The Man on a Donkey

Christ Walking on the Waters by Sergius von Klever

By H. F. M. Prescott (1952)

David Foster Wallace started his speech “This is Water” with that old but salutary saw,“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

In 16th century Britain and Europe, the Christian religion was like water to fish. To doubt the existence of God would be equivalent to doubting gravity today. And that religiosity is the medium of Prescott’s 1952 novel, The Man on a Donkey, now reprinted in a handsome Apollo paperback.  Although faith was as air in Henry VIII’s England, belief in niceties of dogma were disputed unto death, as so they are in this 716 page epic which mixes fact with fiction and historical figures with imagined, at the time of Henry’s break with Rome and dissolution of the monasteries.

The fictional heretic priest Gib Dawe swings restlessly between dark consciousness of his own mortal sin and righteous indignation at the doctrinal errors of others which are, to him, as damning. He moves restlessly back and forth across England, preaching his version of the new faith to the unsaved and fleeing the consequence of his fall from grace – his afflicted son, Wat. He has spirituality but he lacks faith. “For now he knew that though God might save every other man, Gib Dawe He could not save. Once he had seen his sin as a thing that clung close as his shadow clung to his heels; now he knew that it was the very stuff of his soul. Never could he, a leaking bucket not to be mended, retain God’s saving Grace, however freely outpoured. Never could he, that heavy lump of sin, do any other than sink, and sink again, however often Christ, walking on the waves, should stretch His hand to lift and bring him safe. He did not know that though the bucket be leaky it matters not at all when it is deep in the deep sea, and the water both without it and within.”

Robert Aske, Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising against Henry’s ecclesiastical reforms, swings too in the end, dying a hideous death, suspended in chains high above the ground. This is not a spoiler – Aske was a historical figure. Having one eye he was half-blind, but Prescott’s fictional Julian Savage is totally blind when it comes to her love for Robert Aske. Her childish adoration of him is charmingly captured –

“‘Do they call you Robert?’

‘Sundays and Saints Days,’ he told her, ‘but working days it’s Robin’.

”Silly!’ she cried delightedly, loving him very much, and having quite forgotten her awe of him.  She began to laugh and dabbed her nose against his, and put her arms round his neck meaning to kiss him.”

– and never relents. It’s a blind reverence in the face of the one thing Julian knows – that the worst will happen someday, a belief which she quite reasonably holds in light of her early years and her position as the younger sister of the nasty Margaret (Margaret was a real  person, but perhaps not really the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Buckingham). The one almost happy period of Julian’s life is spent at Marrick Priory, but of course, that has to end. Prescott has fictionalised the life of the real Christabel Cowper, the Prioress of Marrick Priory (it will be helpful to the reader to look at the plan at the back of the book) which Henry ultimately dissolved. Christabel is another shrewd, ambitious woman with an eye for luxury. Under her stewardship, the Priory thrives and the nuns live much more comfortably, they are sure, than  the White Nuns, St Bernard’s Ladies, of the inferior priory across the River Swale.

Prescott’s Henry is a sadistic liar, gross and golden. “Inside the Privy Chamber the King stood before the fire; he wore velvet the colour of flame, his feet were set wide apart, his head was bent and his chin sank into roll upon roll of bristled fat above the gold-stitched collar. His bulk, blocking out the firelight on that darkly overcast forenoon seemed enormous”. He outlives three of this wives in the timespan of this tale, each of them dying off stage, two leaving daughters whom he treats with scant regard. Cromwell is the real villain of the piece, but seen as an eminence grise, distant, glimpsed occasionally and all the scarier for it.

The Man on a Donkey is an excellent historical novel, imbued with the sense of the time and of our predecessors’ earthier lives. It is psychologically adept, although the motives of some historical characters – notably Lords Darcy, Suffolk and Norfolk – remain unclear to us. The second half of the story can be perplexing to those not already familiar with the history of Henry’s reign. The various factional uprisings, the religious schisms and fickle treacheries are not easy to follow. It does not help that it seems that every man is called Robert, Ned, Will or Wat and every woman Julian, Nan, Anne,  Meg or Bess. But Prescott’s prose is lucid as the water of the Swale, and captures the enigmatic quality of these events which are now so strange to us. The mundaneity of life is there – and the mystic – the latter often via the agency of the mad serving-woman Malle, whose gnomic utterances shadow Aske’s fortunes against the light of her visons of Jesus and his presence. “He that though winds, waters and stars, had made of Himself a dying man.  But at last, as if it were a great head of water that had poured itself with noise, and splashing, and white foam leaping into a pool, and now; rising higher, covered its own inflow, and so ran silent, tough no less strong – now they were lifted up and borne lightly as a fisherman’s floats, and as stilly.”

(Image by Niko Pirosmani)

(Image by Niko Pirosmani)

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1984: the Play

May 24, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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(Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, May 2017) (Based on an adaptation from George Orwell by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan)

THANK YOU NOTE: First, The Varnished Culture thanks the folks at Her Majesty’s for their courtesy. TVC had bought tickets for a Saturday show, foolishly overlooking it was a matinee and missed the show. After some phone calls, full of contrition and abashment, TVC was allowed to present at the box office, and, with a little grovelling, to exchange redundant tickets for a Monday night performance. It wound-up with better seats! Again, thank you guys! It is greatly appreciated. And what a magnificent theatre it is and has been – the plan to revivify this historic venue is one to support and celebrate.

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George Orwell’s classic novel re-appears as a theatrical piece in this production by State Theatre Company, adapted from a 2013 UK piece by playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, which is certainly the best State Theatre Co. production that we have seen in some years.  Having said that, regretfully, this doesn’t set the bar very high.  Whilst it has some clear drawbacks as a synthesis of Orwell’s classic, viewed simply as a bit of theatre, it is, at times, pretty sensational, at others, very silly indeed, and overall, does not quite deliver.

The same show played at the Melbourne Festival in 2015. At that time, the fashion was to describe how spookily relevant it was, in the wake of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.  But Ed’s living the life of Riley (or Philby) now, in Russia, and Bradley/Chelsea is scot-free. The current Adelaide version, which sets-off around Australia near the end of the month, is ‘spookily relevant’ just now because of Mr Assange and the spectral arrest warrant, and Herr Trump with his “alternative facts.” The primary fact of the matter is that Orwell’s novel is ‘spookily relevant’ all the time because of its sarcastically gloomy sermon on the human condition and its reflections on our tendency to team-up, and break-away. The collective demons become individual devils, and we swing betwixt social cohesion and individual liberty, somehow never getting the balance right, and sometimes letting the pendulum swing too far.

Contrivance is self-evident in the play’s design, which re-imagines Winston’s story (via his diary) as a fictional account that post-dates the time of Big Brother. At the opening, a book group in the late 21st century (looking fairly 1970s) discuss the diary (shades of The Handmaid’s Tale!) and at the end, all is erased. I felt a little sad under the chestnut tree. It would be wrong to suggest that these opening and closing conceits add nothing – they add a layer of confusion, a watering-down of the dramatic effect, and undermine what Maurice Cowling, writing in the Spectator in 1999, described as the essence of Orwell’s story: “a cosmic warning from the Left to the Left about modern hopelessness in the face of torture and indoctrination.”

"All we need to complete Room 101 is David Brent..."

“All we need to complete Room 101 is David Brent…”

Don’t come to Orwell’s novel with anxiety or depression. Tis a horror story of universal application. Similarly, don’t attend this play with a headache. It is loud (sometimes too loud, as though the quiet terrors of the book are too nuanced for the modern sensibility), brusque, abrupt and dingy; occasionally violent to a grisly degree. P found himself squirming in his seat when the electrodes were applied or the rat cage wheeled-out. Or when the set changes whirled about (with impressive speed). The offices depict Kafka’s castle, re-done in depressing brown timbers of dubious provenance. Ghostly faces glare through dirty, frosted windows. Lights flicker and occasionally flare, always setting an uncomfortable mood. The blood is an alien pink. It’s as if the sets and scenes were designed by Bureau Mirko Borshe. There are two-minute hates, loud tele-screen announcements, glib exchanges in Newspeak by colleagues such as Symes (Guy O’Grady), repetitive flourishes (silly Mr Parsons, played amusingly by Paul Blackwell, who gets a few reprises), and folksy references to childish things that have now been rendered sinister by the machinations of the State. (“‘When I grow rich’, say the bells of Shoreditch.”) However, there is precious little evidence of the fiendish comic sense with which the novel is suffused.

The performances are fair, on a sliced-ham level. Tom Conroy, as Winston Smith, can’t erase the memory of John Hurt in the film but is okay as the doomed heretic who is ‘cured’ in the end. Ursula Mills, as Julia, has a dilemma; how to flesh out such a mannish (and marginal) act? But she is still vibrant enough in the usual, thankless, female role.

Tom Conroy and Trinity O’Shea in 1984.

Terence Crawford, as O’Brien, seemed to be from the Department of Treasury rather than the Ministry of Love. There was no sense of the fanaticism that surely inhabits the man, and some of his best, most appalling utterances could have packed more punch had they been delivered less emphatically.  The most effective player for TVC was Renato Musolino, in a dual role as O’Brien’s servant and the ‘tea lady’ (or ‘gin man’), whose slow, stylized movements and expression paralleled Kabuki theatrics.

In sum, the piece is full of sound and fury, and often diverting, but if you want something significant, READ THE BOOK.

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Sean’s Kitchen

May 17, 2017 | Posted by Guest Reviewer | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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(Adelaide, May 2017)

This sliver of a dining room just adjacent the Adelaide Casino (and in fact, part of the Skycity complex – on the way to the loo you can peer through a window at the poor wretches playing the pokies) is trendy, at least on current trends. Whilst L thought the refectory-type furniture a tad less than comfortable, there was compensation provided by the confident menu and spot-on service. Our table started with a Waldorf salad ‘Moderne’  à la Sean and the King Crab Cocktail – these saucy homages to the 1970s were adequate, but seasoned by nostalgia rather than hitting us for six. But the Dry-Aged Burger, the Orgy of Mushrooms with ricotta gnocchi, and Crab Linguine were excellent, as was a side dish of popcorn cauliflower.

There’s also a good list of cocktails, wines and spirits. TVC plumped for an Eden Valley Riesling and a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. We left, contented, about 10.30 pm, just in time to barge into a horde of Adelaide Crows fans, pouring out of Adelaide Oval.  “How did you go?” met with dazed, doomed stares that answered our question better than any score would. Sorry about that, old sport! ‘We cry as one.’ Guess you should consider coming back to local football, and leaving ‘The Show’ to bookmakers and indentured servants.

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SimCity BuildIt

May 9, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, VIDEO GAMES |
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EA Games for mobile devices.

All Sims games, except the slipshod versions made specifically for the Nintendo Gameboy (in its various manifestations), are hypnotically addictive. SimCity BuildIt keeps you, as Mayor of an ever burgeoning metropolis, on your toes, constantly needing currency (of at least three types) to enable an increase in population, which creates a need for manufacturing, which creates a need for space expansion, which creates a need for expansion icons, which creates a need for currency, which…..In fact, it is not your toes which get the work out, but your fingers, hopping like acquisitive fleas across your mobile device.

If you should succumb to the lure of ‘easy cash’ and pay real money for sim currency, use that money wisely, and wait until you really know how to use it. Gone are the days when a fair, flat price for a game included all that the player needed. Old games beloved of The Varnished Culture cost $60 or $70 some decades back. That seemed extravagant, but we would rather pay (say) $150 for a complete game now, than download something for free which is carefully calibrated to keep the player needing more and more in an endless, cynical loop. The SimCity BuildIt junkie is kept hooked with the strategic unlocking of new types of product, residence, specialised buildings and facilities, each of which in itself requires more specialised products, residences, specialised buildings and facilities. That said, SimCity BuildIt can be played for free, or for a reasonable price, provided that you, as Mayor, are not impatient. Play for an hour a day, on the bus, or while waiting for Telstra to answer the phone. Put the game down and walk away. Just say “no” (for now).

The graphics are crisp and attractive. Skyscrapers are fantastically lit at night; brightly coloured cars turn at traffic lights, merge and park; little sims march quickly along the streets. The controls are generally easier to manage than in earlier SimCity generations – although when playing on a small screen, the ultra-responsiveness can lead to annoying slips. Annoying too, are the constant floating icons such as the coins, inviting the Mayor to trade with AI Mayors, and the yellow helmets indicating that a residential upgrade is possible. It were preferable that these could be toggled on and off, but it is likely that EA’s behavioural analysts have found allowing players to do so might result in a sudden inclination to go to rehab.

The sound effects are charming, appropriate to each zone. Machines bustle and voices tannoy indecipherable messages in the factory zones; children shout in the residential areas and plane engines whine at the airport (which you can build so as to trade with Paris, London and Tokyo when you have lured 120,000 sims to your city). The cities are customisable to a point. Although there are seemingly endless upgrades, buildings and  landmarks to build, the fussiness of the sims and budget constraints do inhibit aesthetic creativity. Sims are fussy. They will not live happily within certain range of sewerage or manufacturing plants. They want parks and more parks. Parks must be on roads. Each residential zone needs its own fire station, police station and health clinic. Woe betide the mayor who allows the city to run low on water.

Mayors can communicate and trade, via clubs. But in general, trading takes place by lucky-dipping into other Mayors’ towns via the Global Trade HQ. This can mean frenziedly visiting city after city, looking for just that thing you need, one of which you sold a minute ago, before you needed it.

This is a fun game, repetitious and riveting. Don’t pay too much for it, but don’t stint on the parks, either.

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Get Out

May 8, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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(Directed by Jordan Peele) (2017)

In the  promos for Get Out, we see  the agonised, frozen face of a black man, Chris. You will see more such faces in Get Out, but not all of them are black. Decades ago, having withdrawn from the tense atmospherics of a 1980s media party, L was chilling (there was still some hippie in the air, and L is very cool) in a quiet room, exchanging a few words with a well-known African-American singer, who was hoovering up some well-known Australian lollies from a jar on the mantelpiece. An older (white) couple paused on their way out to congratulate said singer with, “thank you for your music [well-known African-American singer].” They waited a beat before adding pleasantly, “Of course, you people have such natural rhythm.” There was not much to pick between the two expressions as the singer slowly turned back to the Smarties and L stared into space, like Chris. Although the Political Correctness Police had not yet assembled their forces, and bearing in mind that L could hardly be described as “PC”, the shock of this blatant reverse racism was still terrible. Unexpected for L, but we imagine, all too familiar to the singer.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer who lives with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) in the city. Rose is taking Chris to meet her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and spend the weekend at their rural retreat. Dean and Missy – well-heeled, liberal and smug – are a well-known American film type and we recognise their mixture of interrogative friendliness and subtle condescension. It is not, we know, reserved for persons of another skin colour. There’s something odd about them, we can’t work out how they really feel about Chris; and their black retainers (whom they explain away with apparent embarrassment) treat him in a peculiar manner, to put it mildly.

But the racism in Get Out is all reverse. And relentless. The Armitages’ party guests are keen to meet Rose’s new beau. They tell Chris that, although fair skin has been popular for a while, dark is coming into favour now; a lascivious skeletal woman can’t keep her hands to herself around him; a Japanese man asks Chris to describe the African-American experience. It’s laid on rather thick and Chris greets the only other black guest with (racist) gladness and relief at meeting a “brother”. The young man responds with excessive courtesy and formality. It soon appears that he is the paramour of a woman of about 60. We’re not getting a good feeling about this and when someone yells at Chris, “Get Out”, we don’t know if it is an admonition or a warning, but we do know that it sure is good advice.

The cast are all excellent in a scenery-chewing kind of way. Special kudos to Caleb Landry Jones as the wanting son, Jeremy Armitage. The only false note is the character of Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) who is looking after Chris’s dog and warns Chris repeatedly that the white people want him for a sex slave. We think this might be true, and although Rod’s antics are meant to liven and amuse, they rather jar. After the big reveal – when we learn the truth – there is grim laughter enough as the script takes a turn for the preposterously funny. The ride from then on is pure horror schlock – including much gratuitous and satisfying violence – although the very final scenes are too long and would have benefited from being a little braver. The film-makers were wise to use less-well-known actors and to pare back the traditional horror-movie tropes (until the end). The look is mundane and all the creepier for it – special effects are few and some of the most frightening moments are delivered via an old wooden-box-television. There are however some beautiful and affecting moments, visually and emotively reminiscent of Under the Skin, The Box and the dying moments of Silent Runningall warnings about the dangers of playing God.

We know we’re not in the real world and the attempts to paint this film as a searing indictment of racial politics, sexism and class is simply off-putting. To watch the film in that expectation would be to short-change the film, discussion of serious issues and yourself. Watch it rather in the expectation of an intriguing and humorous horror movie.

Maid

 

 

 

 

[Minority Report: P agrees. Often horror films are by-the-numbers, lazy efforts that fall back on the formulaic (e.g. The Babadook). This is an amusing, knowing effort, where ‘racism’ is not a theme so much as a ‘blind.’] Continue Reading →

Henry V (Bedlam Version)

May 7, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
Nick Duddy as Henry V2

Henry V (Adelaide University Theatre Guild, 6 May 2017) (Directed by Megan Dansie)

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“Diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder include a history of exposure to a traumatic event that meets specific stipulations and symptoms from each of four symptom clusters: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.” (DSM-5).

This is some way from the Welsh soldier Fluellen’s reference to Henry V by analogy to Alexander the Great: “in his rages, and his furies, and his wraths, and his cholers, and his moods, and his displeasures, and his indignations…” Henry Five turfed his buddies like Henry Eight did his wives. Hazlitt in The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays called Henry V “a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant…”

In the famous films of the play by Olivier (1944) and Branagh (1989) the framed staginess is accentuated, most obviously in the form and declamations of the Chorus but also in the riveting war speeches by the Warrior-King, in particular, the grand defiance at Agincourt. Hence the conceit of soldiers addled by PTSD staging Henry V – usually in the wake one of the modern wars – has become a popular motif, done often in London and the U.S. And here we go again. The Director of this Guild production, which offered some but not enough good things, stated in the programme that she “wanted to avoid a traditional medieval setting, or a strictly authentic modern military one. Shakespeare is taught in prisons and in therapy groups in the USA and the UK. This led to the idea of our performance being by the participants in a PTSD therapy group, with the therapist as Chorus.”

Respectfully, this makes no sense, especially in a production that plays it straight, albeit inadequately. Apart from the odd flourish, the odd insinuation of damage in the cast, and a little touch of doctor in the night, there was precious little evidence of PTSD in any of the cast.

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“Celle-là, ce n’est pas in baiser qui l’épeure!” The youthful lovers make their relationship a mere formality.

Nor did we particularly care. The plain truth of it is that the performance gained nothing from this revisionist trope, which it mostly ignored throughout.

Which leaves us with one of the Bard’s lesser history plays, a stirring bit of jingo designed to please the court, where the best character (Falstaff) doesn’t even show up, leaving the heavy lifting to Bill’s least interesting King.

The Varnished Culture had mixed reactions to Nick Duddy as Henry. L thought he carried on like a small boy served vanilla ice-cream instead of chocolate. P felt that was the quintessential royal Taff, and thought Duddy was fairly good in the role. Whilst he stumbled on the verse at times (and by the way, we are not at all sure the cast’s pronunciation of ‘Dauphin’ is the correct one), he was appropriately heroic and jaw-rippling, including in the famous peroration, “We few…we happy few…etc.’

Ellie McPhee, who had two roles during the evening, was fine as his bride to be, repeating the foreign word ‘Nails’ with relish. Steve Marvanek (Exeter), Rose Harvey (Gloucester), Lindsay Dunn (as the French King), Georgia Stockham (as the French Queen) and Tony Busch, in his role of Montjoy, all had the requisite gravitas.

Henry2The Chorus (Peter Davis) was adequate but needs to deliver his links with more authority and volume.

As we said, there were some good things. We liked the efficiency of scene changes, the heraldic and back lighting, and the enthusiasm of the cast (despite being dressed as rag-tag mercenaries) in the battle scenes, particularly the assault on Harfleur. The miners emerging from the stage trap was neatly done. Matt Houston, in a cabaret turn as Fluellen, was amusing and Dylan O’Donnell, as the incomprehensible Scots Captain Jamy, was hilarious.

But some of the performers were a tad overheated and the play was too long – it needs the excision of several scenes. Frankly, it would have been more satisfactory to end with the post-battle ‘hey nonny’ song – the subsequent comic, wooing, and reconciliation-of-nations scenes should have been discarded, the production having begun to pall well before.

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Actually, it was something of a slog! Dare we accuse and convict its designers of on over-fondness for, an over reliance on, the script?

There has to be a more robust and objective approach than just ‘letting the verse do the work’ – particularly when on the aspect of the verse, love’s labour’s not only been lost, but mangled.

So, in the final analysis, this effort is worth a look and at times enjoyable, but ‘shall stand sore charged for the wasted remainder, its gayness and its gilt much besmirched’  (With apologies to W.S.) We hope some cuts and revamping of the piece occurs, towards an imminent remedy. And The Varnished Culture reminds the cast and crew that, as Tynan quoth George Nathan, “Art and the artist are ever youthful lovers: criticism is their chaperone.”

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All’s ill that ends ill.”

 

 

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The Screwtape Letters Live

April 22, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
Screwtape Image Website 2

(The Bakehouse Theatre, Adelaide, 21 April 2017) (Dir. & adapted by Hailey McQueen)

The Varnished Culture has long been a fan of this brilliant little tract by C. S. Lewis. In this local staging by ‘Clock & Spiel Productions,’ Screwtape’s letters of instruction are adapted to a two-hander where we see the missives delivered by Screwtape’s assistant, Toadpipe.  These include such gems as “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression,” “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” and “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Yannick Lawry plays the eponymous didactic demon with relish but not much nuance. His role is fairly static but he managed to savour his dictation as a senior fiend might. He delivers C.S. Lewis’ polished epigrams cleanly and clearly and looks the part in his faux-Victorian study in Hell (a minor triumph of art direction, with the stage bordered in black ashes and a dark cloudy sky projected behind). George Zhao is very physical and amusing as Toadpipe, writing and delivering messages, play-acting the various targets of junior-tempter Wormwood, who, unseen, sends his regular reports on ‘progress’ with a loud bang.

Bakehouse Theatre

Bakehouse Theatre

It is an intriguing idea to stage this work and much of it was done well, but it works better as a book than a piece of theatre.  For one thing, it is epistolary and this gives the play an administrative, repetitive ring, sometimes enlivened by Toadpipe’s antics (sometimes not). The whimsical tune that presaged a variation of scene or imminent message began to pall after an hour. The Varnished Culture held an earnest debate after the show in which we struggled to identify how it might be improved – perhaps add a worldly character or two? Add some context with a back story? but concluded that such devices would have reduced the rhythm of the piece.  In the end, its defects were those of the medium but The Screwtape Letters was still worth doing, and seeing.

Painting by Richard Tennant Cooper

Painting by Richard Tennant Cooper

 

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Personal Shopper

April 21, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
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Written and directed by Olivier Assayas (2016)

Much has been made in the publicity for this horror-paranormal-suspense-thingie of the haute couture clothes which Maureen (Kristen Stewart) buys for her employer, but  is ‘forbidden’ from trying on herself.  Naturally she tries them on, but unhappily they are too few, rather dull and Kristen wears them with her usual aplomb. If you like watching Kristen Stewart clump around sullenly in designer clothes, you’d be better off watching the Oscars. Maureen has a job – God knows why – selecting clothes for a vaguely-defined celebrity, Kyra (an underused Nora von Waldstätten).  We’re confused. Why does a stylist get around in horrible grey rags when not being all naughty and trying on Kyra’s gear? There must be a reason. Oh yes – she’s depressed.

Maureen’s vaguely-defined twin brother has recently died from a congenital heart condition which they share. He was a ‘medium’ (psychic occupation, not Loboutin size) and the twins agreed that the first to die would attempt to contact the other from the afterlife. Maureen explains the pact very carefully to Kyra’s boyfriend Ingo (an underused Lars Eidinger) and the brother’s widow’s new boyfriend (Someone Someone who is only there to help the audience be explained at). Naturally Maureen sleeps out in her brother’s old house – yes – a big dark empty mansion – waiting for a Sign. There are many possible Signs. Water is involved. Ectoplasm. Doors slam. Floors creak. We at The Varnished Culture would just like to know why the dead guy doesn’t send a Sign to tell his sister that riding a motor bike around Paris carrying large, boldly marked ‘Cartier’ and ‘Chanel’ bags on your handlebars is not a good idea?

From the reviews, we had expected something like the wonderful “Hidden”, but Personal Shopper isn’t a bit like that. It’s a bit like “When A Stranger Calls” and a bit like “Frantic” and a lot like “Black Swan” (watch these excellent films instead*). It’s a bit like “The Babadook” (don’t watch that – it’s godawful). (For a truly excellent horror-paranormal-suspense-thingie, watch “The Sixth Sense” or “The Others” or “The Box.”Personal Shopper was booed at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and TVC can report that the two other viewers at the session we attended shot out through the doors the moment the final credits rolled. (Although that may have been because the four hundred safety lights required in every cinema had washed out all of the dark scenes to the point that these elderly ladies probably thought that there was a fire in the tunnel and they had better run).

Kristen Stewart is just the sad-sack for the role and full credit to her; she is excellent, despite being required to pull her horrible grey jumpers on and off to show us her sad sacky chest a bit too much. All of the performances are excellent (including Sigrid Bouaziz as Maureen’s sister-in-law, Lara) but this creaky old thing is empty, despite their presences.

There are some creepy and curious moments, but they go nowhere.  Who is sending Maureen irritating texts (irritating to the audience, anyway. Audiences know about mobile phones these days)? What’s all this about the missing leather trousers? Why does Maureen’s Skype boyfriend  bookend the story? Why is that door all red and pulsating? Why is a Something angry? What happens in the hotel room? Is that The Invisible Man in the elevator? Is that a reflection in the window? Is that a beaker I see before me? Is Maureen bonkers? These horror movie tropes do not work beyond the moment in Personal Shopper because there is  nothing beyond the moment. They are ultimately not ‘enigmatic” or ‘mysterious’, because there is nothing behind or beyond them. Personal Shopper will have no afterlife.

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The Return of Slippin’ Jimmy

April 17, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
["Which coat will piss the boss off the most?"]

Better Call Saul, Second Series (2016)

This series continues along its unlikely, grotesque and thoroughly entertaining path, wending ever deeper and darker into the abyss of forsaken conscience and fluid morality. Lawyer Jimmy McGill (and, indeed, his older brother, Charles, played with all stops out by Michael McKean) is like Tulkinghorn in Bleak House – “so long used to make his cramped nest in holes and corners of human nature that he has forgotten its broader and better range.”

SaulKymLease

Pop culture references abound in delightful ways. For example, when McGill’s appalling Elder Law advert screens, during a mid-morning episode of “Diagnosis: Murder,” it is followed by a pitch for the ‘Garden Weasel’, a product made notorious by Larry Sanders (with whose show Bob Odenkirk, starring here as Jimmy, was involved). When Jimmy leaves a message for Kim, trying to lure her away from her boring, sent-to-Siberia duties in document-review, and into his web of fantasy, he bizarrely sings, in a voice closer to Yoda or E.T. than Muriel Smith, “Bali h’ai” from South Pacific.

Odenkirk is a superb meld of hustler and sucker – he mostly keeps trying to live-up to brother Chuck’s impossible standards, the rest of the while breaching them. He’s Sammy Glick and yet, also, Forrest Gump. Real unethical chisellers are mostly less charming and caring in real life. The genuinely interesting characters, for us, are Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy’s conscience, his buddy, his amanuensis, his teacher, his muse, his great love, whom he corrupts, amuses and disappoints in equal measure: and Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), the apparent villain of the piece, leading Poobah at law firm HHM, but actually little more than a marionette and beard for Jimmy’s brother. These guys are beautifully written and played. And then there’s Mike (Jonathan Banks), a real villain but with a heart of gold, who deals (day in, day out) with real villains, guys who are way beyond evidence-tampering and false pretences, who long ago graduated to guns, drugs and casual slaughter.

For those who came in late, James McGill becomes Saul Goodman (‘S all good, man!) who acts as fence, launderer, consigliere and co-conspirator to Walter White and crew in that seminal nasty epic, Breaking Bad. Before Saul, before James McGill, Attorney-at-Law, there was Jimmy McGill, ‘Charley Hustle’ of the mailroom at HHM…before that, there was Slippin’ Jimmy, cheap chancer from Cicero, Illinois. Jimmy is a slime-ball floating in a sea of pus, that any respectable lawyer would want disbarred with extreme prejudice, but we have to confess that Goodman’s trajectory is a high-class high-wire act…just try to stop tuning in!  Series Three is already in the can…

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Night Night

April 13, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
Night Man is still a little punchy from our last review

We have stopped reviewing (and watching) The Night Manager.

This on the grounds that it is a load of old rubbish. Episodes one, two and three are enough.

'I could still be doing "House"...'

‘I could still be doing “House”…’

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