Thursday, 29 September 2011

Reading 'Our Country's Good' by Timberlake Wertenbaker (The Importance of Appearances)

The most remarkable thing about the play is not just that it was purely created from a workshop of actors, using research and their talents to form a brilliant play. It is how this doesn't matter; if you did not know it's origins, you would assume this was just a standard play. Because of it's origins, it gains a unique style. While multi-roling is not uncommon in theatre, the play is about theatre and uses multi-roling in a very specific way. If you look at the original cast list, it is worth noting which actor played each role. For example, concited Wisehammer and  Governor Arthur Phillip, both played by Ron Cook, are arguably the most thoughtful characters in the play even though one is a convict and the other in charge of the colony. Lesley Sharp as , Reverend Johnson, and convicts Meg Long and Mary Brenham is able to explore three different views of sex and, in the case of Mary, how love can change someone. With this technique, the similarites and contrasts provoke interesting viewing

When reading the play though, it is not necessary to imagine multi-roling actors; having them as indivdual characters does not lessen the message that theatre can be a form of redemption. Neither does it remove the shock of the opening scene of convicts being flogged and missing home. It is clear from the start then, who we are meant to feel sympathetic for. The play continues in this blatant way, with simplistic plot and characterisation -  set in the 1780s, a group of convicts sent to Australia try to stage a play, despite some reluctance from officers and themselves. The class differences between the officers and the convicts is so clear, that it easily allows the reader to see the different attitudes towards the treatment of criminals; re-education or punishment? This is not as clear cut an argument as you might suppose, even if Wertenbaker is clearly in favour of the former. Neither argument is completely disproved, but the bias is obvious and so we are inclined to agree with the author, and rightly so.

 The officers may be mainly caricatures, of which many are present in Act One, Scene 6 (The Authorities Discuss the Merits of Theatre) but as such work brilliantly as a contrast to the more developed prisoners. By
The Methuen Drama: Student Edition
that contains
eyeopening revelations
about the origins of the play

having the officers sound so similar, all speaking with formal and complex vocabulary, allows the numerous and different voices of the convicts to become more distinctive especially when they talk to each other:
Phillip: Why wouldn't you say any of this before?
Liz: Because it wouldn't have mattered.
Phillip: Speaking the truth?
Liz: Speaking
This is a crucial moment on many levels, most notably because we realise that what Liz says is true. When we see the convicts at their best i.e. as decent human beings, it is when they are interacting with each other and rehearsing 'The Recruiting Officer' The fact that they are willing to perform in the play shows that they clearly have some confidence. Yet as Berkoff said "Naturalism is what you do when you don't know anything else" So perhaps it is not surprising that they soon improve their acting ability as they continue to rehearse. They also act as great moments to see character arcs and developments. As they spend more time on the play their true self comes out, as they realise how pretending to be someone else shows you who you really are - Liz is less judgemental, Wisehammer becomes more impressed by the power of words and Mary is more willing to embrace her love for Ralph.

Ralph, a lowly officer, is the protagonist of the play and so is by far the most believable and complex character. His first scene is dully observing the flogging of a convict but by the end of the play is passionately encouraging his new-found actors to give it their all on opening night. This intially sounds like a positive change in character, and yet in the period this would be seen as a lowly official sinking even lower in social status, hence the comment from the bigoted Major Ross of the second lieutenant: "He wants to be promoted to convict." This is a peculiar juxtaposition, but considering the prejudiced attitude of the officers and the more liberal convicts, this statement is not as fatuous as it first appears.
"And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers" (p. 20)
We, the audience, meet the demands expected from the officers when they become the audience for the convicts' play - we forget that they are criminals and become interested in their character and personality. Their actions and reasons for being at the colony is not important to us (only in terms of the plot) it is what they do with the time given to them. As we witness the prejudicial and arrogant attitudes of the officers, and the brutality this brings, we support their attempts at rebellion and suffer with them as they are duly punished, especially at the dramatic ending to Act 2 Scene 5. It is not unlikely that Wertenbaker herself shared this emotion when she went to see a play run by prisoners within their environment, an experience that has a clear impact upon the themes and general plot of the play, which are also referenced from the various letters she received from some of the performing prisoners.

A simple play which is very easy to read and well worth trying to see a performance of. I saw a college production of it and was very impressed by the complex issues discussed within this straightforward story. As a drama student, I perhaps appreciated the message about the benefits of theatre more than most. Nevertheless the historical context and the fact that it is based on a true event and real people is more than enough to keep the reader engaged.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

My Laziest Post Yet

I would review the latest series of Torchwood but 1) I can't remember most of it because it all took so long (What actually happened in Episode 2 that mattered at all?) and 2) it was so disappointing I don't feel it even merits a well thoguht-out review.

All I'll say is that after the incredible Children of Earth, I really wanted to like this and despite some fantastic ideas, plot twists and characterisation, it was all swamped by far too much padding. This would have made a cracking 5 parter (as CoE was) but presumably the thought process went "Well if it's double the length, we'll get double the quality" A theory very easily proven wrong. While I forgave the first episode's slowness for being desgined to set-up the ongoing plot threads, the plot's dragging of feet became increasingly irksome, so even when the plot finally kicked into gear in the final two episodes, it was too little too late. Oh and I hated Rex as well.

However my ranting has been more eloquently explained in this terrific article, that basically says everything that I felt when watching the show. It isn't often when your exact thoughts are captured by another in finer prose than I have, so here you go:

A better review than the one you've just read

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Nineteen Ninety-Four (An Orwellian sitcom)

1. Work is Freedom                     2. Freedom is Choice
3. Choice is Progress                     4. Progress is Power
5. Power is Happiness                     6. Happiness is Work

I love 1984. One of my all time favourite books, it never fails to shock me and make me see the world in a completely different way. Nevertheless, the domineering bureaucracy of the Party is ripe for parody and has been numerous times in the past. However, nobody does cynicism like the British and certainly the best of them are involved in this radio show. Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie form part of the ensemble with the splendid Robert Lindsey taking the lead role of Edward Wilson.

Interestingly enough, the show is far more Orwellian than it is a sitcom. The bewildering situations Edward finds himself in are largely played for laughs but there is a definite dark undercurrent, particularly in 'Power is Happiness' as Edward's lucky break causes him to become disturbingly psychotic. The blase reactions of the population to their clear mistreatment is also just as worrying - when radical changes occur, reactions range from "Oh well" to "Hasn't it always been like that?" (I am of course paraphrasing, the scriptwriters are far more witty)

Despite the gloomy setting and storyline, the cast clearly have great fun playing literal caricatures, people who only seem to care about themselves. As a consequence, except for Edward, I don't really care about the characters. They are entertaining in their own ridiculous way but their fate in this world is of little interest. There is much investment to be made, though, in Edward's plight. The most human character in the show, Lindsey does very well with a character who is often bewildered or boldly pretending to know what he's doing. His exasperations are simultaneously amusing and pitiful, with his screams of "I want to go home" towards the end of 'Freedom is Choice' being suitably dramatic and upsetting.

Just as 1984 did, 'Nineteen Ninety-Four' makes some unintentional predictions - video calls, statistics used as fact no matter how ludicrous and the absolute dominance of commercialism. Indeed, the world of both the novel and the radio programme do bear striking similarities and their protagonists follow similar journeys. Even the classic ending of 1984 is replicated although not to such a devastating effect; there's even a suggestion of a happy ending. Comparisons though are generally unnecessary between the hard-hitting novel and the flawed sitcom. The plot isn't quite as clear as it could've been and it's best moments are when it focuses on the sheer absurdity of this world. The cast show great diversity in their vocal range, making each character unique although there are too many of them and the various substories don't always work. Yet there are plenty of good one-liners and surreal uses of futuristic technology (serving machines have their own personalities and their own guidance councillors) that helps define the show as basically what 1984 would have been like had Orwell decided to write it as a comedy. But not as good as Terry Gillaim's Brazil.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Newsjack (A prime example of British cynicism)

A new series has just arrived and there are notable changes this time around, but first why it was so brilliant before.

In it's basic form, Newsjack is a satirical sketch show, with each sketch inspired by current events. What makes it stand out though is that many of the sketches and one-liners have been written by the audience, submitted a few days before airing. This format is not original, having been used with considerable success in Rob Shearman's Chain Gang, where the audience decided where the story went after every episode. This style of writing naturally lends both shows a surreal quality where anything is possible, which both shows provide enthusiastically.

Indeed Newsjack often defies it's satirical jokes for cheap gags like David Wallliams' swimming for charity again and again, but such running jokes are knowing enough to work without being too tiresome. At the heart of these call-backs is the 'host' / 'presenter' for want of a better term, which in the past belonged to Miles Jupp. Best known for his role in Rev, Jupp wowed me from the first time I heard him, a strange mix of playful tone and straight delivery that made me roar with laughter even if the material wasn't always consistently strong. I loved Rev as well and his growing appearances on various panel shows have made his growing reputation possibly a valid reason to leave the show. (This is pure speculation, I have no idea what prompted the change, if you do know I'd be interested)

As such he was replaced by Justin Edwards, who provides a different dynamic to the show. It is not quite as harsh and more light-hearted, which I'm still unsure of yet. Edwards is a fine comedian in his own right and as I've only heard the first episode, it's clearly early days. The show still makes me laugh with it's sheer absurdity though due to the origins not all the sketches work as well. However the "Jack-App", previously known as "Vox Pops" still works brilliantly, essentially a collection of one liners that can be brilliantly incisive. When it's sharp, it's dangerous, but the show is generally good fun and well worth a listen - a worthy sister to The News Quiz and it's ilk.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Maddrim Media (An endless stream of imagination)

It is unusual to talk about a YouTube channel as a source of fantastic short films but this is a very unique channel. Unusually incorporating an ensemble cast and crew present in nearly every video, Maddrim are full of enthusiastic youths with ambitious ideas. With their small scale abilities, naturally these don't all work and their more quirky attempts border on irritating and cringe worthy. 

Their best work is when, as the best creative minds do, they use their lack of resources to the best possible advantage. Simple shots of images tell a very powerful story, best seen in 'The Note'. It's best if you go in knowing nothing, but you can perhaps guess the subject from the title. Interestingly enough, these attempts are when their work is their most serious. 'Masks' is their calling card video, recommended by notable film critic Mark Kermode, after the company showed some of their films at the Shetland Film Festival he runs. An incredibly powerful piece of work, masks are used in the most alienating possible way that leaves you breathless. Yet their creativity does come through in their comedy also. Pork n Beans is innocuous fare but with a brilliant use of live-stop-motion.

They are also spot on in their parodies, whether it is superheroes (Stallion Head), soap operas (Autumn Leaves) or documentaries (Crystal Math) While the videos are obviously amateurish, there is enough enthusiasm and energy from everyone to keep you interested and faithful. Every video is entertaining in their own way, and their ideas are always imaginative and take basic premises to creative conclusions.

While I want them to be more artistic and exploit their creativity with their limitations, every time I see a video that is more obviously amateurish, I appreciate their other works all the more. Furthermore I'm become more reassured that in the future they will be fantastic film makers - I for one can't wait.

Personal favourites:

Monday, 19 September 2011

Reading 'It's Only a Movie: Reel Adventures of a Film Obsessive' by Mark Kermode

 For the life of me I cannot recall why I chose to listen to Kermode and Mayo's Film Review Show. All I can guess was I had reached the age where film was of actual interest to me rather than just something I like watching, both of which it remains. It was summer or at least a holiday. It was a Friday, sometime between 2pm and 4pm. That's all I can recall of my motives. What I definitely know is I've never looked back.

Entertaining and enlightening, Mark Kermode's film knowledge is clearly limitless but he isn't a bore, at least not often. The number of references and mini-reviews available within these 300 odd pages is impressive and usually irrelevant. However far from distracting, this is very much Kermode's style as the book is essentially his voice transcribed and made slightly more comprehensible.

A self-admitted fictional autobiography, there is no guarantee the anecdotes Kermode tells are 100% accurate. In a strikingly post-modern sequence, he takes a break from writing the book to watch a film to check he remembered a scene correctly! And this is on the low-key end of absurdity. Some of the stories sound far-fetched but there is something strikingly honest about his story telling. Say what you like about his opinions and reviews, he knows how to keep an audience entertained.

In the least back-handed way possible, the book is very easy to read. As I say he manages to capture his own voice perfectly (not as easy as you may think) and his casual tone makes it feel you personally are being told this extraordinary story by an old friend. Literary it ain't, incisive criticism isn't here either despite his previous reputation and his latest book ('The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex') seems to be in that vein also. This is just a fine diversion that left me laughing to myself for a few hours and left me thoroughly entertained, with a smidgen more insight into the peculiar world of Mark Kermode.

Still prefer the original cover though:

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Fear on Four / The Man in Black (Modern Horror Anthology)

I will say right now I am incredibly squeamish about excessive gore. If it's surrounded in atmosphere, I can handle it but gore just for the sake of it makes me feel sick and does not scare me. As such I have a natural aversion to horror films, purely because I fear that they will just be this scenario on repeat. Nevertheless I have respect for the genre. For every Saw that I want to avoid, there's something that sounds interesting like A Nightmare on Elm Street but it is that visceral quality that puts me off, which I fear will remove any sense of enjoyment I hope to gain. Naturally this conflict has caused me to be a happy viewer of psychological horror, purely because it's scares and disturbances are purely in the mind of the viewer, tricking us into thinking we've seen more than we have. As such I believe horror is most frightening (rather than sickening) in this style, which can best seen and heard in radio and literature.

In terms of literature, I adore Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. While both use a certain amount of body horror, they both make the reader uneasy mostly through a disturbing atmosphere. 'The Tell-Tale Heart' shows us a murder, but through the murderers eyes we are also witness to the mind of a madman or, more worryingly, a man completely sane. King of course notably said "Naturally, I'll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn't work, I'll try to horrify you, and if I can't make it there, I'll try to gross you out" but so far I have never failed to see one of his works fail to do all three, in my view the most notable being 'Pet Semetary' and 'The Shining' However books are not particularly relentless and if it gets too much, the reader can stop without ruining the flow of the story.

Not so with radio. You are effectively trapped. The only way to lessen the impact is turning the sound off but 1) you're more than likely to miss an important plot point and 2) there's no way you can know when the scary part has stopped.

Enter The Man in Black. Seemingly a typical horror anthology, it's tone is as much Twilight Zone than anything else. While it often adapts old horror stories ('The Beast with Five Fingers', 'The Monkey's Paw') the highlights are the original stories, varying from revenge stories and full-on horror. Currently repeated on Radio 4extra, Fear on Four's stories are frightening and gripping with spectacular performances and creative writing. Almost stealing the show though is Edward de Souza, adopting the Serling-esque role of introducing and concluding the story. His voice creeps along the edge of sultry and terrifying. Addressing the audience in this context must never be underestimated and de Souza genuinely tries to involve the audience in the events no matter how fantastical the story. It says a lot that even when he reads the credits, a shiver occasionally creeps down my spine.

Thankfully, the show has since made a return in recent years fully acknowledging the importance of the character, perfected by de Souza and previously Valentine Dyall whose version is rarely repeated, by re-naming it The Man in Black. Horror aficionado Mark Gatiss takes this role with both hands and plenty of relish. Anyone aware of his work knows how much he adores horror and he gives a suitably chilling performance, drawing the reader in before unleashing an almighty twist in the tale. These stories are more notably of the time, examining the cliches of modern life we feel we know so well with frightening results. Two thugs robbing an old man's flat and a rap contest are the basis for some mind-bending and deeply disturbing stories. The latter also demonstrates the shows manipulation of the audio format, as does another story based around scientific experiments with sound. Occasionally the stories can be predictable but the resolutions are always unnerving, designed to leave the listener shivering for a good few hours/days/weeks after broadcast.

Whether it's repeats of the old show or brand new stories, the format does not tire and always gives a few decent shocks. 6pms on a Sunday on Radio 4extra currently hold a slot for Fear on Four with hopefully a new series of The Man in Black on the way - this is old-fashioned storytelling with a timeless quality. Enjoy and beware...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Seeing 'The Seagull Effect' (Wednesday 14th September 2011, The Courtyard, Hereford)

A love story...a meteorological examination on the little decisions we make...a reconstruction of devastation...
All of these are encapsulated in one hour by 5 extraordinarily imaginative young performers accompanied by impressive projections, lighting and props. Mostly an ensemble peace, two simple stories are played out over the course of the one day in 1987 when Michael Fish got it famously wrong - the Great Storm of 1987, one of the worst the country has ever had. We are told retrospectively of a prospective meteorologist going for a job interview explaining the science behind the cause of the hurricane, how it (initially) failed to be detected and how people coped during the ensuing days of catastrophe. Unfortunately Grace Chapman struggles with the large amount of statistics and facts she has to communicate and her monotone delivery does make the information slightly less interesting then it was. Fortunately the cast perform incredible visualisations of the origins of the weather forecast system that very easily communicate a very complicated idea.

Meanwhile a minor love story is played out during the storm and as love is want to do, barely acknowledges the tragedy of the world around it . The awkward comedy is played realistically by Alex Kearley-Sheirs and Kate Stanley and while their story is somewhat predictable, the characters are so likable you get drawn in. Yet again I will say they are all fantastic physical performers and both a tasteful love scene and the two drifting apart (both making good use of a bed) are incredibly powerful.

In the end though this is an ensemble piece. According to their Twitter feed an injury to one of the cast meant a re-blocking with one less performer, not that you could tell. There are spectacular sequences as the hurricane grows in strength and destruction is raged upon Britain - simply using handfuls of leaves and violent body movements is enough to show how frightening these moments were. Even simple scenes of telephone calls and travelling on buses leave an impression on the audience. Needless to say, the audience were thrilled and laughing, with an applause that didn't want to end. If possible try and see this show or at least see this splendid company who I have no doubt will go on to further success and rightly so.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wilfred (Mainstream Surrealism)

'Wilfred' is one of the many fantastic things that as soon as you try to sum up the basic premise, it sounds too extraordinary to try to watch and understand on a basic level. Basically Ryan (Elijah Wood) has a neighbour (Fiona Gubelmann) who he naturally is attracted to. However after he attempts to commit suicide, he has the bizarre ability to see her dog Wilfred, not as the dog everyone else sees, but as a man (Jason Gann) dressed in a dog costume, which is doomed to be imitated at any fancy dress party.

Well I warned you. What is most peculiar abut this set up is how it is used for essentially a basic buddies-getting-into-scrapes sitcom. Considering it's ridiculously short running time of just over 20 minutes (no doubt due to American adverts) this was a sensible move. None of the plots outstay their welcome and through their simplicity allows the characters to develop and revel in the absurdity of it all. While Wood plays a terrific straight man, it is Gann who completely steals the show, although considering he is the titular character this is perhaps not surprising. Even more so considering he's been playing the character since it began in it's original Australian format. While there is plenty of crude humour to find in a swearing, drug-taking talking dog, the best jokes are when we see Gann's physical talent in convincingly being a dog. Watching him chase his tail and running into the sea screaming "It's a pelican" are hilarious but surprisingly capture what it looks like dogs in such situations are desperate to say. I know that sounds bizarre but to be honest, you can't discuss this show with much rational thought, hence why I'm reviewing it...

Now from the premise, you would assume that Wilfred in human form doesn't actually exist and is just a figment of Ryan's imagination. Well the programme doesn't deny this but also greatly enjoys toying with the viewer of whether this is actually the case. The morals that Wilfred gives Ryan clearly chime with this idea, but the coarse explanation from Gann's rough Australian tones prevent these moments being too heavy-handed. And yet there is a distinct sense that most of what Wilfred does could only occur in the form of a human . Like Ryan we do not expect explanations for his action  but that won't stop us theorising.

This attitude is perfectly encapsulated in the closing moments of the latest episode 'Respect' as Wilfred flips into admitting if he was the cause of the events or not. The fact that these regular epilogues usually involve one or both taking drugs adds to the insecurity of reality. Whether by the end of the series there will be an answer I'm not sure, but I highly doubt that even the creators know the truth if there is any.

I say all this and yet like the best comedy and surrealism, trying to analyse and explain it's magnificence fails in comparison to the real thing. It's on tonight, 10.30pm, BBC 3. Go with it or don't, either way you will be completely baffled by this implacable show.