EIFF: “The Art of Self-Defense”

“A delightfully sharp comedy.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd. 

This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly. 

We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there. 

As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention. 

Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.

If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

The Duchess (of Malfi) (Lyceum: 17 May -18 June ’19)

Adam Best as Bosola & Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A swingeing attack against inequality and injustice … with gouts of blood”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Observe the bold italics: ‘The Duchess (of Malfi)’ after John Webster. Zinnie Harris’s compelling adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy has all its drive and grip, most of its heritage schlock, and some – but not much – of its superb, excoriating language. Never mind, Harris’s script is smart and disturbing in its own cause. Webster may turn in his grave but it would be a satisfied, pleasurable shift rather than a squirm of revulsion.  The great roles are there, just beneath the modern skin: the blameless Duchess; the depraved Cardinal; Bosola, the loyal creature  – all in the service of raging truths.

 

Yes, twin babies are gently rocked in their parents’ arms but the lullaby is ‘a slightly fucked-up version’ and love is defenceless. Back in Webster’s script of 1614 Bosola tells the Cardinal that

‘When thou kill’d’st thy sister,
Thou took’st from Justice her most equal balance,
And left her naught but her sword’.

Harris’ plot and Harris’ direction do the same, losing moderation, going on a swingeing attack against inequality and injustice. The bad comes first and it’s really bad. The Duchess, Giovanna, remarrries. Her two brothers, the Cardinal – utterly depraved – and Ferdinand – psychopath – find out and destroy her as ‘soiled goods’. Antonio, her husband, would avenge her but merciless killing is not for him. That’s more in Bosola’s line. However, watch the brooding Bosola, listen to him, for it’s a rewarding exercise and when the good comes out he’s your man. It is an extraordinary ‘turn’, beyond even Webster’s philosophical villain, and very well done by Adam Best.

 

If Bosola surprises, the Duchess inspires. She opens the play alone, centre stage, in front of a microphone and her audience. Her own story closes in around an excellent performance by Kirsty Stuart. Amused but all too aware of her brothers’ appalling misogyny, she is mischievous and loving with Antonio, craving and then burping  apricots during her pregnancy, and heroic – immortal – at her end. The two other female parts, Cariola (Fletcher Mathers), Julia (Leah Walker) suffer, fall – and rise – with her.

 

George Costigan as the Cardinal & Angus Miller as Ferdinand

 

The ghastly Cardinal is played by George Costigan, whose command of his lines is probably only matched by the respect he has for them. It would be a virtuoso performance except that to assign ‘virtue’ of any description to this demon would be too much. At least Angus Miller as the sick and puerile Ferdinand has howling lunacy on his side.

 

While she lives the Duchess has precious little freedom. If her brothers cannot control her, they can certainly contain her. Tom Piper’s set is a high undressed space, bleached stone white, with a gangway across its width. Sliding grillwork enforces the impression of prison and the basement bathroom provides a convenient torture chamber where standing mikes are used to address the prisoner. High voltage jolts frazzle the nerves throughout. Two songs offset the fear but still seemed out of place; worse, for me, was some foot stomping and an immediate association with the comic gospel strains of  ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, which was unfortunate.

 

There are inevitable moments of jarring tone and effect, when modern idiom and thought collide with the Jacobean. “I’d kill the bastard who did this to you, the fiends” could be left unsaid but I’m all for the gouts of blood, the powerful re-writing, and the electric challenge of the closing caption.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 May)

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White (St Cecilia’s Hall: 23 – 25 Mar.’19)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

“An incredibly important production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

Ah, racial politics. Anxiety-studded star of a few hundred conversations in coffee shops and pubs. It’s not that the constant deluge of injustice and anger in the world is depressing, it’s that it’s utterly depressing. Talking about it at all, let alone making comedy out of it, is like trying to tapdance your way through a minefield. One false slip and you’re either offending, rehashing or – perhaps worst of all – inadvertently punching down. And even if the comedy’s coming from a true, honest voice, the risk of creating “zeitgeist-y” work with little staying power looms ever present. Needless to say, the prospect of reviewing James Ijames’ “White” filled me with tentative hope and cautious apprehension: what I got in return was a wonderfully slanted commentary on modern sociopolitics, and enough comedy to keep me from realizing I was learning until it was far too late to stop.

Based on a true series of events surrounding the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, White tells the story of white artist Gus (Levi Mattey), who hires African American actress Vanessa (Anna Phillips) to present his work as her own, thus defaming an exhibition he was unable to qualify for. From this fairly simple starting point comes a flurry of emotionally charged and often absurd vignettes, examining the morality of racial curation and the various chasms which still exist at the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and identity.

First and foremost is the skill and timeliness of Ijames’ writing. White, in many ways, is a clever sleight of hand: the charged subject of race never leaves the stage, and yet seems to disappear beneath illusory hand waves of wit and stinging turnaround. Before you know it, you’re considering your own place in the debate, unconsciously picking apart what is satire and what isn’t. It’s the kind of theatre that is sorely needed in a climate that often seems paralysed in the face of despair.

That illusory quality is helped vastly by the show’s comedic direction: energy is the word of the day, and Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has packed it like gunpowder in an old rifle. Despite the open elliptical shape of  St Cecilia’s Hall, this production turned into bouts of verbal tennis, firing jokes so quickly across the room that distance seemed almost to help it. Of course, with a base of clear talent, it’s easily done: Mattey does an extremely laudable job at portraying a character who seems to flip between main antagonist and protagonist with every sentence, and yet still seem jaw-clenchingly consistent. In a similar vein, Phillips’ pulls triple-duty in a trio of roles (one a role within a role), rolling them out chameleon like: same silhouette, but vastly different vibes and patterns.

Supporting, we have Bradley Butler as Gus’ boyfriend Tanner, and Jess Butcher as museum curator Jane – though to relegate them to ensemble would do them injustice. The production would not be half as good without Butler’s caring, vibrant foil to Gus’ ironclad self-interest; and to say too much about Butcher’s portrayal of Jane would ruin some of the best scenes going – I can say only that themes of duality and hypocrisy are shiningly represented.

So, in such a shiny show, what didn’t go so smoothly? Unfortunately, a few stylistic kinks along the way are enough to turn what could be a smooth ride into something bumpier. Though the comedy seldom suffers from the almost breathless pace of the dialogue, there are times when certain lines, actions or even reactions could have done with more time to breathe. Especially in the third act, when things get heavier than ever, I found myself wanting to wait a little more in the questions before being whisked off to more one-liners.

And it’s that same breakneck paceyness which turns some of the show’s more surreal moments into missed opportunities. Without spoiling too much, part of the joy of this show is how left-field the ending is. But buoyed on its own wild momentum and without enough time to properly clock what was happening, genuinely interesting satire ended up feeling more muddled than biting. Without room for contrast, the energy seems to dip without ever getting lower, like getting used to the temperature of shower water.

And while scenes of sexual intimacy are intimate and very well done, the same cannot be said of the show’s flirtation with day-to-day romance. A very certain scene makes it abundantly clear that Mattey and Butler can play off each other wonderfully, but there seems to be an odd sterility to their interactions in the wider world of the play. The words are right but it lacks passion and force.

So what does this all add up to? And, maybe more importantly, how does this all play into a rating? Put shortly, this is an incredibly important production, marred by a few key flaws. Even if there are elements that could be improved on, White is a show that I wildly encourage everyone to see whilst it’s here – and to endeavour to seek out when it’s not.

The best theatre is the kind that leaves you fundamentally, and almost unwillingly, questioning yourself. By that metric, White certainly doesn’t disappoint.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 23 March)

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Lost In Music (North Edinburgh Arts: 1-2 Mar.’19)

Emily Phillips, Claire Willoughby, Alex Neilson (obscured!) and Jill O’Sullivan.
Image from Neil Cooper’s review in the Glasgow Herald.

“Glorious, ‘Everything else just fades away ..’ “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

‘… and Orpheus raises his guitar’. As lines go that’s a cracker but not really a first as there’s Val, in his snakeskin jacket, in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, ‘the tale – as Williams put it – of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop’. In the first scene Val picks up his guitar and starts to sing Williams’ Heavenly Grass but stops, ominously, in the middle of the song.

 

No clamour, no interruptions in Magnetic North’s Lost In Music and the snake coiled in the grass ain’t on no jacket. This is a one hour truly excellent self-styled ‘gig-theatre show’, with four musician / performers singing and talking of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a totally different (youthful?) key, celebratory rather than savage or tragic. It is expressly about music and music-making and how that plays about our lives, particularly young lives, often to glorious effect.

 

Its theatre may be in the sound and the visuals – just admire the micro-cinema of clouding memory loss – but the narrative still compels attention, as you’d hope, given the pre-eminence of its story. Why does Orpheus look back? In this telling it’s because he is doubtful of the Gods’ word but also, unspoken, it has to be because he cannot bear the unaccompanied silence behind him.

 

And so back to the music and the soundscape to which the whole production is dedicated. Clustered instruments gleam under Simon Wilkinson’s lighting; microphone stands, rests, and props are festooned on Karen Tennent’s green, glowing, set. Costumes are colourful and free flowing. Jill O’Sullivan opens up on guitar and vocals and one by one the others play their parts: Emily Phillips (Clarinet / Orpheus); Claire Willoughby (Saxophone / Eurydice); and Alex Neilson (Percussion). Halfway, thereabouts, there is an important pause as each briefly explains what music means to them and at the close they are joined for a swelling finale by a further six players – from neighbouring Craigroyston Community High School.

 

Kim Moore and Nicholas Bone wrote and direct an inspiring show that has rightly attracted support from Creative Scotland, the City Council, the PRS Foundation and – for Orpheus was the hardy Argonaut who charmed the Sirens – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. If Lost In Music looks for a place in the Festival or on the Fringe, then it should be a shoo-in.

 

Find Lost In Music in Glasgow this week at

Platform
1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW
Wednesday 6 March, 7pm
Thursday 7 March, 1.30pm

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 2 March)

Go to the Magnetic North

RSNO, Sondergard, Benedetti. (Usher Hall: 8 Feb.’19)

Image: wyntonmarsalis.org

“…the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

I have commended the RSNO on the creativity and intelligence of their programme planning since I started writing about them some three years ago, and on Friday there was a fine example of this.  For sure, Nicola Benedetti, the forces sweetheart of the Central Belt, will always fill the hall, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is ever popular, but Thomas Ades and Wynton Marsalis?  Now that was a risk, but, boy, did it pay off.

 

Effectively this was Jazz Night at the Usher Hall, and, strangely enough it was the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis that had the strongest classical nuances, not the Ades.

 

Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades was his first opera, based on a sex scandal involving the then Duchess of Argyll, and was a cut down work comprising just four singers and an ensemble of three clarinets, a brass trio and a string quintet with piano, harp, accordion and percussion.  Ades’ Dances, written later but for that same opera, is what we heard and was an eleven-minute full on full orchestra shebang which certainly expressed the Duchess’s hedonistic lifestyle.  To say it was played with wild abandon would be to criticise the orchestra.  It was played with controlled abandon.  But abandon there certainly was, a gorgeous, unrestrained, schmaltzy piece bordering on the burlesque.

 

More familiar was A Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess, a 23-minute composite of our favourite songs orchestrated by Fritz Reiner for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1943.  The work held together with remarkable integrity and was a joy to listen to.  Again, the RSNO didn’t hold back and we were treated to some rich, unrestrained playing in the jazz rather than classical orchestral tradition, showing the orchestra’s versatility under the guiding arm of Sondergard’s enlightened baton.

 

Without doubt the draw of the evening was the newly honoured Nicola Benedetti (is she the youngest CBE in the country?) playing the Scottish premiere of the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis, especially written for herIntroduced by Sondergard as a work as long as a symphony (50 minutes) it never palled.  I would describe the opening movement, Rhapsody, as a beautiful lyric piece yet in the jazz idiom, albeit classically constructed.  The second, Rondo Burlesque, was all over the place but a fun listen.  During the third movement, Blues, Benedetti showed us some beautiful solo playing with the support of the string section in some unusual and effective pizzicato.  Come the finale, Hootenanny, notwithstanding the Scottish title, I felt we were more likely in a barn dance, it was terrific, exciting, fun and to cap it all Benedetti concluded the piece by walking off the stage still playing the final refrain.

 

This is the third consecutive review that I have written in the past fortnight that has received our highest accolade, five stars, which shows the incredibly high standard of music available currently in Edinburgh. Two of these go to the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard.  Rather than give an encore Benedetti concluded the evening by thanking the generosity of the RSNO in giving free tickets to a number of Midlothian young musicians who had been taking a workshop that afternoon with the orchestra; obliquely referring to the current threat to axe instrumental tuition in Midlothian for schoolchildren below S4.  If the seniors in the audience want their children and grandchildren to continue to listen to home grown music of this quality, the answer lies in their pockets, though of course Nicola was too nice to say this.  But we knew what she meant.

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 February)

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When The Rain Stops Falling (Bedlam: 6 – 9 Feb.’19)

Photo: Andrew Perry, EUTC

“Magnificient endeavour”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars, Outstanding

 

The archangel Gabriel commands the gates of Paradise but his mortal namesakes are having a bad time, lots of bad times in fact. At the start of Andrew Bovell’s play, in the year of our Lord 2039, it’s raining dead fish upon Gabriel York in Alice Springs. In early sixties London Henry Law abandons his wife and seven year old son, Gabriel, and along the Coorong lagoon in south Australia in 1983 the same Gabriel (Law) totals himself and his pregnant girlfriend – Gabrielle, of course – in a car crash.

There’s annunciation and revelation all through this play of four generations. It is of mothers and sons, of the sins of fathers, and of their mortifying consequence. Call it Miltonic, which might explain why Edinburgh University’s English Literature department chose to sponsor it. In Davos last month David Attenborough warned that “The Garden of Eden is no more” and now we have the unprecedented rainfall of the past ten days in northern Queensland.  In Bovell’s play, written in 2008, it takes two hours for the rain to stop falling and it delivers pathos by the bucket load but in the end it delivers understanding and well-being, as if you’ve been well rinsed.

We’re talking a cold water shower here: a deluge of testimony and heartache within an enclosure of near on eighty years. When The Rain Stops Falling has an extraordinary structure, where periods and scenes elide. It has been variously described as a ‘cats cradle’, a ‘pretzel’, a ‘Rubik Cube’. Characters fold their umbrellas, hang their waterproofs, and momentarily take their place alongside each other around a large dining table. It is always fish soup for supper, whether it’s in London in 1959, Uluru (Ayres Rock) in 1968 or Adelaide in 2013. Conversation moves between relationships, sex, drink, age, and … Diderot’s dressing gown, Mary Shelley, and the Great Hurricane of 1780. You might think, as a Gabriel observes, ‘a mess’; but then it is also a ‘magnificent endeavour’.

Cast and crew combine with remarkable nerve and purpose. There is no interval, as the writer required, and a scene misplayed could wreck any sense of what is going on – of where and when. Director Lucy Davidson has done a terrific job keeping the stage action fluid and evident without the space to really big up the visuals beyond projected captions. Actors work hard within overlapping narratives that are as fragile as the eco-system of the Coorong. In particular, Kelechi Anna Hafstad’s diction as the older Elizabeth Law has the clarity of pain that has been hung out to dry. Charlie O’Brien as Gabriel Law, Elizabeth’s son, has a lightness to him that is almost uplifting. And, when his wretched father, Henry (Angus Gavan McHarg), gives despairing voice to his postcards home, you are grateful for that support. Similarly, Dominic Sorrell plays his heart out as Joe Ryan, a good man out of his depth. Barney Rule opens and closes the drama as the stoical Gabriel who helps the audience to shelter. I reckon he’s channelling Lear’s Fool, for ‘He that has a little tiny wit, – With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content with his fortunes fit, For the rain it raineth every day.’

I much enjoyed this production of an intriguing play. One for the canon of contemporary Australian drama.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)

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RSNO, Sondergard. Mahler, Bruckner (Usher Hall: 1 Feb.’19)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

“… an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It was a wretchedly cold Friday night in Edinburgh, and the rugby was on the telly.  Moreover the programme was Bruckner and Mahler, absolutely my favourite, but not everyone’s cup of tea.  Yet if the members of the RSNO could bus or drive in from Glasgow on a night such as this, so could I shuffle across Bruntsfield Links to a near capacity house.  Testimony to the RSNO, for sure, and we were amply rewarded by some fine playing.

 

Putting Bruckner and Mahler together on a programme is not untypical, and of course only one work can be a full symphony or the concert would go on too long.  Nonetheless I was puzzled why relatively early Bruckner (around 1880) and late Mahler (written c1910) should be conjoined.  The answer was found in the playing of Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, typically valedictory; and of  Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (The Romantic), triumphant and life affirming.

 

The key point I want to put across in this review is the sheer quality of the orchestra’s playing on the night, and the incredible discipline of the baton of Thomas Sondergard that stopped the tendency of Bruckner symphonies to ‘wander’ or lose their way. The Bruckner can sometimes sound muddy with the high proportion of brass, but we experienced none of that, but just utter clarity.

 

Occasionally Sondergard addresses the audience at the beginning of a concert and I wondered if he was going to tonight, especially as it was quite a short bill with just 1 hour 25 minutes of music.  He chose not to, and was right, as the Mahler is a sombre piece and a stand alone work in itself.  I was astonished at how the orchestra immediately got into the piece – a desperately exposed violin and horn introduction played assuredly that swept us away into a rewarding exposition with some of the most complex Mahlerian harmonies that I have heard.  This included moments of real poignancy that at one stage found your reviewer wiping his eyes!

 

We returned after the interval to hear the Bruckner.  This was a taut, disciplined and expertly played piece that kept us on the edge of our seats for the entire 62 minutes.  All sections excelled themselves but my personal gold medal would go to the cellos – who were not asked to take a bow, probably because of the difficulty of all eight of them getting up at the same time with their cumbersome instruments.  Time and time again Sondergard’s stern but helpful baton stopped us losing the tempo or phrasing, so that we felt, and the orchestra sounded, as fresh at the end as at the beginning.  This was an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.

 

A footnote to compliment the audience on this cold and coldy night.  Not a single cough or splutter during the music and a patient, eternal, wait after the Mahler for the conductor to drop his baton. After the Bruckner we could not contain ourselves and the applause immediately followed the concluding note, along with several shouts of “Bravo”.  Quite rightly so.

 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 February)

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