Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures - A final tribute to Elisabeth Sladen

For my money this show is a far better spin-off series from 'Doctor Who' than Torchwood. Both have had poor episodes, but Torchwood's only highpoint was 'Children of Earth'; it's first two series tried too hard to be adult and ended up being juvenile, while the recent series was ploddingly dull. The Sarah Jane Adventures however is fully aware of it's children's audience and so has always been entertaining and energetic. This has also allowed it to punch above it's weight with some very thought-provoking dramas (such as The Trickster trilogy 'Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?', 'The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith' and 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith') and psychological horror like 'The Day of the Clown' and 'The Nightmare Man'.

The series came to a tragic end with the death of Elisabeth Sladen. As Sarah Jane Smith, she had created an enduring character that could have easily been a mere cypher. Sladen provided the character with charm and likability needed from a Doctor Who companion and had been developed in her role as leading lady. Thankfully despite her poor health, Sladen was involved in three episodes which would have been one half of the series. This feeling of unfinished business does not go away but it is still great to see Ms. Smith (and Sladen) being given one last hurrah.

The first of the three is 'Sky' which sums up everything right and wrong about the series. Both writer Phil Ford and director Ashley Way have established an inconsistent reputation, either making very interesting tales like The Day of the Clown (Ford) and Death of the Doctor (Way) , or forgettable works such as The Empty Planet, the other of the two Way had directed previously. As for Ford, well let's just say there's more misses than hits. Unfortunately this is a low point for both of them, resorting to patronising the young audience, completely forgetting that TSJA works best when it treats them intelligently. The dialogue is very clunky and far too often resorting to cliches ("That girl is going to get us into so much trouble"). The direction doesn't make these lines any better, making them sound more forced than they already are. As such this marrs the debut of Sinead Michael, playing the eponymous Sky. She shows much promise, and her innocent questions and behaviour are very endearing. But promising talent needs some nurturing and I don't see enough suggestion that Way can see beyond her 'child actor' status, often unfairly assumed to be substandard.

Thank god then that she is surrounded by experienced performers - Liz, Daniel Anthony (Clyde) and Anjli Mohindra (Rani) have played these characters for so long, they rise head and shoulders above the poor quality script to provide some form of excitement. Their scenes with Sky are also brilliant, as there is yet another interruption in their lives, bringing the best out of the youngster. The rest of the performance are great, just on the right side of over the top, and the monster is impressive but particularly threatening when invisible - footprints without a visible source is such a disconcerting image.

'The Curse of Clyde Langer' is a definite return to form, and unbelievably has the same writer and director team. As is traditional in TSJA, the brainless, action-packed opener is followed by a thoughtful tale with plenty of emotional punches. Ford crafts an upsetting tale for children in particular, having Clyde cursed by a spooky totem pole which makes everybody hate him. Ford captures that horrific childhood fear of everyone turning against you for seemingly no good reason - I am sure everyone can sympathise with Clyde's distress. It goes without saying that Anthony is fantastic at showing Clyde's desperation and especially his relationship with Ellie (Lily Loveless), a homeless youth. The comparison of situations may be very obvious but it does create some though-provoking situations.

Way also shows more creative in his direction here, whether it's minor moments such as a lovely overlap with the roar of a monster and a car's rumble, or the activation of the curse which is a sequence that is important and creepy. The resolution does feel sentimental and slightly unclear, but the gloomy atmosphere had been so well established, I relished any form of happy ending to the depressing situation.

And finally the series is forced to end on 'The Man Who Never Was' which, as writer Gareth Roberts pointed out on Twitter, was not intended to be the series finale but the third story as it was broadcast.

Oh the irony of watching a story about a man who inexplicably glitches on the iPlayer. There was a very odd meta fictional feel to the occasional pauses as it tried to load. This did not ruin the episode, however, which matches the high expectations from the same writer/director duo (Gareth Roberts and Joss Agnew respectively) who produced the heartbreaking 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith'. This is more light-hearted affair but it still pulls it's fair share of punches especially it's comments on slavery by businessmen. Rather than allow for overt sentimentality or sheer horror, the script balances between the two and also benefits from an endearing performance from Dan Starkey, the new go-to monster man, with the Skullians as a whole sympathetic and endearing race of little creatures. On the other side, James Dreyfusis clearly having a ball as the villain which makes the character all the more entertaining. As well as a great physical performance from Mark Aiken as the titular character, the regulars also get a good last run-out. Clyde and Rani, and Luke and Sky make terrific double acts with both relationships going under considerable development.

While the story does have a predictable conclusion, the first episode is very intriguing with plenty of suggestion of eerie goings on. It also has Sladen at the top of her game as she demonstrates Sarah Jane's journalistic skills which had never really been examined before. Her interview with Aiken's Joseph Serf is nothing short of sublime, with terrific humour as she playfully teases information out of him. As brilliant as she is here, it only makes her shocking death all the more tragic. Not only have we seen an actress leave before her prime, we have missed a really promising season: Sky looked to be a great character, and the return of "servants of the universe" Captain and The Shopkeeper suggested some really fascinating stories to come. Ultimately nobody would say that Liz was a bad actress - her characters were always believable, Sarah Jane being the pinnacle of all of them. So important was she to the character, you could never be sure who fed into whom.

Simply my referring to her as Liz shows how much of an impact she made on her audience - her performances always felt personal and honest. We weren't just watching a character, we were watching a well-rounded and believable person. The fact that Liz's performance has no suggestion of being diminished by her illness makes her death all the more heartbreaking. It will be a long time before her loss will be bearable or forgotten. Thank you Liz, you will be forever missed.

Friday, 11 November 2011

'The Poems of Wilfred Owen' edited by Jon Stallworthy

It may seem unusual to acknowledge the importance of Wilfred Owen on this important day of respect. He was arguably one of the famous war poets in this country but rather than write poems of patriotism that could easily date, they showed the true horrors of the Front which has left a distinct impression on the image of warfare. is but the trembling of a flare
And heaven but as the highway for a shell
[Apologia pro poemate meo]
Before explaining the relevance of the poetry, I must recommend this particular collection of Owen's work. This edition collects his poems in chronological order and in case you have any doubts about the placement, Stallworthy justifies his positioning with footnotes on when Owen was meant to have wrote them. They also include suggestions of where he was when he wrote them and how it was published, with enlightening insights in how the poems developed through numerous letters and drafts. Supported with literary analysis of each poem, Stallworthy has managed to provide enough information to maintain the audience's interest without overloading them with pointless tidbits. This detail is particularly welcome when you read the poems themselves. Aware that Owen did intend to reference Keats in his early works is quite satisfying.
Being well regarded for his war poetry, it is initially quite surprising to read his early pastoral, almost idyllic sonnets. While lacking the bite and memorability of his later work, they are enjoyable reads and his version of 'The Little Mermaid' is a definite highlight with shades of darkness which became giant strokes later.
Some men sing songs of Pain and scarcely guess
Their import, for they never knew her stress.
                                               [The Poet in Pain]
Warfare was the main focus of his poetry clearly but this did not stop him commenting on other important areas. He often provided unoriginal comments on class, with the upper class treating the working class like dirt, literally in the case of 'Inspection'.

"Three soldiers hailed her. She made no return.
One was called 'Orace whom she would not greet.

In contrast, I was completely shocked by his bitter reflections on religion, particularly in relation to the war. To me, they seemed rather controversial although I'm not sure if they made that sort of impact. 'Le Christianisme' contains a very concise description of how a statue of the Virgin Mary "Smiles on for war to flatter her" as she stands amongst the ruins of a church - these sort of images are scattered in various poems but I do not assume he was anti-religious in his views. What he suggested is how the faith in humanity at the heart of Christianity has become irrelevant to the men who are forced to slaughter their fellow human beings.

His depictions of the sheer brutality of warfare do make tough reading, inverting the use of poetry as beautiful and using it to produce disturbing imagery, most famously in 'Dulce et Decorum Est', one of my all-time favourite poems. More than any other of his poems, it is completely immersive and you are there with the soldiers, watching one poor victim "guttering, choking, drowning" But as soon as we are drawn in, Owen accuses us or rather the audience at the time for believing and repeating "The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." which roughly means "It is sweet and right to die for one's country" This disapprovement in the general public also involved their hypocritical behaviour with little or no reception for returning soldiers - 'The Send-off' most depressingly shows this attitude as they are whisked away "like wrongs hushed-up"

This disapproval of glorifying war and soldiers may seem at odds with this day where we give tribute to the soldiers who fought and died for us. Nevertheless it is because of these horrific situations that Owen describes that we should pay tribute to these soldiers. That they felt the need to put themselves through this, that they would sacrifice their lives in order for us to live which Wilfred Owen himself did, is truly honourable and is never mocked by Owen. The soldiers described in his poems are victims, thrust into a situation they are not used to and doing what they feel is best.

It seems fitting to end this post with the last written words by Owen, a preface for a potential collection of poems. As you would expect, he describes the intent of his poems more accurately and eloquently than I can:
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Thank you - you will never be forgotten

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Watching and Reading Much Ado About Nothing

'When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should still live till I were married.'
Just to make clear, no I regrettably have not seen the David Tennant and Catherine Tate production, but nevertheless the performance I saw in Abergavenny was still impressive. The trick to performing Shakespeare I find is focusing on clarity - chances are at least half the audience will not be familiar with the ins and outs of the play or be able to fully understand the language. In this case the ensemble company did this very well and provided an entertaining evening for all. And it is them more than Shakespeare that deserves the plaudits.

The plot is fairly simple: a group of soldiers return from war to stay in the home of Leonardo, where some of them fall in love with his female family and servants. But as Shakespeare himself wrote, although not in this play, "the course of true love never did run smooth"

The recent convention of abridging Shakespeare's plays may mean there are few productions that contain the whole text, but it does make them more approachable - the quality is still up for debate. As Mark Lawson brought up in his interview with Tennant and Tate, lines like 'if I do not love her, I am a Jew' cannot be used in modern productions. The only possible exception is if, like Gilliam with Faust, a director chose to set the play in Nazi Germany - hardly likely to be a successful combination with any comedies, never mind Shakespeare's.

While the play contains many witty one-liners and fiery dialogue within Beatrice and Benedick's arguments, they did not provoke near as many laughs as the physical comedy from the actors, particularly when both Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into thinking they are in love with each other. Hiding behind increasingly ludicrous items and an attempted cat imitation were exaggerated to the right extent to bring the audience to hysteria. The lines usually only produced laughs through the fantastic timing and inflections used by the actors, such as one instant when a bitter Claudio bitterly talks to 'BeneDICK'

As such when reading the play, the wordplay is more humorous and benefits from being able to take time to understand the language. It also provides detail for the characters and plot, although in this case little more is needed. What is most striking is the similarities and differences in the experiences. The moments of exposition are tedious in both versions, particularly when Hero's fake death is planned - a dramatic contrivance that is near impossible to overcome. However the production did successufully manage at least one major diversion from the text. Claudio, lover of Hero, is tricked into thinking she cheats on him by Don John. Unlike in the script, the production showed the deception on stage. The only piece of dialogue was when the trickster cried to his lover, "You are my Hero" with Claudio's heartbreak being portrayed through some impressive acting. While it was tragic when I first watched it, it is simply stunning knowing that it's an insert.

I am generally of the opinion that seeing a performance of Shakespeare's plays, whether on film or stage, is the best possible way to gain an appreciation of the text; if it is designed to be performed, it is ridiculous to only judge it on a literate level. I genuinely feel Shakespeare was primarily a fantastic entertainer but this was the first time I saw a full-length performance - an area I aim to rectify in time. This relatively low-key production of a mostly lesser-known play leaves me desperate for more.