Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

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This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

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Antigone, Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Actors of Dionysus are touring the UK at the moment with this, a sci-fi tinged modern adaptation of Sophocles’ two and a half thousand year old play. Antigone, a Greek tragedy, has never really been an easy watch, but this adaptation has definitely made it more accessible.

Christopher Adams has written, a well thought out, updating of the play. I enjoyed the conceit of making the chorus of the original into the hive mind of linked computers. I thought the idea of making the soul into a chip that needed to be removed and uploaded worked well and gave us a good insight into Antigone’s motivation and into Creon’s harshness at refusing to allow it.

The stage setting is interesting, I guess touring made the set need to be as simple as it was, and I liked the current touches, the surveillance drones are particularly clever and fitted very well with the story and setting. The simplicity of the set did emphasise the universal themes of the play.

I found the acting good and I enjoyed the way each character pushed their agenda. I particularly liked the change in Creon from harsh dictator to broken soul. The well intentioned but misguided leader delivering tough love for the good of the populace can be a hard sell at times, but he brought it off well.

It is a Greek tragedy, so we cannot expect a happy or wholesome outcome, however it is a tribute to Antigone’s universal themes that it is still being performed over two millennia after it was written and this is as enjoyable and accessible a production as you are likely to see anywhere.  Thoroughly recommended.the

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) 2016

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I enjoyed Arrival, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It took me a little while to adjust, because, having seen the posters of huge alien space ships hovering over major cities,  I went in expecting a Hollywood sci-fi special effects blockbuster. This is more of an indie film given a larger than usual budget. Once I had realised that and changed my expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The story is good, both thought provoking and positive. Normally, I like linear narrative, but on this occasion the oblique storytelling suited the tale and the mood of the movie. The lead character is a little two dimensional, but beautifully acted by Amy Adams. The direction is fantastic, Denis Villeneuve has the confidence to make it very slow and deliberate, unusual in the sci-fi genre. He also had the bravery to open himself to the possibility of ridicule, by showing us the alien ships, showing us the aliens, defining their method of communication. This could have seemed preposterous, but in the end, they seemed believable and, particularly in the case of the writing, even beautiful.

The cinematography is lovely, very clever juxtaposition between the wide open spaces of Montana and the cramped confines of their camp. The soundtrack is exceptional, worthy of listening to even without the accompanying film. Everything about this film is high quality, however, the bang that you get for your buck is much more cerebral than is usual in a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster, and you should be aware of that before you decide to go.

Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including best movie, but the only one it won was for achievement in sound editing.  It appears in many best of year lists for 2016, topping some of them.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards) 2016

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I quite like the Star Wars franchise. I see all of them, but there are so many now and they are released in such a weird order that I don’t know whether this was a prequel to the first or the sequel to the third. Whatever it is, it is a very enjoyable stand alone movie.

I watched it in 3D in the I-Max in Waterloo. This is the largest screen in the UK, as they kept telling us, and although that may have enhanced the experience, the special effects are excellent.

Disney have taken over the series, so the aliens have become one level cuter, but this is a war film, so expect battle scenes. It’s not quite The Muppets remake Apocalypse Now, but a few more episodes down the line…. who knows.

I loved the strong female lead, Felicity Jones is great as Jyn. The storyline is simple yet strong, and the whole cast are very engaging. There are some funny moments in the film and the battle scenes had an interesting 1980s retro feel.

It has even been nominated for two Academy Awards, I hope it wins the one for best visual effects, they are very well done.

A very good addition to Star Wars canon.

Stranger Things, TV Series, 2016(Netflix)

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Once in a while a series comes along that hits all the right spots. This eight part sci-fi show, on Netflix, does just that.

Set in 1983, in a small town in Indiana, a 12 year old boy goes missing on his way home after spending the evening playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. During the eight episodes, spent trying to work out what happened to him, it references many science fiction films, horror story books, and conspiracy theory TV series that you can remember from the intervening period.

The story is pulpy, which is just as it should be, but it is gripping – always making you want to know what the next episode will bring. The cast is great, Winona Ryder is perfect as the distressed mother and her interaction with David Harbour as the town sheriff is a joy. The dialogue is witty and knowing, and the soundtrack is spot on.

What made this series stand out for me, was all the nostalgic homages throughout the show; a set piece from ET,  a scene from Stand By Me, quotes from the Exorcist,  bedroom posters from 1980s horror films, people reading and talking about Stephen King books. The whole series is peppered with these references and spotting them added an extra dimension to our enjoyment of the show.

This is a great addition to the Netflix cannon, and if you are looking for easy, absorbing escapism, I recommend Stranger Things.

Star Trek Beyond (dir. Justin Lin) 2016

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Star Trek Beyond is a mixture of good and not so good.

Let’s get the worst out of the way first – the film is too long for the very flimsy story, 20 minutes could be cut, all of it from the battle near the start of the movie, which was predictable and repetitive. There are huge holes in the plot which are explained away by ridiculous technical gobbledygook, although some of this is done in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek way which at least makes it funny.

Humour is one of the good points of the film, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it is the funniest of the franchise so far. The script is excellent, there are some really good lines and the resolution of the film is both clever and witty. The special effects and the acting are good. I really liked Sofia Boutella’s character.

We are now on the third film into the reboot series and we already know all the main crew members. This film develops and handles the relationships between these characters very well, and we really do care about them by the end of this movie. It is genuinely sad to think that Anton Yeltsin won’t be there if there is another in the franchise.

Even though this is not one of the best Star Trek films in terms of plot or storyline; it is one of the best for humour and character development, and I will certainly be coming back to see what happens to them in the next instalment.

Moon (dir. Duncan Jones) 2009

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Moon is a science fiction film with a distinctly retro ambience. It is set in the 2030s but feels like it was made in the 1970s or ´80s.

Sam Rockwell puts in a great performance as Sam Bell. He needs to, because although this is not quite a single hander; he is almost the only character in this film and the next biggest role is GERTY the computer.

The director has kept everything spare and simple to focus on the story. This works well because story is strong enough to support it.

There are plot holes if you think too much about it, but the film is both engaging and thought provoking.

I really enjoyed it.