Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Kneehigh Theatre, The Flying lovers of Vitebsk

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is the last thing to be directed for Cornish Company Kneehigh by acclaimed director Emma Rice, who is going on to be the Artistic Director at the Globe Theatre in London. This is a very well deserved promotion, since Rice has directed a few absolute corkers for Kneehigh, and in a theatre world which is as sexist as the movies, is probably Britain's foremost female theatre director. 

Kneehigh are also great, with or without Rice, and so I went along to this with pretty high expectations. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is about the painter Marc Chagall, and his wife Bella, both born in Vitebsk in Belarus, in what was then Imperial Russia. I knew very little about them, but it's a fascinating story with plenty of theatrical material to milk, passing through love-at-first-sight, a rich-girl/poor-boy wedding, World War One, the Russian Revolution, the artistic revolutions of expressionism and cubism, Paris in the 20s, World War Two, and a flight from occupied France.

However, I felt like all this, in a play, presented a bit of a problem. There were lots of 'explaining history to the audience' moments going on, and what felt like more speech directed at us, the audience, than between the characters. Kneehigh usually make ensemble pieces, with quite a few actors, but this had just two actors and two musicians, and I felt like there might have been less explaining if they'd splashed out on a couple of extra performers.

Apart from this, it's undeniably an enjoyable production, with lovely music and singing, and great dancing, especially from Audrey Brisson who played Bella. There isn't, despite the title, any flying: the title refers to Chagall's paintings.

One effect this production had is to make me want to see more of Chagall's art, so in that sense it could be called a success. Overall, a decent production, with lots of lovely moments, but I felt it was a bit let down by the script.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is at Bristol Old Vic until June 11th.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Home Fires: Bring it Back!

Terrible news! Found out today that ITV won't be commissioning another series of Home Fires. Quite rightly, somebody has started a petition to bring it back. Please sign it, here.

Now I know it's only a TV show and there's shit going on in the world and all that but humans need stories. Stories show us how to deal with difficult situations and how to behave with dignity. Humans tell stories abut things that are important. And if you don't ever see people like yourselves in stories then you easily get to thinking that's because you're not important.

One of the reasons I loved Home Fires was that it showed just how ordinary people were important, and how they helped influence history. I loved the mix of ages and classes going in the storyline, and the regional accents that seem to be heard on TV less and less these days.

Home Fires had very good viewing figures, strong writing, a high level of historical veracity, and a thoroughly excellent cast of actors who largely weren't 'names'. I have no idea why ITV would wish to cancel it.

If you want to know more about why I think it deserves to come back, you can read my review, below.

If, like me, you grew to loathe Downton Abbey, you may be suspicious of Sunday-night vintage-costumed TV. Because of this I was initially cautious of Home Fires, ITV's world-war-two set series about a group of women in the Women's Institute in the fictional village of Great Paxford, in Cheshire. Oh how wrong I was! Home Fires is literally the best thing ITV have made in ages.

If there's one thing I don't like in a historical series like Downton, it's setting up a 'good old days' where everyone knew their place. Because the twentieth century wasn't like that, not even the Edwardian era. Home Fires sidesteps this magnificently, by presenting a world that is full of change, bringing opportunity and threat in equal measure.

Home Fires is based on Jambusters, a popular book by Julie Summers about the WI in WW2, so it has solid academic research to back it up, and its reliance on frequently-ignored details is one of the things that makes it so great. Too often, films and TV about great historical events concentrate on the men involved, and on bloody and decisive battles. Film directors parade their claims to 'realism' by making movies as bloody and explosive as possible. But many important things about history are neither bloody nor explosive, and not all the explosions are of the bloody kind either - some are social, economic, scientific and yes, sexual.

During World war Two, ordinary people understood that success or failure relied on many factors - organisation, morale, production of war material, scientific and social advantage. If you watch films made at the time, this is abundantly clear: but in the macho post-war film world all these things were swept away in favour of guns, and men, and guns and men and guns. Home Fires puts all this interesting social, economic and scientific history back in its rightful place. In doing so, I feel that it's rightfully and slightly subversive.

To start with, it unapologetically focuses on the women, without ever making the men irrelevant. The details of these women's lives are allowed to matter, as are the relationships between them, as much as with the men in their lives. Sometimes, series focusing on women's lives are twee, sometimes they are comedic, sometimes they are slushy and romantic. Sometimes they are just awful and implausible, like the terrible series about nurses in WW1. Home Fires doesn't do any of these things: it lets its characters breathe, and treats their joys and sorrows as worthy of respect.

One of the things I enjoy most is that with the exception of one or two characters, there is a good deal of moral ambiguity going on. Posh Mrs Cameron is both a good egg at heart and an insufferable snob; Mrs Scottlock, the accountant, is both trying to protect her friends and inform to the police, and Stan the farmer is both a bit of a hero and also a bit of a nutjob. The vicar's wife is honorably not having an affair while her husband is a POW, but you know she's absolutely dying to, while closet lesbian Teresa may invite sympathy but is also giving the run-around to an entirely honourable RAF officer who frankly deserves better.

Then there's the men, who are neither better or worse. Well, except in the case of horrible Bob. I'm hoping horrible Bob will get his face melted by an incendiary bomb, because I can't think of anything else bad enough. I hate horrible Bob with a vengence, not only because he abuses his wife, but also because he is a writer. We have never been treated to horrible Bob's horrible prose, but I just know that it is vile egotistical sub-Hemingway trash in which the main character is Bob, portrayed as a hero. Look, I might be getting over-involved here, ok.

Anyway, apart from Bob, there's lovely Czech army officer Captain Marek Novotny. Now, I do have a complaint about Novotny: why is he played by a Danish guy? Are there not any actors in the Czech republic? Are they all permenantly engaged in productions of Kafka? Cannot one small central European state muster one leading man appropriate for an unhappily-married middle-aged lady to lust after? Anyway, ever in the service of journalistic integrity, I emailed the Czech Embassy to ask for their response, and they pointed out that since Maigret was currently being played by Mr Bean, they weren't that upset. (I'm taking that to mean they are upset, a little, but are taking it on the chin, in a manly sort of fashion.)

Anyway I think Marek is maybe too good to be true, and may turn out to be a German spy. If he isn't, I'm giving him two weeks before he's arrested for being one.

Anyway, I'm off to watch the next episode. Come friendly bombs, and fall on Bob!

PS If ITV don't commission another series of this, I'm going round with a pitchfork. A vintage, era-appropriate one, obviously.