Happy birthday (and, erm, death day) William Shakespeare.

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23rd April, as well as being St George’s Day,  marks William Shakespeare’s birthday (if records are correct) and also the day he died. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d remember some of the best Shakespeare adaptions I’ve seen.

I’m not a massive Shakespeare aficionado, although I have enjoyed what I’ve seen. Off the top of my head, I’ve seen stage versions of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, Romeo & Juliet, and As You Like It. Hopefully, I’ll be seeing Robert Hastie’s production of Julius Caesar at the Sheffield Crucible in May.

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The best Shakespeare stage adaption I’ve seen is As You Like It at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in the summer of 2011. I always find Shakespeare to work best when the director takes some risks and doesn’t just stick to the tried and tested period dress of the time. Greg Hershov presented a three hour plus production, which sounds testing but absolutely flew by. There was a wrestling match, a full-on singalong to round things off, and a fantastic performance by Cush Jumbo as Rosalind (she would later go on to great success in the USA in the Good Wife and its spin-off show The Good Fight). I’ve seen many plays at the Royal Exchange, but this was a definite highlight.

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Othello at the Crucible in Sheffield, also in 2011, was a memorable experience for any fan of the TV show The Wire, as it marked the appearance of Dominic West and Clarke Peters on stage together. Daniel Evans staged a typically enjoyable version of the psychological drama. The set was magnificent, the story was thrilling and West and Peters were great together. It’s not my favourite Shakespeare drama, but it was fun to watch McNulty and Lester lock horns.

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Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller staged a raucous version of A Winter’s Tale back in 2012 which was really good fun. It was boisterous and entertaining, with some contemporary references to Beyonce and Chumbawamba. There was also a superb performance from Tony Bell (later seen as Peter Taylor in the WYP production of The Damned United) as Autolcyus, reimagined as a louche rock star.

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Of the film adaptions of Shakespeare, only two really stand out – Joss Whedon’s wonderful Much Ado About Nothing and Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet. Whedon’s movie was filmed as a break from The Avengers – a simple, low-budget affair filmed in black and white at his house in Hollywood. It basically involved all his friends (any fan of Whedon’s TV shows will have enormous fun playing spot the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and so on), and that sense of fun is evident throughout. It’s the only Shakespeare adaption to genuinely make me laugh out loud, especially Nathan Fillion’s hilarious portrayal of Dogberry.

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It’s also impossible to understate the impact that Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet had – this was Shakespeare reintroduced to a brand new audience, with Leonardo DiCaprio fans flocking to see him in anything post-Titanic, and Claire Danes getting her first big break after the cult TV show My So-Called Life. Luhrmann directed proceedings with a real energy and verve, and chose a brilliant soundtrack of The Cardigans, Radiohead and The Wannadies. I’ve not seen it for years, but I’d imagine it still stands the test of time.

Happy birthday Billy S!

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The rise of Jigsaw TV: This Is Us and Big Little Lies

NBC-This-Is-Us-AboutImage-1920x1080-KOTelevision used to be a pretty straightforward affair. Simple tales, told in a linear fashion, wrapped up with a happy ending. Then along came Lost, with its flashbacks, its flashforwards and its flash-sidwards. There’d been non-conventional story-telling devices used before, in Twin Peaks of course, and to head-spinningly funny effect in Arrested Development, but Lost really took the format and ran with it.

Two shows have recently been broadcast which really make use of non-linear storytelling. This Is Us (which has just finished broadcasting in the UK on Channel 4) and Big Little Lies (currently in the middle of its run on Sky Atlantic) make the flashbacks and different timelines an essential part of the show. It invites the audience to view the show as a jigsaw, slowly putting the pieces together until it all makes sense.

Spoilers for both This Is Us and Big Little Lies from here on in:

This Is Us makes it’s structure the major selling point of the show. For the majority of the pilot, you think you’re watching a show about a different set of people who are all turning 35 on the same day: Jack, who’s married to Rebecca who’s due to have triplets; Kevin, a disillusioned sit-com actor in Los Angeles, Kate, his overweight twin sister, and Randall, a black Wall Street worker trying to trace his biological father. It’s only in the last 5 minutes that it’s brilliantly revealed that the Jack storyline has actually been a flashback to 1980, and that Jack and Rebecca are Kate and Kevin’s parents and adopted Randall when he was born (the third triplet having died during birth).

It’s the sort of episode that you want to watch twice to catch all the little clues that creator Dan Fogelberg has left scattered around. And although the surprise factor of that first episode is lost through the rest of the season, the non-linear structure means that plenty of other mysteries are left for the audience to work out – for instance, it’s revealed early on that Jack is dead in the present day, but even at the end of the season, it’s still unknown exactly how he died (I have a horrible feeling that this storyline may remain unresolved until the very last episode of This Is Us).

There are plenty of other reasons to love This Is Us besides its unconventional structure. The acting is wonderful throughout, with Sterling K Brown standing out as Randall and Milo Ventimiglia showing he can do far more than the brooding bad boy that he made his name with on Gilmore Girls. The music is also brilliantly chosen, with several Sufjan Stevens songs tugging on the emotional heartstrings.

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Big Little Lies is less reliant on the flashbacks to tell its story, but there are stil mysteries to be sold. It opens with the discovery of a body that’s seemingly been pushed, and then we flash back to meet Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Renata and Bonnie, who all live in Monterey, California. Is the body one of them? Is one of them the murderer? What’s the deal with Jane, the single mother who’s just moved to town, and who’s the father of her son Ziggy? Is Celeste’s marriage as perfect as it seems to outsiders, or is there a darkness lurking underneath? And what’s the truth when Renata’s daughter accuses Ziggy of bullying her?

Over the course of its 7 episodes, Big Little Lies answers all those questions, and does so compellingly. It’s a little bit soapy (so is This Is Us to be fair) but the quality of the acting from its A-list cast is first-rate: Reese Witherspoon is hilariously feisty as Madeline, Shailene Woodley is an absolute revelation as Jane, and Nicole Kidman produces some of her best work in years as Celeste. Her relationship with Perry, chillingly portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard, is almost too uncomfortable to watch at times.

To say any more would be spoiling things, and part of the beauty of Big Little Lies is picking up the clues and watching them come together at the end. There’s no loose ends – this is just a 7 episode show with, at the moment at least, no plans for a second season – so there’s a satisfying sense of closure as the final episode finishes.

Even though both shows can be melodramatic and a bit emotionally manipulative, the ‘jigsaw’ nature of them means that it’s a pleasure to search for all the missing pieces.

 

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The Breakdown on SheffieldLive

I made one of my occasional appearances on SheffieldLive’s Breakdown show yesterday afternoon.

It’s 2 hours worth of the best new alternative music, and it’s a really good listen (not just saying that because I’m on it, I genuinely listen every week).

Here’s the podcast link if you’d like to listen https://www.mixcloud.com/thebreakdooown/the-breakdown-180317/

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Hidden Figures – Film Review

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Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three African American female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Given the racism and sexism of the time, this was an achievement in itself, but these three woman really did smash the glass ceiling and played a pivotal role in how the space race developed.

Like the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Hidden Figures was another film with a predominately black cast to be nominated for several Academy Awards. Unlike Moonlight, it didn’t actually win anything, which is a bit of a surprise. Whereas Moonlight is uncompromisingly ‘arty’, downbeat and contemplative, Hidden Figures is far more of a feel-good audience pleaser. There are inspirational speeches from our trio of heroines, some heart-tugging moments and a decent soundtrack of ’60s soul classics.

However, it can be, at times, ever so slightly dull. There are only so many times you can watch complex mathematical equations being scribbled on a blackboard, and you’d have to be really into space and know about the global politics of the 1960s to be truly captivated by the story. The way racism is depicted though is very well done – the coffee pot with ‘coloureds’ scrawled on it, and the fact that Katherine had a 40 minute round trip to find a ‘couloured persons’ bathroom is shocking.

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Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae (in her second Oscar-nominated film of the year, following Moonlight) are all engaging and magnetic performers, and Henson in particular has one of the best scenes of the film when she eventually loses her cool about the racial segregation she’s put through. Kevin Costner is as reliably gruff as ever as her supervisor (actually a composite of different real-life figures) and Jim Parsons plays a slightly less abrasive version of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

There are moments in Hidden Figures that you can imagine have been dreamed up by Hollywood to make it more palatable for a white audience. The scene where Costner takes a sledgehammer to the ‘coloured bathroom’ sign never actually happened in reality and seems to have been written just so Costner can take the ‘white saviour’ role. Similarly, there’s one too many montages of Katherine running for the bathroom. In these instances, less would probably be more.

Yet despite its flaws, I found Hidden Figures to be an enjoyable and thoughtful tale, and by the time the credits roll around, showing the real photos of the three woman we’ve been watching, with a list of their many achievements, you can’t help but feel in awe of them.

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Moonlight – film review

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Last weekend, Moonlight made Oscar to history by becoming the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture, the first LGBT-themed themed film to win Best Picture and only the second film (behind Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to be directed by a black man and win Best Picture.

Sadly, Moonlight’s historic triumph was overlooked by a moment of farce in which La La Land was mistakenly awarded the statue, only for this to be rectified in the middle of the speeches. It would be a shame if this mix-up is how Moonlight is to be remembered, for it is a hugely deserved winner.

This is only Barry Jenkins’ second film as a director, but its an astonishingly confident one. Jenkins use of colour, choice of music and most of all his camera style – lots of long-held close-ups of people’s faces, long tracking shots and snappy editing – marks himout as a truly talented director.

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Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, who we first meet as a scared, bullied child with a crack addict for a mother. He’s taken under the wing of Juan, a local drug dealer and his partner Theresa, who act as surrogate parents for Chiron. The scenes of bullying and abuse can be hard to watch at times, but they lead into the second part of the film, where Chiron has now become a teenager. He’s still being bullied, and also discovering his identity and sexuality. The actions that Chiron takes during this period make him the man he becomes in the third section, where he’s moved to Atlanta, but the ghosts of his past still haunt him.

Three separate actors play Chiron, and all are equally effective. Alex Hibbert is 9 year old Chiron, and his mannerisms and guarded personality are continued by Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron. By the time Trevante Rhodes appears as the adult Chiron, you’ve almost forgotten that these are 3 separate actors. It’s almost as if Jenkins had done something similar that Richard Linklater did for Boyhood and just spent 20 years filming the same person growing up.

The rest of the cast flesh out the story well – Mahershala Ali (so good in Netflix’s Luke Cage last year) is a well deserved Oscar winner as Chiron’s would-be father, while Janelle Monae is almost unrecognisable from the tuxedo clad figure who shuffled and danced across David Letterman’s stage a few years ago. Naomie Harris is also her usual brilliant self as Chiron’s mother, struggling with drug addiction.

Moonlight is a slow, thoughtful, almost ponderous film. Many people who go just to see what all the hype is about may leave disappointed. But it would be a mistake to write it off as purely a ‘black’ film or a ‘gay’ film. Although I had little in common with Chiron, it’s easy to identify with anyone who feels alone, or lacking any kind of emotional connection to someone. Although the film doesn’t end with any easy resolutions (rather like its fellow Oscar nominee Manchester By The Sea), you root for Chiron and want him to find happiness.

Moonlight is a film that will bounce around your head for days, even weeks, after watching it. It’s both startlingly intimate and wildly ambitious, sad and poignant yet hugely inspiring and uplifting. Oscar, you’ve chosen well this year.

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A Passionate Woman – theatre review

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Kay Mellor is probably best known for her successful TV shows, such as Band of Gold, Fat Friends and Playing The Field. However, in 1992 she also wrote A Passionate Woman for the stage (also turned into a TV show in 2010 starring Billie Piper and Sue Johnston). This revival was meant to appear in Sheffield a couple of years ago, but the lead actress Lynda Bellingham tragically died of cancer before production got off the ground.

Now it’s on tour, with Liza Goddard in the role of Betty. It’s a play that blends both comedy and drama, and sometimes it struggles to find the right tone. It’s certainly gentle humour, with Goddard often addressing the audience and telling them wry, witty details about her life. The play is set in the attic of Betty’s family home, on the day her only son gets married. It’s a bittersweet day for Betty, as we learn that she’s not entirely happy in her marriage, and sees her son as the only good thing that’s ever come out of it – therefore, she can’t bear to see him move on.

So, it’s a play about lost love, regret, missed chances and whether you should settle for second best rather than be alone. Yet to stop it becoming too depressing, there’s moments of broad humour, and there’s also a device which some people may find endearing and others may find infuriating. If you don’t want to know, look away now, as some spoilers will follow.

We discover that Betty is still pining for her lover with whom she had an affair with in the ’70s. This lover, a Polish neighbour called Craze appears as a ghost (only seen by Betty) and they discuss their time together. Sometimes it’s unclear whether this ghost is calling Betty over to the ‘other side’ or whether it’s just a device to make her leave her rather hapless husband Donald.

The second half is just half an hour long, and seems to wrap everything up rather too quickly to be honest – it’s as if Mellor wasn’t entirely sure how to end proceedings and so goes for the slightly surreal. Yet it’s a solid family comedy-drama, with a decent cast (Anthony Eden is particularly good as Betty’s exasperated son Mark) and fans of Alan Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett will certainly enjoy the well observed lines about disaffected family life.

A Passionate Woman is at Sheffield Lyceum until 4 March, then touring until 8 April. For dates, refer to http://www.uktw.co.uk/Tour/Play/A-Passionate-Woman/T1174216364/

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