I have bequeathed both my eyeballs to a redhead named Tabitha. Don’t blame me: it’s the fault of The Swell Mob, ninety minutes of supernatural skullduggery above and below ground in the COLAB factory, Borough. Such is the pull of this immersive piece, set in an 1840s hellmouth with an aesthetic resting heavily on bowler hats, moustachios, and dead girls with terrible backstories that there now exists a document entitling Tabby Skinner (taxidermist; bookmaker; menacing pair of scissors) to both my eyeballs in the event of my death. This was in exchange for a fairly savage tarot reading.
If you like your fun frenetic, frightening, and with a strong flavour of Undead Bill Sykes, this is the show for you. You start off in a pub on surface-level, peopled by welcoming/vicious patrons and madmen, all eager to prise from you the five pound coins with which you’re issued on arrival. Whether you choose cards, bareknuckle boxing (observation only), or weaving into dark corners to open drawers and examine mirrors, what follows unites and divides the audience as you try to solve the mystery of the Swell Mob and their dastardly (and diminutive) Master. The pub setting initially feels quite Punchdrunk, reminiscent of the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More – however, your ticket includes two free drinks, making this the polar if not the global opposite of Punchdrunk and all their works. I advise you to get on with drinking those quite quickly, in order to disinhibit you during what follows.
There are different types of immersive theatregoer. I’m an explorer – I want the weird dark corners, secret passages and demonic contracts to be found inside The Swell Mob’s unlocked drawers, subterranean caves, and behind-the-bar lairs. Give me your bones, your suspended doll-limbs, and let me get my grubby hands on them. The Swell Mob does not disappoint. Despite the relatively small space, there’s ample opportunity to wander, and superb details that’ll leave you longing to return. The trip down to the cellar passes the building’s pigeonholes with plastic-wrapped post visible in the slots. Audience noises from COLAB’s other shows are intermittently audible. Unexpectedly, this really works – the fact that these underworld darklings unconcernedly pass circuitry and plumbing almost two centuries their juniors only reinforces the idea that the bloodshot, sweaty Swell Mob are the supernatural cellarage of redeveloped Bermondsey. Without giving too much away, the plot progresses quickly. On press night, the audience warmed up hugely in the last 30 minutes, as gin entered bloodstream and little teams of explorers tried to solve the mystery of the Master. Occasionally, you feel the pressure of time: I worry I derailed matters by being distracted by Tabitha and tarot moments after I was told to hand an important plot-point to the woman with white feather in her hair. Mid-way through the one-card character assassination, I looked up to find the woman with white feather standing beside me: had the poor girl been forced to seek me out, and was she now not waving so much as drowning?
Probably not. The cast are made of sterner stuff. It’s not clear how deep the specific 1840s connection runs (I withheld comments about Jane Eyre and the possibility of European revolution), but the cast’s commitment is total. There are some electrifying performances; online details of the casting are deliberately sketchy, to preclude spoilers, but Louisa (Jordan Cooper), Elizabeth (Jordan Chandler) and Tabitha (Rosy Pendlebury) are outstanding. This is a vital show that proves that stories can be immersive and compelling without a vast budget. There are moments when you start to think and feel like a character in the story, genuinely scared and exhilarated. I’ll be returning on my own time and dime, and there’s no greater tribute. Whatever your inhibitions or misgivings – and this is not a show for the passive observer – The Swell Mob’s spell lingers. Returning to the surface, the streets outside seemed colder as I made my way to Borough Tube. Visible from the station is the spire of St George the Martyr: the church against which the Marshalsea prison once stood, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned, along with all the other victims and villains of the real Victorian era. When the church crypt became too crowded, the Victorians extracted nearly 1500 crumbling coffins and sent them off to Brookwood Cemetery, created by the London Necropolis Company to house the overcrowded, graveyard-bursting dead. Against that backdrop, The Swell Mob’s story seems only too plausible – and the London evening stayed just that little bit murkier.
THE SWELL MOB, Flabbergast Theatre, *****, COLAB Factory, London. 4 May–25 August, Thursday–Sunday, tickets £26. Book online or via 0333 666 33 66 (+£1.75 booking fee).
I am very over-excited to have my first Literary Review byline this month, reviewing two brilliant books: Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare (calmly revolutionary take on 20 of the plays) and Andrew McConnell Stott’s What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare (Blackadder Goes Stratford; blissful).
You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare (Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius? (W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).
Dunkirk is 106 minutes long and consists of approx. 103 minutes of drowning, in such profusion and at so many camera angles that it makes Titanic look like Lawrence of Arabia. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, as head civilian and military heroes respectively, leave some impressive pauses, through which Spitfires could be and indeed are flown. Branagh’s general is Henry V in middle age, eyes set to Agincourt, unsubtlety unenhanced by Nolan’s Churchill-by-numbers script. At one point it looks like a plane might land on Branagh’s head, but it doesn’t. I might have felt more charitable if I hadn’t just seen his trailer for Poirot.
As Brown-Haired Boy Soldier No. 3, Harry Styles is far more competent than I’d been led to expect: truly, he is the Lillie Langtry of our time. The further cast includes one black soldier, shoved to the front of a single crowd scene as in the brochures of a left-wing private school, before disappearing forever (as in the brochures of same). A nurse has one or two lines about making the men a cup of tea before she gets blown up, which is historically accurate but also typical Christopher Nolan. I caught about 15% of the Spitfire pilots’ dialogue, but thanks to the Enigma-thumping score, I wept copiously at every appropriate moment. What with that and the UEFA Women’s Cup, my jingoistic shallows are more visible than ever.
The film’s dedication, given at the end since the beginning is mainly exposition that sets up the telescopic time-plot – is to all those whose lives were ‘impacted’ by events at Dunkirk. I suspect that some of the generation who remember Dunkirk would be horrified by the verb, not least the Oxford tutor who once censured me for using ‘prioritise’ with the comment ‘You are not writing for the Guardian’. And of course nor is Nolan, not yet.
A friend of mine was cast in Dunkirk, but they cut his scene, so by rights I should pan the thing entirely. However, he’s still in the credits (at which I gladly whooped and applauded), and the cinematography is stunning, so if I went in for stars, Dunkirk would probably get three out of five. However, I should note that since I am in re. David Suchet what Jane Austen was to English history (i.e. partial, prejudiced, and absurd), Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is already scheduled for minus ten.
Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.
On the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.
There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.
Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.
This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.
And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. One oddity is that Lawrance plays Viola with a London accent, while Ezra sounds West African; while they can’t be visually or acoustically identical given their biological sex, giving them such different accents is a baffling test of audience credulity. Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.
Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.
Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.
The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.
Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.
It’s increasingly clear that, for the new generation of Shakespearean actresses, the world of girls is not enough. Whether it’s Jade Anouka’s Hotspur at the Donmar, Pippa Nixon’s Bastard at the RSC, or Maxine Peake’s electrifying Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, women are building their careers by reinventing Shakespeare’s heroes. This is also the case for Wyrd Sisters, an emerging theatre company who, pleasingly, take their cross-casting policy in both directions. Thus, their production of Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Drayton Arms’ studio theatre (Old Brompton Road, SW5), we have a steely Leonata, played by Christina Balmer; a pugnacious Dogberry (Wendy Morgan), a skittish Ursule (Stuart Murray), and, most strikingly, a Claudia whose flowing hair and maroon beret make her look like she’s stepped straight out of Our Girl (Freya Alderson).
This contemporary, Anglicised Messina is somewhere between stately home and pub garden, where the returning soldiers booze on Somerset cider, strum guitars and plan the odd lesbian wedding. Leonata is a middle-aged hippie, poshly relaxed about her daughter’s sexuality, and then all nails and teeth when her wedding-day shames the family. Don Pedro, Claudia, Benedick, Don John and co. remain in fatigues, boots and berets for much of the play: the programme stresses that they are just back from Iraq. This is perhaps a poor fit for this cheerful gang of youths, who are prone to skinny playfighting and seem more like teammates than scarred veterans. The military background to Much Ado has, after all, never born too much scrutiny (the soldiers seem more Austenesque militia than Band of Brothers, and the emphasis on Operation Telic casts a chilly shadow over Balthasar’s carefree announcement that the combat has killed ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ – Iraq or not, the subtext remains ‘So that’s all right, then’.
Charlie Ryall’s Beatrice, with her short, ruffled hair, baggy t-shirts and uncompromising stance, seems more like a soldier than Claudia: which is just as well, because of the two, it’s clear which woman lives in a state of constant warfare. This is a scornful, angry Beatrice, simultaneously world-weary and dramatically childish. But she wheels from attention-seeking brat to kind woman, especially when Nicholas Oliver’s Don Pedro claims her hand.
She is ably matched by David Paisley’s Benedick, a sweet-faced teddy bear of a soldier, whose cruelty is cheek and whose doting affection is very readily summoned by the gulling scene. Ryall and Paisley head the cast very effectively; Paisley, in particular, pushes the story on through his soliloquies, and got the biggest laugh of the night in his muffled ‘Fuck off’ to the Boy who returns to expose his hiding place as he eavesdrops on Claudia, Leonata and the Prince.
But the show’s great surprise is Hero. A conventional Hero switches from happy dolly to sad dolly and back again: an inevitable step on the dismal downwards path to Desdemona. She has more to say than Mariana, but less to do than Celia; she is married off worthlessly without having the opportunities of a Helena or an Isabella first, and in all of the Shakespearean canon, there can be nothing less appetising than playing second billing to Beatrice, who is worth a play on her own. Lucy Green transforms a thankless role, giving Hero all the wit, pugnacity and intellect you’d expect of Beatrice’s cosseted cousin. Hers is the great succession of the church scene, when Hero’s long and difficult silences are filled with the emotion of a young woman who’s seeing hell before her eyes. As each new blow falls, Green’s distress grows, as we realise with her what this betrayal of love, loss of family, and wretched humiliation means.
When removed from Renaissance dress, it’s harder to believe that Hero could really be seen ‘dying […] Upon the instant that she was accused’, but Green’s alternately white and flushing face, and step-by-step panic, make the possibility horribly real. Hers was the only convincing collapse I have seen. Leonata, the doting mother who rejects her daughter, is nastier than any father could be, reminding the audience why Lady Capulet’s rejection of her daughter is, in a few words, always more devastating than Lord Capulet’s long harangue. Beatrice’s response also accentuates the horror. Rather than ranting, shouting, or forcibly dragging Hero away from her tormentors, Ryall huddles down beside her cousin in silence. Leonata’s savagery can’t be stopped. Beatrice and Hero bow their heads, curl together, and, like children under violence, wait for it to be over.
Ryall also gives the scene one further moment of tragicomedy. Benedick’s sudden declaration of love once the pair are left alone in the chapel can be played with joyful effervescence, the revelations pealing out in relief after the agony of the preceding moments. This is not like that. After witnessing Claudia’s cruelty and experiencing Leonata’s brutality, when love seems the most poisonous thing in the world to Beatrice, Benedick thinks it’s choice and appropriate to present her with his heart. A deadened, exhausted Beatrice stares across the stage, learning in her dissociated mind two things: first, that the person she loves most in the world loves her back, and second, that he doesn’t understand her at all. This is the loneliest Beatrice I have ever seen, and thanks to Ryall, it will be impossible to forget that quality in the character.
That chilling revelation aside, this is not an especially dark Much Ado. The physical comedy is sometimes very sharp, with spilt drinks, spit-takes and pratfalls underpinning the wittiness of the words. Stuart Murray, doubling Ursule and Friar Francis, justifies his existence a thousand times by turning the Friar (outside the history plays, Shakespeare did not excel at writing clerics) into a pitch-perfect imitation of Blessed Miles Jupp. Biased as I am, writing this admidst the flower crowns, Corinthians, and Natural Tan hosiery that comes from being twenty-eight and permanently on the wedding circuit, but dear Lord, that was funny. As Murray’s excellence suggests, this production has a stunning supporting cast. One disconcertingly good performance comes from Louise Goodfield, who, in the best cross-casting of the night, has made the startlingly turned Don John’s lackey Conrad from a standard stooge to a fully-fledged Lady Macbeth. Hers is a stunningly evil little Machiavel, in sexual thrall to Don John, but equally happy to make mischief for Claudia long after Borachio’s conscience cracks.
Some pacing issues hamper the speed of the piece, particularly in the notoriously difficult sequences with the Watch, and the instrumental music occasionally prolongs the scene changes, rather than covering them. But the final scrap between Beatrice and Benedick, respectively nauseated and gooey over each other’s poems, is tremendously satisfying, and the final rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ as sunny and bittersweet as one could wish. This is a company worth watching, in one of London’s best studio theatres. You don’t need to be in Edinburgh to see excellent theatre this summer – catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Drayton Arms, on stage now until 4th September.
Baz Luhrmann has taken the aesthetic he used for Moulin Rouge, the least French film ever made about Paris, and transplanted it to 1920s New York. The CGI is worse than a Doctor Who werewolf, but the costumes are stunning and I’ve spent much of today fashion-googling ‘great gatsby clothes’ with a sense of moral disgust, and that, I suppose, is the sign of a good Fitzgerald adaptation.
The central performances are reasonably faithful to the book. Tobey Maguire is constipatedly uninteresting – which is right for Nick Carraway, even if the elimination of queer subtext in his interactions with McKee and Gatsby is a predictable disappointment (but then, this is Luhrmann, who de-gayed Decadent Paris). Carey Mulligan is beautiful, wispy and infuriating – just right for Daisy. Elizabeth Debicki is understated and underused as Jordan, which is annoying for the cinemagoer but actually an improvement on the book. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan looks like Benedict Cumberbatch’s hardboiled, horsewhipping older brother. Isla Fisher’s Myrtle is a spectacular improvement on the book’s two-dimensional whore. And Leonardo di Caprio? Well, he’s still a great actor, but now his face has gone orange and odd.
Di Caprio’s face is one of a triumvirate of masculine tragedies I’ve endured this week. First, I found out that Noel Fielding is forty. Then I started googling and discovered that Johnny Depp was fifty. I dealt with that a little better, having accepted that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (for example) are in their mid-fifties by now – and that, God’s honest truth, there are UK citizens of legal voting age who weren’t born at the time of the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Depp’s slightly purple hair, tinted spectacles and twentysomething girlfriend already signalled a slow crawl towards decrepitude. And then I saw what’s happened to di Caprio’s face.
If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, or indeed any Luhrmann film, you’ve already seen 25% of The Great Gatsby. There are moments where Tobey Maguire looks exactly like Ewan McGregor and entire sequences where Carey Mulligan sounds like Nicole Kidman. There’s a great deal of on-screen typing which, apart from a clever dissolve into snowflakes, gives me the feeling that cinema would be a better place if Luhrmann could get over his font fetish.
For all this, I really enjoyed myself. The anxious speedathons of the driving sequences left me feeling motion-sick, and Oxford’s Magdalen Street Odeon had done something infuriating with the sound levels; nevertheless, I’d watch it again tomorrow, and I’m not sure why. People are going to call this film romantic, and it isn’t; regardless of Nick’s celebration of Gatsby’s capacity for hope, it’s a story about a monomaniac’s near-psychotic love for a debutante who struggles to choose between her two abusers. All the characters in this film push capitalism to its logical conclusion: a disposable culture which disposes of its victims, as portrayed by Myrtle, Wilson, Gatsby’s servants and Gatsby himself.
I have read – and this is a weird story in itself – the third of the Fifty Shades trilogy. It’s immensely boring (see also: misogynist, degrading), cataloguing not only sex I don’t want to have but a range of consumer durables I don’t want to buy. It’s like pages of an in-flight magazine pasted between stills from a porn film. Amidst the sex, the characters eat some very nice meals and do some very extensive shopping.
Gatsby and E. L. James are not so very far apart; they both assume, rightly, that as well as the sex, they’re going to need a lot of food, drink, and conspicuous capitalism, if they’re going to get (their version of) the (money-minded, shallow, easily distracted) girl. Both Christian Gray and Jay Gatsby set the bar very low when it comes to female agency, intuition and discernment. Perhaps I’m doing Daisy a disservice; she got ludicrously turned on by Gatsby’s Disneyland Hotel playhouse, but then, so did Elizabeth Bennet in the shades of Pemberley. And in the last instance, Daisy does have the wit to realise that Gatsby’s dictatorial fantasy of their life together (although a partial product of her betrayal) is every bit as dangerous as her known misery with Tom.
The Great Gatsby is full of toxic colour, gratuitous bling, and over-saturated fireworks. It doesn’t travesty the culture of its setting in the same way as Moulin Rouge, because if austerity’s taught us anything, it’s that the capitalist boom before a financial crash (in this case, Wall Street 1928) deserves all the desecration it can get. Morning-after vignettes – of a man dredging the swimming pool for tinsel, and a servant emptying martinis into a bucket – give the party sequences more depth – sequences, incidentally, which make Frears’s Bright Young Things (2003) seem like it wasn’t really trying. Di Caprio’s comic timing and emotional commitment come as close as anything can to giving The Great Gatsby heart and soul, and if I’m tired of Luhrmann’s cinematic tics (great though it is when an artist wears his id on his sleeve), I’m glad he’s still a fan of the grandiose close-up and that, in his first reunion with Mulligan’s Daisy, di Caprio, as Gatsby remains star enough to sustain one.
I would also, admittedly, like to do my eye make-up like Casey Mulligan’s, and have a head small enough to wear cloche hats. Someone throw a disgustingly vast party, please, and in the meantime, make mine a Highball.