Thursday, February 13, 2020

Two dramatic productions

Remember when I used to write theatre reviews here? Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to get down to see the UCL Frogs or KCL's Dionysus in the Underworld, but I did see a couple of things in January.

I felt a bit of an interloper at Fragments of Divine Ecstasy - almost everyone else in the audience was a student. I really only went along because my friend and colleague Lottie Parkyn was interviewing another friend, David Bullen, at the end of the event (you can see some snippets from the interview on the King's Greek Play Twitter account). But I was very glad I went.

I've had variable experiences with student productions - some have been quite poor. But when they get it right, they can be really on fire. Through a series of vignettes, some adapted from ancient or modern sources, some written by the cast, the production examined aspects of Dionysus. They succeeded in presenting the god in all his forms - intoxicated, ambiguous, sexy, dangerous. A good evening, and I hope those involved go on to do more in this vein.

The other thing I saw was George Eugeniou's production of Oedipus the King at Theatro Technis in Camden. I've seen quite a few productions of Greek drama there, and this was one of the best. Small in scale, it punches well above its weight in emotional terms. The audience are involved from the start as part of the Chorus - when the Chorus is addressed, people turn to the audience. Leigh Hughes' Oedipus conveys all the unnecessary arrogance of the character, and the production is clearly not sympathetic towards him. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast. At the end, the production remembers, as not every one does, that the fall of Oedipus means the lifting of the curse from Thebes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

2020 books #1-2

A couple of books reread in preparation for teaching Roman Britain.

Peter Salway, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2015

Does what it says on the tin - basically condenses Salway's History of Roman down to just over a hundred pages. There are aspects of Salway's approach that don't appeal - he's quite positivist in the way he approaches the evidence, and post-colonial readings of Britain as a province are clearly not for him. But I don't know of any other work that can give students an overview in an afternoon.

Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain: Life at the edge of empire, London: British Museum Press, 2010

A nice introduction to the province. This is particularly good at using objects from the British Museum's collection to illustrate various points about the ways people lived.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

2020 Movies #2: Boadicea

Boadicea. UK; dir. Sinclair Hill; scr. Anthony Asquith and Sinclair Hill; starring Phyllis Neilson-Terry, Lillian Hall-Davis and Clifford McLaglen; British Instructional Films; 1927

This is, at the moment, the earliest screen depiction of Roman Britain of which I am aware. It very much presents itself as 'authentic' - an opening caption proclaims that '[M]any incidents in this story were reconstructed in the neighbourhood where they actually occurred.' But this is misleading. Many incidents presented in this short movie have been invented for dramatic purposes, and sometimes flatly contradict the sources - so, for instance, Colchester is depicted with walls and gates, which Tacitus explicitly says it did not have.

It's still interesting (though clearly done on a shoestring budget). Phyllis Neilson-Terry, niece of the famous Ellen Terry, plays a more matronly Boadicea than some later portrayals. As is often the case with Boadicea/Boudicca narratives, the Druids are closely associated with the Queen. And clearly the viewer is meant to sympathise with the defeated Queen of the Iceni, even at the time when the identification of the British empire with the Roman was a major cultural theme. But because this is an 'educational' movie, the rapes of Boadicea's daughters are very much underplayed, to the point where no rape actually takes place - instead a daughter is roughly manhandled, causing Boadicea to strike the Roman. The Queen's flogging then follows.

Monday, February 10, 2020

2020 Movies #1: 1917

1917. UK; dir. Sam Mendes; scr. Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns; starring George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman; DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment; 2019

Unsurprisingly, 1917 has been compared with all the great First World War movies of the past - All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, etc. But the movie it reminded me of most is the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? It has the same sense of a picaresque, episodic journey through the landscape, with encounters that can border on the surreal and transitions that can sometimes seem dreamlike.

There's a lot in 1917 that's very good indeed. There are two strong performances at its heart from Mackay and Chapman, even if individual episodes are sometimes over-burdened with celebrity cameos - look, it's Andrew Scott! And there's Mark Strong! Can Benedict Cumberbatch be far behind? (Spoiler: he doesn't turn up until quite near the end.)

The screenplay is clever, and doesn't play out the way you anticipate. People you expect to die live, and people you expect to live, at least until much later in the movie, die. Most unexpected, perhaps, is the treatment of the British officers. They are all incredibly reasonable - not a General Melchett or even a Captain Darling among them. Of course, it's good that there's a corrective to the typical Blackadder presentation (Richard Holmes' The Western Front is useful on this topic), but the lack of any venal glory-hunters at all makes 1917 feel a bit like Saving Private Ryan; this is a movie that pays lip-service to the idea that military commanders don't necessarily know what they're doing, but doesn't really tell that story.

It is, of course, a bravura technical achievement. The various long-shots are put together seamlessly to give the impression that this is one take, and it thoroughly deserves the Oscar for Cinematography (and it's a travesty that it wasn't even nominated for Best Editing). I am not in the least surprised that it won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Picture, as it is the sort of technically impressive movie that seems to be saying something profound that appeals to those who vote in such awards.

But there's the nub of it. What actually is 1917 saying? What's it about? One might say that it's about comradeship, about taking on a task that you don't really believe in because it's important to someone else. Or it might be about the horrors of war. The trouble for the latter is that the dreamlike nature of parts of the movie distance the viewer from full engagement. Yes, there are dead bodies of men who have been buried by shellfire, or French civilians who have ended up in the river. But these scenes don't feel as affecting as they should. And the transitions from one episode to another, whilst clearly delineated, are sometimes done in such a way as to override logic (Mark Strong's company, for instance, appear out of nowhere, and disappear back into nowhere). A cynic might suggest that the prime motivating factor in making this movie was that Mendes enjoyed shooting the opening sequence of Spectre (the Mendes Bond movie that isn't mentioned in the publicity), and wanted to see if he could do that at full movie length.

In the end, beneath the extremely impressive surface gloss, 1917 feels a little bit hollow.