The Changeling

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The Sam Wanamaker Theaters latest offering comes from the oft-overlooked genre of Jacobean tragedy. As this lively production demonstrates, these plays can be deeply compelling. We come back, fascinated, to the bizarre mixture of blood, poetry, grotesque humor, beauty and pathos that they offer. More than that, the sense, present in all of them, of a world that has lost its innocence, spinning out of control. The characters in these dramas are carried along by events, generally of their own making, and become victims of out-of-control passions. There is no sane authority that can be appealed to, no fixed point onto which they can hang. Perhaps it is this world that we recognize and feel a connection to. This is not to say that the plots or the characters lack anything; the two most popular tragedies in recent years – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Duchess of Malfi – have all the hallmarks of satisfying tragic drama: protagonists afflicted by a fatal flaw that upsets the balance of their world; an emotional situation with which the audience can connect; a plot that proceeds with sense of dark inevitability; and a satisfying conclusion.

The Changeling has all of these qualities, but differs in some ways from our usual conception of ‘tragedy’; The atmosphere is one of domestic secrecy; Personal relationships, not court intrigue, are central to the plot; The setting is almost an irrelevance; And the play is so character-centric, so closely psychologically plotted, that it is almost a character study. Beatrice-Joanna, the protagonist, is set on marrying the man of her choice; to escape her current engagement she hires the repulsive and amoral De Flores to kill her fiancé. Unfortunately for her, De Flores is obsessed with her and demands sex in payment for the murder. Beatrice’s world spirals out of control as she engages in a desperate cover-up attempt that begets further murder. There is also a comic sub-plot set in a madhouse that reverses the events of the plot and plays it for laughs, acting as a sort of counterpoint to the main action.

The heart of the play is the relationship between Beatrice and De Flores. Beatrice insists that she hates him, but what are her real feelings? Is De Flores just a thug who seizes an opportunity to rape Beatrice, or are this strange couple made for each other? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Their actions during the play are like a grotesque parody of romance: De Flores kneels to Beatrice, pleading to be allowed to serve her, presents her with a ring (with her fiancés severed finger included) “wins her love” and manages to die with her. This suggestion of a twisted romance combines with Beatrice’s tragic transformation and growing self-knowledge.
The production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, (running from January until March), plays this story lightly. The comic sub-pot, often cut or reduced in favour of the tragedy, is handled with skill and attention. Isabella (Sarah MacRae) calmly side-steps the attentions of two disguised suitors (Adam Lawrence and Brian Ferguson) and Lollio, (Pearce Quigley) De Flores’s self-serving comic counterpart. Quigley is very good in the role, bringing just the right amount of lightness to the good-natured scheming. The madmen are disturbing enough to add to the atmosphere and the comedy comes primarily from Lollio and the suitors.

Beatrice (Hattie Morahan) is thoughtless and coquettish, but never sinister. Morahan plays her as a woman whose main flaw is her self-deception; while she tells herself that she loves Alsemero (Simon Harrison) “with the eyes of judgement” she is very clearly ruled by her heart. Harrison is very well cast as Alsemero, a man as upright and attentive to social mores as De Flores is not. Harrison’s ability to be both innocent and threatening makes Beatrice’s desperation to cover her actions more plausible. Harrison is genuinely frightening in the last scene, throwing his wife around in a haze of anger, betrayal and disappointed love. His shattered belief in her purity has become a flaw in itself. This is a nicely rounded portrayal of a character who might otherwise have been rather flat.

Morahan’s best moments come in Beatrice’s interaction with De Flores (Trystan Gravelle). Beatrice’s hatred of the ugly servant may be played as haughty disdain (as Helen Mirren did in the 1974 BBC adaptation) but Morahan plays it as uncontrollable and highly personal, a primal reaction that cracks her composure; She is incapable of self-control with regard to him. Face patterned with red birthmarks that give him a satanic look, Trystan Gravelle is more than equal to his role as the creepy, isolated but ruthless man tormented by his obsession. Gravelles De Flores is bitter, cool, wilful, logical, pragmatic, crude and utterly amoral but also bleakly funny, drawing several laughs in the early scenes. During his verbal sparring with Beatrice he does not give an inch, holding up with passive-aggressive good manners. The scene is electric as she desperately insults him, face contorted, all pretence of reserve dropped. These two are mutually obsessed, but have no point of contact. Whether Beatrice’s hatred hides something else hardly seems to matter. She does not understand her feelings, she cannot even try to. It is an important flaw essential to her character, and it is good to see it played so well.

De Flores’s coolness calcifies into menace in later scenes as power dynamics are reversed. He is horribly matter of fact with his demand when he comes to collect his payment from Beatrice. Stanley Baker played De Flores as desperate and self-pitying in this scene in the BBC adaptation, but Gravelle is coldly angry. He will have what he wants. He knows he is the right man for Beatrice. The element of rape in their relationship is horribly explicit. Beatrice (Morahan) reacts to him with a frightened emotional submission that resembles Stockholm syndrome. Her tentative displays of love for him are heart-breaking, although sympathy for her is likely to frizzle out with her thoughtless dispatching of a maid who knows too much (Thalissa Teixeira, irrepressible in this supporting role).

The staging by director Dominic Dromgoole is very good, and especially atmospheric during the ghost scenes. The dance scenes are beautifully choreographed and lit, with eerie and appropriate music by Claire van Kampen. There is only one complaint that can really be made about theater this good, which is that it is theater. The Sam Wanamaker playhouse has been infuriatingly coy about filming its performances, apart from the beautiful production of The Duchess of Malfi which was filmed and aired on BBC four last year. This is a beautiful, fresh production, and deserves to be recorded.

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The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse

Staged, January 2014
Broadcast on BBC 4, 25/05/14
The recording of the Jacobean drama, staged earlier this year at the Globe theatres new Jacobean playhouse, is a bewitching production. Lit entirely by candlelight, it makes excellent and dramatically effective use of light and shadow, creating a dreamlike and violent world within the confines of the stage.
The story, simply put, is that of the Duchess, who remarries in defiance of her brothers. This simple act unleashes the rage of her incestuous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson). Along with Tis pity she’s a whore, Malfi is one of two Jacobean dramas that seem to resonate strongly for our own time. The treatment of corruption, power, romance, gothic horror and a central powerful heroine speaks to a modern audience as strongly as it ever has.
Gemma Arterton is mesmerising in the main role, depicting the Duchess as a flighty young girl forced to mature by the ensuing tragedy. Dawson gives an unusually pliant and fragile depiction as Ferdinand, portraying him as a psychotic man-child, vulnerable, petulant and dangerous. Sean Gilders Bosola plays off well against him as a gruff, introspective killer in the pay of a moneyed epicurean. James Garnon plays the Cardinal with a sort of nonchalant malevolence.
The production is complemented by excellent and well-researched music, courtesy of Claire Van Kampen, and some well-choreographed dance scenes. The essential ingredient of the play- the sense of tragedy – is properly conveyed through the atmosphere. During the Duchesses imprisonment, the direction gave the sense of having stepped into someone else’s nightmare; the dance of madmen, the ‘votive’ posing of her families corpses, the executioners who bear such a strong resemblance to Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In surroundings like this, you can properly appreciate the Duchess’s inner strength in the face of her persecutors.
The action falters a little in the final scenes, which deal with the fallout of her murder, but there is a feeling of unrolling inevitability about the final coup-de-grace. Bosolas revenge on the brothers is set within a tragicomic world as opposed to the Duchess’s wholly tragic one. Ferdinand rushes shrieking and growling about the stage; the madness we have sensed beneath the surface has now utterly consumed him. James Garnons’ Cardinal has a particular kind of malevolence. Shifted to the foreground in the last quarter of the play, Garnon plays the Cardinal with a lightness and humour that is ultimately very effective; This is a man, you feel, who does not even have the decency to take his own evil seriously. Nonchalantly plotting and killing his way through the last act, Garnon goes out on a joke among the corpses of those who have fallen victim, ultimately, to his actions. An irony that encapsulates the brilliance of this excellent production.

David Dawson and Gemma Arterton as the twins, with James Garnon in the background. No copyright infringement intended. Original source http://cdn.images.express.co.uk

 

The Phantom in time

A masked Claude Rains; Lavishly staged opera scenes; Two Oscar wins. The 1943 version of “Phantom of the Opera” certainly has a lot to recommend it. Despite veering wildly from the plot of Gaston Leroux’s novel, this film is a brilliant reworking of the story. So lavish that one of the opera scenes featured a horse, yes, an actual horse on the stage, this version made the most of then-new Technicolor filming. But more eye-catching to those who know the various versions is the altering of the roles. Now, it is a mistake to object to reworking of a story per se. “Blade runner” would be a very different film had Ridley Scott stuck closely to the source material. But it is fascinating to see how reinterpretation of the characters has altered the films meaning.

At its heart “Phantom of the Opera” is a fairytale. Specifically it is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast”. A man falls into trouble, is cursed with physical ugliness and becomes bestial as a result. His only hope is redemption in the shape of a woman’s love. But in the Phantom’s case, there is no hope of a transformation. Beauty rejects the Beast, and is rescued by the handsome prince, Raoul. The Phantom may be redeemed by his love of Christine, but is denied a happily ever after.

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Gerard Butler as the Phantom

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In the 1940s version Claude Rains portrays a different Phantom to Leroux’s original. Rains’s Phantom is a gentle, humane musician, pining for Susanna Foster’s coquettish Christine. He is treated unfairly by everyone, sacked, berated, insulted and finally driven to murder before having acid thrown in his face. Because of his ordeal he becomes the Phantom, and undergoes a complete character change. From passive, gentle and benevolent he becomes menacing, murderous and crazed. His only link to his former life is his love for Christine. It is fairytale imagery, again, wrapped in the conventions of gothic drama. It is the transformation from prince to beast, with only the hope of having the curse lifted. Christine now takes the part of a would-be rescuing princess.

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Lon Chaney as the Phantom

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The film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has a different take on the transformation. Gerard Butler’s Phantom was abused as a child, and kept as an exhibit in a freak show. Like Raine’s Phantom, he is turned into a killer by trauma. Emmy Rossum’s Christine hits the nail on the head with her diagnoses:

Christine: This haunted face/Holds no horror for me now. It’s in your soul/That the true distortion lies.

But while the 1940s film focuses on the contrast between prince and beast, Lloyd Webber’s version is concerned only with the Phantom’s predicament. There is no lingering over the protagonists’ former innocence. As for the 1920s film, there is barely any mention of the Phantom’s past, except to link him to crime and black magic. But what all of the films do is emphasise the redemptive quality of the Phantom’s love.

The 1920s version starring Lon Chaney revolves very tightly around the central relationship. The Phantom and Christine are permanently locked in a power struggle. Christine has to throw off her early illusions, and her quite real love. She makes the decisions which drive the plot, choosing handsome, respectable Raoul over the tortured, murderous Phantom. She later plays the role of damsel in distress, but is still active and central to the plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is similar. In the film of the musical, Christine (Emmy Rossum) even saves the Phantom’s life at one point. Both of these versions stick quite closely to the novel. Here is the deviation of 1940s version: Susanna Foster’s Christine is not in love with the Phantom, nor anyone else. Raoul is replaced by two young men, who she alternately flirts with, and discards at the end (the comic rivalry of her beaux is one of the films highlights). In a way Foster’s Christine is a more feminist portrayal, since she clearly needs none of these men (Christine’s real relationship in this film is with her career). But it does reduce her role in the plot hugely. It also weakens the power of the plot. The gesture of compassion crucial to the Phantom’s redemption comes only after his death-and in a very watered down form:

Christine: He was almost a stranger to me, and yet somehow I always felt drawn to him with…with a kind of pity…understanding…

Very mild indeed compared with this scene from the Lloyd Webber film:

Christine:  Pitiful creature of darkness/What kind of life have you known?/God give me courage to show you/You are not alone…(kisses the Phantom passionately).

In Webber’s version, Christine’s act of kindness comes as close to transforming the Phantom as the plot can allow. He lets her go and escapes, his good side having triumphed. The film even allows him a kind of marriage with Christine, when she gives him her engagement ring. Webber’s version comes closest to the formula of Beauty and the Beast; The lifting of the curse and the union of the characters both have a sort of parallel. There is no scene of retribution for the Phantom’s crimes because redeemed, he can be allowed to escape the mob.

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Claude Rains as the Phantom, with Christine

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The 1940s script gives just enough of a concession to Christine’s role as a rescuer to redeem the Phantom. Otherwise her active role is almost completely cut out. She is the only the object of an obsession. Having changed Christine into a passive figure, the film focuses on Raines’s version of the Phantom. This completely alters the story’s dynamics.  Rather than a passionate power struggle between characters, this is a character study. As the successor to Chaney, Raines is tasked with giving an equal performance in a totally different style. It is fair to say he succeeds. In contrast to Chaney’s grand acting, Rains is all nuance and convincing psychology. His version is a sympathetic anti-hero, who is trying to save himself. He pursues Christine, the passive object, a symbol of redemption. Part of this Phantom’s tragedy is his doomed attempt at self-rescue. This partly expresses itself in his crazed speech to Christine where he sublimates his life in the cellars:

“You’ll love it here, when you get used to the dark, and you’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly, and peaceful. It brings rest, and relief from pain. It’s right under the opera. The music comes down and the darkness distils it-cleanses it of the suffering that made it-then it’s all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection.”

Throughout his madness, Rains’s Phantom is always trying to recover something. Christine is clearly essential to his story, but only as a component. Apart from speaking the lines that grant the Phantom redemption, her only really active role is the unmasking. In the 1920 and Lloyd Webber films, the revelation of the Phantom’s hideousness is the catalyst. It causes the previously submissive Christine to disobey her “master” and choose Raoul over the Phantom. But this version serves a different purpose. In her new role as object and agent in the Phantoms story, she reveals to the audience the Phantoms real condition. The sight frightens her, but is not really a catalyst for anything. It is a revelation, and comes just before the Phantom’s tragic end.

Overall, I would say the Lloyd Webber version is the best, though all three films have their merits. The Webber version, somehow, it’s the only film which has properly looked at all of the issues; The fairytale plot of Leroux’s original. The suffering and transformation of the Phantom. The role of a female rescuer. The 1920s version is slightly truncated, in that it ignores or at least does not linger on the transformation. As for the 1940s version, it seems that female power just could not be acknowledged, even in a film. Why is open to speculation. Instead the film focuses on the male story, almost excessively so, in a depth the other two do not go into. Perhaps now, in a more equal society, all of the issues can be addressed. Lloyd Webber can and does address the story properly, with no need to alter the plot.

Unless you are in love with the original novel, it is possible to enjoy all of these versions for their own merits. And all of them are worth seeking out. Lloyd Webber may have conquered the west end with the musical, but as takes on a gothic fairytale none of these are to be missed. The 1940s take is a character study, not a love triangle, but there is nothing wrong with that. A fine story bears more than one interpretation. And it is nice to see a fairytale in which a woman rescues a man for a change. Just saying.

Three colors blue

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“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.

Damnation

Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style.

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Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film  “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.

Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.

One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of  the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.

Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.

 

 

Kerrers story is a story of  rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.

At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;

“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would  be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”

Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.