Twelfth Night Propelle(re)d into my good books

So perhaps I’ve missed the boat on Propeller, the all-male Shakespeare theatre company. Well, yes, of course I have, everyone’s been going on about them for years and I’ve only just seen them (there’s definitely a pun in “missing the boat” and “propeller”, by the way, I just can’t see it right now, answers in the comments thread please). In the sense that this is a review I could drag out the verdict to the end but I really can’t be bothered, they’re really very good (not good enough for a “blown away” pun though). I didn’t like Twelfth Night, now I do, so they didn’t do badly.

Their angle on Twelfth Night is creative and fun if not ground breaking. But really, what ground do we really need to break with Shakespeare? A great show is a great show. Their all-male cast no doubt continues to agitate some but, as my first view of an all-male Shakespeare, I was really rather pleased with it. The female characters generally allowed me to forget that they were men in dresses. I mean, they obviously were, I wasn’t going to be swaggering up to them in the bar afterwards, but with my suspension-of-disbelief hat on (it’s purple) I really was drawn in and comfortable with these men-as-women, perhaps the more so because it was a comedy. I didn’t entirely buy Joseph Chance as Viola, but “a man playing a woman playing a man” is perhaps just one step too many for my tiny mind.

In a comedy I generally gravitate to the buffoon, but nonetheless I must say that I felt that Vince Leigh’s Sir Toby stole the show somewhat and I’m now going to chase him down and see what he’s in next as he has quite the stage presence. Liam O’Brien had a great time with Feste as well (oh dear, I really am just going for giggles aren’t I?). There were times (one moment in act 2 scene 5 stands out) when they played it OTT and the moment was spoiled slightly for me, but generally speaking it was pitch-perfect comedy, well acted. The pace and energy were high throughout and I hardly have a critical word for any member of the cast.

The staging was excellent, although slightly hampered by their first performance on a raked stage (scenery on wheels with no brakes). A few simple items of scenery are arranged and rearranged to create a surprising variety of environments. It’s a small complaint but once or twice I found myself spotting things in the wings through mirrored props. The ensemble are used to good effect to bring the scenes to life and keep things busy, their costumes making them pleasantly anonymous and thus non-distracting in their masks.

The use of sound throughout was marvellous. The whole ensemble played an instrument of some form or another at some point and it added to the atmosphere wonderfully, although again there were times I felt it was distracting and I found myself thinking about the sound rather than the lines or watching the ensemble member with his instrument rather than the actor doing his thing. These were rare moments and I wouldn’t sacrifice this vital element of the show to improve my concentration for a second.

One criticism which may seem silly to many; I’m a little tired of the “yellow stockings and crossed garters as cross-dressing” gag that everyone pulls on Malvolio in modern interpretations. We get it, men don’t wear stockings or garters any more, but when this was written they did and the script doesn’t hold up too well when a company plays it up as a perversion. It’s a lazy, cheap gag and it breaks the production for the time it’s used, every time it’s used.

Overall I’ve been rather impressed by my first experience of Propeller and will certainly be chasing them up again in the future. This is a well paced, entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile take on a 400-year-old play that is worth anyone’s time. They’re touring Twelfth Night with Taming of the Shrew now. I saw them at the Rose in Kingston and if you can find a ticket unsold for the near future (The Rose sold out pretty fast) I would unreservedly recommend buying it.

Dogville is a barking concept

I’m not really sure why it was I picked up Dogville in the first place.I’d like to say it was because I’m intrigued by Lars von Trier‘s varied and divisive style, but I just found that on his Wikipedia page, so it would be a lie. I think it was probably because I have a bit of a thing about Nicole Kidman. I mean, I’ve seen some of his stuff, I’m not a complete Philistine, but I wasn’t a fan. Until now.

Films sometimes make me think. It’s true! I’m mulling over Shutter Island and will get to putting down my thoughts at some point soon (with an obvious link to The Notebook I expect). More often than not though, I take the great think man’s films, watch them, and discard them, because I am a bit of a Philistine. Dogville though, drew me in, entertained me and without really making me work for it, it made me really dig into those characters, draw out their motivations, their flaws and their their thoughts and walk away with it inside my head for days afterwards.

First things last, this is a slightly odd film. It’s set in a small rural community in the US (although the country hardly matters) and as such doesn’t require hugely diverse setting. Nonetheless, Von Trier has opted for almost no set. The whole thing is run as a filmed play with minimal props staging. The houses, doors, plants and trees are chalk outlines on a black set, even the dog is represented by the word “DOG” chalked on the floor. It all sounds a bit pretentious and rubbish right? But it’s not. It works. I can imagine Dogville right now, streets, trees(not elms, mind), houses and all because its presence is very much more real than the towns in so many other films I’ve watched. Sure, I can recognise the windmill from Moulin Rouge, but Montmartre? Could be anywhere. Gotham city? Just another American town with a Batcave outside it. Dogville? Quite the place. Maybe this is because I’m more engaged by narrative and relationships than location, but I still think it worked jolly well.

This is all aided by John Hurt’s narration, his grandfatherly tones setting the scene and providing segues and bringing everything a little more to life. Effective use of mime (oh how I’ve yelled at actors for poor mime…) and minimalist but well placed sounds fill out the gaps. I wouldn’t want to see every film done this way, but for a one-off (or two-off, see sequel Manderlay) it’s refreshing.

The film follows the arrival of Nicole Kidman’s Grace in Dogville looking for help, the townspeople’s responses to her and hers to them, aided by Paul Bettany’s local man Tom who becomes infatuated with her (who wouldn’t?). Both of the leads are wonderfully understated. I wondered at times whether this was because these two successful screen actors were uncomfortable on such a minimalist set, but on consideration I feel that their characterisation worked well and showed each other and the other characters off to best effect. This is, after all, a play about people’s responses. Other actors are generally competent without any real standout performances with the exception of James Caan’s late-game entry. I shan’t reveal too much in a review but for me his performance really woke me up as I got comfortable and settled in for a smoothe but easy ride to the end of the film. His part, in particular, is quite well written, or perhaps it seems so because he only appears briefly.

This is a film(/play) about arrogance, a theme close to my heart (I’m working on it, by the grace of God). It raises questions of the nature of humanity, endurance and the human spirit. It made me rethink the way I view myself and those around me in both positive and negative ways, and this conflict in itself is interesting. As a film alone it would have appeared clumsy or over-the-top in its some of its characterisations, but with the increased suspension of disbelief demanded by its play-like setting it gains latitude and is better able to ask difficult questions for it.

Not everyone will enjoy Dogville, I’m sure, some will find it pretentious, obvious or just downright boring (running time just shy of 3 hours) and that’s fine. But it is, I think, a film that everyone should see once for its different style, staging and approach. I loved it and was drawn right in by it, but if nothing else, it would be a great conversation point with the other (few) who have seen it.

“Damned by Despair”? Well, it was a factor

Being as I am a complete philistine, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the quality of Tirso de Molina’s writing (alright, I might in a bit), however I am happy to speak on the translation. To me, any work of fiction which asks actors to use the word “bling” with straight faces is on shaky ground. If you couple that with a general tone of writing and language with strongly evokes an era a good two to three hundred years past, it becomes a single word which is indicative of the mess of contradictions within Damned by Despair, which I was lucky/unlucky enough to receive press tickets for a few weeks ago.

It begins with ascetic monks living for ten years up a hill to shrive themselves for God and then quickly change scenes to a pizzeria. They are sent, by the devil incarnate posing as an angel, to see a man who is to all appearances one of the vilest to walk the earth: a killer, a maimer, a rapist and revelling in it all, certainly not destined for heaven. What is this man like? Is he a theatrical powerhouse, drawing the eye, striking fear in the heart and appearing terrifying to all? Well, no, Bertie Carvel’s Enrico is… camp. As a villain, he is totally unconvincing and I fear wouldn’t terrify my pet rabbit. If I had one. He minces more than swaggers, and so it’s not clear to me why his main squeeze, Celia (Leanne Best) who feels the need to shout all of her lines rather than deliver them, is so drawn to him. How all this can not have been picked up and rectified by director Bijan Sheibani is beyond me as is how he has allowed Sebastien Arnesto, playing lead monk Paulo, to make it this far into the show while still delivering his lines as if they were a page of prose rather than living dialogue. Rory Keenan provides scarce moments of comic relief as his sidekick Pedrisco but he certainly can’t be expected to save the acting of the rest of the main cast. Some of these performances have been praised by other reviewers and I can only say that they clearly weren’t at the same press night I was.

Late on in the play, a character dies and is lifted heavenward toward a bright light, symbolising his salvation. So far so cliché, but ok. As he rises, the actor raises his eyes skyward, followed by a hand reaching for glory, appearing to all and sundry like a bald Christopher Reeve’s Superman. At this point, my fourth wall took an irresistible blow too many, it was just ridiculous and is emblematic of the poor directorial choices in this play.

The play also appears to have been designed for a much smaller stage, and thus the decision to put it in such a large space as the Olivier is an odd one. It simply doesn’t fit.

The play clearly seeks to raise important questions about faith, actions, religion and salvation, earthly and heavenly and in some way, successfully does so. Unfortunately, the writing itself is clearly from an era when Christian theology was better understood by the majority and I fear many will struggle to follow some of the themes explored within as a  man of faith travels a dark path and an evil man is redeemed. More exposition on this subject might have been helpful prefacing a modern adaptation. Even as a believer of some years, I found that it didn’t all make much sense. Both Enrico’s take on the world and his sudden and apparently baseless late-game conversion are incongruous and unconvincing (maybe God agreed). As a devout man, Paulo’s grasp of the most basic principles of his faith, around which the play revolves in many ways, is pretty woeful. Had he but once in his life picked up a Bible and read a gospel, none of the rest of the play would have come about.

All in all, I tried to enjoy Damned by Despair for what it was, a flawed production of a moderately entertaining play attempting to explore the deep issues of Christian salvation, but I just couldn’t. It improves sharply in the second half to be sure, but given the time back, I wouldn’t invest it again in the first to get there. A rare and unfortunate dud for the National, I shan’t hold it against them.