Blakeson - Writer

Cardiff-based film, theatre and gig reviews, cultural ramblings, whingeing, short films, etc.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"The Drowned World"

This week at Chapter saw what was (inexplicably) the first Welsh production, by F.A.B. Theatre, of Gary Owen’s “The Drowned World”, a play which seems to have been everywhere else in the world since its triumphant debut (courtesy of Paines Plough) on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002. It is set during a brutal but somehow unearthly civil war redolent of too many real-life situations (Bosnia, Rwanda, Nazi Germany), in which society is divided into “citizens” and those, now oppressed, who have “the radiance”. The plot sees a sexually frustrated, apparently apathetic, lowly civil servant (played by John Norton) reluctantly give refuge to a desperate couple on the run (the ever-reliable Brendan Charleson and Valmai Jones), whilst being spied on by a female soldier (Katy Owen, who’s probably tired of being described as pixie-ish). Class is played up - the well-spoken “refugees” are named Julian and Tara and dress in an elegant, vaguely “ethnic” manner; the casually-combat-clad government loyalists are named Darren and Kelly. Director Steve Fisher gives us a set consisting simply of four step-ladders from which the actors descend to deliver Owen’s meticulous, resonant dialogue – actually, mostly in monologue form, except at certain tense moments; the sound design (by Gareth Evans) is subtly chilling. Some of the scene transitions seem slightly clunky (unless this is an intentional, Brechtian thing), but the overall impression is of a universe which, though sketchily rendered, is anything but alien. Needless to say, things do not end happily, but the conclusion offers strangely satisfying moments of transcendence, which militate against the pessimism the play might otherwise engender (unless I’ve completely misunderstood the author’s intentions, which is entirely possible). While there is some dark humour here, it’s not exactly a fun night out, but this is certainly powerful, universally relevant drama.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

Whenever I see Gary Oldman on screen, he always looks as though he’s seriously considering ripping the head off whoever he’s conversing with, whether it be an interviewer or a co-star. As George Smiley, in Tomas Alfredson’s version of John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, we see none of that from him; Smiley is mild-mannered, bowed by personal unhappiness and quietly revivified by the mission he’s been given - to root out a mole at the heart of the Secret Service. It’s a real shock when, at a crucial point, a gun appears in his hand - the fact that the pistol is taken from a plastic office folder rather than a shoulder-holster signifies that we are in the world of real-life espionage, so the violence is sporadic, the action consisting largely of grey men conversing in brown rooms. So why is this film more gripping than any thriller I’ve seen in recent years? Largely because of the performances – the likes of Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke (a welcome return), and Mark Strong providing a masterclass in subtle, subtext-heavy screen acting. Alfredson keeps things moving along, with lost of fast cutting between scenes where apparently nothing is happening; although he’s not afraid of a long, lingering take when necessary. The plot is a basic whodunit – the whys and hows are largely left to the viewer to determine, and we’re given time to ponder, whilst being constantly intrigued. Never having read the book, and with vague, confused memories of the television adaptation, my expectations were muted; it is, however, an understated masterpiece.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Kick For Touch"

The latest in the On The Edge season of rehearsed readings in the theatre at Chapter saw a rare home town outing (and a near full house) for a play by Peter Gill, the Cardiff-born playwright and director who’s developed his reputation in London from the 1960s onwards. “Kick For Touch” (originally produced at the National Theatre in 1983) is a chamber piece about two brothers, Joe (Nick Wayland-Evans of Only Men Aloud) and Jim (Dick Bradnum), reunited in adulthood after a traumatic childhood separation, and Joe’s wife (Polly Kilpatrick) who finds herself torn between them. It’s a fascinatingly intense experience, with director Bethan Morgan’s use of lighting cleverly building a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the powerful performances quickly drawing us into the characters’ painful co-dependence. The precise nature of the incident in the distant past which might have a bearing on the brothers’ present predicament remains (intentionally) obscure, which is frustrating; but the piece as a whole provides a bracing emotional workout for actors and audiences alike.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

“The Skin I Live In”/“La Piel Que Habito”

The latest from Pedro Almodovar, “The Skin I Live In”/“La Piel Que Habito”, is being sold as his foray into horror; mercifully, there’s a lot more going on here than that would imply. Antonio Banderas, back with Almodovar for the first time since “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”/”Atame!” (which is significantly referenced) does indeed play a mad scientist, but his is a buttoned-up, middle-class insanity, prompted by grief. Marisa Paredes plays his devoted Igor, and the delightful Elena Anaya is his secret experiment, the mysterious prisoner in his luxurious residence, dressed in a flesh-coloured body-suit, constantly under video surveillance, and unhappy to be there. It’s a story which combines the audacity of early-period Almodovar with the emotional sensitivity of his more recent work, and several trademark themes recur – motherhood, sexual abuse, vengeance, obsession, voyeurism – in a film which, unusually for him, relies more on images than dialogue. Nevertheless, he teasingly denies the audience sight of some flashpoint moments – deaths, revelations, confrontations; and the ending seems a tad anti-climactic. On the whole, though, he is to be congratulated for taking a B-movie premise and producing a profound, beautiful and entertainingly disturbing piece of work.

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