Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A brilliant and repulsive "Salome"

The Headlong Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” is scary stuff. Should an unwitting fan of the mainstream Wildean oeuvre venture accidently to the theatre expecting the usual wit and epigram, froth and bubbles they will be extremely disappointed. This is a repulsive play – and a very good one. Repulsive because it is unrelentingly pessimistic about the human condition - in the one Act all of the Seven Deadly Sins are on display and most of the Ten Commandments are broken by a bunch of characters as vile and abhorrent as it is possible to imagine. In Headlong’s new presentation the degradation is complete by a literal smearing of faces and bodies with filth - and by behaviour which is certainly not for the squeamish theatre-goer. It is a good play, and this is a fine production, because it has the courage to reveal mankind’s darkest side utterly uncluttered by any saving grace at all. There is every abuse you could imagine – of power, of position, of physical strength, of sexuality, of trust…you name it it is there.

Central to the success of this production is Zawe Ashton’s astonishing performance in the title role. She is convincing because her beauty shines through her self-indulgence and her malignancy. Only a woman as alluring could possibly secure what she wants from the all-powerful Herod. In Ashton’s hands Salome is a woman used always to getting her own way – before she appears the cast in thrall to her and as she appears she is from that moment central to the story and she commands the stage. The dance was truly erotic and her hubristic insistence on her reward - the head of Iokanaan – as believable as it was malignant.

Quite what Oscar Wilde was trying to tell us in Salome I’m not sure. It is so depressing a story and in some ways a strange one for him to have written just as his career as a playwright was taking off with Lady Windermere’s Fan. Could it be that in his own personality he saw the light and the dark is sharp relief – the urbane, witty and talented socialite on the one hand and the seeker of satisfactions in the darker corners on the other. Does Salome remind us that these dark corners, both real and in our souls, are ever present? Who knows?

So go and see Salome if you can – it is compulsively watchable if not a joyous evening. And you will perhaps rush to the shower when you get home to rinse the grime away – as no doubt that cast has to do every night!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vicky Christina Barcelona - the compromise of choice

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a hugely entertaining and pleasingly unpretentious film. Woody Allen has always directed female actors particularly well and he gets stunning performances from Rebecca Hall (Vicky), Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Penelope Cruz (Maria Elena). The fourth member of the ménage à quatre, Javier Bardem as the Catalan artist Juan Antonio, is also very good indeed, as is the supporting cast.

The film could have been pretentious and offensive twaddle in less assured hands than Allen's. Two beautiful young American women on holiday in Spain falling for the same mature Latin lover doesn't sound very original or engaging. But the contrast between the two young women is nicely drawn and rings true and the location shooting and the naturalistic dialogue adds to the authenticity of the story. The shock to the plot when Penelope's Cruz's Maria Elena storms in is at once both hilarious and frightening - but also convincing.

Allen has an amusing gentle dig at self-satisfied middle-class America with his depiction of the dull as ditchwater Doug - Vicky's fiancé (Chris Messina). I knew that I was going to hate him when I heard him call Vicky "Babe" - and I wasn't disappointed. As the movie unfolds the key question is whether Vicky will choose dull old Doug or exciting firebrand Juan Antonio as her partner. The former choice would almost certainly be for life - the latter probably not!

When Woody Allen is at his best - and this film is very close to being in that category - it is satisfying and cerebral entertainment. The characters are not from a comic book but from real life and whilst a degree of poetic licence in the plot is necessary to move the story along it is never incredible. And as audience members we will empathise with the characters in a way that is much less possible in a more traditional Hollywood movie. We care about what happens to Vicky and Cristina because we like them and understand their dilemmas. They are serious and bright and attractive and real.

Is there a deeper meaning to Vicky Cristina Barcelona than, just, the romance and the charm? Is it in any way a "message" movie? I think that to some degree it is - and that the message is to consider living every day with the thought somewhere in your mind that it might be your last - Juan Antonio says as much at one point. And, of course, it is also about the luxury of choice. To choose between alternative lifestyles, alternative partners, alternative compromises. Each choice is a compromise to some degree because perfection is not just elusive it is impossible - the question is how far short of the ideal will you have to settle for?