|What Maisie Knew|
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Friday, August 2, 2013
|Daniel Briere (Romeo) and Sara Topham (Juliet) at the 2013 Stratford Theatre Festival (All Photos by David Hou)|
In the Stratford Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, British director Tim Carroll has given us a forthright production. This quality is partly a function of his theory of “original concept” Shakespeare, plays done as closely as possible to the way they would have been produced in the Bard’s era: with declaimed texts, plain sets, Renaissance-style costumes and a fair bit of interaction between the cast and the audience. The audience also shares the lighting with the actors, apparently to give the effect of an afternoon performance at the open-air Globe theatre. (Though original practices – in Stratford’s case, at least – do not include boy actors playing the women’s roles and standing room only for the audiences. And there is electrical lighting; you don’t want to go overboard with this stuff.)
Thursday, August 1, 2013
|Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy (1989)|
Mel Smith, who died a couple of weeks ago, was one of those living legends of British comedy who never managed to crack the American market. (He was a youngish legend, felled by a heart attack at just 60 years old.) Smith became a TV star as part of the cast of Not the Nine O’Clock News, an early-‘80s sketch comedy series that also launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones. Its humor was assumed to be too British and topical to export; instead, there was an Americanized HBO version, Not Necessarily the News, which is best remembered as the testing ground for Rich Hall’s “Sniglets”. His long-running series with Griff Rhys Jones, Alas Smith and Jones, was broadcast on A&E for a few years, but Smith and Jones’ attempt to take their act to the movies, the 1985 sci-fi comedy Morons from Outer Space, was a washout.
In 1989, Smith began directing movies himself, with The Tall Guy, a romantic comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson. On the basis of The Tall Guy, George Lucas hired Smith to direct the expensive, sprawling period comedy Radioland Murders, one of those highly touted Lucas dream projects (such as Howard the Duck and Willow) that make it seem impossible that this guy ever had a commercially viable idea in his life, and that pretty much finished Smith in Hollywood. He did have a hit in 1997 with a big-screen spinoff of Rowan Atkinson’s TV character Mr. Bean, but that was a watered-down version of a pre-sold property, and anyway, Mr. Bean is a mostly-mute sweetums played by a comedian who was meant to always be mean-spirited, talkative, hyper-articulate, and snarling (as in the Blackadder shows).
|Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, in Alas Smith and Jones|
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
|The Terence Blanchard Quintet|
Terence Blanchard is a musician who never lets the grass grow under his feet. As a skilled trumpeter and composer on one of the most profoundly difficult instruments in jazz, Blanchard continues to play with a consistent sense of abandon balanced by a love for melody. No less can be said about his new album, Magnetic (Blue Note).
Magnetic is a testament to Blanchard’s musical past, a rich education into the history of jazz shaped by the foundation of his birth, New Orleans. It continued with time in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as he explored the world of hard bop alongside Donald Harrison, saxophone, whom he later partnered with in the late 1980s. It was an important time for Blanchard as he found his sound and started composing. He later signed a recording contract with Columbia and became the rival stable mate of Wynton Marsalis.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
|Stephen Ouimette (Didi) and Tom Rooney (Gogo) in Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)|
In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay entitled Being and Nothingness, an existential exploration of human consciousness that in turn had been heavily influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book, Being in Time. The celebrated French thinker had devoured it while a prisoner of war during 1941 and 1942. Ideas of human existence as a state of free-fall, untethered from God, were clearly a part of the early twentieth century zeitgeist. But giving them vivid expression – and lasting relevance – was Irish-born playwright, Samuel Beckett, whose play Waiting For Godot is being and nothingness made flesh.
Originally written in French as En Attendant Godot (literally, While Waiting for Godot), and given its first performance at a small theatre in Paris in 1953, the play is essentially two acts of interminable waiting for an elusive character named Godot by two clownish tramps named Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). A famous early review described Waiting for Godot as being about “nothing happening, twice.” But as can be seen in the superb production of the play now playing at Canada’s Stratford Festival through to Sept. 20, a lot, in fact, does happen. And happens in a way to make you really think.
Monday, July 29, 2013
In Untold Stories, a pair of reminiscences by Alan Bennett that moved from the National Theatre to the West End in the spring, the actor Alex Jennings does an uncanny job of getting both Bennett’s owlish Oxford don’s look and his distinctive sound, the Yorkshire rhythms and the slightly high, thin tone. The title of the play comes from Bennett’s book of (mostly) autobiographical musings; the latest edition is bulked up to more than 600 pages, almost all of it highly readable. (I admit to skimming the 150 or so pages of diary entries.) Both “Hymn” (directed by Nadia Fall) and “Cocktail Sticks” (directed by Nicholas Hytner) are based on anecdotes in the book, but you have to read around in the volume to find bits and pieces of them, and most of “Cocktail Sticks” was constructed for the theatre. Untold Stories is small-scale – my companion described them aptly as aperitifs – but tremendously winning and affecting. I love Bennett’s style, more descriptive here than in his other work for the theatre, and his tone, which is observant without being detached, allusive but not rambling, emotional without being sentimental. And Jennings (best known on this side of the pond for playing Prince Charles in the movie The Queen) renders that tone with impeccable precision. It’s an impersonation but not merely one: he slips inside Bennett as he burrows into his prose.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
When he released Self Portrait, Bob Dylan essentially pulled a fast one on his fans. And the critics largely hated it. In Rolling Stone, critic Greil Marcus opened his epic review by asking, "What is this shit?" What was this shit? Besides the sly joke of the album's title (he performs mostly covers rather than original material), Dylan positioned the two-record set as a riposte aimed at those who wished to hold him to the mantle of being a spokesman of his generation. "I wish these people would just forget about me," Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984 looking back at Self Portrait. "I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's get on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't given' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else." But the record was also aiming to achieve something more. It represented a somewhat daring, yet failed, attempt to conceptually put his music in the context of the American songbook of Tin Pan Alley. So besides including live versions of his own "Like a Rolling Stone" and "The Mighty Quinn" (from the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival), he performed Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon", Elmore James's "It Hurts Me Too," plus traditional folk material like "Alberta" and "Little Sadie." Self Portrait doesn't fall apart because the concept is bad. It's that Dylan can't fully commit himself to the concept.