Saturday, November 26, 2016

UCL and King's Classical Plays, 2016

February, as ever, saw the UCL Classics Play and the King's Greek Play. I actually haven't written about these for five years, partly because I haven't always got around to going, partly because I haven't found the time to write them up properly. This has ill-served some productions, such as UCL's splendid 2013 version of Trojan Women, which featured Lucy Chappell giving the best performance in the role of Andromache I've seen since Vanessa Redgrave in Michael Cacoyannis' movie version (Chappell is now, unsurprisingly, a professional actress, who appeared in The Theory of Everything). On the other hand, there were times in the past when I've been quite scathing, so perhaps some productions are glad of my silence.

But that is past - how about this year?

UCL bravely chose to break away from the usual fare of Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus (it's been sixteen years since they last tackled Sophocles), and instead presented Menander's Dyskolos (The Misanthrope), about the only one of that playwright's texts in a good enough condition to stage. (Though there are lacunae, and rightly, this production made jokes about them.) The production had been hit by a number of problems, largely arising out of the prolonged closure of the Bloomsbury Theatre, which resulted in the production having to be restricted to just two performances.

But I can report that they did a pretty good job. A lot of this is down to a rather fine comic performance by Dominic Hauschild in the titular role of Knemon, the miserable misanthropic father. The production also innovated by casting women in a lot of the roles, such as the cook, and various other servants (i.e. slaves). It wasn't the best UCL production ever, but it was okay, and I'm prepared to take that for an innovative choice of text.

King's chose a less unusual play, Euripides' Alkestis. Edith Hall has some interesting things to say about the play, and how Admetus is rather unpleasant because of the speed with which he abandons his promise to dead wife not to marry again, as he is ignorant of the fact that his new wife is his old wife rescued from Death. In Admetus' defence, he is bullied into doing this by Heracles. Moreover, to a fifth century audience, this moment represents the restoration of normality, as a widower would be expected to remarry soon.

As for the production - well, my heart did sink a bit when I read two separate synopses in the programme book, one placing the play in ancient Pherae, and the other in 1957 London. But in the end, this blending of ancient and modern was not particularly intrusive, as the production was tied to Euripides' original text. In the end it just looked like a fairly standard modern dress production, with some nice ideas. For instance, Apollo was played by a woman, and in the version I saw, when Admetus' bride was brought back, it is in fact Apollo. Best of these was perhaps how the Chorus was handled. Instead of having them chant the lines, as would normally be the case, instead the Chorus danced, while Professor Michael Silk read the lines over the PA. It was an innovative approach. I'm not entirely sure it worked, and it did make the play seem very episodic as the stage went to black at the beginning and end of each choral scene. But King's deserves praise for trying. There was also some interesting use of music.

The performances ran the usual gamut from confident projection (Oliver de Montfalcon is pretty good as Admetus) to quiet monotone. And there was the usual problem with King's productions where the surtitles got out of sync with what was being said on stage, at one point quite badly.

I would say that while neither production massively impressed me this year, neither was really bad. And that's an okay result.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hail Caesar! (USA/UK, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)

There's a truism about movies that attempt to recreate the past that is well-known to scholars of ancient reception - that no matter how hard they try to be 'accurate', these movies always give away the time in which they were actually made. The art deco Egypt of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra is self-evidently a product of the 1930s, whilst Joseph L. Mankiewicz's movie of the same title can only date to the 1960s. So it is, if in a different manner, with Joel and Ethan Coen's attempt to recreate the Hollywood of 1951. It opens with what is supposedly footage from a 1951 Biblical/Roman epic, the eponymous Hail, Caesar!, subtitled in best Ben-Hur fashion, 'A Tale of the Christ'. But it just doesn't look quite right. These are not Mervyn LeRoy or William Wyler shots from the 1950s - they are Coen Brothers/Roger Deakin shots from 2016, and they just betray themselves, for all that they've got some things, such as the colour, exactly right.

Hail, Caesar! is an enjoyable movie - fun, and funny. It's very much a collection of episodes rather than a coherent story, but the best of the episodes are well worth it. Best of all is Channing Tatum's dance number - Tatum can't quite carry off the Gene Kelly thing of being a song-and-dance man whilst exuding heteronormative masculinity, but he does his best. There's also a great scene where Hail, Caesar!, the movie within the movie. is checked for any potential offensive content with four religious leaders who can't agree.

This is a movie very much of cameos. No-one apart from Josh Brolin as central fixer Eddie Mannix or George Clooney's idiot actor Baird Whitlock are on screen for very long. Scarlett Johannsen as out-of-control starlet DeeAnna Moran has a particularly small role considering how much she's in the movie's publicity - she only has two short scenes. The same is true of Ralph Fiennes as director Laurence Laurentz, finally finding his comedy persona, and Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Blink, and you will miss Frances McDormand as editor C.C. Calhoun, Dolph Lundgren as a Russian submarine commander, Christopher Lambert as a Scandinavian director, and a heavily made-up John Bluthal as real-life Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Surprisingly for a Coen Brothers movie, there appears to be very little subtext here. This is not as weighty a movie as No Country For Old Men or Fargo, nor does it even have the substance of relatively frothy movies such as Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou? But it's still worth seeing. It also makes an interesting pair with this year's Trumbo, since where Trumbo lionizes the Communist-leaning screenwriters of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! gives them a good kicking. 

The Egyptian (USA, Michael Curtiz, 1954)

I saw this much earlier in the year through the graces of the Petrie Museum Film Club, with an introduction by the estimable John J. Johnston. It's a movie that deals with antiquity, rather than specifically Classical antiquity, though there is a very brief excursion to Minoan Crete. (Or is it Mycenaean Greece? It's not quite clear.)

The Egyptian, based on a 1945 novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, is something of an overlooked oddity. Director Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, evidently did not value The Egyptian highly, to the point of refusing to co-operate with a retrospective at the British Film Institute unless this movie was removed from the programme. A whole range of actors rejected roles in the movie. The lead role was at one point offered to Marlon Brando, who had by this point demonstrated that he could do antiquity through his performance in Joseph Mackiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), but he turned it down. Other people supposedly in the line for major roles were Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Dirk Bogarde, and more. In the event, the leads are played by the largely unknown Edward Purdom as Sinuhe, the eponymous Egyptian, with Michael Wilding as the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and Victor Mature, with plenty of experience in epics, as Horemheb, Sinuhe's friend and the man who will overthrow the Pharaoh. Peter Ustinov plays the slave Kaptah, faithful companion to Sinhue, and female support comes from Jean Simmons as love interest Merit, Gene Tierney as Akhenaton's sister Beketaten, and Bella Darvi as the courtesan Nefer.

Nobody, to be honest, is terribly good here. Ustinov looks unhappy. Tierney, essentially playing a version of the manipulative femme fatale that she had made her trademark, is out of place. Only Mature and Simmons look like they are actually in roles that they can understand, and Simmons is not in the movie very much. Darvi, who got the role ahead of Marilyn Monroe because she was sleeping with the producer, is mostly there to titillate through near-translucent dresses. Purdom shows that he learnt his craft at the hands of Laurence Olivier by essentially doing an Olivier impersonation throughout. And there's a bizarre cameo by John Carradine as a grave robber. It's cruel, but not entirely unfair, to say that the best performance is actually given by a donkey halfway through the movie.

Part of the problem seems to be that the actors' performances don't really match other aspects of the movie. It's shot on an epic scale (including some scenes that look like they've been filmed in John Ford's beloved Monument Valley). But the performances seem on a much smaller scale, as if they are in a filmed play such as Caesar and Cleopatra.

If the movie is of interest, it is for two points. The first is the semi-tragic ending - Sinuhe dies having lost the love of his life in a religious massacre, in exile and separated from his son. The movie sets up this end right at the beginning, and to its credit, doesn't try to cheat the viewer.

The other interesting aspect is the way in which it demonstrates that almost all epics of the 1950s are essentially Biblical epics, even when they can't possibly be. So epics such as The Rope and Ben-Hur had the life of Christ at their core, or at least not far from the centre, Quo Vadis dealt with the early Christian Church, and movies such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba explored the Old Testament. (Indeed, it might be argued that when ancient epics distanced themselves from the Bible and Christianity, with Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire, they were met with much less successful box office returns.)

It's now generally considered that there's nothing obviously Judaeo-Christian about the events of the reign of Akhenaten. However, in the nineteenth century, the religion of the Aten was seen as a monotheistic precursor of Christianity. The movie chooses to hammer through that connection. The worshippers of the Sun are presented as proto-Christians, dressed in white, desiring only peace, and willing to die for their beliefs. Akhenaten himself becomes, like Spartacus in Kubrick's movie six years later, a pseudo-Christ, and the idea that all these events merely foreshadow the life of Jesus is made explicit in the final caption. Towards the end of the movie Sinuhe delivers a defiant speech to Horemheb, now Pharaoh, one that is very similar to the speech delivered by Richard Burton's Marcellus Gallio to the emperor Caligula in The Robe.

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the movie reflects the essential racism of Hollywood in the 1950s. All of the characters who get to speak are white. There are black people in this movie, but they are all, without exception, slaves or servants of some description.

None of this makes The Egyptian a particularly good movie, though it does make it an interesting one.