Invisible Cities @ MIF19

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Invisible Cities

By 59 Productions and Rambert

Mayfield, 5 July 2019

 Invisible Cities-MIF 2019 - Rambert (c) Tristram Kenton.jpg

Invisible Cities. Photo by Tristram Kenton

In Italo Calvino’s fantastical novel Marco Polo describes various imaginary cities to the great Kublai Khan.

That is what happens here, pretty much. Following their dialogue, Rambert’s dancers bring those cities, or rather the forms of life which they embody, to the stage. It seems that some cities exist for leisure and pleasure, while others twist their inhabitants into strange shapes if they want to survive. The venue of the play, Mayfield, an artery of steel and stone, belongs to a city that is firmly in the latter camp.

It was a bit too talky and verbose at first, in my view. An awful lot of sub-Shakespearean dialogue, though Matthew Leonhart (Marco Polo) and Danny Sapani (Kublai Khan) ploughed through it as best they could. The final few scenes were in many ways the most exciting. Here the city was modern Venice (or perhaps any other major European city you might think of), plagued by tourists rolling trolleys along streets clogged with consumer waste. You were left in the end with the impression that a pure dance production might have been more successful.

Invisible Cities is showing at Mayfield as part of the Manchester International Festival. Further details can be found here.

Tree @ MIF19

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Tree

Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah

Campfield Market Hall, 4 July 2019

Sinead-Cusack-and-Alfred-Enoch-in-Tree-at-Manchester-International-Festival-runs-at-Young-Vic-from-29-July.-Credit-Marc-Brenner-13-Custom.jpg

Sinead Cusack and Alfred Enoch in Tree @ MIF19. Photo by Marc Brenner

A brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa.

Following his mother’s death, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) journeys to South Africa. Both his parents were from there – though he never knew his father, he died before his birth – and he wants to place her ashes on his fathers grave. Problem is, though, that his father was abducted, ‘disappeared’, by some white supremacist hit squad back in the day, and his grave (if, in fact, he had been buried) is not known.

Kaelo lodges with his grandmother (Sinead-Cusack), a farmer, and also makes contact with his sister or half-sister, who is involved in current protests about land reclamation and restitution (which target his grandmother’s estate). She leads a noisy, violent, righteous faction. And with that Kaelo’s quest for his father’s resting place crashes into South Africa’s present political disputes big-time.

This is a decent drama, inspired in part by Idris Elba’s recent album. Alfred Enoch plays Kaelo as a slightly prissy London liberal, looking very dapper in his carrot-shaped pants, and prone to take offence and start arguments over very little. He idolises Nelson Mandela, whereas his sister sees him as just another politician who didn’t deliver. This is a South Africa where peace and reconciliation seem a long way off.

The space of Campfield Market Hall is used well: the audience stand during the performance, and seem themselves like a forest of trees. Enoch traverses the audience as he tours his grandmother’s estate. And the protestors are dispersed throughout the audience, placards going up at certain points. Also, you always had a good view of the stage.

Tree, a brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa, is showing at the Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival 2019. Further details can be found here.

One Night in Miami…

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One Night in Miami…

By Kemp Powers

Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company

HOME, 2 July 2019

7: Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), and Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X) in One Night in Miami…, by Kemp Powers, directed by Matthew Xia, produced by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre. At HOME Manchester (Tue 2 - Fri 5 July 2019). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), and Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X) in One Night in Miami…, by Kemp Powers, directed by Matthew Xia, produced by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre. At HOME Manchester (Tue 2 – Fri 5 July 2019). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

On a sweltering hot night in Miami in 1964, four men meet up.

All good friends, they were also, even then, well known to the world through their accomplishments in their respective fields. There is Jim Brown, celebrated footballer and lately an actor, who some decades later will become the subject of a Spike Lee film. Malcolm X, a politician, writer and social activist. Sam Cooke, soul singer and businessman. And finally Cassius Clay (not yet Muhammad Ali), a boxer just crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World. The men shoot the breeze, talk about whatever happens to be happening in their lives – all black, they have inherited that complex legacy – each man’s life careening toward a crisis point. We know, of course, that two of these men will soon be murdered.

It is an engaging, entertaining play but what raises it right to the top are the convincing character portraits proffered by the four principals. Conor Glean, for example, plays Clay as a brash kid, very full of himself even then (but aware of it as well) and plenty naïve still, but good natured. Someone who is easy to love. Miles Yekinni’s Brown is a successful sportsman, but he is as aware as any of the others of the prejudice that surrounds him, of what is possible and what ain’t.Then Matt Henry as Cooke is a ball of nervous energy, a force of nature. Henry performs a couple of great Sam Cooke songs here, has the lungpower to deliver them in style. Cooke comes across as a shrewd businessman who wants to become much more. He wants transform other lives as well as his own. Finally, Colquhoun’s Malcolm X is a cerebral man who lives too much in his head. His integrity torments him. Conflicted and wrestling with his conscience, he is about to place himself in great danger.

One Night in Miami… is at HOME until 5 July, details here.

Unquiet Graves

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Unquiet Graves

Directed by Sean A Murray

UK, 2018

HOME, 12 June 2019

Unquiet Graves

This documentary is a difficult watch, and that for a host of reasons.

One reason is because the grief, still, is all too real. And the testimony of families affected is overwhelming. So you hear from grown men and women, who as children lost a father or mother, still perplexed by their absence. You see an old woman who, as a young wife and mother, watched her husband die and later had to identify one of his killers (she had answered the door to his killers). The grief and sorrow is palpable and, you know for sure, will remain with them after you have watched the film.

Another reason is that it makes a compelling case for collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – and therefore the British state – in over a hundred murders. Indeed, in some instances serving police officers took part in killings. There is the further claim that this involvement ‘came right from the very top’, which would be at prime ministerial or cabinet level, not merely the activities of MI5 or MI6, and entailed a colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ aimed at the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. I am unsure whether to accept this entirely; after all, these two communities were pretty divided anyway. But the evidence may be found in the minutes of a key meeting held at Chequers during Harold Wilson’s tenure as PM. Those minutes should be investigated and disclosed.

Further details of the film can be had here.

Hobson’s Choice @ the Royal Exchange Theatre

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Hobson’s Choice

By Harold Brighouse

Royal Exchange Theatre, 5 June 2019

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson's Choice at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson’s Choice at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

A kind of quotidian magic.

Tanika Gupta’s re-imagining of Harold Brighouse’s Edwardian comedy – setting it in Manchester’s Northern Quarter in the 1980s and making the protagonists an Asian family recently arrived from Uganda – works wonderfully well.

It is at once a queer sort of romance (very brisk and business-like), a boisterous comedy and a hard-headed look at life’s robust limitations. Here the Asian family run a tailor’s shop, and the person you are drawn to most of all is Durga Hobson (Shalini Peiris), the eldest daughter. She is the brains behind the business, not to mention the hardest grafter out of all of them, besides having to contend with her father swanning around as a sort of titular figurehead, though frankly he is more often than not to be found off down the pub. Networking, it is called. What you glean about Durga is that, as well as being direct and down to earth, she is generous and (whisper it softly in her presence) a mite vulnerable.

Hobson’s Choice is in many respects an unpretentious, even a pedestrian play. But it also has a kind of quotidian magic. It is one of those plays where, as circumstances change in the surrounding world, people also are driven to change – or they fail to do so. In slo-mo, fates are revealed. Some people adapt and prosper, others fall by the wayside. Some show mettle and strength, while some are weak or callous toward others.

There are terrific performances here from a talented cast – not least from Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop. A wholly engrossing, highly entertaining evening’s theatre.

Hobson’s Choice is showing at the Royal Exchange until 6 July, further details can be found here.

Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

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Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

The Bridgewater Hall, 9 May 2019

Sir Mark Elder and the Halle

This was an impromptu concert, so an unexpected bonus, and all the better for that.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Halle and the orchestra played these three wonderful works:

  • Debussy: Images for Orchestra
  • Mussorgsky (in an orchestration by Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Ravel: Bolero

You could see how the works, although in many respects very different in tone and texture, were interlinked. Debussy’s Images for Orchestra aimed to evoke scenes from memory – it is focussed around various countries – and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition attempted a similar feat: it was about a painter and his pictures. There is a difference, mind, between memories, psychological images as it were, and external vision: pictures, things seen in the world.

Ravel orchestrated the version of Mussorgsky’s work performed here and he composed the final work, Bolero. There is also a further connection: the most elaborate of Debussy’s Images focuses on Spain, the country from which Bolero takes its inspiration.

In Bolero just the one theme is repeated again and again, with more colour and orchestration gradually added with each repetition. But the underlying theme is always present, never obscured. It is thrilling – the way it builds up to a climax, the uncertainty as to how it will all end – but a bit gimmicky, in truth: you are pleased that Ravel wrote it because that means that no one else now has to. Here, though, a visual analogy occurred to me. That Bolero is like one of those Warhol silkscreen prints where the same image (say: Marilyn pouting, Elvis drawing a gun) is repeated over and over, with slight variations in colouring, say.

An evening of vital music and visual culture. A lot to hear, a lot to see.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Apollo 11

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Apollo 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

USA, 2019

HOME, 7 July 2019

Mari

This documentary follows the Apollo 11 mission from beginning to end.

As with many documentaries of recent years, there is no overarching narrative voice, something to be thankful for.

We see the days and hours leading up to take-off. All anxiety and fraught anticipation. Then we see the rocket shooting up to the sky and piercing earth’s atmosphere. Next we see it cruising toward the moon and entering its orbit, with the landing craft parting ways from the rocket and floating off (or so it seemed) before plummeting toward the moon’s surface.

For this descent, we learnt that Armstrong’s heart rate (he along with Aldrin was in the landing craft, while Collins stayed in the rocket and orbited the moon) shot up wildly – the human primate protesting against all the monochrome, celestial insanity – but you could not tell that from his speech. He was the same bland good-natured American, calm and collected and cool throughout. I like Armstrong’s blandness, by the way: it shows his brain is completely focused on the task at hand, there’s no spare capacity to charm his interlocutors. There is the historic moment when he descends from the craft and speaks of ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ before going on to plant an American flag on this new-found-land (to borrow from Donne). It ends with the men splashing into the sea and being picked up by the US navy, President Nixon looking on and applauding, as well he might.

All told, this is a gripping documentary, full of quiet heroism and good-natured efficiency and with not a few (entirely understandable) moments of steely tension. At certain junctures the mission could have gone badly wrong. But bonds held firm, errors were avoided, peril averted. You cannot help but admire America, or specifically this America anyway, a nation with a can-do culture – and they did it. They took on a difficult task, one commensurate with their capability, and they delivered. Now, it seems, they are content to do the easy stuff. To settle for less.

Knife + Heart

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Knife + Heart

Directed by Yann Gonzalez

France, 2018

HOME, 8 July 2019

Knife + Heart

A slasher flick, this one, set in France’s gay porn film industry in the early 1980s.

You have Vanessa Paradis (yes, her, the pop star as was) as a film director whose stars (big fish in a small pond) are all getting murdered, one by one. Who is doing it? And what could their motive be?

It is all a bit naff , to be honest. One of those film where you are shown rather too much of people’s bodies and not enough of their faces. But, who knows, perhaps that is deliberate, all part of the film’s style and look. On set there is always a resident cocksucker, for when the actors’ cocks go soft. I didn’t know that but, actually, it makes a lot of sense…

There are other, maybe more interesting aspects to the film, mind. For example, the knife as a phallic weapon, an instrument used to penetrate the flesh. Something which illustrates the irredeemably violent nature of sexual desire. Supposedly.

In the end, though, you have to conclude that a film that looks and feels naff is, well, naff.

Don’t Look Now

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Don’t Look Now

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Italy, 1973

HOME, 8 July 2019

Don’t Look Now

This is a slasher flick too in a sense, though it is of course much, much more than that.

Don’t Look Now is a masterpiece, in fact: a film that can easily sustain several viewings. Always there is something new to notice and reflect upon. Such as, say, the colour red as motif.

They, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, are a couple coming back to bloom after the death of their daughter Christine. And even at this point you pause, for the name Christine (‘Christ-like’) is undoubtedly significant. This is a film about death and sacrifice.

One night the couple make love, then dress for dinner. A wonderfully constructed scene this one: tender and wry and intimate and wholly naturalistic. It feels intrusive and invasive to watch them, such is the intimacy exchanged. An unparalleled scene, even today.

Outside, we see Venice, what with its medieval churches and labyrinthine walkways, a crumbling city floating on water. This is winter, so there are few tourists, it is the off-season. There is finality to everything, as though the show is over and what you are look at is a stage set without an audience. People are off-duty, not paying attention. Inclined to be careless. Meanwhile a killer is on the loose.

Most of all, at the close, you are left with a sense of loss. A real person has died, someone who had much to offer the world. The tragedy was not inevitable, for chance events led him to his death. Yet examine them and you will find that it was his helpfulness, his care and consideration for others (making an effort to get the blind sister out of the prison cell, say), that made him heedless of his own care. Blame his Christ-like qualities for his death.

Mari

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Mari

Directed by Georgia Parris

UK, 2018

HOME, 27 June 2019

Mari

This is a brute plaiding of Pinter and Pina Bausch.

We have Charlotte, a dancer turned choreographer, who is called home to the house where her grandmother is dying. As she and her sister – a quite different sort of woman, married with a child, a stay at home mum – and their mother wait for the eldest woman in the family to die, long buried family tensions rise to the surface and nerves begin to fray. Both sisters are soon at loggerheads, mind they have never got on anyway.

Meanwhile Charlotte, highly strung as ever (she is that sort of woman), is fretting over the new dance production she has left behind in London. Also, she is pregnant.

Frankly, I thought the English family drama stuff was a bit retro (fine but retro); we have seen it plenty of times before, and it has been done better. But by blending it with the choreography (which was excellent) it seemed new and exciting. Strange and thrilling too was Bobbi Jene Smith’s portrait of Charlotte, an artist who lives in her head, clearly wound up tight and tense. Yet a woman who expresses herself through reckless motions and ambivalent gestures, who has always an awkward grace. Her kinetic images create sinister tableau.

A film, a psychodrama even, where my attention never wavered.

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

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Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

Directed by Thomas Piper

USA, 2018

HOME, 27 June 2019
Diego Maradona

What we experience in a lifetime, they [gardens] go through in a year.

That is the view of Piet Oudolf, a Dutch gardener who is also a sort of artist. Of that there is no doubt.

All his gardens are – or can be seen as – collages, compositions made with plants. They are about colour and form, his gardens, and the feelings evoked as you traverse them, each in its own way an artful wilding. But there an allowance made, too, for time and the seasons. Plants are organic matter, not pigment. Life-forms, life, not paint. And the gardens must look beautiful all year round. At the moment of blossom, delight and an anxious care. At the time of decay, fading (or a different kind of) beauty and the fragile possibility of redemption.

Here there is a survey of several of Oudolf’ s gardens in Europe and America. The film has something about Oudolf’ s life and his thoughts on beauty (one would have liked to hear more). Nature’s abundant glories are much in evidence as well.

A Season in France

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A Season in France

Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

France, 2018

HOME, 26 June 2019
A Season in France

France is Hell for those who are there seeking asylum, as this harrowing film makes clear.

We follow the journey of Abbas and his family as they try to settle in the Republic. Already traumatised by the violence in his own country, where his wife had been murdered, now he must confront violence and enmity anew.

His brother takes a different path. When his makeshift dwelling is burnt down, he decides to set himself aflame. But Abbas perseveres – for the time being, at any rate.

A bleak film, but with moments of joy and humour too. And full of heart.

 

The Hummingbird Project

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The Hummingbird Project

Directed by Kim Nguyen

USA, 2018

HOME, 26 June 2019

The Hummingbird Project

Here a couple of cousins concoct a plan to build a fibre-optic cable across America.

Their big idea is that they can thereby speed up trading transactions, so allowing certain investment banks to make a big profit. They would allow these banks access to the high speed cable for a price. So they would come out with a big profit too.

It is an engaging film, with several dramatic moments. One of the cousins comes a cropper with cancer and so you have those old saws about money being pretty useless when you are dead. You cannot take it with you. You haven’t got anything if you don’t have your health. And that other one, the one about the rich man and the eye of a needle.

Also, the cable laid in the earth is a kind of cancer: an invasive, hostile presence which threatens the balance of nature.