National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses

liaisons

I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!


Rating: 8 letters.

movie: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

breakfastFinally got around to the movie! This 1961 adaptation of the Truman Capote novel was an enjoyable visual and emotional experience – not quite the same feat the novel achieved, but what else is new? Perhaps the main point – not that you didn’t know it – is that Audrey Hepburn is a doll. Movies this old generally feel slow-paced to today’s audiences, and while this was true here, the appealing visuals – Audrey, as well as historic New York – and intrigue of the story were plenty engaging for me. Husband went to bed before it was over, though. I wonder if it would have been more interesting if he had also read the book first.

audrey

It should not be surprising that the gender roles of the time were hard to watch sometimes, but again, what’s new. There were a few twists from the story Capote wrote (that’s why they call it an ‘adaptation’), but I felt that the feeling was faithful. Holly Golightly is an airhead, a dingbat, obnoxiously needy; but on another level, surprisingly self-aware and conniving, even wise. This is what I interpret O.J. Berman means when he calls her a “real phony.” The emotional effect of this character – dingy, ditzy, defiant, vulnerable, both an object and the vehicle of her own existence, both stupid and clever – is the strongest element of the film, despite certain weaknesses. For example, Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is obviously, cringingly racist to today’s eyes. It can be hard to reconcile these things. But there it is; I watched the movie anyway.

This is a historic and iconic adaptation of a fine novella, and well worth viewing.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

movie: Les Misérables

You know the title, of course. It began as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, with the original (French) version coming in somewhere near 2,000 pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the second-longest-running musical in the world), and I am now reviewing the 2012 movie, which I saw at home with Husband and Pops, courtesy of our local library.

I was pretty unfamiliar with the story: I read a quick synopsis online just before viewing. It wasn’t hard to follow, though. I’ll make it extra quick for you, since there are plenty of plot summaries out there and you may already know it, anyway. In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is finally released from a 19-year forced-labor sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister, nephew and self. He is, unsurprisingly, resentful. He violates parole and disappears, reappearing to us some years later as a good man, mayor and factory owner who cares about the people he holds power over. Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean as a prisoner, continues to seek him out, hoping to hold him responsible for the crime of skipping parole. Valjean’s continued attempts to do good do him no good. He adopts the orphaned daughter of a local citizen, and goes on the run with his newly formed family. The evil innkeeper & wife who had been fostering the girl repeatedly offer comic relief from an otherwise tragic and horrifying plot. The story’s central conflict crescendos with the Paris Uprising of 1832.

This movie is packed with stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend (one of the ditzes from Mean Girls), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Helena Bonham Carter, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). Samantha Barks plays a beautiful Éponine. The imagery is gorgeous; all the costuming, scenery, etc., and of course all those beautiful people. I found the story evocative. And the singing! Who knew Crowe, Jackman, Hathaway, et al had such voices on them? The music was rousing and emotive: it’s not hard to see why the Broadway show did so well.

Am I inspired to read ~1500 pages of English-translated Hugo? No, not just yet. But I will gladly see a stage production of this musical story. It was a great and involving time.


Rating: 8 loaves of bread.

Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling

Classic Greek myths starring Herakles, Theseus and more are reborn in vivid, funny, fresh forms.

arcadian

From his home in a hillside Peloponnesian village, John Spurling (The Ten Thousand Things) charmingly retells some of Western literature’s best-known stories. He balances careful attention to the originals with his own humorous voice, honoring well-loved classics with a fresh eye.

Each section focuses on a hero: Perseus, Herakles, Apollo, Theseus and the ill-fated Agamemnon. Chapters begin and end with Spurling’s own Arcadian vista, on the Gulf of Argos, which inspires his imagination. Through these lenses, Arcadian Nights (re)familiarizes readers with the curse on the House of Atreus, the Twelve Labors and the complexly intertwining genealogies of mortals and immortals in a storied era somewhere between history and myth. Spurling notes commonalities with other cultures’ and religions’ fables, and infuses the established legends with added detail: imagined dialogue lends well-known characters extra personality, and Herakles gets a perfectly apt new piece of apparel. The occasional modernization enlivens the tales, as when the newly dead line up to cross the River Styx into Hades–it “was a little like going through security in an airport today”–but this is no clumsy 21st-century resetting of Aeschylus. Rather, Spurling’s gentle, clever wit complements the originals’ themes of heroism and romance, and their reminders of the importance of hospitality, humility and memory.

Spurling’s passion and enthusiasm and the best of Greek myth shine through this new version, equally appropriate to introduce new readers or reinvigorate the appetite of those who already honor such names as Zeus, Achilles, Athena, Poseidon and more.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 golden apples.

War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue

This epic retelling in verse of Homer’s Iliad is worthy of the classic.

war music

Upon his death, poet Christopher Logue left unfinished a full-length reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. His fellow poet and friend Christopher Reid applies a careful editorial hand to the papers Logue left behind to release War Music, which includes both previously published works and new material.

The result is as epic and evocative, as emotional and resounding as the original, yet also surprisingly novel. Logue employs memorable images, as when the two armies meet “like a forest making its way through a forest.” He is unafraid of wild anachronisms: “As many arrows on [Hector’s] posy shield/ As microphones on politicians’ stands”; “Blood like a car-wash.” But this is no attempt to modernize; the rage of Achilles, Helen’s beauty, capricious gods and customs of battle remain set in Homer’s Greece. Rather, it is an enrichment of a well-known and loved story, in swelling verse and with the same clever eye for tragedy and sly humor of its model.

Reid finds Logue’s “capacity for the grand conception dashingly and convincingly executed,” as near “pure Logue” as possible. His preface and comments in the appendix (where the manuscripts were roughest) offer insight for readers unfamiliar with Logue, who references Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, as well as Homer. Expertise with the original is unnecessary to enjoy this version; although such knowledge will increase the impact, the grandeur of War Music is gripping and suspenseful regardless of the reader’s background. No fan of Homer will want to miss Logue’s contribution.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 topaz saucers heaped with nectarine jelly.

poetry: Dickinson, Frost, Coleridge and more

The papers have been piling up on my desk. Once upon a time, while working as a librarian, I had a volunteer who helped me out one full day per week, who was herself a retired librarian. I was at the start of my career. She said once that you can always tell a busy and productive librarian by all the piles on her desk. (My mother points out that this is not necessarily a sign of productivity, but I like Anne’s thought better.) Well, I have piles. Hopefully this wisdom applies to writers, too.

I often pick up tips or follow links to short pieces of writing. For whatever reason, I am much more eager to pick up a whole book than I am to read an essay or short article; must be a mental block. When I come across short things that need reading, I often print them out and stack them up. After carrying this stack of papers cross-country on at least two trips now, I have finally gotten around to some reading. Today’s theme is poetry. And you may know that I am a perfect amateur when it comes to reading poetry, so these are the layperson’s interpretations.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (text of 1834), by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: this was by far the longest poem of the stack, but it was a pure pleasure. I can remember my mother reciting the lines, “water water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink… nor any drop to drink” from way back, but I’d never read the whole thing. I love the rhythm, the rhyme, and the sound: I found myself mouthing the words, repeating lines and stanzas, tapping out the beat; the pure language and music of it is astounding art. I enjoyed some of the usages that are no longer modern, and have some questions for Mom (who is, among other things, a linguist) about historic pronunciation. Beyond all of these features, there is a story, that I found charming as well – particularly the concept, that this man must tell his story, that it is something like a bodily need. Naturally, for those of us that love stories, that is appealing. As I often feel when I encounter poetry, I wish I had an expert to help me delve into its depths; but I found The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to be more accessible than most. It has musicality and storytelling, and was easy to follow. Clear win all around. I can’t wait to read it aloud. Will Husband tolerate it?

Next, two Robert Frost poems: “The Oven Bird” and “Mending Wall.” I am sure I pulled these two titles from something I read recently, but I didn’t make note of the reference; why?? I’m afraid Frost lost me. For one thing, I kept looking for rhythm and rhyme, which Coleridge did so beautifully, and what I found here was no rhyme, and any rhythm was scarcely or not at all discernable to my untrained mind. The subjects were a little obscure to me as well. Ah me. I need the seminar course.

And then a batch of poems I pulled from someplace, some months ago, with the bizarre idea that I wanted to try memorizing poetry. (This may go nowhere.) They are therefore, mostly, short. I’m afraid I have lost my original source for the list. Nevertheless, here they are.

Risk,” by Anaïs Nin: eight lines, clever, thoughtful and wise, unrhyming but perfectly clear to me: lovely.

Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost: nice, short, clear Frost for a change. Like many in my generation, perhaps, I first met this poem in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. (I haven’t seen the movie; does Ponyboy recite the poem like in the book?) I seem to still have it memorized from that childhood reading. It made an impression; and it rhymes. Maybe I’m simpleminded, but it’s easier when it rhymes. I like that it involves nature as well as a plainly stated concept about Life.

The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop: I read this aloud to Husband and he nitpicked the details of the story, because he is a fisherman and perfectly literal-minded. I find it a lovely piece of description and imagery, but I share his concern that she let the fish go without removing those other nasty hooks. No rhyme, but I found it a perfectly readable, comprehensible piece of carefully composed writing.

Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: I recognized the language, the lilt and sound immediately, and felt glad. The story here is less clear to me, but I like the sounds. This is where I definitely need an expert to walk me through.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas: unlike Coleridge, whose beat varies throughout, this one has a single, strident, regular rhythm. It is a strong poem, and with strong subject matter. I again wanted illumination of the finer points, but have no trouble understanding on some level what he is getting at, and the tone and pace of it is powerfully captivating. I would certainly be glad to have this one handy in my head to recite at will.

Hope,” by Emily Dickinson: it’s been a long time since I’ve read Dickinson (high school English with Mrs. Smith; I still own a big fat volume of it), but I suspect not all of her words are so clear as these, and I feel sure not all are this hopeful. I love love love the image, and every line of this short, charming poem is as good as every other.

Richard Cory,” by Edward Arlington Robinson: am I the only one who thought of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby? Sort of as a counterpoint. Powerful images, a strong and regular beat (although not so drumlike and insistent as Thomas), and a clear and striking finish. Not my favorite here – perhaps because its ending is so disturbing, as it is meant to be – but very good.

No Man is an Island,” by John Donne: I have always been captivated by this poem, because its concept is so big and calls for contemplation. There is the added attraction of its famous penultimate line, which as we know as been recycled as the title of one of the finest novels I know. Free verse again, but somehow still with a rhythm, a compelling set of sounds that propel it to its finish.

The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost: I am aware of some question as to Frost’s point in this one, and again wish I had a friend to discuss. Pleasant images, certainly, that I would sit comfortably with for an afternoon. Clearer than those Frosts, above. But somehow not my favorite.

This has been an enjoyable and thought-provoking exercise; I should do it more often. As to memorization, my busy schedule says HA!, but I would love to learn a few of these by heart: “No Man Is an Island”; “Hope”; “Do Not Go Gentle”; “Risk.” And for that matter, I would love to be able to recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by heart – but it is fifteen and a half pages long; I may as well aspire to learn the Odyssey (which would be great). I would happily settle for paraphrasing, and a few individual lines here and there. My brain is filling: for years and years I knew the title, author and synopsis of every book I’d ever heard. And then in the last two years or so, I stopped being able to add new ones, except for the very most outstanding of the books I continued to discover; and the less impressive of those from years back began to fade away. Ah, me. Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

NBC’s The Wiz Live!

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?

wiz

First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.


Rating: 7 winged warriors.
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