Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Gielgud Memorandum (3): Out Of The Past, Three Kinds Of Shakespearean Utterance

(A review by Preston Towers)

Yesterday I headed my way on a State Transit run Parramatta ferry towards the read through at the Riverside Theatres of Bob Ellis’ new idea for a play, The Gielgud Memorandum. As I climbed on the old, overcrowded, privately owned boat, as opposed to the excellent publicly owned catamarans of the past, it brought to mind a current public perception of Ellis – a man who has seen Sydney and Australia go downhill and isn’t afraid to let people know of his displeasure on his always entertaining Table Talk blog.

The evening, however, wasn’t about that Ellis. The play is a project dedicated to two giants of our theatre and especially that of the 20th Century – John Gielgud and William Shakespeare. To that end, Ellis has grabbed the treasures to be found in both and has woven out of them a manuscript that is at once very ambitious, enlightening, educational, inspirational, touching and funny. It is, however, still an incomplete weave.

One of the biggest strengths of the play is in its actors. We saw three quite different approaches to the performance of Shakespeare and had a chance to reflect on the impact of those approaches. We had the handsome, silken, confident and muscular performance of Simon Burke, who also led the singing elements of the play. His performance gave a glimpse of a younger Gielgud wowing audiences with panache and vigour. There was the soft, lilting, plain spoken and engrossing approach of Terence Clarke, whose showed us the ability of Shakespeare’s phrases to stand alone with gentle utterance. Finally, we had Bob Ellis, whose voice and presence lent itself to the more flamboyant and compelling of Shakespeare’s characters like Falstaff and Shylock. In that, a highlight of the evening was the interaction between Burke as Prince Hal against Ellis’ Falstaff. Another highlight along those lines was to hear the “Too Too Solid Flesh” soliloquy of Hamlet broken up and performed in the distinctive styles of all three actors, showing how each style could bring new insights into oft heard phrases. One could quite happily pay to see these three actors saying these lines alone – they all captured beautifully the hues of the Shakespearean language – but that isn’t necessarily going to sustain a full production.

The ambition of Ellis seems to be that the audience can share and delight in the life and words of Gielgud framing an exploration of Shakespeare and the resonances in certain key scenes of his plays. In essence, however, at the moment, it does have a feel of, in Ellis’ own words, “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” – resembling those musicals with highly tenuous storylines that are really just there to lead into yet another Queen or Abba song. That is especially the case in the first half, where the words and life of Gielgud didn’t feature as much as they should – it left us a bit muddled and confused as to the direction and unifying point of all these beautiful sounding words and phrases. The second half was more successful in this regard – it started clearly with pieces about the life of Gielgud and then matched the Shakespeare excerpts with those pieces, speculating well upon how the texts might have related to Gielgud’s life and philosophies.

This raises the question of what this play is about, what is its purpose, other than just a night of listening to well acted Shakespeare – and perhaps how it could achieve a greater unity as a whole. Two strong motifs emerged from play – the first being the story of an actor engaging with his society and the cultural context of the different eras in which he lived. What makes this work is that Gielgud himself comes across as a modest, humble, proud, intelligent, slightly wicked man who could drop choice one liners and provide insight into the plays he did, as well as the vibrant life of a man who genuinely loved the life of a working actor. The other motif that emerged was an exploration of the way Shakespeare – and play scripts in general – are performed. We were shown a glimpse of how certain styles – such as Gielgud’s – wane in appeal, maybe unfairly. Ellis’ excellent verbal invocation of the Gielgud style illustrated this idea well. What helped with this motif was the choice of an excerpt from the filmed Julius Caesar, where we saw Gielgud’s approach captured through his “lean and hungry” Cassius. Perhaps another film excerpt would help with that aim of revealing his style.

At the moment, however, the play gives incomplete glimpses of these motifs and not quite realising what meaning the evening could deliver to audiences. After the play, actor Grant Dodwell – who was recording the production – provided two excellent suggestions for the improvement and strengthening of the idea of Gielgud as the core of the production. One was that there needed to be reflections of Gielgud’s life in plays outside Shakespeare – especially his association with Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (If for no other reason than to see and hear Ellis play Lady Bracknell.)

The other suggestion was that there could be the inclusion of Gielgud’s dabbling with popular cinema, such as both Arthur films – which would yield some entertaining anecdotes and provide more insight into the world of actors who can’t and won’t always do the great words of Shakespeare. Audiences would appreciate that insight – as well as the lightened tone the words from Wilde and Arthur would provide the play. I would go a step further and suggest that there could also be mention of Gielgud’s film with Michael Caine, the potboiler spy thriller movie, The Whistleblower – in order to highlight the differences between Gielgud’s approach to the career of acting and that taken by Michael Caine. A side benefit would be that Michael Caine impersonations are always fun for audiences.

Ultimately, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening – the play is brimming with great potential. I also enjoyed the reactions of some of the audience members, especially the group of three from Sydney who came out to Parramatta – Elle Hardy, Adam Brereton and Dan Nolan – who mostly know only the Ellis of Table Talk. The rich and sonorous world created by Clarke, Burke and Ellis may have produced a jarring contrast with the dizzying pace of their contemporary social media world – for me, though, it was a welcoming contrast. This was an evening of listening to the sound of Shakespeare being brought to life in a way we don’t see as often as we did in the past.

This is why I like Ellis’ idea that the play be performed in a theatre where the patrons see the play first, then partake in a feast afterwards. That is a mode of performance and interaction that isn’t all that common and would be an ideal fit. I also believe, however, that this could also be an excellent radio play. One of the regrets we feel in Ellis’ play is that we don’t have enough recordings of the Gielgud style and approach to theatre and giving life to the words of Shakespeare. It would be a pity if we didn’t have recordings of the talents of these three actors breathing three different kinds of vigour into the words of Shakespeare and into the life of Gielgud. A radio play would bring that into the homes of those who couldn’t make into Sin City.

Having said that, a radio play wouldn’t have Ellis’ visible mirth at the more racy bon mots of Gielgud’s, nor the hunched figure of Ellis’ Falstaff being visibly smashed by the eviscerations of Prince Hal. More should see and hear the fully realised version of this play by Sydney’s Falstaff. It’s a good night’s entertainment at the moment – with some polishing though, it will also help people to see more in Shakespeare – and the life of Gielgud – than just words, words, words said in a beautifully mellifluous voice.

The Gielgud Memorandam (2): A Further Meditation By Doug Quixote

There are I suppose many amongst the readership who do not really care who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

I am no longer such a one.

Coming afresh to the debate about three years ago now, though I’d studied Shakespeare for forty years, I was struck by how little is really known about the greatest author in the English language.

The man whose vocabulary is still today far greater than that of any other author.

The man who we are to believe wrote many plays set in Italy in particular and yet we are told never left England. Indeed, if he went east of the Tower of London, we are not aware of it.

We are told that this man who wrote of great noblemen as if he knew them, and wrote of common people as if he knew none of them, was a jobbing actor at best, one of who we can find not a skerrick of evidence that he ever went to school.

This man who had significant homosexual tendencies (read the Sonnets) and a deep sympathy for bastards, we are to believe, never experienced either matter directly.

Further, this commoner addressed a major nobleman, the earl of Southampton as an equal. I don’t know how good your education is, but mine suggests that this would have been a serious breach of custom and of law at that time.

Then this man left a Will, lengthy and detailed down to bequeathing his second best bed, made nary a mention of a book, not a script, not a work in progress, nothing of any such description.

It beggars belief that such a man as this could have been the Bard.

That is the first issue, the preliminary question.

If we say no, it is very unlikely that such a man was the Bard, that brings us to the second issue, the next question.

Who then was the Bard?

From the links to Polonius (Lord Burghley) and the earl of Southampton, the obvious travels in Italy, probably in the 1570s (before the Rialto Bridge was rebuilt in Venice – there is no mention of it in the Merchant of Venice!) the sympathy for bastards (he was nearly disinherited in 1563, aged 13) the clear evidence that Macbeth was unfinished at his death in 1604; and many other reasons too lengthy to go into now, he could only have been Edward De Vere 17th Earl of Oxford.

One of the best and widely educated men in Europe by 1580, and wealthy, he had no need to publish or produce anything, until crippled and largely ruined financially he turned to rewriting the plays he had written and staged for fun at Court.

Success is its own reward, and the rewriting process allowed dozens of plays to be brought to the stage over a period of 20 years before and after his death, some of them revised and made playable by other hands – Middleton, Fletcher and others. Many of the ones we know today were never performed or published until many years after all concerned were dead. At the time of the First Folio 1623 Southampton was still a great nobleman and the editors had to tread warily, noting that the Sonnets had been suppressed in 1609.

Enough for one night!

We Are Such Stuff: Gielgud’s, Ellis’s, Clarke’s, Burke’s, Ustinov’s, Tynan’s And Will Shakespeare’s The Gielgud Memorandum

(A review by Doug Quixote)

Following up on The Word Before Shakespeare, it seems logical to present The Word of Shakespeare.

To do so using one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, John Gielgud, his life, words and career as a linking device is (I think) Bob Ellis’ grand idea.

At Riverside Theatre tonight a small but appreciative audience saw what is still a work in progress. Why did we see it at this stage? Ellis dwells somewhat upon Shakespeare’s sense of impending mortality, and perhaps at 70 considers his own as well. This may seem a little gloomy, but considering that many of the Bard’s greatest speeches do indeed contemplate such issues, it deserves our attention as well. (Of course, he may only be seeking feedback? we all hope so!)

The great speeches are there, from Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It, Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, Henry IV Part One, Richard II, Richard III, The Merchant Of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Measure For Measure and the Sonnets. The three actors, Terry Clarke, Simon Burke and Ellis himself render them in their excellent actors’ voices, bringing words that many have only read on a page to full, rounded life.

Poetry needs to be read aloud to understand the sonorities, the rhythm, the cadence and the phrasing. These are things that reading from a page can never give you.

And what is best for poetry goes double for drama, and a live audience too is an underrated ingredient in the mix; a laugh at an appropriate moment (or even at a bad one!) adds spice to the entertainment.

All that being said, it is still a work in progress and the connecting passages need more work. An interesting parallel here is that the Bard apparently worked in that way too : writing the grand speeches and the main plot passages first, then going back to write the opening, then the finishing speeches and finally to polish the connecting passages. Here the evidence of it being a work in progress is that there was some disconnect in part one, as a speech from one play melded into another speech from another play or a Gielgud passage without adequate segue. Surely something this bard will correct, given time.

A feature of this performance was a video passage of Gielgud in his prime, full of menace as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Perhaps another such passage of an older Gielgud might be used to leaven the performance elsewhere, but that of course is a matter for Bob Ellis.

All in all an excellent night’s entertainment, embellished by some well chosen a capella singing from Simon Burke, well received by the audience, as was the whole performance.

The Sins Of The Fathers: Steve McQueen’s And Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years As A Slave

(First Published in Independent Australia)

In this film we see writ plain the primal sin of the United States, out of which were made for three hundred years its wealth and imperial power: the kidnap, rape, mutilation and flogging (if you did not pick enough cotton, thirty lashes), the separation of mothers and children, the impregnation of the children and the panic-haunted midnight weariness of subject millions unwept, unhonoured and unsung by a nation now self-righteously telling other nations how to live and worship and vote, and killing them (as it did then) if they disobey.

Unlike Mandingo or Django Unchained it offers in solace no character-arc or purgative climax of splattered Aryan blood. It gives us only the facts: how a freeborn black man, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), by 1842 a prospering New York violinist with wife and children, is offered a gig in Washington by con-men who drug him and he wakes in chains, how he is then passed on to a slave-trader, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), to a fairly merciful Christ-preaching plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who gives him a new violin to play at family parties but fails to prevent a thuggish carpenter, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), and some jeering hoons from hanging him by the neck until he is half dead, and on tiptoe in soft mud staves off for many hours his own strangulation.

The camera observes this torture distantly, as we lately did the man on the box with arms outstretched in Abu Ghraib, as if he is nothing to do with us: an incidental, far-off, luckless animal in a world apart. It is as chilling as the seventeen-minute shot in which Bobby Sands puts the case for his own martyrdom in Hunger, another film by this director, Steve McQueen, a black English war artist who in Iraq depicted mangled corpses and pondered for years in his mind the torture they died of.

Life has worse in store for Solomon Northrup, on the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who repeatedly rapes Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) and prefers her, on the whole, to his wife (Sarah Paulson), who then petulantly scars the slave girl’s cheek with a knife. Solomon is ordered to flog Patsy, who has gone to buy soap from another plantation because, deprived of it by the vengeful wife, she stinks; and the horror of his reluctance, and then his decision to do it, and then his refusal to continue, is plain on his immobile, stricken face. Though he by a couple of legal accidents after years of secret pleading and betrayal is at last let go, Patsy, who has beseeched him to assist her suicide, is left behind, and we, like him, do not know what becomes of her. Nor, in the end, do we know what becomes of Solomon after his ‘happy ending’. Wikipedia suggests he may have been recaptured, and made a slave again, or murdered for the book he wrote, its title here unchanged.

…’Becomes’, not ‘became’. As in almost no other ‘historic’ film, what occurs is always in the present tense. We have no idea what will happen next, any more than the captive, hymn singing, cotton-picking, stoic slaves; only that at some point, we don’t know when, the ‘twelve years’ of the title will end.

It is harrowing in its unpredictable injustice and futile, round-the-clock, diurnal dreariness. None of it is charming, nor, like Gone With The Wind, intermittently glamorous. The slave-owning classes are not cultured, thoughtful men like Jefferson or Ashley Wilkes. They are vulgar, cash-strapped petty tyrants amused at the power they have to prod and poke and shame and rape, to treat like cattle their fellow creatures, to sneer and misquote the Bible at them, to justify the ways (as Milton might have put it) of master to man, of property owner to his property, whom he may wound or taunt or miscegenate as he chooses.

Michael Fassbender, who played Bobby Sands, is very good at this. We believe in his lecherous, drunken, lavish , potent evil, and we cannot bear that he gets away with it. He convinces us that we, so placed, would be like him, cruel as a child, diligent as an Auschwitz gauleiter, forward-thinking as a serial killer.

That Fox News convinced America that the ‘angry black man’ had no cause to be angry is a propaganda triumph Goebbels would have been proud of as Ailes, his pupil, doubtless is. This film shows not just the roots of that anger, but the utter disqualification of America forever, I would think, from the business of dispensing global justice and of killing, as their slave-herding forefathers did, those dissidents who currently offend them, with drones and helicopter-gunships and midnight raids on Abbottobad and Fallujah; Obama is not descended from black slaves, as his wife Michele is — and his daughters — but, as it happens, from white slave-owners, and he should, he really should, know better.

It is a rare film, this; and it may serve like Wall Street, Platoon, Margin Call, The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Lives Of Others, In The Heat Of The Night, It’s A Wonderful Life and Babe to change forever some of our leanings towards that cruelty which in our childhood runs riot and in some societies goes uncorrected. Priestly abuse of children is part of it. Persecution of the unemployed is part of it. The stealing of Aboriginal children is part of it. Cory Bernardi and Scott Morrison are part of it, and still walk free.

The film will win Oscars, including Best Film, and should be seen.

All Through The Night: The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis

(First published by Independent Australia)

Once again, a film by the Coen brothers unlike any other — magnetic, depressing, puzzling, prizewinning, desolately funny. Set in the snow-drifted Manhattan winter of ’61 in (sometimes) the Gaslight Cafe in which Bob Dylan first was noted (we see him droning in silhouette at film’s end), and on a harrowing road-trip to Chicago where a grieving folk singer, Llewyn Davis, his music partner having suicided off the George Washington Bridge, seeks hackwork singing solo in vain, and comes home bleakly determined to ruin himself, having mislaid two ginger cats — neither his own — plus one foetus, probably, two girlfriends, most of his friends and his peace of soul en route, it resembles Kafka, Camus, Kerouac, Stendhal, Hugo, Chandler, McEwan, Brautigan, Beckett, O’Neill and Pinter; and, in some parts of it, films noir like Double Indemnity, Dark Passage, Shoot The Piano Player, Lady From Shanghai and All Fall Down.

His pissed-off pregnant ex-girlfriend Jean – pregnant perhaps to him, she doesn’t know, and needing therefore an avenging termination – calls him a ‘loser’ (a chill, dismissive concept new-minted that year in The Hustler) and we see what she means. He refuses to sing at a dinner party of his moneyed friends the Gorfeins who lodge and feed him whenever he is down for the count; he bellows at them and wrenches out into the snow. He heckles a fat midwestern elderly amiable female singer as ‘Grandma Moses’ and asks who she had to fuck to get the gig, and is beaten up in an alley for his pains. He deserts an OD-ing fat old bore, Robert Turner, in a parked car in the mounting snow, and, with more anguish, the ginger cat as well. He tries to sign on, again, as a merchant seaman (like Melville; Conrad; London; O’Neill) but has not, of course, paid his dues, and a succession of thickset union bullies take away all his savings and give him nothing back but mockery. He is offered paid employment in a talented singing quartet and turns it down.

But in all he does we understand him. He is bereaved, he is in denial, he has lost his music, he has lost a son (perhaps) and the love of his life (for sure) to an abortion he does not much want, like the last one. He knows, and we who hear him singing agree, that his talent is enormous. And we sense by what small margins Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Seekers tiptoed up Parnassus into the wide world’s race memory.

Oscar Isaac in the lead is like the young Al Pacino in his looks and Cat Stevens in his voice and brims with existential desperation like no actor since Yves Montand, and must now lead the pack in the hunt for future Oscars and (like this one) Palmes D’Or. Carey Mulligan, as Jean, is no longer an elfin waif but a hard-bitten slut who sings like an angel; and John Goodman, as an obese ego-tripping bearded smackhead bore, is the one fellow-traveller you don’t ever want in a small car in falling snow all the way to Chicago; and here he is. Johnny Five, the driver (Garrett Hedlund), unlike his character in On The Road, says almost nothing but gets arrested anyway. And F. Murray Abraham, as Bud Grossman, a kind of limelit Mephistopheles, hears out a lovely sad song gorgeously rendered and says without expression, ‘I don’t see much money in it’.

Mischievously, the colluding sibling auteurs make sure a song turns up every seven minutes, as in a musical, and is recorded live and sung right through to, mostly, a single guitar. Some we know; but most are as good as the famous ones, and we can’t work out why they didn’t make it also.

This film is like that, about an also-ran of great gifts, now sunk in sour oblivion, unmarked, unhonoured, unsung, and we feel for him desperately.

A great film, and it must be seen.

Feed The Birds, Tuppence A Day: Travers’, Disney’s, Marcell’s, Smith’s, Hancock’s and Thompson’s Saving Mr Banks

Saving Mr Banks I might if I were careless describe as a heady mix of amiable backstage musical and overheated Jane Campion psychodrama — Bandwagon meets Piano — but it’s rather better than that, and more involving. It tells the glum true tale of why P.L Travers was so possessive of, and possessed by, Mary Poppins that even when she needed the money to save her house she fought Walt Disney, refusing him the book rights for twenty years and even when the script was far advanced and the contract not yet signed because she feared he would make a sugarised cartoon of her busy, hygienic, gravity-defying doppelganger.

A lot of the film is in a script conference room where the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwarzman and B.J. Novak) dolefully try out chirpy songs on her and the adaptor Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford, from The West Wing) and P.L (Emma Thompson, herself elsewhere the Oscar-winning adaptress of Sense And Sensibility), her edgy co-writers and Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks, pitch-perfect as usual) haggle over details; but at least forty percent is, are, flashbacks to her Queensland childhood and her love of her drunken consumptive dad Robert Goff the provincial bank manager (Colin Farrell), her fraught, suicidal mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), the brisk, unmagical ur-Poppins who came to sort out the family and clean up the house while he was dying.

The script, co-written with Kelly Marcell by Sue Smith (Brides Of Christ, The Leaving Of Liverpool) treats both P.L. and Walt as Dr Freud would have, as damaged children pitchforked into fantasy worlds by calamitous fathers; and this is made to stick. Disney’s harrowing story of delivering mail in freezing snow around the clock with no time for school and little for sleep in his eighth and ninth year to appease his frugal, punishing postmaster progenitor shows us what drove him, as much as Travis’s wastrel yarn-spinning Irish dad and his bloodied handkerchiefs and how she smuggled whisky to his deathbed and stopped her mother drowning herself by moonlight in despair.

Emma Thompson’s hyper-suspicious virgin spinster, disdainful of Hollywood’s lavish, ostentatious generosity and contemptuous of the ever-beaming American servant class, does not charm us -  correctly — and shows us, correctly (corsets, wrinkles, tea-with-milk-in-first, posh colonial vowels and all), what an Asperger’s-driven bitch and scold she mostly was. Her meek, bald chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti), who has a crippled Poppins-comforted daughter, is one of the lower orders who momently melt her icy British reserve, and shows America’s finest actor, in an almost walk-on role, at the quiet height of his hypnotic, fathomless, disarming, piercing powers.

Dangerously, the Sherman brothers do not sing very well (as I guess they did not, in life) and we catch no glimpse of Dick Van Dyke or Julie Andrews in rehearsal tapdancing; and Walt himself — in this, a Disney-BBC co-production — seems at first glance cravenly hagiographed; or is he? We see no right-wing tight-fisted nipple-erasing Midwest racist, but the genial first-names-only inclusive autocrat of received history is much in evidence and I have no cause to doubt that this was indeed how he seemed to visitors, autograph-hunters and squealing, jumping children. Hanks as always illumines his character in quiet, unspoken, telepathic ways; we feel for him, and want P.L. to fall for him, yield up her maiden treasure, at last, to his vulgar caressing American hyperbolical greed.

A surprisingly good film, in short, one Vincente Minnelli would have killed to direct and would I guess have made better, but John Lee Hancock the studio hack does well enough, and we leave the cinema (correctly) humming along and yearning for our own unmagical, botched, bruised childhoods and brimming, correctly, with wet-eyed, Freudian, Disney-sweetened regret.

The Last Days Of Jed Bartlet, Warmonger

Watching, progressively, The West Wing some summer nights I’m surprised to find Jed Bartlet opposing land mines for most humans but favouring them for North Koreans and the Poet Laureate, Tabitha Fortis, eventually agreeing to this though she saw, first hand, a child blown up by one.

It seems this mythic parallel-time administration — echoing, one guesses, Bill Clinton’s — is embedded like most of the others in the Military Industrial Complex (called in Eisenhower’s first draft ‘the military-industrial-academic complex’ till some Ur-Kissinger shrewdly shrank the hyphenate); and I begin to wonder, having lately read Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki, if America’s primal sin is not what one first thought, slavery, but what it now calls, not even daring to name them, WMD.

For they killed three hundred thousand Japanese with the firebombing of paper cities; four million Vietnamese with area bombing, napalm and Agent Orange; half a million Iraqis with helicopter-gunships, house searches, bunker-busters and that gorgeous firework ‘Shock and Awe’; perhaps no more than a quarter of a million Afghans with incendiary bombing, snipers and midnight raids on pistol-firing wedding parties; and, of course, a quarter of a million Japanese, over time, with the needless atomic bombing on August 6 and 8 of two great cities of no significant military value in 1945.

It doesn’t take too much adding to arrive at the dread figure of six million civilians needlessly killed by American weapons experimentally — or ‘demonstratively’ — used in optional war zones these last sixty-two years.

Are they guilty about this? Well, they didn’t use H-bombs when they might have on China in 1953 and Hanoi in 1966; they signed some test ban treaties; and they’re accusing Iran of bad behaviour now for having wanted, like Israel, ‘defensive’ H-bombs of their own.

Something is disturbing them, clearly. The sixty thousand Viet Vets who suicided perhaps, more than died in the war, because of what they had seen. Or the film In The Valley Of Elah. Or the drones with which Assassin-in-Chief Obama is lately blowing up the children of ‘suspected insurgents’ in their beds.

Something, at any rate, is messing with their minds. There will be no more Iraqs hereafter, I would think; and Assad, unfettered, will cheerfully kill a few hundred thousand more of the best minds of his generation so long as he does it with rockets, not gas. There will be no more Afghanistans; the Taliban, caught at such cost, are being set free by their new buddy Hamid Karzai, for future services promised but as yet unrendered, like permission to leave the country with his crooked brothers and their stolen billions in 2015.

And the jig may be up for the Righteous Big Bomb Complex, now the roadside IEDs are afearing Americans wherever they tread. We may be in the last months, despite Jed Bartlet’s mild-mannered shoot-to-kill-I regret-this-men-but-we have-to-do-it soliloquies, of the Missionary Wars.

And so it goes.

Comparative Statistics

I have been reading Ackroyd’s Tudors and am stirred by it greatly. And, after some consideration, I submit the following paragraph.

There were eighty-eight conspiracies to assassinate Elizabeth 1, six hundred conspiracies to assassinate Fidel Castro, and no conspiracies at all to assassinate John F Kennedy. He was killed, we are told, by a lone madman who was killed in his turn by a second lone madman two days later.


All In The Family: Letts’s, Wells’s, Streep’s And Roberts’s August: Osage County

I thought August: Osage County the best American play I had seen (I exempt, of course, from this judgment the unbetterable Angels In America which is three plays overall, or two and a half) when I saw the Chicago production at a Sydney Festival two years ago; but the film seems less than that. Tracy Letts (who plays Lockhart in Homeland) wrote both and the usual festering brew of suicide, incest, pederasty, hysterectomy, pill-popping, wife-swapping, unsuspected bastardy, vestigial Christianity, banquet violence, ethnic insult, real estate swindle and contested wills which we see in Eugene O’Neill, Bill Inge and Tennessee Williams works its usual dark lurid magic, but …

A play is not a film. You do not walk the Loman brothers under the Brooklyn Bridge; you do not send the Tyrone brothers out duck-shooting, or Harold Hill to war in France. You keep it — as it were — in the family, in the house, in the exclusive club, in the primal womb of its acrimonious engendering. To add the drab, flat Oklahoma treelessness to this Aeschylean squabble does not increase or enhance the effect, it dilutes it, shrinks it, lessens it; where a black-and-white version of it, like Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey, confined to the one house would have intensified it, focussed it, sharpened it; or a stage production filmed, like the Hoffman-Schlondorff Death of a Salesman.

Nonetheless, it is perfectly cast and the text an abundant, old-style unramshackle meditation on bloodline, blame and inherited cussedness, with long and bitter soliloquies heard out by impatient in-laws and a Grace over lunch that lasts four minutes and enumerates the family sins and shows, like Eugene O’Neill, that brevity is not the soul of drama, just truthful writing, however disorderly, that gives the actors room to move around in.

The ubiquitous Cumberbatch (Holmes; Hawking; Assange; Tietjens; Pitt the Younger; Hamlet; Frankenstein, and still not out of his twenties) is wonderful, of course, as Little Charlie Aikens, a dim, sacked, loserish and self-detesting shoe salesman with incestuous longings and ivory-tinkling talents and Big Apple ambitions; Barbara Karen as Ivy Weston, his newly wombless, kindly, cousinly, fortyish, freckled object of desire; Abigail Breslin as Jean, an impetuous, rebellious, small-mouthed, mean-hearted fourteen-year-old object of more perverse desire; Dermot Mulroney as Steve, her real-estate-rich thrice-wed pot-pushing sleazy tempter; Juliet Lewis as his jumpy, shrieking, ill-used ‘fiancee’ Karen Weston, luckless as always with low grade men; and …

One encounters the core of the difficulty here. The three-hour play is narrated by an upstairs ghost, the eminent poet, Beverly Weston, lately suicided — played in the film by Sam Shepard with a red-eyed saurine sadness appropriate, one might guess, to a fellow playwright — a poor-born adulterous quiet alcoholic with a hellcat hectoring pill-crazed loud rancorous wife; and it furthermore brandishes, like many a recent American play, a visiting angel — the Native American housemaid Johnna Monaveda, played by Misty Upham, who soothes with her corpulent silence the several racked and heinous nutters who confess to her in their cups. But these two important roles are squeezed, in this two-hour film, down to almost nothing; and a consequent irreparable uneasy imbalance cheapens and loudens and burdens the storyline and the (now) half-cocked characters that survive the savage editing.

Why not make the three-hour version? John Frankenheimer made O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which was longer than that, as the first film with two intervals. Peter Jackson is not troubled by inordinate length. Nor are his audiences, currently breaking attendance records at his fifth Hobbit film which is about forty-eight minutes ‘too long’, in the same way Anna Karenina is five hundred pages ‘too long’. No, it’s not; no, it’s not.

Margo Martindale plays the bulky vulgar gossip Mattie Fae and Chris Cooper the stoic, simmering cuckold Charlie Aiken, father (he thinks) of Little Charlie and grimly loyal to dead Beverly, his cuckolder and lifelong friend, both (it goes without saying) superbly. Ewan McGregor as Bill, who is allegedly leaving Barbara, the third sister, for an offstage younger blonde but may be persuaded back, has a raw, scalded, havering edge to him, deftly underplayed. And Streep … and Roberts …

Both are superb, of course (it goes without saying) and show, with courage, their once-classic film-star faces in crumbling disrepair. Streep wears dark glasses for twenty minutes., wisely. Her character, Ivy, the garrulous drug-foulled cub-devouring tigress, having pussy-whipped her husband Beverly (academic, eminent poet, rummy) into suicide and cremation after the obsequies needs more raw meat and lashes and harries her children over the funeral banquet, physically assaulting one of them, Barbara, in mid-tirade. Will she be henceforth held down, sedated, and immured in a nursing home? That is the question. Will she succeed in denying her rightful heirs their property? That too.

Barbara, played by Julia Roberts (whose tightening nose-job makes her daily look more like Huey the duck) is turning, hour by hour, and vivid, justified rage by vivid, justified rage, into a lacerating termagant like her mother. We see her first as she sees herself, the only sane person in the room, and then we see the family’s leprous infection mutilating her character too until she, too, is another skreeking and flailing gremlin, hating her life and her snippy pubescent daughter (‘Just outlive me, okay? If you do nothing more, outlive me.’) and trying not to smoke any more as she drives off over the horizon, cursing.

The various plotlines (too many for only two hours) raise questions we may not have asked before. Is brother-sister incest acceptable after a hysterectomy? Is pushing pot at at your fiancee’s fourteen-year-old niece with a view to schtupping her later a gaolable crime, a mortal sin, or simply — in Oklahoma- tactless? Or a good move? Do you deserve to inherit the property of a man you have given good cause by your ceaseless bullying to kill himself? Why should families who detest, bollock and upset each other each time thet meet, ever say grace and break bread together again?

Letts has given us an American classic — like The Little Foxes, like The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs, like The Glass Menagerie, like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, but better than each of them in turn — and John Wells, his director, has propped up the ruins with a fine cast coping gamely with its truncations (imposed with Letts’s collaboration, bizarrely), and landscaped it very drearily, in the actual Osage Country, a place the discerning traveller should avoid. And together they have reduced its magnificence. Nonetheless … it exists; and acting-school casts and provincial amateur societies will be wrestling with its haunting shadows hereinafter, for centuries.

And so it goes.