Saturday, 26 February 2011

Frankenstein at the National Theatre

This week I had the privilege to see Danny Boyle's new prouction of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Although the production is sold out until the end of this run (April, but I'm sure it'll be back again, and two performances are to be shown live in cinemas during March), I'd had the good fortune to score a couple of seats, two rows back snuggled into the curve of the stage, within spitting distance of the action. Which proved to be spell binding, particularly the shocking opening section. At the start, the stage is empty, save for a large, upright oval covered in what looks like parchment, or the skin of a drum. It was possible to discern a shape inside this oval, soon revealed to be the monster, as he burst through it into life, as if leaving a womb. Previous versions of Frankenstein that I've seen have shown the monster on a surgical table, animated into life by a surge of electricity. But this monster, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, emerged into his life alone, writhing and gasping as he learnt how to use his body. Our proximity to this scene made this so intimate, the actor was stark naked, with scars and blood all over his body. It made me think about how shocking it would be to be so suddenly human; the skills and physical awareness babies learn gradually, would have to be grasped all at once. Cumberbatch is astonishing, in total contrast to his fast talking portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, he showed himself to be a masterful physical actor, as first of all his monster learnt he had hands, arms and then legs, stumbling in pain as he discovered how to use his body.

The two stars of the production, Cumberbatch and Lee Miller, are taking it turns in the two lead roles, one night being the monster, the next, Victor Frankenstein. For most performances, it's possible to choose who you see playing which part, but because this was a preview, we didn't know beforehand which would be which. Over pizza prior to the show, my friend and I had agreed that we hoped that Cumberbatch would be Frankenstein, assuming that would be the role with the most dialogue. In fact, once the monster has learned to talk, he gets most of the lines, staying more faithful to Mary Shelley's novel than adaptations usually do. He certainly gets the best lines, shouting "Now I am a man!" as he takes dreadful revenge on his creator. Frankenstein is hardly present in the first scenes, which depict the monster's education into humanity. Truth be told, Lee Miller was a bit of a let down as Frankenstein, even fluffing his lines at one point, but I have read that he makes a superb job of portraying the monster.

The staging of the play is worth the entrance fee alone. It's as if Boyle, more used these days to the wider canvas of film, has to use every inch of the stage, plus the auditorium and the ceiling. Flames flare up from a grill at the front of the stage to simulate a campfire (I thought my eyebrows were in danger of singeing), the sun shines and rain falls on the astonished monster as he encounters nature for the first time. At one point, an enormous train (symbolising the achievements of science and the advent of the industrial revolution) rides onto the stage with carousing villagers hanging off it. It's on stage for all of 30 seconds and then goes off again, having added little to the overall production, but still being a lot of fun. The only point at which I regretted our closeness to the action, was when clouds of dry ice flowed across the stage, and threatened to suffocate us.

The play does have its weaker points. Some of the supporting performances were less than stellar, particularly the role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancee. The actor in this role belongs to the school of actors that express emotion only by nodding and shaking their heads vigorously, in contrast to the intense physicality of the monster. The writing of this new play by Nick Dear is strong, except for a couple of places where overly modern idiom creeps in. The soundtrack, by Underworld, didn't work for me, it sounded too recorded, like someone had just put a cd on, and didn't work with the intensity of the live action.

The story of Frankenstein really makes you think about what it is to be human, what it is to be in this world. The newnesss of it all to the monster makes you see the absurdity of life through his eyes. When the monster cries out to demand of his creator why he was brought into the world and then abandoned, it's the cry any human could make at times about their own life. It's been filmed and played in so many versions over the last few hundred years, but by taking this production back to its origins, and focusing on the monster's story, we see it still has much to say that is relevant to our age, where science can do unspeakable things, and seldom pauses to ask why it shouldn't.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Black Swan, Blue Valentine and Faithless at the O2

After a v extended winter break, the brew is back...thought I'd offer a longer post than usual to make up for my absence.

There seems to be a heap of good movies doing the rounds in these pre Oscar days. I took in a couple this week, Black Swan and Blue Valentine, of which the former made the greater impact on me. When I was a kid, I used to adore books about ballet. I gave the art itself a try but quickly gave it up when I realised the teacher was never going to let me be Thumbelina. In one of my favourite ballet stories, the heroine gets her big break dancing the Odette/Odile (White Swan/Black Swan) role in Swan Lake. But while the story made much of the technical difficulties of dancing the Black Swan role, particularly the exacting 32 fouettes across the stage during the seduction of the Prince, the book did not refer to the danger to the dancer's mental health.

Nina (Natalie Portman), the protagonist of the film, is desperate for the role of Odette/Odile, in her New York based company's production of Swan Lake. But at the start of the film, while she is the archetypal White Swan (pure, demure, and technically perfect) she lacks the cruel power and brilliance necessary for the Black Swan. The film follows her as she develops into the perfect Odette/Odile. It's also the story of her breakdown, as she leaves behind her state of arrested development, and becomes a woman.

Nina is pulled between the demands of her mother, who wants to keep her as a little girl, and those of the ballet company's director, who wants her to let go, unleash her sexuality, both for his benefit and the role of the Black Swan. The film wonderfully depicts the two worlds that Nina inhabits, the claustrophobic apartment with her suffocating mother, the girlish colours of pink and white adorn Nina's room, and many of her clothes. Whilst her Svengali, Thomas, has a black and white office, and his appartment is also black and white, with an inkblot painting evocative of a Rorshach test prominently displayed on the walls. The camera is often in close up, on Nina's face, and we see increasingly fragmented images of her in reflections in mirrors etc. In the final performance scenes, the close up dizzying whirl of the camera draws us into Nina's disintegrating state of mind.

I used to think of ballet as an ethereal, floaty kind of art form, but when I saw Swan Lake at Covent Garden about a year ago, I realised what a physical experience it really is. We were up in the gods, and could hear the thud of the dancers' feet as they landed on the stage, and the rustling movements of their bodies as they imitated swans. This film is very true to that, we see the blood, sweat and tears that dance requires. We also see the gritty everyday reality of a dancer's life, sewing ballet ribbons on shoes, and worrying about weight.

Interestingly, it is the desire/envy relationships she has with two other dancers in the company the push Nina into the state where she can become the Black Swan, and that state is related directly to her sexuality. Several times in the movie we see her attempt to reach a sexual climax, only to fail at the last moment (once memorably to discover her mother had come into her bedroom...). But is through letting go, during an evening with one of those other dancers, that Nina finally manages to have her orgasm. It's interesting that it seems to be this experience that gives her the power to be the wicked and seductive Odile, and also propels her into the final stage of her meltdown. I wonder what that says about women's sexuality?

Comparisons between this film and Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes are inevitable, if only because there aren't that many films about dancers having mental breakdowns brought about by their absorption in their art. But although it's a close call, I still prefer The Red Shoes, mainly cos the dance/fantasy sequences are so mesmerising.

Blue Valentine is a very different film. It's not set in the city world of high culture New York, but in the everyday lives of people in what seems to be the same state, but could be a million miles away. Told partly in the present, and partly in flashback, the film shows the relationship of a couple, Cindy and Dean, at its start, and as it ends. But strangely, the middle part is missing. I wanted to know at what point things start to deteriorate, and what made them miss the importance of that key moment at the time.

The film is shot mainly in extreme close up, and is very intimate. The nadir for me being the bathroom scene where Cindy takes a pee (really that's all that happens). I don't need to see Michelle Williams pretending to be an ordinary woman having a leak to know that this is a naturalistic film, and an intimate insight into a couple's relationship. It's quite an intense experience as a viewer, to effectively become the third, silent partner in a marriage. I kept wondering what it was like for the actors to have a camera so close to them during such intimate moments.

The cleverness of the film lies in the way it makes it difficult for the viewer to take sides. We see an incident early on that makes Dean look an utter git, but then the flashbacks show that he did have some reason for his utter gitness. Before I saw the movie, I thought it would make me cry, but somehow it didn't move me as much as I'd expected (although one of my companions found it 'gut wrenching'). Maybe it was because I didn't actually like either of the characters very much. Also, in reality people's relationships break down all the time, and if you felt for those couples too much, you would be perpetually in tears.

Faithless at the O2
Cast your minds back to December and those icy cold days before Christmas. I'd had tickets for this gig for ages and had been looking forward to it. But I'd been not well and didn't know if I was up to going. I saw Faithless many years ago at a festival, and while they were great, it wasn't the right time and place. It was a sunny afternoon, and nobody felt like dancing. Faithless are a night time band, just not right for sleepy summer afternoons. Subsequently, it'd been a recurring desire to see them again, in a more suitable environment, so I went for it.

I've heard mixed views about the O2 as a venue; it is a vast space, very commercialised and well managed. Some have said soulless. But I did appreciate the fact that unlike the old days when I used to go to Wembley, the location and the transport links mean you aren't in an overwhelming crowd of people on entering and leaving. There's lots of other stuff to do there too, so people arrive and leave at different times. It seemed so easy, just get off the Jubilee line and walk a few hundred metres and you're there.

In my yoof, going to gigs was one of my favourite past times. I loved losing myself in the music, jumping up and down and singing (shouting) along seemed to be a safe outlet for my wilder tendencies. I thought this occasion would be a way of discharging some of the energies that had been building up in side of me. And at first it did feel cathartic. Faithless did a couple of my old faves, God is a DJ, and Insomnia, early on in the set and I took the opportunity to throw myself about with some vigour.

But I'm not sure about the stuff from their most recent album, The Dance, it just seems like retreading old ground. They had a guest singer on for some of those tracks, but I have no idea who it was, I couldn't make it out. He looked and sounded a little like Bono, which is/isn't a good thing, depending on your point of view.

Lead singer Maxi Jazz has an amazing energy and stage presence. But at one point he said 'There's so much love in this room', and I looked around, at the many drunk and knobbish blokes nearby, who seemed to be spoiling for a fight, and thought that was a fairly deluded thing to say. I went out to the loos shortly after, and when I came back, the band were playing I want more, but all the energy and atmosphere seemed to have gone completely flat. We left at this point, as my friend felt the same. I was left feeling like I too wanted more. It had been something of an empty experience.