The last time I was at a puppet show, I was about 4. I probably cried then. I did again. Clearly, puppets make me cry.
Obviously, this is a global sensation, and rightly so. The story, of course, is a winner; I read Michael Morpurgo’s source novel almost thirty years ago with a First Year class and they were entranced, especially as it was told from the POV of the horse itself, Joey. Kids and anthropomorphism; killer combination. Generally the acting is spot on – Sion Daniel Young tugs heartstrings as young Albert Narrocott – and the script is more than competent, though sometimes it jars as a little clichéd, slightly pat, especially when Ian Shaw dominates the stage as the horses’ German saviour, Muller, and mangles the delivery a little.
But what makes this play are those damned puppets, the bestest pantomime horses ever. It’s a stunning decision to make the puppeteers completely visible and part of the action and it’s astonishing how quickly you completely ignore their presence and buy in completely to the illusion that these are real horses.
And how real. I’m with my wee sister, who’s a horsey person, and she is amazed at just how accurate every twitch of the ear, every sudden startling, even every breath is. She completely accepts the reality of their pain and suffering and, most importantly, their dignity. It’s that that is the most touching aspect of all, especially, for me, the broken Joey, head bowed, finally defeated at the end, awaiting the gunshot that will put him out of his misery until he hears that owl-hoot whistle from his master that slowly revives his shattered heart.
This is a fantastic family play, but it’s much more that that; it’s a brave theatrical experiment that could so easily have fallen flat and looked naff, but, thanks to the artistic and technical wizardry of Handspring Puppets, is quite the triumph. Loved it. Despite the snotters.
Good play. Just not my cup of tea.
After the first act, I was a bit perturbed about the wittering blabbering going on that contrasted with the big didactic speeches. All was explained by one of my pals: “Well, it’s Russian” made everything clear to me. Thanks, Jenny.
I liked this. I just didn’t love it. Big plusses? Zoë Wanamaker is a stunningly good actress for one, and her performance as Ranyevskaya is impeccable. The best bits centred around her, particularly one speech towards the end of the first act when she tries desperately to explain her all-consuming passion for bad boys who use and abuse her to the politically unimaginative and emotionally stultified Petya, and later when she reveals the horrific burden of inheritance, of having to be responsible for what one’s fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have built when times have irrevocably changed. There are some excellent supporting performances too, most notably from Claudie Blakely as Varya and Conleth Hill as Lopakhin. And the set, recreating Russian wooden houses of the late 19th century, is beautiful.
However… I just didn’t warm to it. I felt distant from the speechifying, perhaps because of the antiquated politics of it all or the oratorical style or the sometimes irritating performances (Pip Carter as the embarrassingly bumbling Yepihodov and Charity Wakefield as the self-centred Anya didn’t convince me). Perhaps it’s unimaginative casting (the capitalist Lopakhin played by an Englishman, the stridently socialist Petya played by a Scot, Mark Bonnar). Perhaps it’s because NT Live has just got too slick at all this, and it felt like watching a DVD at times. I dunno – a good night though it was, it just wasn’t as great as it could and should have been.
Chekhov is, of course, rightly lauded for the richness of his characters, but it all felt a bit too broad-brush-stroked. Admirable though it all was, it didn’t surprise and delight enough.
Nice to be in the presence of greatness: Ken Loach introduces his new film, “Route Irish”.
It’s a political thriller of the type Britain is particularly good at – though Loach doesn’t see it as a thriller and didn’t make it as one, he claims – and trawls the fertile sea of the Iraq war for its tale of private contractor conspiracy. Perhaps unusually for a film made in the West, it presents all the human tragedy of the conflict that has been inflicted on the Iraqis, showing them as humans rather than, as producer Rebecca O’Brien says, “props”. It’s typically Loach (and writer Paul Laverty): scorchingly political, brilliantly humane – and occasionally rather clunky.
The discussion afterwards is hugely interesting but perhaps not exactly unexpected: the anger he feels at the injustice of the war; the problems he had getting it made; the difficulties he has finding distributors so that people can actually see it; the horrors he discovered while doing the research; the conflict he feels trading with the devil of Sky Movies. One thing strikes me: while Loach is almost unique, the subjects he tackles aren’t. There have been many recent enormously successful films about political conspiracies that are similarly anti-war or anti-establishment or anti-corporation: think of “The Constant Gardener”, or “Syriana”, or “The International”. Why are they so commercially successful, attracting funding and distribution? Perhaps it’s because they don’t quite bang on about the message, but dress it up in a medium that the audience recognises and responds to. For Loach, the medium is entirely subservient to the message, which is why he doesn’t want to admit he’s made a thriller. Market it as just that – a tight, exciting, action-packed thinking man’s thriller (all of which it is) – and perhaps the cash will come flooding in, and the message will do it’s own work.
However, Loach, for all his loveliness and humanity, isn’t naive, and I’m sure he’s thought about that and already rejected it: so I’ll just bow to his genius.
A hoot. Irish rogue Dion Boucicault’s farce of manners is a laugh out loud production. The attraction for me was seeing for the first time Simon Russell Beale, often described as the greatest stage actor of his generation, and Fiona Shaw. They are both magnificent, positively chewing the scenery with delight at their respective roles of Sir Harcourt Courtly and the wonderfully named Lady Gay Spanker.
Beale revels in the physicality of Sir Harcourt, posing and preening his way through the action, the perfect embodiment of a 57 year old desperately trying to convince himself most of all that he is 39. His joy at making a witty remark is glorious, as he silently mouths his self-appreciation and squirms and skips with pride, and his shock when his son Charles reveals his double identity as Augustus Hamilton by, á la Clark Kent, simply removing his spectacles is fall-off-your-seat priceless. Shaw, meanwhile, is the perfect foil. The horsiness of her glee at the prospect of spicing up her marriage with the venerable Richard Briers by leading Sir Harcourt’s lust for her by the nose while helping her young friend Grace avoid an arranged marriage with Sir Harcourt so that she can marry Charles is beautifully done.
Of course the rest of the cast are absolutely top-notch. What is refreshing is how stupid, self-centred and shallow the men are and how powerful, inventive, mischievous and grounded the women are: Michelle Terry’s Grace is particularly charming in her refusal to let the first love she feels lead her woefully astray.
Typically labyrinthine in plot of mistaken identity and competing love, the play of course borrows – steals – heavily from the Restoration comedy of Congreve and Wycherly, but looks forward too in its foreshadowing of Wilde and Shaw and, in the relationship between Sir Harcourt and his trussed up valet Cool, “Yes Minister”. Boucicault may have been a plagiarist, a chancer, a speculator and a womaniser, but by gum could he write a crowd pleaser. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
I’m not going to add much to the encyclopaedia’s worth of stuff written about this, surely the greatest Western ever made. The audacity of killing off Woody Strode and Jack Elam in the first scene; those locomotives, screaming and screeching their way through virgin landscape; the casting-against-type of Henry Fonda, Hollywood’s decentest man, as a psychopath; that unforgettable, instantly recognisable Ennio Morricone score; and, most of all, that final, glorious gunfight, Fonda’s eyes flickering momentarily right and left to judge the best angle of the sun to gain an advantage against the stony-faced Charles Bronson.
I first saw this in 1968 in the George cinema in Barrhead. You have no idea what Claudia Cardinale’s mascara and cleavage did for my bedtime fantasies - I must have rescued her from a whole trainload of bad guys, and then didn’t know what to do with her afterwards - or how much the smirking, spitting Fonda frightened the shite out of me. Seeing it again on a big, big screen, beautifully restored, is one of life’s infinite pleasures.
Oh, Henry Fonda! Oh, Charles Bronson! Oh, oh, oh, Claudia Cardinale!