National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live launched in June, 2009. Cameras are placed in strategic locations in the theatre to capture the stage performance live and broadcast to various venues the world over. According to the NTL website, over 3.5 million people have experienced this remote viewing of plays from London stages, with over 1,100 venues around the world, 550 in the UK alone. For the price of a movie ticket, I can be transported to the front row of these performances.

I ‘discovered’ this treasure too late, well, too late to see Skylight, with two of my faves Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy. Skylight received 7 nominations for the Tony Awards coming this Sunday, June 7, including acting noms for Mulligan and Nighy, direction for Stephen Daldry, and overall Best Revival of a Play.

NTL’s Skylight had been shown in our Cineplex already, and I missed it. But, all is not lost. In the past two months since I knew about this treasure, I’ve watched three plays and have bought ticket to the October debut of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. Looking forward to that.

Here are the three shows I’d watched in the past few weeks. Click on the link to the NTL website for full descriptions. The following is just a summary of my thoughts.

The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard

The Hard Problem

My full admiration to Tom Stoppard for writing a play to explore this hard problem, one that’s not very popular nowadays when science and technology reign supreme, when Dawkins speaks like the indisputable authority: Is evolutionary biology the all-encompassing codebook answering every human question? Hillary, a psychology research fellow at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science prays to God every night, simply madness to her fellow researcher. Her concerns: Can neuroscience explain consciousness, or beauty, or morality, faith, longings? And, sometimes one does need a miracle or two when dealing with personal regrets. The play is an intellectual odyssey with lively and energetic exchanges of amusing dialogues, humour that teases me with lines reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This is Stoppard’s new play in nine years. Mentored by Samuel Beckett, friend of Harold Pinter, writing for both stage and screen, Stoppard, at 77, remains one of my most respected writers. I’d loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but his works on screen have been equally impressive with the Oscar winning Shakespeare In Love (1998), Parade’s End (2012, one of my fave TV mini-series), the Oscar nominated Anna Karenina (2012), and Empire of the Sun (1987, a unique and haunting chronicle of childhood).

And for this play, nobody is preaching anything here, there’s no need to, just raising the hard problem, that’s all. We hear that line in Hamlet ring out loud and clear: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


The View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

A View from the Bridge performed at Wyndham's Theatre Richard Hansell as Louis, Nicola Walker as Beatrice, Mark Strong as Eddie, Michael Gould as Alfieri, Emun Elliott as Marco ©Alastair Muir 16.02.15

Mark Strong is explosive as Eddie Carbone, the longshoreman who accommodates in his home two of his wife’s cousins, brothers and illegal immigrants just arrived from Sicily. Eddie’s possessive care and love for his niece Catherine who has been living with him all the years, turns to malicious jealousy as she falls for the younger of the brothers. Miller’s play is about the American Dream gone sour.

What an eye-opener of a stage play. Mounted at London’s Young Vic Theatre, the stage design is stylishly minimal. With audience viewing from three sides, it lays bare the human soul and its inexplicable and unbridled emotions. I have not seen anything like it. First off, can you imagine two men taking a shower on stage at the beginning of the play… with real water, and towards the end, that water turns into blood showering down, covering all the characters for the stunning, tragic ending.


Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw

Man and Superman

This one, I must say hats off to Ralph Fiennes for his extraordinary energy. Playing Jack Tanner, a radical thinker of his days, and the reluctant guardian and later romantic resolve for a beautiful heiress, Fiennes leads us on a wild ride from reality to fantasy, from earth to hell and back again. Well, no superhero in our CGI saturated movies nowadays can rival. Blurting out lines after lines non-stop for over three hours, in one take, dialogues covering all the brilliance of Shaw’s philosophical, social, and political views, with spot-on timing and great fun. Which comedian can beat that? And of course, what he and Shaw had shown us is that words and the intellect can be more powerful and entertaining than on screen action sequences and technical wizardry.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples to all of the above 

August: Osage County (2013), Ad-Lib in the Literal Sense

Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina this famous line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That just explains why we see so many more movies about dysfunctional families than happy ones, because there are just too many of such stories to tell and countless ways to tell them.

August Osage County

Tracy Letts’s play August: Osage County was the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. The stage production was well received as a hilarious satire and biting commentary of the contemporary, declining family. I know, ironic that we find humour in something that we ought to lament. However, the most accessible mode to communicate is probably by means of drama, satire, humor and entertainment.

The movie version however evokes very different reactions. Critic reviews are mixed. I’ve read some unreserved and harsh criticisms. One thing I find though, many of the critics admit to not having seen the stage performance. Well, I haven’t either. But I’ve at least done my due diligence, also to guard myself from A-list stars influencing my interpretation, I read the play before I went to see the movie.

First the reading experience. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The long quote like an epigraph at the beginning of the play prepares me for the content following. It describes parent/ child relationships, from All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Let me just quote the last lines:

And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium.

Three Weston daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen reunite in their childhood house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in a family crisis. Their father Beverly had been missing, later found drowned, an apparent suicide. Beverly was a one-time award winning poet who in later life drenched his misery in alcohol. The matriarch is the foul-mouthed Violet Weston, a destructive roadside bomb that explodes upon the slightest human contact. What makes her even more bitter is what could well be her nemesis, mouth cancer. She is often high on prescription drugs, while she prides herself that nothing slips by her without her noticing. She’s not demeaning, just ‘truth-telling’.

There are dark secrets in that old house unknown to the daughters, exposed during this present crisis. The twists and turns in the plot only accentuate the decayed skeleton of a family. But Letts’s lines are thought-provoking, albeit well mashed-up with curses and abrasive language. But there are LOL dialogues and humorous moments, and overall, an entertaining, well crafted play. It starts off with this line: “Life is very long… T. S. Eliot”, and before the final Blackout it finishes with: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends…” Hollow men in their precarious condition.

Intelligent lines, a far-fetched character, but not impossible situations, and yes, some nasty verbal and literal combats. I must say, having read the play helps me appreciate the movie more, despite its faults.

So, here we go round the prickly pear…

Streep and Roberts in August Osage County


If you haven’t read the play or seen the stage production, you just might be in for some rude awakening. Director John Wells is known more for his TV series than his one full length feature The Company Men (2010). I’m glad though Tracy Letts writes the screenplay himself. He keeps many of the lines intact, and adds some scenes for cinematic purposes.

While exuding fearful authority to everyone who crosses her path, Meryle Streep is fearless in adopting a vocabulary of expletives and curses playing Violet Weston. Her daughter Barabara (Julia Roberts) is more restrained and obviously exasperated to find herself slipping into similar form in relating to her recently divorced husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Ivy lives close to Violet but no more as she has her exit plan. However, we know what best-laid plans often do. Youngest sister Karen changes men like wardrobes; oblivious (or maybe not) to her, her present fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) looks like another disappointment. Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is a supportive sister to Violet, but she too has to nurse her own unspeakable past. Her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) is probably of the soundest mind in this family. He has spoken a few admirable lines as he confronts his wife’s maltreatment of her own son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). But of course, Mattie fae has her own Gordian knot to deal with.

The person that silently offers practical help whenever there are crashes and especially so in the last scene is the Indian maid hired by Beverly a few days before he disappears. Johnna (Misty Upham) cooks, serves, observes, and raises moral protest with a shovel. She is the one at the end of Letts’s play softly reciting T. S. Eliot’s lines, “This is the way the world ends…” while Violet utters: “and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone, and then you’re gone…” In the movie we hear Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally’: “But won’t you make yourself at home and stay with me? Don’t you ever leave…” Less literary and more obvious.

The key to enjoying the movie is to find entertainment in its dark comedy, taking misbehaviour and maltreatments as satire, overly dramatic scenes as farce, exaggerated gestures and facial expressions as comedic spasms. But of course, there are scenes that are serious, thus sending the mixed messages of an incongruent  genre. For entertainment purposes here, I think it is fine to feel poignancy through the chaos.  

Yet the movie has its faults, and it’s not hard to pick out. Inconsistency in blocking of characters is an example. One obvious scene is when Bill is driving Barbara to identify her father’s body. We see Barbara sit in the back seat with daughter Jean, delivering her ‘die after me ” plea. As the car stops, the camera points to the front of the car and we see Barbara (or her stand-in) steps out from the front passenger seat.

But overall, as a play turned movie, it is less claustrophobic than the one-room setting of Carnage (2011). And the entertainment value can be found in the acting of most of the characters, in particular, Streep and Roberts. If there are faults, they are not in over-acting. Roberts’s restrained performance is a good counter-balance to Streep’s overbearing character. In the hands of a more experienced director, we may see better-handled scenes with more control and consistency. Watching the movie, I have the feeling that Wells is following Letts’s written description in the literal sense. Why, in the play, the floor wrestling between Violet and Barbara is written with these words: “ad-lib“.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to post my second selection for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2012, and raise a toast to Oscar Wilde for his LOL funny three-act play The Importance of Being Earnest.  

Though written in 1894, Wilde’s work is surprisingly modern. Subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, it is a mashup of mistaken identities, social satire, biting ironies, and one-liners worthy of our late-night talk shows.

You can finish the breezy eighty-some pages in one sitting, but don’t read it in public. You don’t want to be mistaken. To most people, only a lunatic would LOL alone without a bluetooth hanging on his ear.

Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax of London, cousin of his friend Algernon Moncrieff. But obstacles abound for his courtship. As a country gentleman with many responsibilities, he has to create a wayward younger brother and town-dweller named Earnest as an excuse for him to go out to town for pleasure and to see Gwendolen. While in town, he has taken the name Earnest. Algernon, just the opposite, has to create an invalid Bunbury in the country for him to visit so he can meet and woo Jack’s ward Cecily, while pretending he is Earnest, Jack’s younger brother from London.

Locales may be a hindrance, their major obstacle is Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s Aunt, a formidable and feisty gatekeeper of aristocratic matrimony.

With Downton Abbey’s dialogues still ringing in my ears (been re-watching the blu-rays perpetually since its Season 2 Finale on PBS) I can easily imagine the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, uttering Lady Bracknell’s lines. Screening for Jack’s eligibility as a suitor for her daughter Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell conducts the following interview.

LADY BRACKNELL:  How old are you?

JACK:  Twenty-nine.

LADY BRACKNELL:  A very good age to be married at. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

JACK (after some hesitation):  I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

LADY BRACKNELL:  I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever…

LADY BRACKNELL:  Are your parents living?

JACK:  I have lost both my parents.

LADY BRACKNELL:  To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

JACK:  The fact is, Lady Bracknell … I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was … well, I was found.


JACK:  The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL:  Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK (gravely):  In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL:  A hand-bag?

JACK (very seriously):  Yes, Lady Brakcnell. I was in a hand-bag—a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it—an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL:  In what locality did Mr. Thomas Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK:  In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

LADY BRACKNELL:  The cloak-room at Victoria Station?

JACK:  Yes. The Brighton line.

LADY BRACKNELL:  The line is immaterial. Mr. Worhting. I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life…

And many more lines that would show you Wilde could have made one great Oscar host.


The Movie (2002, DVD)

I’ve got the DVD. It never fails to delight no matter how many times I re-watch it. Lady Brecknell is portrayed by Judi Dench, as proficient as any Dench performance, albeit a bit too severe here. But just as well, she’s a monster to Jack Worthing.

Jack is played by the ever talented Colin Firth. Dispelling the Mr. Darcy myth, Firth shows he can be one freewheeling comedic actor. Having seen many of his works, I find that with the right words to say, he can always deliver in style, even if he needs to stammer to get his words out.

Before Mamma Mia! (2008), Colin Firth had sung in a movie strumming a guitar, it is here. With Rupert Everett as the piano playing Algernon, the two come together in a duet to woo their love.

Frances O’Connor, who plays Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1999), is Gwendolen, animated but much intimidated by her icily fierce mother Lady Brecknell. Reese Witherspoon is Cecily, Jack’s 18 year-old ward. The gals can easily call each other sisters if not for the mistaken identity of their love interest, Earnest. Thinking they are romantic rivals, the ladies are at each other’s throat as much as their genteel upbringing can allow, and  quickly become allies once the misunderstanding clears up.

Both Jack and Algernon are willing to go all out to have their names changed to Earnest via christening by the minister Dr. Chasuble, a role mastered easily by veteran actor Tom Wilkinson. Dr. Chasuble is a silent admirer of Cecily’s governess Miss Prism, played by Anna Massey with much comedic sense and timing.

At the end, Jack finds out his true parentage, realizes that he is more kin than kind to Algernon, and three matrimonies ensue, a happy ending Jane Austen would have approved. The movie adaptation is an enjoyable way to go through the play, not just with sight, sound and cinematic fun, but a delightful all-star cast.

Some tidbits: The film won a Best Costume Design award from Italy, and Reese Witherspoon was a nominee of the Teen Choice Award 2002. Looking at the cast today, we see 3 Oscar winners and 1 Oscar nominee.

As usual, the DVD carries special features like The Making Of and Behind the Scene featurettes, interviews with stars and crew, and audio commentary, always a valuable companion to the main feature.

~ ~ ~ Ripples