth about what really happened that summer. This is one of Carol’s most haunting books, as Ellis starts to unravel Corinth’s time at the colony and it is a novel that stayed with me for years since I first read it.

The Sonnet Lover (2007)

Rose Asher is a literature professor who travels from New York to La Civetta in Italy, a villa at which one of her students had been spending the summer on a school sponsored residency. The student in question had posed an intriguing question to Rose – whether Shakespeare wrote a series of sonnets, in praise of an unknown dark-haired woman – but soon after died in an apparent suicide in front of the faculty. However the villa also has a personal significance for Rose as it is the villa that she herself spent time at as a student and at which she first fell in love. On her return she finds that the man in question is still in residence. Rose must find out whether there is any truth in her student’s questions and how it is connected to his death.

The Night Villa (2008)

Classics professor Sophie Chase travels to Capri in Italy in order to explore the mysteries surrounding the occupants of a centuries old villa, Villa della Notte, which was buried after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It is believed that the nobles living at the villa practiced pagan rituals involving slaves. Sophie and her team are determined to uncover the story of a slave named Iusta, who may have died during the eruption and through the story we see in to the lives of both Sophie, as her exploration becomes ever more dangerous, and Iusta, who provides a glimpse in to a long lost world.

Arcadia Falls (2010)

Meg Rosenthal desires a fresh start for her and her daughter and she is determined they will find it when she moves to teach at a boarding school called Arcadia Falls. However, soon after they arrive the school is faced with the tragic and suspicious death of one of Meg’s students, who falls to her death in the campus gorge during the school’s First Night Bonfire. As the circumstances surrounding her death are investigated, secrets from the past begin to emerge and Meg must face them in order to protect not only herself but her daughter.

As these summaries suggest, Carol Goodman’s books take you in to a story of both the past and the present, to create tense, haunting thrillers that you won’t be able to put down. I think all her books are fantastic but if asked to choose my favourites I would probably say The Ghost Orchid and The Lake of Dead Languages, both of which have stayed with me for years after I first read them and which I have given as gifts to friends. If you are looking for a new author to read, definitely pick up one of her books!

Carol Goodman’s books are available from the usual book stockists.