"Pericles: Prince Of Tyre", Shakespeare’s Globe

(Written for Culture Wars)

“Pericles” is a bit of a bastard of a play. Fragmented, epic, implausible, and without many stand-out moments, it’s a huge odd old thing. It’s therefore heartening that the Globe production of it, through some natty dramaturgy, infectious energy, and several standout performances, many from the wonderful Marcello Magni, is an amiable summer romp that I can heartily recommend.

The big directorial gimmick is to split the character of Pericles into two for the first half – the old Pericles (Corin Redgrave) looking upon his younger self (Robert Luckay) as he makes his youthful mistakes, and gets shipwrecked about fourteen times. “That’s you! That’s you!” taunts Gower (Patrice Naiambana), the narrator of the piece, fondly. This dramaturgical dealing with the text works well – it makes the whole thing into a fun storytelling exercise, which helps into the second half, as the story splits into three strands separated by an ocean, allowing Gower to jolly the whole business along with a fun irreverance (“You were expecting art?” he booms, “This is LIFE!”).

Kathryn Hunter’s direction – sorry, play mastery – is very good; the text, although there are some dodgy tennis metaphors, is made zingy and light, with some excellent verse-speaking from, among others, Jude Akuwudike, Laura Rees and Matilda Layser (who has particular fun as a fisherman’s apprentice). The design uses the whole theatre, with actor/aerialists literally bouncing off the walls, climbing ropes, making a boat from two sticks and running around like lunatics, making “wooooooaaaaah” noises. It’s highly entertaining.

And then there’s Marcello Magni. Stealing the show every time he comes on in one of his many guises, he lulls us into a false sense of security in his bearded role as Pericles’ wise custodian of Tyre, Helicanus, before pulling out the stops for his frankly barking turn as Simonides, constantly pulling his odd white wig out of his eyes, struggling to strip for a clown duel with the young Pericles, and eventually kissing Pericles and his daughter repeatedly and maniacally after he has approved their marriage. And he’s only just warming up – his Italian pimp character Boult, complete with bizarre door-bolting affectation, manages to be very funny and quite, quite sinister. Magni’s conviction, energy and invention is startling and infectious. It’s worth a fiver just to see him.

With so many disparate parts to the production – clowning, aerial work, a gunshot, multi-cultural casts, improvised audience banter, a mix of realistic and suggested props, and the nature of playing the Globe space – there’s a danger that “Pericles” could be an awkward mish-mash, but it sticks so closely to the storytelling/actor-audience relationship ethos of the Globe that you’re left with a highly enjoyable production, which tells its difficult story entertainingly and enthusiastically.

And at £5 for tickets, it’s good value for money! Unless you get free tickets, like I did, in which case, it’s better than good value. It’s excellent value.

"Kingfisher Blue", Bush Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

Failure should be an option in off-West End theatres like the Bush, particularly in ones in which such a large emphasis is placed on new writing. Here, that option is taken.

“Kingfisher Blue” comes on like a gritty, urban, issues-based play – all dodgy plumbers and East End London council estates – yet it soon becomes apparent that the writer Lin Coghlan doesn’t have a clue which issue she’s confronting. is it working class drug abuse, or escaping the social stratum into which you’re born, or is it paedophilia, or suicide, or predatory homosexuals? Themes are touched on, then ignored, making the whole experience rather cheap and draining. Above all, though, there’s a sense of complete hopelessness that is impossible to shake. It’s sure difficult to sympathise with the guy with his head on the block, because you know it’ll soon be over. In a similar way, the grimey situations that the four male characters find themselves in almost dare the audience to sympathise with them. You know as soon as a little glimmer of hope is offered to them, the rug will be pulled from under their feet.

For example, Ally is given £270 to escape his abusive father, his ecstacy habit, the prowling paedophiles to whom he has sold pornographic pictures of himself, and the gangs of council estate vigilantes trying to defeat the paedophiles. He plans to use the £270 to meet his mother in Majorca, where she now lives, but at the eleventh hour, she writes to him to tell him he can’t come over as she’s remarried, sending Ally on an ecstacy and vodka binge, which culminates in him trying to kill himself in a suicide pact with his best friend. Bummer.

Compounding this sense of crushing hopelessness is the mawkish text, which never lets an opportunity for a hearty East End anecdote go by unanswered.

Character: “Remember that old telly?”
Audience: Oh yes? A telly? Brilliant! Tell us more!
Character: “We used to poke it with a stick.”
Audience: You used to poke a telly with a stick?
Character: “A big stick. They kept it behind the bar.”
Audience: What? Why? Why would you poke a telly with a big stick?

How “urban”! How “gritty”! At one point, a character comes in with a tray of whelks. Whelks. Which “Bumper Book Of East End Cliches” has the author been reading, I wonder?

Character: “Those jumpers… it were a bit like yer mum… holdin’ you.”
Audience: Not really. It was like you were wearing a jumper.

The actors struggle against this text, but they don’t struggle that hard. Josef Altin at least brings pace and humour to the role of Ally, but both Toby Alexander and Doug Allen drag the play sluggishly along with little spark, enthusiasm or creativity. Paul Moriarty has the worst of the script’s anecdotage, and he looks faintly embarrassed to be involved. The direction, by Paul Miller, is also bad – moments of urgency are dismissed flippantly, jokes are underplayed, or just badly played, and the whole thing is theatrical and overly dramatic, where it should be played naturalistically and restrained. The play also relies on gimmicky stage business – Doug Allen fits a bath live on-stage, including using a blowtorch; naked photos are taken of a 14-year old boy – but the reality of these moments of action are undermined by, respectively, the fact that Doug Allen does not look like a natural plumber, and the fact that that Josef Altin is very obviously not fourteen.

Ultimately, for a play concerned with dealing with an urban, deprived situation, both script and production come across as bizarrely patronising. What reality is this based in? The playwright confuses “urban” with “depressing”, and so even when the two boys are saved from their suicide pact, one of them is still abducted and murdered. And then talks to the other. From heaven. With a lot of reverb on his voice. While the other tearfully stands over his grave. Monologuing. About how great he was, and how unfair life is. Really, by the end of it, I couldn’t care two tosses about anyone involved, and I don’t think that’s what theatre should be doing.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

So, I should have expected it. Well, I did sort of expect it. Those bastards whose job it is to hype films did their job admirably well, and I was excited. And now… a sort of hollow deadening.

Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and pretty much everyone else have been fighting a war. It’s been the robots – led by a really big crawly robot and Christopher Lee – against the clones, who look a bit like robots – led by Ian McDiarmid and the Jedi. Oooh! Aaargh! There are “heroes on both sides”! Which is right? Which is right? Who knows?

The answer is, of course, neither of them are right, as Ian McDiarmid is actually Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord; a fact that George Lucas, the king of dramatic irony, has not even tried to hide for the past two films. First Sidious ensnares Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, then gets his clone armies to attack the Jedis. Wait a minute… an attack of the clones? What film is this again?

Ah yes, “Revenge of the Sith”. The revenge of the Sith is, apparently, to get the clones to attack. This is not the first confusing and – let’s be fair – toy-manufacturer-led element to this film. Not by a long chalk.

The upshot of all this tomfoolery is that Anakin Skywalker is chopped into little pieces, burnt alive, and turned into Darth Vader. Darth Vader is the big one, the iconic figurehead of the franchise, the one we’ve all come to see, despite the fact that we all know that he looks pretty ridiculous when he walks.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but were you given an estimated $115m to make a film, you’d make pretty damned sure the script didn’t provoke unwelcome laughter, wouldn’t you? And you’d make it so that the actors who had to read the script didn’t sort of take the piss when speaking the script, wouldn’t you? And if you had really cool lightsaber fights, you’d want your audience to see them, wouldn’t you? And you might contemplate making just a few scenes of amazingly epic battle scenes not edited at the pace of a rampant bonobo so your audience might actually understand what’s going on, mightn’t you?

Don’t get me wrong, I really really wanted to like this movie. I wanted it to like it not because I’m a huge fan of Star Wars or anything, but because I liked Star Wars when I was a kid. And if I ever have kids, I think it would be cool to show them Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and say “This was really cool when I was a kid”.

The trouble is that now, they’ll say “What about those other three films?” and I’ll say “you really don’t need to bother with them, they suck ass”.

Or, alternatively, a much worse scenario would be that people who have no experience of Star Wars will start at Episode 1, and work their way through chronologically. These people are fucked. Every major dramatic point in the original trilogy has been pre-empted by the prequel trilogy.

Darth Vader: “Luke… I am your father.”
Audience: “Yeah, we knew that four hours ago.”

Luke: “Leia, you’re my sister.”
Audience: (snore)

Obi-Wan: “I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it.”
Audience: “So, like… can Obi-Wan see Qui-Gonn Jinn at this moment, or did the practice in exile not work?”

Audience: “Hey, how come the ships don’t have those cool displays any more?”

Grr. The transition from “Revenge of the Sith” to “A New Hope” will be a horrible, horrible lurch. I guess that was always predictable, but there is scant effort to even make the two sets of three films feel similar in tone or mood.

Geek business aside, Ewan Macgregor is pretty good in it, and goes a little way to filling the charm void in the first two prequels. Hayden Christensen is largely awful, Natalie Portman is awful, even Samuel L Jackson looks bad. Ian McDiarmid is oddly camp, and appears to believe he is in pantomime. He looks like he knows he’s too classy for this.

Ultimately, this hollow, deadening feeling is exactly what I felt after watching the previous two prequels. A dreadful sense of pointlessness hangs over these films; created not to make a good cinematic experience, but to further wring dry the wallets of the devoted. Bleurgh.