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A Satisfying and Overdue Return to London Theatregoing

Barbican SignI’m writing this from my old stomping grounds of London, England, and very happy to be back here for the first time in just over seven years.

Although this is a short trip, theatregoing is naturally still a focus, and so I made sure to include at least a few plays on my itinerary. First up this afternoon was Antigone at the Barbican Centre, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Coincidentally I worked on another Sophocles translation by Carson with The Penny Seats last summer.

It was such a pleasure to be back amongst the appreciative UK theatre crowd, who treats theatre like Americans treat the movies (as a frequent and enjoyable pasttime) and are respectful about the process of putting on the show without being overly gregarious; standing ovations are rare!

As for this production, I feel like it did not fully realize its potential, although there were certainly some strong moments. And perhaps the performance will improve as time goes on, where the cast is proceeding on an extensive tour after the London engagement, traveling to multiple countries over the next six months.

Binoche anchors the story with an expected gravitas. However, I was intrigued and pleased by her choice to play the character much softer than many of her film roles. I feel that she often projects a natural confidence or comfort onscreen in many of her performances, whereas in this role, there was a humbleness and meek quality I picked up on that seemed like a completely new component of her work. As Antigone, she’s not quite as visible in the story as one might think, leaving a large chunk of the story to the work of the ensemble cast.

That was where my challenges with the show came in. Not so much with the ensemble performers, who all worked strongly with each other, although I can’t single them out because I don’t know their other work. The performers worked off a modest but spacious set and a generous lighting design. A key component of the lighting was a large center stage moon that changed as the play went on from smaller to larger. But once it expanded to its full size, it was right in my line of sight from my seat, and kept taking my attention away from the actors, like if a television was on at the same time you’re trying to talk with someone in a casual setting.

Similarly, the production couldn’t seem to decide how much modern touches it wanted to include. A large screen was occasionally used to accentuate the narrative, and led to some dramatic moments, but also felt jarring in its inclusion, like the narrative wanted to add a grander touch and move away from the focus on the words.

To conclude, it’s commendable that the Barbican hosted a production like this and clearly continues its objective to bring a wide global range of theatre to discerning audiences in London. I’m thrilled to have made the effort to see this show and to get a chance to update my experiences with one of London’s most unique artistic venues.

Barbican Flyers

An unlikely pair in a meta-drama

The Windsor Film Festival began yesterday on the other side of the river from Detroit. I was pleased to be in the audience for one of the first films screened, and hope to go back to see at least 1 – 2 more before the festival concludes a week from today.

Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging French actress who is invited to perform in a revival of a play she became well – known for earlier in her career. This time, Maria is slotted in to the older woman role, with a younger ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) taking over her lead performance. Many complications come with Maria’s agreement to perform the part: the playwright has recently died, she has to confront the memories of her previous work and the actors associated with it, and she has to re-learn the script, from a different character’s point of view, with the help of her loyal younger assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

I just outlined the plot, but the plot really isn’t the point of this film. It’s structured into a three act motif, with title cards delineating each section.

The film’s first third could be seen as unnecessary in retrospect, but captivates the viewer with an emphasis on dark, moody European location photography and characters moving in and out of the crowded frame. The initial sequence of Binoche and Stewart traveling on a (presumably real) European train is a masterclass on how to film in a constrained environment. Director Olivier Assayas and associates put us right there in the tight confines of the train, moving in and out of tunnels and heightening the tension as Stewart’s managerial efforts are laid out.

At least two-thirds of the film (the middle section) zeroes in on just Binoche and Stewart, residing at a remote Swiss mountain house, learning the lines for the play but also blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and the actresses’ individual careers. In a manner similar to Binoche’s earlier film Certified Copy, the film begins to surprise and delight as the viewer doesn’t know what’s “real” and what is not for the characters, or where they are going with the story.

The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry. The French actress performs primarily in English for the part, but is allowed a few scenes in French with a markedly different vocal pacing and physicality.

The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart. Shedding the notorious vapidity of her Twilight role, the actress instantly commits to a serious yet relatable and believable character. In her increasing power play with Binoche over the course of the film, Stewart holds her own with integrity and surprising grace. Recalling (her personal mentor) Jodie Foster at points with her character’s level of commitment and natural relatability, Stewart is the soul of the film.

Moretz is talked about throughout the movie and finally appears late in the game. The much-in-demand actress channels some of her more TMZ-focused contemporaries in her role. Her few scenes are conveyed with unexpected ease, showing wide potential for more dramatic roles in her future.

This is easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year. Director Assayas embraces his actresses but loses focus towards the end of the film, with several overly ponderous nods to the titular clouds and a starkness that doesn’t register. The changes don’t diminish the film’s broad effect, though.

IMDB says the film isn’t slated to hit US screens until next March. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a look. The trailer is embedded at the end of this post.

(For another and more in – depth take on Stewart’s current career, check out this piece.)