The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

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Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!

 
 
 

Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller) 2011

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This film is about baseball. I like baseball. I enjoyed this film.
It is based on a true story, about Billy Beane, the man who supposedly took the romance out of baseball by putting his faith in computer generated statistics. However, this is a romantic film and he is a true romantic (just don’t expect any love scenes!).
It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards; this implies to me that it has wider appeal than just baseball fans.
It is an intelligent movie with a great script. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill were both nominated for Oscars and it also has Philip Seymour Hoffman in the cast, so could be worth a watch for the acting alone.