Thoughts On: Chess at ENO & Policing Audiences

chess eno

Chess is one of my absolute favourite musicals. The Tim Rice/Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus (yes the guys from ABBA) show combines great music with the historic background of the Cold War, which is a period of history that I am definitely a nerd about. So when ENO announced that its summer musical would be this show (following on from Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd) I jumped at the chance to get tickets.

Whilst I am a huge fan of the show, I am very aware of its flaws. The book is probably where a lot of its problems lie. The show follows Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), who is challenging American celebrity chess champ Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) for the world championship. During the tournament he begins to question his loyalty to his country as he falls for Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson), despite already being married. The focus squarely on Anatoly is a bit of a shift in this production, which whilst helping the story make sense, I did miss Florence playing a more central role (from when I saw the Craig Revel-Horwood production of show a few years ago, and from the Royal Albert Hall production). It also takes a long-time to get going; with the first 30 minutes being an awful lot of scene-setting which did seem to be testing the patience of those around me.

However, ENO’s production does place the music front and centre. The huge orchestra is on a platform at the back of the stage, and they elevate the score wonderfully. This is complimented by the strong cast. I was a bit disappointed when the cast was first announced, as I’d had pretty high hopes and Michael Ball struck me as far too old for the part. This is still the case, at least when he’s playing opposite Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke as his wife; but he is in great voice and ‘Anthem’ really bought the Coliseum down. I’d never seen Janson in anything but she did a great job with Florence’s tricky songs, and even made ‘Heaven Help My Heart’, usually a skip-able song, moving. Burke, who seems to attract a bizarre amount of criticism, was strong in a role that is pretty underwritten, and made ‘Someone Else’s Story’ actually quite moving (though I’m not sure what her and Janson did to the costume designer to deserve their outfits). I also enjoyed Phillip Browne as Molokov, who with the male ensemble, does a fab job of ‘The Soviet Machine’.

cassidy janson chess

So on the one hand, I really enjoyed Chess. However, English National Opera itself did a pretty tricky job of making me feel welcome. To start, the tickets where ludicrously expensive, considering it is not a show that I think is massively well known outside of theatre audiences. This was exacerbated by the fact that the affordable tickets where mostly in the balcony (where I sat), and the staging (by Laurence Connor) was such that we frequently were unable to see key pieces of theatre action; including the actual chess matches and…Michael Ball singing in both Anthem and some of Endgame. It is incredibly frustrating when directors direct for just one part of the audience; and this was exacerbated by the choice to have limited other stage business and a reliance on nifty but get-old-quickly video screens.

Yet this wasn’t the most irritating thing that ENO did; that came in their musical audience only ban on bringing drinks (including water) and food into the theatre that hadn’t been purchased there. Whilst I appreciate and understand a desire to prevent people bringing picnics with them, banning water during a heatwave seemed kind of mad. This is all made even worse by the fact that this rule was targeted purely at audiences for Chess. The inherent snobbishness in the idea that musical audiences are in some way more likely to be rowdy than their ‘normal’ opera and ballet visitors is pretty terrible. Since the news of the policy broke, and people on Twitter got angry, ENO have now expanded this policy to cover opera audiences as well, but for me the damage has been done. The arts, and especially traditional venues, still have much to do to make them more accessible to new audiences, and considering opera is something that still has a reputation of elitism, you would think ENO would welcome an opportunity to try and get return visits from new audiences by making their experience one they would want to repeat. But alas.

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Thoughts On: Black Panther

I am super late to the party on this, but as Black Panther is still dominating the Box Office on both sides of the Atlantic, I figured I would share some quick thoughts here.

Much like my experience with Wonder Woman, I’m not that interested in the wider Marvel universe and I think with the exception of a random 20 or 30 minutes here and there I haven’t seen any of the current run of films (I have watched previous Spider Man incarnations though). However, Black Panther gained my interest because Lupita Nyong’o is one of my favourites, and I’m always keen to prove certain portions of the internet wrong when they claim that no one will watch a minority-dominated film.

If you also had no idea about Black Panther, the general story is as follows. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of Wakanda after the death of his father. To the outside world, Wakanda is believed to be an incredibly deprived sub-Saharan African country. However, in reality, it is an extremely modern high-tech society and T’Challa faces concerns immediately from Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who believes they should do more to help the outside world. This becomes all the more pressing when an outside returns to Wakanda, posing a threat to everything that T’Challa is trying to maintain.

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One of the first things to say about the film that it just looks stunning. From the futuristic Wakanda, to the land of the ancestors, the scenery, designed by Jay Hart, is just stunning. This is enhanced by excellent costume design from Ruth Carter, which combine traditional dress with futuristic elements suitable for a film placed in the Marvel universe.

However, obviously what has made Black Panther such a smash is its story. Ryan Coogler is the film’s writer and director, and he has created a story that in some ways stays very true to superhero tropes and in some ways moves far away from this. Coogler directs action sequences that are brilliant; from uncomfortably close contact 1-on-1 fights for the position of King, to a sprawling final battle sequence featuring the varied tribes, you feel incredibly close to the action (my non-action film watching housemate was very shaken by it).

In other ways, though, Coogler really moves away from typical hero films. Women are really placed front and centre in his screenplay. Nakia is T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s also a committed humanitarian. The country’s lead troops are all female, and are led by the brilliant Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is just a bad-ass,  and represents the complicated place of the army behind the throne even when the throne no longer represents what you believe in. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s younger sister and also casually the smartest person in the country, whose work is behind the transport systems, healthcare systems, defence systems. It was such a breath of fresh air to see women kicking butt and being smart; especially being women of colour.

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Coogler also excellently challenges what a villain is in a superhero film. Usually, villains have had some kind of experience with the protagonist that makes them hate them and therefore all of humanity (e.g. estranged brothers, thwarted lover, overlooked friend). In this case, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) does have an experience as a child which turns him against the ruling family of Wakanda. However, he sees Wakanda’s protectionist, internal focus as letting down black people across the world, and believes that they should play a role in overthrowing oppressors. This complexity of a villain is really interesting, and makes the ending actually pretty sad (I cried).

The interesting script dynamics are really helped by the solid performances from the entire cast. As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman is a really quietly strong presence at the centre of the film. His physical contrast with Jordan really emphasises the difference between T’Challa and Killmonger’s beliefs, and Boseman felt very royal. I also loved Letitia Wright as Shuri, she was funny and smart and just a really warm presence in the film. Other good performances came from Andy Serkis who appeared to be loving chewing the scenery as South African arms-dealer and real bad guy Klaue; and Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a tribe in Wakanda who reject the ruling Wakandans who starts as a bit of a scary presence and turns out to be some great comic relief.

Black Panther is a great, fun watch as well as being a great, different and diverse addition to the superhero film cannon. I’d recommend checking it out if it’s still in the cinema near you.

Amy
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Thoughts On: Macbeth, National Theatre

rory kinner anne-marie duff macbeth

Despite being, obviously, a hugely famous play, I have never studied Shakespeare’s  Macbeth and nor have I ever seen a production of it. So when the National announced a production starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, I was all over getting tickets.

In case you’re also not so up on Macbeth, the play follows Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) who is returning from fighting for Scotland in a war when he comes across three weird sisters/witches. They tell him that he will soon receive a title, and will ultimately become king. At first he dismisses their ideas, but when the king, Duncan (Stephen Boxer) bestows a title on him he begins to think the witches might be telling the truth. When he shares their prophecy with his wife (Anne-Marie Duff), she encourages him to use more murderous means to gain and retain power.

The play itself is, obviously, fascinating. The character of Lady Macbeth feels incredibly modern, and her desperation for her husband to ‘be more of a man’ and follow through on what he says he will do. In a way, Macbeth is similar to Hamlet in his dithering; but ultimately becomes obsessed with retaining his position, and no matter how well he knows someone if they’re a barrier, they’re gone.

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But despite the great text, there is something about this production that just feels a little…off. Rufus Norris places his production in the near future; there’s been some kind of civil war and the world left behind is one that is empty and stark. Rae Smith’s set designs seem to be predominantly made of bin liners, and there is no hint of royalty coming with plush surroundings. This does place a bit of a question mark as to why the Macbeths are so desperate to gain power, aside from power itself, when it has no discernible difference to their lives (aside from Kinnear sporting a red suit). The off-kilter feel is really increased through Orlando Gough’s score which feels continually ominous. All that being said; this almost-dystopian setting meant that Macbeth’s descent didn’t feel that surprising, frankly anyone could go a bit mad in such a setting, which did detract a little from the main story arc. There’s also a bit of an odd cut for the interval, meaning that the second act speeds by whilst act one feels like it really drags.

The qualms with the production aside, there are good performances from the cast. Rory Kinnear is a compelling Macbeth, an everyman whose increasing paranoia takes him over. Anne-Marie Duff is excellent as his wife, moving from being the ambitious woman behind the throne, to being haunted by their actions. There are also good performances from Patrick O’Kane as Macduff whose grief is brilliantly portrayed and Trevor Fox in the always tricky ‘comedy’ role which is a good physical performance.

Having not seen any other productions of Macbeth, I did quite like this just an opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m not quite sure if I’d recommend it if you are familiar with the text.

Amy
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rory kinner anne-marie duff macbeth 2

Thoughts On: The Shape of Water

the shape of water

The Shape of Water is this year’s best picture winner and so I was keen to see what all the hype was about. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a secret research laboratory during the Cold War. One day a very special asset arrives at the lab, along with new security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself bonding with this amphibian man (Doug Jones), with whom she appears to have a special connection.

When I think about films that seem primed to win Oscars, The Shape of Water is not really one that I would expect to win. It is aesthetically beautiful, with Dan Lausten’s cinematography really lifting the scenes. It is also a film that is fairly weird, this is a film with a love story between a woman and a merman at its heart after all. That being said, it is also a film about outsiders. Elisa is a mute who only communicates through sign language, who lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is gay and whose only friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman. They come up against the wrath of the all-American Strickland, an exemplar of everything that is wrong with seeing the world in a very narrow way. At a time where the other is instantly distrusted, The Shape of Water is a dark, fairy-tale-esque exploration of the possible extreme results from this.

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The Cold War setting plays on the edges of this film, with Michael Stuhlbarg playing a Russian spy, who ultimately becomes too attached to the science behind the merman as opposed to its possible use as an asset for the Soviet project. I’m a bit obsessed with the Cold War so this was only a good thing for me, and I felt that it was well-integrated into the main plot. I also liked the fact that the Russians actually spoke Russian, rather than English with a bizarre accent.

Sally Hawkins is the stand-out performance in this film. As her character cannot speak, Hawkins has to portray all of her characters feelings through her face and body language and she is just perfect at doing that. She is shy and passionate and cheeky all at once. As her opposite, Michael Shannon is just awfully good as Richard Strickland, who is the perfect bad guy in this gothic fairy tale. My other favourite performance has to be that of Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbour Giles. His desperation to find acceptance, his love of old Hollywood musicals and of Elisa herself is just beautifully portrayed, and I’m glad to see that he received award nominations this year. I do just wish that Spencer had had more to do than play Elisa’s kind of sassy black friend.

Amy
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the creature the shape of water

Thoughts On: Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s second project as writer and director, and has received huge critical acclaim, and is also possibly one of my new favourite films.

It follows Lady Bird or Christine (Saoirse Ronan) who is in her last year at high school. She’s attempting to balance deciding what to do next, her high school friendships and first loves; along with her tumultuous relationship with her Mum (Laurie Metcalf).

It’s a film that just feels really real. Gerwig places the film in the early 2000s, and it just feels very rooted in that time, and the cinematography (by Sam Levy) often feels like a bit of a love letter to Sacramento despite Lady Bird’s vehement hatred of the area and her desire to escape to university on the East Coast.

Lady Bird makes all the choices that you make when you’re a teenager desperate to fit in. She gets involved in school drama to catch the eye of Danny (Lucas Hedges), abandons her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) to chase the friendship of popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) and antagonises her Mum at every opportunity. There were moments in this film that just reminded me so much of my teenage years it almost hurt, Lady Bird’s overriding desire to get far away from her home town felt very familiar, and her recognition of how much she secretly loves it once she’s away felt like the same experience that I had when I moved to university. I also loved that all the teenagers in this film actually looked like teenagers; there is no glossy hairstyles and clearly ten years too old for their role casting here. Somehow seeing non-perfect looking teens on screen (with acne and everything), made Lady Bird feel all the more real. I also really liked how, like the ladies on SRSLY point out, all the characters in Lady Bird, no matter how little their screen time, clearly had complex lives that were going on off camera.

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This complexity is really helped by the excellent, natural performances which come from the cast. Saoirse Ronan is just a complete star; she’s one of my favourite actresses and she just makes Lady Bird feel completely real. She could be a character that could easily be made slightly ridiculous, and Ronan just gives her such warmth. As her Mum, with whom she has a very complicated relationship, Laurie Metcalf is just very good. Her character has relatively little screen time, but she is great at capturing the ‘warm and cold’ aspect that Lady Bird’s Mum has. All the moments of mother-daughter time they have; such as shopping from a prom dress or listening to tapes of John Steinbeck, felt really familiar and their performances were central to making this so.

In the supporting cast, Tracy Letts does a good job of playing the ‘good cop’ to Metcalf, sensitively capturing the feeling of someone facing joblessness later in life. As Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein really captures the deeper inner life of her character as she moons over the maths teacher and deals with her slightly more fractured home life. Man of the moment Timothee Chalamet does a great job as Kyle (or Every Ex-Boyfriend I’ve Ever Had) the eye-rollingly pretentious guy that Lady Bird falls for.

saorise ronan laurie metcalf lady bird

I would 100% recommend Lady Bird if you want a film that will fill with nostalgia whilst also making you laugh and cry all in 90 minutes. I’m definitely going to go back and watch Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous work.

Amy
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A Month in Books: January

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Us by David Nicholls (2014, Hodder & Stoughton)
Us is the story of Douglas Petersen. On the eve of a tour of Europe to mark his son Albie’s completion of school and start of college with his wife, Connie, she tells him she wants a divorce. But she still wants to go on the holiday. Douglas is convinced that if the trip goes amazingly well, he can win back his wife and his son’s affections. Of course, what happens is a comedy of errors across Europe’s cultural capital.

As in his hugely popular One Day, Nicholls is great at writing relationships. As Douglas wonders about the state of his relationship; we see his relationship with Connie from the night they met through the ups and downs of their marriage. It is easy to see what attracted them to each other; her artistic exuberance being a breath of fresh air for him, his steadiness being a breath of fresh air for her. Whilst I did sometimes query how they lasted quite so long, Nicholls’ exploration of their relationship just feels very true. The same is true of his unpicking of the complicated relationship between Douglas and Albie, a mess of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The characters are neither likeable nor unlikeable, they’re just very real.

Outside of this, I will say the ‘Grand Tour’ plot was just a lot of light relief; from accidentally being arrested to Albie hooking up with an anarchic accordion player. It was fun, but not really anything more than that.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017, David Fickling)

When Philip Pullman announced he was writing a new book, I was very excited, and to hear that he was returning to the world of His Dark Materials just made me anticipate it even more. Fortunately, La Belle Sauvage is so, so worth the wait.

It takes place prior to the events of Northern Lights, and follows Malcolm, a young boy who works in his parents pub, The Trout, who becomes fascinated by the baby Lyra who is sheltering at the nearby Abbey and who seems to be the centre of intrigue. When a great storm comes, Malcolm finds himself having the responsibility of keeping Lyra safe.

Reading La Belle Sauvage in someway reminded me of the feeling I got when I watched Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; it was just a delight to be back in a world that I recognised so fondly. Pullman’s alternative Oxford, with its daemons and magical elements, remains so vivid, and retains so much depth. This novel also offers a real insight into how the world order that is recognisable from His Dark Materials was created; the way that the Magistrium’s religious fingers managed to enter all aspects of society. The League of St Alexander, which sees children reporting heresy on the part of teachers, parents & other adults, was particularly sinister and obviously has its roots in real world totalitarianism.

Another one of the delights of La Belle Sauvage is getting to see characters that play a central role in His Dark Materials in cameo (Lord Asriel, Coram van Texel etc); but the new characters are fun to discover too. Malcolm is an engaging protagonist; he’s smart without being ridiculous, and I liked that Pullman showed his vulnerability at times too. Alice, who works as a potwasher in The Trout and ends up being pulled into the mystery, is again an interesting character who is hiding a lot more vulnerability than first appears. I did wish that we could learn more about her, but as the story is really Malcolm’s we don’t spend as much time with her as I’d have liked. I also really liked Hannah Relf, the academic who serves as Malcolm’s entry to the mysteries around Lyra. It was nice to see a talented woman in academia play a central role, and I’d like to see her pop up again in the series. The antagonist is also horrendously evil, and I also hope we get to find out more about how he figures into the story later on.

I really loved La Belle Sauvage, I basically didn’t want it to end, and cannot wait for Pullman to release the second part.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight (2015, Quercus)

I was pretty excited to read this. As a chronic worrier and someone who definitely cares too much about what other people think, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck seemed like a must-read.

However, whilst I appreciated some of Knight’s advice, and a Fuck Budget is definitely a thing that I will be bearing in mind; a lot of the advice just seemed…harsh to me. This is probably a sign that I missed the message of the book, but it occasionally felt a little too self-involved and almost too mean for me to really follow all of the messages in this book.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014, Picador)
The Miniaturist attracted a mad amount of attention upon its release a couple of years ago, but for some reason I never actually picked it up. With the BBC adapting this for television over Christmas, I finally picked up the book so I can watch the adaptation.

The Miniaturist is the story of Nella, who is married off to an older, wealthy merchant, Johannes, and is propelled from her country life to Amsterdam. However, rather than a loving welcome from her husband, Nella instead is met by his formidable sister Marin, their servant Cornelia and Johannes’s African servant Otto. In an attempt to bridge the gap between them, Johannes purchases Nella a cabinet house which begins to take on a life of its own; potentially even predicting events.

I know next to nothing about 16th century Netherlands, and I did really like this insight into life for the wealthy, who were involved in the trade that made the country rich. I also found the importance of faith in many people’s lives to be really interesting; and Burton writes interestingly about people of minority genders, races and sexuality during a time that is allegedly enlightened.

In terms of characterisation, I did feel like The Miniaturist fell into a trap where the main character is incredibly bland and you just want to spend more time with the more interesting secondary characters. Nella is just a bit dull, and goes through a very speedy character transformation towards the end of the novel. I found Marin, Johannes and even Agnes Meermans, one half of a couple desperate to make money of the sugar trade, to be far more intriguing and I was slightly disappointed that Burton chose to use Nella as the protagonist.

The Miniaturist is very readable, and I’m excited to watch the series as it feels ripe for adaptation. Although it was page-turning, particularly toward the end, I did see pretty much all the major plot points coming a mile off which I think potentially detracted from how engaged I was in the story. I also found the magical realism of the miniaturist herself was just a bit…strange and was not really resolved. I felt that aside from being a good way into the story, that element was a bit unnecessary (and I love doll houses).  In all though, this is engaging read and I’m excited to read more of Burton’s work.

Amy
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Thoughts On: Hamilton, Victoria Palace

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Hamilton is a true theatrical phenomenon. Originally opening off-Broadway in 2015, the hype around has just grown and grown, with the show finally appearing in the West End late last year. I bought my ticket over a year ago, and boy, was it worth the wait.

In case you’ve been living in a place with no internet; Hamilton is the brain child of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells the story of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s life. Hamilton rose from poverty to being a Founding Father, until fading into relative obscurity in comparison to his contemporaries Washington and Jefferson. Rather than mimicking the likes of 1776 and using classical musical theatre to tell this story, Miranda re-imagines the show in the medium of rap and R&B, with a cast of majority non-white actors telling the story of the founding of America.

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The original cast recording has been a bestseller, so I had a level of trepidation about seeing and hearing an entirely new cast approach the score. However, I should have had no worries whatsoever; the West End cast are all excellent. As Lafayette, the French revolutionary and Thomas Jefferson, Jason Pennycooke delivers excellent comedic performances and Tarrin Callender, who only recently graduated, is great as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison. Ash Hunter, who usually alternates as Alexander, was on as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton at our performance, and has an excellent voice which makes me keen to see him as the main man. Michael Jibson as King George also comes dangerously close to stealing the show despite his relatively minimal stage time; and Rachel John basically earns an Olivier nomination in five minutes.

In terms of the real leads of the piece, Giles Terera plays Burr in a way that feels as though it differs from the interpretation that you may gain from the cast recording. His Burr seems keener to gain Hamilton’s approval, and his reaction to the events in the election of 1800 is just excellent.  Of course, the titular character is a role that the show really revolves around and Jamael Westman really just inhabits the role. He captures  Alexander’s enthusiasm and confidence, and unwavering commitment to doing what he believes is right. Westman is also ridiculously at ease with both rapping and singing, and it’s crazy to think that he is just 25. Definitely a star in the making.

giles terera hamilton west end

With a score as known as Hamilton‘s, the staging is really the focus for the audience. Whilst the set and costume design is fairly simple, Thomas Kail’s direction is excellent. There are moments of stage craft, enhanced by Andy Blakenbuehler’s choreography, that were just great to watch. The entirety of ‘Satisfied’ was just a stunning moment, and is a real standout from the production; I similarly thought the staging of ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ was really moving.

Hamilton is just a magical experience. Whilst Miranda’s score is undeniably modern; the show has so many nods to musical theatre history, from Gilbert & Sullivan and Rogers & Hammerstein to Les Miserables and The Last Five Years. If you can manage to get hold of a ticket either for the new booking period or through their lottery, you will not be disappointed.

Amy
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