Wild Oats

By John O’Keeffe, Bristol Old Vic

Wild laughs with Wild Oats

O for a muse of fire! With a multi-million renovation, the Bristol Old Vic opens with a play constantly aware of its theatrical identity. Embracing the full possibilities of the theatre, Wild Oats is a 1791 meta-theatre experience. Set around the lives of actors and theatre we are always aware that we are watching a piece of theatre.

Just as the Old Vic has been revived to its eighteenth-century Georgian splendour, director Mark Rosenblatt revives an eighteenth-century comedy with imagination and hilarity, from Jack’s first prologue cry of “Let them know you’re coming” to visual montages such as a wonderfully creative motorcycle chase and a King Lear-esque thunderstorm.

Packed with Shakespearean quotes, O’Keeffe’s plot of mistaken identity and love across the divide also pays homage to the Bard’s comedies.

Set amongst the austere world of 1950’s touring theatres, Jack Rover (played with charming vitality by Sam Alexander) is a high-spirited actor who is mistaken for the son of Sir George Thunder. Before his true identity is discovered, via a convoluted tale of confusion, Jack has saved a man from ruin, fallen in love, been united with his real parents and gained an inheritance.

Amongst the sometimes complicated farce, O’Keeffe is defending and crying ‘all hail’ for theatre. Commenting on religious and especially Quaker fickleness, he portrays the theatre-hating Quaker, Ephraim Smooth (Philip Bird), as a hypocritical sexual deviant. Similarly, his daughter Lady Amaranth (Jo Herbert) isn’t too slow in discarding her Quaker robes in her desire for our hero.

Although reluctant to pick out individuals from a wonderful cast, applause has to go to Sam Alexander as the energetic extemporising Jack. Equally, Hugh Skinner is perfectly hilarious as the fraught and often melodramatic errant son, Harry Thunder. However this is an ensemble piece with all actors contributing to the playfulness, the piano underscore, and designer, Ben Stones’, set changes.

The cast are aided by the intelligently restored Old Vic, with its original 1766 thrust stage design and improved sight lines allowing audience and actor intimacy and a relationship reminiscent of the Shakespearean theatre.

Wild Oats celebrates the joy of theatre and is a perfect choice to celebrate a new era at the Bristol Old Vic

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The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov (translated by Stephen Mulrine): Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

IT’S OFFICIAL: those who accuse Chekhov’s plays of being dreary and devoid of plot are wrong.

Packed into two hours, Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, portrays the tensions of a rapidly changing Russia, unable to avoid modernisation; a collapse in the power of nobility and its consequences; an expanding middle-class of liberated serfs; profound, passionate characters and… humour.

In contradiction to the playwright’s intention, the original 1904 director, Stanislavski (yes, that Stanislavski) decided to interpret the play as a tragedy. Although debate continues about defining the play as tragedy or comedy, SATTF director Andrew Hinton believes that both can exist together.

The tragedy is the fall of the old ruling order and the defiance by some to acknowledge this. Memory stalls the progress of matriarch Mme Ranevskaya (Julia Hills) and Uncle Gayev (Christopher Bianchi) who linger on the past. Peasant turned self-made businessman, Lopakhin, explains with arm flailing desperation their financial predicament; their options either converting the estate and its titular cherry orchard or selling up. Simon Armstrong dominates the space as the apparent family saviour, the voice of reason, before turning gleeful avenger, securing the property on which his own family was once the suffering serf.

Julia Hills gives the fragile and erratic Mme Ranevskaya a fizziness that hides a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The moment she sees her dead son’s Tutor her distress is palpable. Hills is sensitive and graceful, emanating a child-like spirit, despite at times slipping into an imitation of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.

The comedy (including some slapstick falls) comes from the diverse characters and the cultural clash of old and new orders. Student Trofimov, with a considered performance from Benjamin O’Mahony, exhorts the value of work in contrast to the leisurely and snooty Gayev. Trofimlov is a stoic idealist, while Gayev absurdly mimes playing billiards with idle disdain. The aging Pischik (Roland Oliver) is the eternal optimist and mischievous scrounger; Firs is the dithering and mumbling old manservant, played with gentle warmth by Paul Nicholson; and Yepikhodov (Paul Brendan) is the lovesick accident-prone clerk complete with squeaky shoes.

Standout performance comes from Dorothea Myer-Bennett whose wonderfully layered Varya suppresses pain and powerlessness behind feigned smiles and longing eyes. Myer-Bennett evokes a veil of bubbling emotion as Varya lives her own tragedy; completely in the arms of fate, her future depends on the cherry orchard estate and a possible marriage proposal from Lopakhin.

The Tobacco Factory’s stark staging is a fitting allegory for the crumbling aristocratic affluence. There’s nothing ostentatious here, just the odd symbols, such as a bookcase, of a once materialistic shallowness

As the lights dim to the sound of the woodman’s axe Andrew Hinton’s production leaves us pondering with which of the wonderfully layered Chekhov’s character’s we should empathise.

Marley

2012 Cert: 15

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Ever watched a police helicopter overhead and found yourself mesmerised; your eyes darting eagerly hither and dither in search of their prey? Imagine the same eyeball-dancing fascination watching Kevin Macdonald’s magnum opus tribute to Bob Marley. One doesn’t know where to look, afraid of missing a single image. I left the cinema exhausted and exhilarated.

Director Macdonald (Touching The Void, One Day in September) reveals his obvious admiration for the Rastafarian musical icon by raising Marley, as if needed, to further august stature – Marley the King of Reggae; Marley the musical messiah.

This is a sensitive biography relating how, soon after his birth, Marley and his Afro-Jamaican teenage mother (Cedella Booker) were abandoned by his father. Growing up in the poverty-stricken Saint Ann, Kingston, Marley released his first single aged 16 – Judge Not – introducing the world to his music and his poetic theme of the outsider. The film additionally touches on the supposition that Rastafarian religion was Marley’s substitute for the father figure lacking in his life.

Macdonald’s respect avoids delving too deeply into Marley’s private life, his endless love affairs; perhaps something to do with eldest son, Ziggy Marley, being one of the producers. Some could cry “evasion” (he fathered 11 children by 7 women) but this is not the place for gossip-fuelled speculation. Despite his reservations, Marley’s public image was never far from politics, including an assassination attempt, but his story is also mixed with humour (Marley’s love of football and… oh yes: ganja) and poignancy. Ultimately his rise to international stardom is about his music, his pain and his own search for individuality and global inter-racial brotherhood.

Marley is also a discerning story of Jamaica, the island’s clamber for identity against its British imperial heritage and the raising gangster culture immerging from deprivation and desperation.

Besieged with interviews (including family, friends, former ‘Wailers’ and  collaborators such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bunny Wailer), mesmerising live performances, still photography, and a blissful Marleyian soundtrack, Macdonald’s honourable tribute skips allegro through two and a half hours until the icon’s untimely death aged 36.

Tyrannosaur

2011 Cert: 18

Director: Paddy Considine

Initially a short film, Dog Altogether, Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a rage fest. It is social and domestic rage emanating from exclusion, deprivation and hopelessness.

Joseph (Peter Mullen) is constantly on the verge of a violent breakdown. He sits alone in the pub twitching and muttering, his potential anger simmering like an active volcano. Incessant loud conversation winds him into a rage. In a disturbing opening scene an argument with his bookies had resulted in a savage act at which even the most hard-hearted would baulk. As this scene and the title’s eventual explanation reveal, a central theme of Tyrannosaur is how we are capable of abusing and destroying those we love.

In a role reminiscent of My Name is Joe, Mullen is commanding and likeable as a permanently enraged man caught up in a cycle of self-destruction. We always feel Joseph is aware how unreasonable his violent tendencies are and Mullen evokes his struggle to overcome this with sensitivity.

In a local charity shop Joseph meets Hannah (Olivia Coleman). At first Joseph rejects Hannah’s pious consolation, especially upon discovering she resides in middle-class suburbia. But all is not as it seems. Hannah’s increasingly frightful situation,  her lonely existence and regular bouts of domestic humiliation will eventually lead to a rage of her own with devastating consequences.

This is Olivia Coleman’s most mature performance. She is outstanding. Mostly known for her role in Peep Show, Coleman has reached a new zenith with her multi-layered performance as the childless wife, struggling to maintain her devoted Christianity amidst a volatile and sadistic relationship. 

Hannah’s double-garaged suburban respectability momentarily deceives until her secret reality is revealed. And it is secrets, resentful relationships and the ghosts of past events that haunt Joseph’s life. Visiting a dying friend he encounters a cold greeting from a familiar young woman. These mysteries are never wholly explained. Eventually, desperate to break free, Joseph quite literally sledgehammers into destruction a symbol of his past. 

There are moments one recoils as potential clichés emerge. Whilst Eddie Marsan is chilling as Hannah’s husband, James, one can’t help feeling this was pulled from the abusive spouses textbook. However, just as these clichés appear, Considine switches direction and surprises. It is about more than the obvious suffering, it is about the isolation both Joseph and Hannah experience; both retreating into a desolate life of drink and gambling or religious devotion in order to tolerate their situations. Until the only way out is rage.

Tyrannosaur is brutal and crudely sombre realism. It is a sensitive and powerful portrait of two people dislocated from society: a woman abused; a man embittered, with a violent addiction who takes it out on everyone, including domestic animals. Yet, Mullen’s performance and Considine’s compassionate script permit us to empathise. Brave.

Running time 92 mins

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

2011. Cert: 15

Director: Tomas Alfredson

There is a mole at the heart of British Government Intelligence and it’s one of five candidates. But which one?

Let’s not kid ourselves, the root of this political thriller is, essentially, a whodunnit? But any analogy to Agatha Christie or rural Midsomer ends here.

Director Tomas Alfredson produces a crisp, sophisticated, and intelligent movie. We are taken back to a time of Soviet Union political paranoia (“from now on always assume you’re being watched”) when the terrorists were Russian agents, not Islamic extremists. Alfredson presents an austere greyness; it’s the Cold War and it feels bitter and grave. 

Central to the story is George Smiley. He’s getting on a little; recently forced into a humiliating early ‘retirement’, deserted by his wife, and in need of a prescription upgrade to his glasses. Following the apparent killing of agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and the death of MI6 boss, ‘Control’ (John Hurt), Smiley is called back by Government Ministers to track down the identity of the double-agent that Prideaux and Control had been investigating. 

Gary Oldman as Smiley gives his most powerful performance yet; evoking Smiley as a broken, tortured man; lonely and left out to dry by his employers. Prior to the release there has been much talk about the BBC’s acclaimed 1979 series or Alec Guinness’s iconic performance. But they seem irrelevant here. If you’re like me and have never seen the series or read John Le Carré’s novel you have no frame of reference. But no matter. Oldman’s Smiley stands on his own. He is cerebral, calm, morose. He has very little to say but Oldman’s eyes are the only voice we need; the more he suppresses Smiley’s agony the more we feel. 

The screenplay, adapted from Le Carré’s novel by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, is skillfully structured. This isn’t a car-chase-gun-yielding-absurd thriller; this is a thoughtful, tactical, poignant drama. Control’s chess piece symbolism is apt as Smiley and his second, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), manoeuvre themselves around the secret service offices, secret files and suspicious agents. And the longer the game goes on the more the personal lives of the men are revealed and affected. This dreary, male dominated environment is taught with homosexual undertones and these secrets parallel the political secrets. Personal relationships are destroyed, affairs and treachery revealed, and the once seemingly friendly working environment self-destructs.

Alfredson allows his actors to take their time. The director of Let the Right One In trusts the small detail and the subtleties of his stellar cast. Oldman is suitably supported; in particular by Mark Strong. In the opening set-piece Strong is as cool as any 007; as the school teacher he is avuncular; as the friend he is sensitive and tragic. Colin Firth as Bill Haydon is charming, with a sexual twinkle towards Strong’s Prideaux, reminding us of George Falconer in A Single Man.

Alfredson directs suspense with aplomb and the whole two hours is brilliantly paced; the final scene building to a tingling crescendo as a metaphorical British new age sets in, all accompanied by the tones of Julio Iglesias’s La Mer. A breathless triumph.

Running time: 127 mins

Glorious 39

Written and Directed by Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff has always been fascinated with the past, evident in dramas such as Shooting the Past (1999) and Perfect Strangers (2001). Here, in Glorious 39, he exposes the aristocratic and establishment pacifiers of the late 1930s who, in the run-up to the Second World War, staged a desperate last effort to do a deal with Hitler in the hope of retaining their power and privilege.  

In merry old England, in the idyllic rural countryside, young actress Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) lives happily with her adopted aristocratic family. She is blissfully close to her brother Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) and sister Celia (Juno Temple) and adores her Parliamentary father, played with cool charm by Bill Nighy. Siblings take jovial walks together. Anne reads Keats poetry to them as they snuggle together in the lounge. All is perfect and loving. Or so it seems.

Gradually mysterious events occur. A young MP friend (David Tennant) dies after a dinner party rant vehemently criticising Prime Minister Chamberlain and his government appeasers. Recordings of secret meetings are found archived at home. Anne’s actor co-star seemingly commits suicide after listening to one such recording. Gradually Anne’s familial world becomes unhinged.

These gradual revelations in Anne’s life are beautifully played by Romola Garai. At times stunning, at times vulnerable, she covers the full emotional spectrum; skilfully evoking the joy of life and love and then the confusions and desperation as the ruthlessness of her family are realised.

Poliakoff presents a sinister and haunting environment.  A family arena in which wider events resonate is a theme in much of Poliakoff’s work and in Glorious 39 political conspiracy is lived out in the confined inhabitance of one family. No wider outside influence is evident, as though this family are members of an oligarchic elite controlling the Nation’s political dealings themselves.

This remoteness and tangibly claustrophobic insular setting is redolent of British movies like The Wicker Man (coincidence that Christopher Lee is in the both) where a close-knit community, in this case a family, conspire against the central character. Nobody is to be trusted; from the Vet to a young girl with whom Anne entrusts vital evidence.

At times Poliakoff’s direction steers into horror genre clichés reminiscent of the Hammer Horrors (coincidence that Christopher Lee is in the both): half-seen figures disappearing through woodland, Anne fleeing through narrow passages, and sudden interrupting entrances. However, there is predominantly an atmosphere of haunting tension as Anne becomes increasingly isolated. As family secrets are revealed her life becomes more threatened.

Any pacifists would be forgiven for thinking this is a pro-war film. After all, the ‘goodies’ are for outright war whereas the ‘baddie’ conspirators are trying to avoid it. Nighy’s stoic Lord Alexander speaks of the atrocities of the First World War and his fear of losing the next. He fears defeat would destroy democracy and culture. It seems as though his motives are genuine.

However, when you realise this means a Vichy-like deal with Hitler and horrific consequences for the Jewish population of Britain the emphasis changes. The good-willed pacifiers become pro-fascists. And inevitably the family’s own methods of maintaining their democracy and political advantage lead to Big Brother wire-tapping and dictatorial murder.

The horrible truth of what could happen at home is evoked by the images of so-called burdensome cats and dogs systematically being put down; emblematic of the extermination of Jews that was going on in Nazi-Germany at the same time.

We all know the outcome of 1939 and whether the aristocracy came close to manipulating a deal with Hitler is uncertain, but Poliakoff proposes an eerie scenario should the powerful elite become so influential.

Richard II

by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

With Andrew Hilton’s taught direction and John Heffernan’s sensitive childlike King Richard, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production of the tragic Richard II vividly presents the inevitable downfall of a naïve ruler.

Shakespeare’s history is a skilfully crafted story of the last days of Richard’s reign. The ill-advised decisions Richard makes in settling an argument between cousin Bolingbroke and Lord Mowbray and then ceasing the former’s Lancastrian inheritance lead to the usurpation of his crown and ultimately his death.

A divinely appointed King is reduced to a mere mortal. This is a tragedy. The King has a fatal flaw. But is the flaw his ability to make poor impetuous decisions or his ability to unwisely trust his advisors?

John Heffernan’s Richard displays a capricious personality, like a hormonal adolescent: often immature and rash, screeching either in enthusiasm or anger; a duality of sympathy or cold-heartedness. We are appalled both with Richard’s lack of grief upon the death of the his long-trusted uncle John of Gaunt and the joy he displays in ceasing his estate to fund the doomed Irish wars; we are then touched by his bewilderment and pitiable isolation after the loss of his crown.

Although awkward as a vengeful Bolingbroke, determined to take back his rightful inheritance, Matthew Thomas sensitively portrays his apprehension in usurping the English crown. Central to the tragedy and underlining the narrative is the belief, historically and in Shakespeare’s own time, in the King’s divine right to rule. No matter how tyrannical a king, is it ever right to usurp God’s representative on earth?

This is the turmoil facing the loyal Duke of York, gracefully played by Roland Oliver. He lucidly evokes York’s wrangling doubts about Bolinbroke’s illegal usurpation and the conflict about where his loyalty lays. This reaches a thrilling climax upon the discovery of his son Aumerle’s (Oliver Millingham) treasonable plot when York, knowing it would mean death for his son, chooses loyalty to the new King Henry IV.

Scenes from Richard II

Amongst the deft plot of double-crossing and vengeance there is humour too. For example in Heffernan’s juvenile playfulness as Richard, starkly contrasting the ideas of mature kingship, or when the duel scene builds into a preposterous wrangling of counter-accusations of treachery with every man in turn throwing down their gauntlets.

Benjamin Whitrow and Julia Hills bring aging stature to the roles of Gaunt and the Ladies of Gloucester and York. Hills is touching in dual roles of mournful yet unforgiving widow and mother desperately defending her condemned son. Whitrow carries the usual loaded expectation with Gaunt’s ‘this sceptred isle’ speech – Richard II’s ‘To be or not to be’ – but brings enough lamentation for us to forget we know how this speech should be played.

Supporting actors fit seamlessly into the action. Perhaps too inconspicuously. And this is one regretful omission. Part of Richard’s tragedy is the possible puppet-mastering of his advisors Bushy, Bagot and Greene. One is left pondering that director Hilton could have explored how much of their surreptitious power was responsible for Richard’s downfall, thus exploiting another fatefully tragic facet of Shakespeare’s play.

After twelve seasons this is SATTF’s first history play. Hilton’s production wonderfully mixes the sweeping narrative of a history with the intimacy of a single man’s tragic downfall that effectively begins the War of the Roses. Let’s hope this company adds further histories to their repertoire.