Hamlet, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare, Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2

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The Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare Company, now Magnificent Bastard Productions, have been bringing various Shakespeare plays to theatres around the UK for a number of years. It is an improv styled show where one of the cast has drunk one third of a bottle of spirits and a number of beers before taking to the stage. The comedy comes from the sober actors attempts to keep their drunken compatriot onstage and on track.

It is great fun to watch and it also looks like it is great fun to take part. Drunken Hamlet takes pleasure in his leeway to make things difficult for the rest of the cast, trying to push them off course and attempting to make them laugh. There is audience participation, in that a couple of audience members are chosen to call for the drunk actor to have another drink if they feel that he is sobering up. Also, Polonius is played by an audience member, this is a brave choice, given that his is the first death scene and the only people on stage are the audience member, the drunk actor and Gertrude, his mother.

It is a good introduction to Hamlet, because it zips through the simplified storyline in around an hour and a half. Drunken Hamlet forgets his lines surprisingly seldom – he makes a great fist of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy despite being made to drink while reciting it- and those parts where he does get lost he has the professionalism to give the audience a synopsis of the scene in modern language.

Hamlet, of all Shakespeare’s plays, is the one that is most often taken too seriously and it is often forgotten that these plays were written as mass entertainment, and that the performances as well as the audiences were raucous and bawdy. This version emphasises that element of the Bard and works very well on that level. I really enjoyed Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare’s Hamlet and I look forward to seeing others in their repertoire in future.

Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, Vaudeville Theatre, London 2018

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This is the second play in Dominic Drumgoole’s Oscar Wilde season in the West End and it is directed by Kathy Burke. I attended this production with some trepidation because, although I really admire Oscar Wilde and find him very witty; his plays are full of arch bon mots, but this can make his characters cool and short on compassion. I often find myself laughing at what they say but I have little empathy for their plight.

However, Kathy Burke really brings out the difference between how the actions of men and the actions of women were perceived, by society, at the turn of the last century. She makes us aware of how sympathetic Oscar Wilde was to that difference. He demonstrates real dexterity in pinpointing this and he mocks it mercilessly. This is a  modern take on a play that is ultimately about the empowerment of women. Sam Spiro is excellent as Mrs Erlynne, the unrepentant scarlet woman, she perfected the brittle, sharp exterior protecting her secret and the emotions she did not wish to show.

Jennifer Saunders plays The Duchess of Berwick, in full-on dame mode. She sails into each scene with a new wonderful hat, drops her witty insights, sows the seeds of anarchy, and sails off. A wonderfully written cameo role, beautifully delivered.

It is the men in this play who are shallow. They are the real figures of fun, Joshua James is good as the insecure but supportive Lord Windermere.  Kevin Bishop is excellent as Lord Darlington; charming and in love, but likely untrustworthy. The scene with all the male characters, drunk, in the library is well done and very funny. This play is so full of famous lines that occasionally it feels like a litany of Wildean quotations.

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The set is cleverly done, all pastels and relatively simple, with echoes of the titular fan throughout – the shape of the windows and even the motif on the stage curtains. This is in contrast to the costumes.  The men are formal, I am convinced that Lord Darlington and Jacob Rees-Mogg have the same butler. The ladies are dressed in full rich concoctions designed to demonstrate a time when it was more important to show off ones wealth than ones taste.

Being a play in four acts, there is an entr’acte between the first and second and between the third and fourth. These were not written by Wilde and they felt out of place, the humour was crude by comparison, but they were common at the time of writing and it did give the production a period feel.

This was a very good production of a sparkling play, it made me see Wilde’s writing in a new light and I am looking forward to seeing the others in this promising season.

 

 

Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee) 1995

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Sense and Sensibility is a good film, but I believe that it is almost false advertising to call it by that name. The story is so changed from the book that, although the characters have the same names and the final result is the same, it is totally unrecognisable in places as the same story. Some quite major characters have been killed off.  John Middleton is now a widower and their young child no longer in the story.  Lucy Steele’s sister, who blabs the whole story if the illicit engagement, is not in the film. Hugh Grant is far too affable in character for the grumpy Edward Ferrars in the book. Alan Rickman too easily wins Marianne over after her disappointment in Willoughby.  In fact, in this film, almost the least charming character is Willoughby, who in the book wins over Marianne, and her mother, by his easy false charm.

The acting is good, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are very good playing the romantic leads in a costume drama set in the 18th century. Emma Thompson is full of repressed emotion and Kate Winslett is fine as an impulsive teenager falling in love easily and recovering easily. Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie are wonderfully funny as Mr and Mrs Palmer.

There are some great moments of humour, the script has some wonderful lines. It is visually very attractive and there is much to admire in the period detail. A great deal of care and attention went into the making of this film and it shows throughout the movie.

It was nominated for seven Oscars. It won the one for best adapted screenplay. It was hugely popular and led to a revival of sales of Jane Austen’s novels and for these reasons it must be celebrated. I would probably have liked it more had I not read the novel itself so recently.

The film itself is most enjoyable but do go to see it as a Hollywood representation of upper class England in the late 1790s and not as a  faithful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the book.