Like Enemies of the State

Every child needs someone to care for them: Damien (Luiana Bonfim) with The Major (Duane Palmer)

Every child needs someone who cares: Damien (Luiana Bonfim) with The Major (Duane Palmer).


Bold subject matter requires bold execution, a fact that I feel much socially-conscious theatre forgets. All too often human interest stories are cloaked in the trappings of conventional staging, leaving the audience at a remove where they can ‘um’, ‘ah’ and ‘appreciate’ the plights of the characters before them. Then we return to our comfortable daily routines and forget all about it: “what an enriching evening of theatre that was…”

Tommy Lexén’s Like Enemies of the State certainly does not let you do this. In equal parts due to its source material and engaging staging, this performance drives home its message like a wake-up call to the guts.

The subject matter: the lives and experiences of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The script: composed almost verbatim from interviews that Lexén conducted in the DRC two years ago.

It is interesting enough that this material reaches us in the format of a play; docu-theatre is not one of the most common mediums around after all. Yet Like Enemies of the State demonstrates overwhelmingly that theatre can do justice to this sensitive material. In fact, the medium is very specifically used to disruptive effect, providing a welcome antidote to some of the banalities of documentary filmmaking.

The four actors do a solid job of jumping in and out of multiple roles, as we are shown snapshots from multiple perspectives. Intimate life stories out of the mouths of child soldiers, the ‘official’ line on their use by the FARDC authorities and an American journalist’s attempts to get closer to the truth all vie for attention on one small stage.

When greeted with unfamiliar material, it is particularly difficult to engage a theatrical audience. Specific references to cultural traditions, institutions and governments that we are unacquainted with can become overwhelming; especially when delivered as concise monologues. Like Enemies of the State does a very good job of avoiding this (all too familiar) problem; firstly by easing us in gently with BBC-style reportage before we are introduced to the central characters. Secondly, through actors breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience.

This latter point is integral to the play’s success and demonstrates the advantages of the medium over film. After a church ceremony, the characters administer blessings to the audience, take off their caps and ask for collections. A child who has recently left the rebel army now makes his living selling petrol, and does the rounds of the audience, fixing your gaze with a hopeful look. An intimidating Congolese man known as ‘the Butcher’ (Duane Palmer) offers you a child prostitute with a smirk. As a member of this audience you cannot simply put up the safety barrier and watch it solely as entertainment. You are reminded viscerally that you are connected to the issues at work in the play, which holds a mirror up to our own complacency.

This audience interaction is coupled with skilful multimedia immersion. Film clips are projected onto hanging sheets, drum beats are banged out on crates as the cast break out in impromptu song, and televisions and video cameras are used by the actors themselves.

Ben Osborn and Hiroko Matsuo’s sound and set design are both very well suited to this whirlwind of a play. Scene changes are short and seamless, with all the props and costumes laid out on stage, ensuring that the performance never loses momentum. Characters who are not delivering monologues will constantly be engaged in other activities around the stage, yet it does not detract from the overall focus. What results is a charged environment, where the eye can rest wherever it wishes and find details that amplify the whole.

It is not a rare thing nowadays to witness the ‘unheard voices’ of groups that we were previously unfamiliar with: that is at the heart of the documentary approach. It is however a rare thing to see a performance that elevates those unheard voices into visceral and engaging art.

Like Enemies of the State is the most effective vehicle that could be chosen for its source material and does justice to the children’s stories that lie at the heart of it. For that reason, you should probably go see it.


*** Like Enemies of the State is running from Tuesday 15th – Saturday 26th October at the New Diorama Theatre in London. For more info and tickets, visit: ***


Wings of Desire

I'm loving humans instead...

I’m loving humans instead…

Reviewers always suggest watching a film at least twice and waiting at least a day to fully digest the subject matter. I’m not going to do that: mainly because I don’t have the time, and secondly because the film I’ve just watched compels me to writing through some thoughts right now.

Wings of Desire is a 1987 offering, written by Peter Handke and directed by Wim Wenders (the man behind Paris, Texas). Set in Berlin across various time periods, the film centres on the life of Damiel, an angel who surveys the diverse lives of people milling around the city below. In the movie’s universe, angels exist in a separate realm; able to walk the same streets as the living, but completely invisible and unable to interact with them.

These angels are able to hear humans’ thoughts, a technique that is pulled off excellently through a combination of roaming cinematography and stream-of-conscious voice-overs through the film. For this reason, Damiel is able to have a full understanding of human thought-processes, but has no direct experience of them himself. There is an emotional divide, that in a clever reversal, leaves the omniscient angels feeling profoundly isolated.

Damiel’s voyeuristic mind-reading slows its pace and lingers on a pretty young trapeze artist at a travelling circus. Kitted out in fake wings for her performance, Damiel is immediately drawn to her, and is privy to her most intimate private thoughts; she is lonely and longing to meet someone who can extricate her from her situation.

Try as he might Damiel cannot get through to her and with a growing discontent, sets his mind on a plan: to cast off both his immortality and atemporality and enter the world of mortals…

Wings of Desire is very unique, in that (despite what I’ve just described) it seems to lack a central storyline. This unifying thread emerges gradually, as scenes involving the girl are introduced more frequently. Rather the story mimics Damiel’s omniscience: it goes everywhere.

The camera floats through an apartment block: we hear the thoughts of a young man contemplating suicide, his parents, a man whose mother has recently died, some children playing hide-and-seek, an American journalist, a woman who worries about surviving on her small pension. In a way, one of the central characters of the movie is ‘the city of Berlin’ – as we get a cross-section of all the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants. For the first half of the film it can be argued that there is no central character, since Damiel is more of a cinematographic device than a human-being who emotions we have access to.

As such, watching Wings of Desire is a rather disjointed experience, and at first I wondered whether I could really be bothered with such a sincerely artistic experience on a lazy Sunday morning. Within thirty minutes however, I was captivated. I suddenly started caring about every little scrap of everyone’s lives – an impressive feat considering these Berliners are only given a couple of lines of interior monologue each.

And this is why Wings of Desire succeeds in its audacious form. It aligns the viewer very closely with Damiel; floating over the city, entering people’s thoughts but leaving you wishing you could turn these snapshots into more. Damiel’s compulsion to get closer to people is passed on to the viewer; we are cast outside by a lack of typical dramatic conventions such as dialogue and plot-development and start longing to flesh these people out into three-dimensional characters. When this does start to happen, it is compelling; we are finally given what we have been denied and it is all the sweeter for it.

There are some strange disjoints to the film including a live performance by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and time-leap back to wartime Berlin where we follow some sheltering Jews, but these are mesmerising in their own weird way. They are necessary to demonstrate both the film’s historical breadth, and its naturalistic contemporariness…an audacious goal for sure.

And does Wings of Desire succeed in its audaciousness? Most definitely. If it didn’t this film would be very pretentious. Many will still call it very pretentious. But this film doesn’t set out to do more than it can achieve. It actually achieves it.

This is bold, bold cinema. Even if you’re not 100% sure about the concept, it is worth watching for the execution alone. I certainly won’t be forgetting this movie any time soon…

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman


– “When I walk into that cell, I leave Albert Pierrepoint outside.”

Albert Pierrepoint was the last British hangman, his retirement bringing a full-stop to the profession. Between the years of 1933 and 1955 he executed 608 people (by this film’s count), including most notably German war criminals after the trials in 1945. Adrian Shergold’s 2005 Pierrepoint or The Last Hangman gives us an incredibly intimate portrayal of an individual torn between rigid functionality and human compassion.

Straight to the site of the action, the film opens with Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spaul) undergoing a training session at Pentonville prison. All the specifics are laid out: how to restrain the prisoner, place the sacking over their head and judge the appropriate length of rope for the particular individual – “get it wrong, and you’ll pull ‘is head orff.” The scenes in the prison are, on the whole, extremely clinical, with the lack of emotion displayed being the most terrifying thing.

These cold scenes are juxtaposed with warm scenes of rural England, with Pierrepoint courting a lady at a sweet shop (Juliet Stevenson). Here we immediately see the warmth of his character, his love of pork chops and his domestic life with his mother.

In a wonderfully handled time-lapse, this turns into a domestic scene with his new wife, Anne from the sweet shop. However during this time lapse, it is also revealed that Pierrepoint takes painstaking notes on the executions he has carried out, never failing to miss an entry. Other than this, Albert keeps his work and home life entirely separate. I mean, you’d have to, right?

This sets up the key tension in Pierrepoint: how can a man who routinely kills other people live a normal life? There is a wholehearted professionalism in the man, driven by a certain competitiveness to boot. We learn that Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman (ah…destiny) and that he was renowned for the speed of his executions, going from restraining the wrists to pulling the lever in 14 seconds. The shadow of the father looms over Albert, who manages to destroy his father’s record, processing someone for death in a mere 7.5 seconds.

For Pierrepoint death is routine; despite being carried out by an individual, the approach is strictly mechanical. Attending the theatre, Pierrepoint watches a news reel on the German war criminals who he has been nominated to execute, including Fritz Klein or ‘Doctor Death’ who as the narrator reels off was responsible for “scientifically murdering” thousands of Jews. Although the motives are poles apart, Albert is haunted by a personal similarity, and we are invited to consider to what extent those who kill en masse have expunged their humanity.

Pierrepoint however makes a complete180’ once he has taken his prisoner’s life, choosing to lay out and wash their bodies himself, because the mortuary “won’t take care of them, would they?”  In Pierrepoint’s mind, death is the price that is paid for their sins, so after death, the body deserves human dignity and respect. This is what keeps Albert from becoming a monster, but nevertheless the moral framework that he brings to his work only adds to his conflicted personality.

There is yet another side to Pierrepoint; the jovial man who sings bawdy songs as a comedic duo with his friend Tish (Eddie Marsan). In a stroke of ominous irony, during their performance Pierrepoint places a white cloth over Tish’s head, immediately reminiscent of the white sacking used in the execution room. This warm Pierrepoint, who eventually agrees to buy the local pub with his wife and form a pillar of the community, wrestles constantly against the numbing effect of his work.

The whole thing is very tightly written, with no scene going amiss. Even those ‘sub-plots’ that seem slightly redundant on the first watch are perfectly designed to feed into the denouement. Timothy Spaul does an incredible job of capturing Pierrepoint’s morally fraught existence, which only gets all the more impressive as the cracks begin to show.

There is an element of ‘ITV drama’ in the aesthetic, which at times prevented me from becoming fully immersed, however this is a very cosmetic issue and was quickly ignored once the story builds in complexity. What Pierrepoint delivers is a fantastic human-interest story that is deserving of a film in itself.

Added to this is an entire moral debate surrounding capital punishment and its effect on the individuals involved. The masterstroke of the movie is that this is never in the foreground and never explicitly judged. Instead, we are merely greeted with a portrait of a man through which both these historical and human considerations can play out. And this is what makes Pierrepoint a tightly-plotted, riveting achievement.

Only God Forgives

- It's all in the hands.

– It’s all in the hands.

*Huge spoilers ahead*

After being prepped by Nicholas Winding Refn’s most ‘arty’ film Valhalla Rising, I decided to delve into the latest Ryan Gosling movie! As it happens, I find calling Only God Forgives a Ryan Gosling movie fairly hilarious, since I cannot help but imagine throngs of girls feeling absolutely crestfallen by his character in this movie. The enigmatic badass of Drive has been whisked away, and replaced by a pathetic, envious and conflicted individual with huge mummy issues. More on this later…

Only God Forgives is being met with lukewarm reception, with its few advocates being accused of trying to cling on to just about anything to save this sinking ship of a movie. For my part, I feel very conflicted in my reaction to it; in that I found it fairly unpleasant and boring to watch, but upon reflection and further reading, think that it is trying to do something very difficult. Maybe it doesn’t completely succeed, but the best it can be called is ambitious.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is running a Thai boxing club in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). It quickly becomes obvious that this club is a front for drugs and that Billy is not a very nice person. This is, perhaps, established when he runs amok smacking women around the face in a brothel and then brutally murders a fourteen year old girl who is being prostituted by her father. Retired police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene, giving the father the option to exact vengeance on Billy, which he swiftly takes, with no gore being spared. So goes the first ten minutes.

This is the event the plot of Only God Forgives hinges on. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand and demands that Julian avenge his brother’s death, setting into motion a set of killings and counter-killings that fill that central segment of the movie.

As Julian’s and Chang’s paths gravitate toward one another, we learn more of Julian’s fraught past including the fact that he murdered his father with his bare hands. In the finale, Chang kills Crystal and upon seeing the body, Julian does what every grieving son would do: he slashes open her stomach and put his hands inside her womb.

After this episode, Julian seems somewhat calmer and meets with Chang, who promptly cuts off Julian’s hands with his sword. Chang then sings a traditional Thai song. Fin.

It’s certainly a perplexing plot arc. It is at different points dull, gratuitous, unnecessary, mesmerising, bemusing and seems strangely lacking in something. What that something is, is character. At least, in terms of motives and an understanding of past events. Refn makes very little use of explanatory dialogue in Only God Forgives, instead quite superficially showing us a string of incomprehensible actions. All effect, no cause, in other words.

Twinned with this, is a plot that does not take follow a conventionally satisfying structure. Many events seem invested with a little significance, and most of it can be described as a string of gratuitously violent episodes.

Upon finishing the movie therefore, you just feel a bit empty. I wouldn’t say I felt like I wasted my time (there are certainly some redeeming features) but that the film hadn’t invested events with any kind of personal importance or built up any sympathy for Gosling’s character.

However, it is when you start recounting the story yourself in your own head that it starts to have impact. Julian’s character is the essential key to this movie, but it remains inscrutable until the final scenes. The film meanders because we cannot divest the scenes with any meaning, and we cannot do that because we have very meagre means of appreciating Julian’s motives.

This is a piece of cinema that is drawing attention to one of cinema’s limitations as a primary visual medium. How do you capture the inner demons of a near-mute introvert without resorting to interior monologues or other characters’ input? Only once we find out that Julian killed his own father and was intensely jealous of his brother’s sexual relationship with his mother (!), do the Oedipal building blocks fall into place.

I must credit Chris Stuckmann’s incredible reading of the movie for this: that Julian quite literally has blood on his hands. And plunging his hands into his mother’s womb could signify an attempt to expunge the guilt for his father’s murder. This doesn’t work directly, but Julian takes repentance into his own hands after his mother’s death, having Chang remove the tools that did the deed. With his hands severed, Julian can proceed with a life free from guilt: he has received his forgiveness.

In a movie where the audience are tasked with constructing the main character’s back story, there are bound to be divergences of opinion and interpretation. There are also those who are bound to say that a movie that doesn’t sufficiently explain itself within the confines of its run-time is a failure or else, lazy.

The reason that this movie isn’t a failure however, is that although I was less than enthralled during it; I was thinking about it on the bus to work the next day. I was thinking about it at work. I was thinking about it for days after in fact. Sometimes a film needs the viewer’s supplement to complete it, which in the case of Only God Forgives results in a haunting experience.

And I think I just reviewed a Nicholas Winding Refn film without even mentioning the cinematography. It’s jaw-dropping, go figure.

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

Visually Impeccable – Vahalla Rising


Nicholas Winding Refn drew a lot of attention to himself back in 2011 with Drive, and this August, his latest offering Only God Forgives hit the screens. His second film starring Ryan Gostling, it has garnered some divided opinion, most likely due to the fact that it isn’t Drive II, and that many aren’t aware of his trajectory as a director before Drive.

Like many others, Drive was my entry-point into the oeuvre of Winding Refn, but I didn’t want to go ahead and watch Only God Forgives without some grounding in his work as a whole. This is what after all, seemed to be a stumbling block towards appreciating it. So, my first pit-stop is Valhalla Rising, released two years prior to Drive, and renowned for its stunning visual style.

An opening shot of a bleak, craggy, Nordic landscape. A blonde boy with curly locks shoulders a bucket of water and trudges up a hill. There’s a lot of mist, there’s a lot of bearded men standing around ominously, and there’s Mads Mikkelsen (of recent Hannibal fame) chained up by his neck and being daubed in black paint. OK, the composition of the shots is kind of bleak but I can see the beauty…

And then, men start beating the shit out of one another, left, right and centre. Very brutally. The tone suddenly becomes one of pure aggression, as one slave’s brain is caved in and another is strangled in a highly-theatrical manner. We don’t know why Mads’ character ‘One-Eye’ has been captured, but he appears to be little more than a killing machine. It doesn’t help that he is completely mute; in fact, he doesn’t speak one line of dialogue in the entire film.

The key to ‘One-Eye’ is that he has prophetic visions. Many of these are tinted in a red glow that makes for some very unique shots, whilst others jolt onto the screen with abrupt sound effects that make you jump out of your skin. Considering the Nordic setting, this immediately sets up parallels with Oðin, who in Norse mythology has his eye gouged and is given the gift of prophecy.

In short, ‘One-Eye’ escapes his captors, murders them all brutally, and trudges off into the wilderness with the young boy. They meet a group of Christian Vikings, who are making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to form a new Jerusalem. Upon joining this clan, they sail to a land of vastly different scenery; crags and bracken give way to rippling streams and forests.

But all is not what it seems in this beautiful promised land. As the Vikings start to get in touch with nature, giving in to Pagan impulses, they begin to distrust and ultimately, slaughter one another. Strange men caked in orange earth, covered in runic symbols start to emerge, and One-Eye trudges towards his destiny…

It is not hard to sum up this film in one paragraph as I’ve just done, as that is literally it; this is a film that is very light on traditional plot. In fact, it is painstakingly slow, giving you the impression that it is stretching 15 minutes worth of events into a feature film. It is also unbelievably unusual, if that wasn’t already obvious. Overall, this is one difficult film to even watch, let alone comprehend.

There is a lot to respect in Valhalla Rising, and I think ‘respect’ may be the key word here. It is not necessarily a good film, and it certainly isn’t enjoyable in a typical sense. What it does do however, is seem like exactly the film Nicholas Winding Refn wanted to make. It takes incredible license with convention, and meanders along unhurriedly with little concern for pacing.

Then there’s the content. If we try and pick it apart there are strong allegorical and mythological elements. But nothing is pointed to explicitly in the slightest. Does ‘One-Eye’ really represent the god Oðin? The Christian Vikings seem to represent a new order that would historically replace the Nords’ paganism, but the film’s message seems muddled here, as these crusaders end up being engulfed by forces of nature. Who are the captors we see at the beginning of the film, and why is ‘One-Eye’ castigated by them?

Endless, endless questions that we will never get an answer to. And that’s fine; art doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But the symbolism in the film is just so obtuse, that I don’t even feel like I can offer a tenuous, highly-subjective interpretation of the plot.

And this is what makes Valhalla Rising a special film. It is immune to being pinned down and understood and this will inevitably frustrate many viewers. So here is my advice; just enjoy this film as a sensory experience. It has an incredible ambient soundtrack, it is astonishingly beautiful, and if you persist it will make you slow down to its languid pace.

This must certainly be Nicholas Winding Refn as his most abstract, so now I feel ready for Only God Forgives

The Weirdest Show on Earth


– Seahorses certainly aren’t the strangest thing in Raymond Roussel’s mind.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m a fan of rather strange narratives. Magic realism, absurdism and surrealism all get a hearty thumbs-up in my books. If you were to tell me I was about to read a book that was too outrageous to be truly enjoyable, I would probably splutter, “too outrageous!?”

I also never would have expected such a novel to be a 1914 offering, from long before all the literary flights-of-fancy and experimental whimsies of the 1960s onwards. Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus is that book however, and it is truly redonkulous.

The premise: Famed inventor/scientist/curator Canterel invites a group of guests to come see some of his scientific curiosities in the grounds of his country retreat Locus Solus. The narrative is focalised through an unnamed guest, as he is led with the group to witness a variety of bizarre experiments / artworks.

Firstly, we are shown a baked-mud statue of a child complete with plaques evoking a medieval folktale. After zooming out from the statue, we are greeted with the tale of its construction by indigenous African tribes, and then we jump to 11th century France to be treated to a bizarre tale about inheritance and dreams that is illustrated in the plaques.

The artwork is therefore explained in terms of the stories and histories that it evokes and that led to its production. This is the main framework of Locus Solus: we are shown a ‘curiosity’ and then the narrative leaps back to all of the histories, folktales and events that lead to its invention.

This is rinsed and repeated six times, for each of the inventions that Canterel unveils to his guests. It’s important to keep this structure in mind, because the inventions are going to get a whole lot weirder than just a baked-mud child with some engravings…

The guests are next shown a bizarre pneumatic air-balloon that guided by pre-determined air currents, creates a mosaic out of human teeth. If the weirdness sounds intriguing, it is Roussel’s prose-style that renders it tedious. This contraption is described in painstaking scientific detail for around twenty pages. We are told about the chronometers on it, the properties of the materials used in its construction, the process through which the teeth were extracted from willing volunteers. All of course detailed using the unrelatable terms of early twentieth century science.

After the scientific detail has been taken care of, you get treated to the folkloric detail. What is the picture of the mosaic this machine is making? Well, it depicts an event from a Norwegian fairy-tale contained in a rare tome about a princess being turned into a bird and protected by a floating globe of water. This tale is wrapped in another fable, since it is read by an imprisoned kidnapper in Norway several centuries later. Wheels within wheels. You get the picture.

The craziness continues to escalate, demanding more and more from your ability to suspend disbelief. This is obviously the process through which all fiction works to some extent; if we were constantly trying to assess its truthfulness and point out inconsistencies, literature simply wouldn’t have any appeal. But this is what I think Canterel is playing with in this novel: how much B.S. is a reader willing to put-up with?

I don’t mean this in a flippant way; I believe this is a worthwhile literary experiment and tells us something about our capacity for belief and the demands we make on veracity. Canterel’s contraptions are outrageously absurd, we know that, but they are introduced through the dual means of painstaking scientific accuracy and rigorous historical grounding. All the usual methods that we use to determine validity are applied to the most unimaginable creations. The reader who wishes to dismiss the novel in terms of scientific inaccuracy (from an early 20th century perspective) can’t fault the method: but the madness is nevertheless still glaring.

So, Roussel’s creations manage to fuse the most insane surrealist art and science together; which is an impressive feat given the traditional polarisation of these two camps. The 1959 ‘two cultures’ debate that had literary critic F.R. Leavis foaming at the mouth against science-advocate C.P. Snow was yet to happen, but similar issues are evoked by Roussel’s novel. Can artistic and scientific methods be reconciled? It would appear that they can in the world of Locus Solus, but only when applied to the most bizarre of inventions.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this novel then. But is it enjoyable to read? For the most part: no. Even if we can get a sense of what Roussel is trying to achieve through his clunky, tedious style, it doesn’t make the novel enjoyable or even rewarding on the whole. It is certainly amusing and downright bemusing at points, but this doesn’t balance against the verbose methods of justification that Canterel employs.

Despite the persistence required though, it is hard to argue that this book isn’t unique. It will truly stretch the limits of what you thought fiction could conjure up. Before tackling Locus Solus, you’ve got to ask yourself a few questions:

Do you want to see a skinless cat swimming in a diamond-shaped water tank electrocuting a severed head so that it recites political speeches?

Are you curious about why a reanimated corpse would weave a miniature bonnet out of pear-fibres for a porcelain baby Jesus?

Ever wanted your fortune told by a cockerel that communicates by coughing up blood onto a miniature easel?

Ever wondered what would drive a man to create a ruler out of bacon?

If so, Locus Solus awaits…

Who Wants Eternal Life?

- Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Portuguese author José Saramago deals in big concept books. His well-established classic Blindness is about a bout of contagious blindness that sweeps a nation after all. Death at Intervals, a more recent 2008 novel, works in rather the same vein…at least it appears to at first.

There is only one single named character in Saramago’s novel, and they are introduced more than halfway through. So what happens before that? Well, it’s all very macro really.

“The following day, no one died” opens the novel, as miraculously the citizens of an unnamed country seem to have evaded death. People are pulled out of car-wrecks with horrible wounds that nevertheless don’t kill them, and old people on the brink remain forever in a vegetative state.

For all its wonder and whimsy, Saramago’s novel focusses on the immediate social issues that this strange turn of events leads to. It starts with the funeral homes going out of business and having to re-jiggle their business plans, providing elaborate and expensive funeral services for parrots. Soon, the care homes get overfull and need a new strategy. Not the mention the ironic crisis experienced by the church: if people live forever, then God can’t provide eternal life after death. Needless to say, the country finds itself in the grip of some rather serious issues.

I will say no more of the plot, as it has some interesting and innovative departures from convention, and instead dwell on what makes this book great. Mainly, Saramago’s prose style, which will either have people enamoured or throwing their copy out of the window in frustration. Clearly, since I retained my copy long enough to write this post, I fall into the former category.

Saramago writes huge paragraphs that can often span over two pages, and strangely he doesn’t even use speech marks. The wall of text looms. But why does he do this and why should you put up with it? Well, his run-on style feels strangely out-of-control. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and rapidly gaining mass and momentum. This lends itself perfectly to his content, which charts a situation of increasing volatility, careening out of hand.

He also chucks his speech marks out because he’s one of those ‘meta-’ authors. He likes to highlight that his speech isn’t directly reported; it’s all part of his undifferentiated account of events. This often makes you unsure as to who is meant to be speaking a particular sentence, which chimes with the chaos gripping the city.

These sound like horrible impediments to an easy-read, but they work oh-so-well in evoking the muddled panic that the plot describes. Importantly, the prose is hilarious, crammed with digressions that the narrator gets angry with himself for, absurdly unnecessary details and bizarre personifications, which in this case, includes a rather bitchy scythe.

The first half of the novel is impressively wide in scope, assessing all of the fallout effects of mankind’s greatest desire: to live forever. The country is analysed as if from different disciplines: economic, geographic, political, philosophical, spiritual, and televisual.

Then it suddenly changes tack, and we are greeted with a completely different novel. For all its concentration on mass-movements and concepts, we suddenly plunge into the world of a single individual. Saramago’s prose becomes delicate and emotive whilst fleshing out their psychology. What follows couldn’t be simpler…a love story. In the midst of the mad, cerebral clutter so far this is hugely disarming. As if When Harry Met Sally was suddenly cut into the middle of Blade Runner.

This leaves you with a novel of two halves. Of two very refreshing halves. Each amplifying the other by their stark contrast. From the macro, we get the micro, but no further indication of what to do with the tale. It’s up for us to generalise the moral of the story out from the second-half and realise its ramifications in the context of the whole.

And most importantly, it leaves you feeling really nice and squiggly…which is the last thing I was expecting from a book about death by a conceptual author. Saramago takes an abstract concept, and through all his flights of fancy, condenses it into something that we can not only make sense of, but emote with.

Even though I expected this to be a gem, it defied my expectations. A must-read for anyone interested in kooky concepts; yet for all its eccentricities, you’ll leave with a universal message.

A Field in England

- Just follow the rope.

– Just follow the rope.

I’ve never seen a film like A Field in England before. Newcomer Ben Wheatley’s latest film is his most obscure, surreal and artistic effort to date.  It’s a far-cry from the grim realism of Kill List, and will most likely be labelled pretentious by many. After all, this is a black and white 17th century psychedelic war-drama focussed on metaphysical themes that features The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh. I’m sure that after that sentence those who would despise the film outright have run for hills… so let us continue.

The beating of drums, horns being blown and shuffling feet: these are the sounds that open A Field in England, along with some ambient bass notes. England is in the grip of civil war, but this film does not plan on delving into historical realism… We are introduced to Whitehead (Shearsmith), a somewhat apprehensive and cowardly alchemist’s apprentice who is trying to desert the scene of a raging battle. Julian Barratt as a staunch cavalry commander is shouting after him, using a barrelful of expletives, before he is speared through the chest and dies pointing at Whitehead with a maniacal and accusatory look. So, Julian Barrett is dead, two minutes in!? He was a lead character according to the credits! Oh, don’t worry, in this film, just because someone has been savagely killed, doesn’t stop them from coming back…

Whitehead walks along the hedgerow to find a rag-tag bunch of deserters, who convince him to traipse across the countryside with them in search of the nearest inn. This is the simple premise of A Field in England, serving as the tenuous plot that structures the next ninety minutes. However, the group get rather diverted when they gobble down a stew made from magic mushrooms, and here, strangely enough, things start to go slightly nuts.

The group find a rope that leads to nowhere, they start questing after an obscure alchemical device, horrible things are done behind tent-flaps that turn men into grossly grinning zombies. There is so little cause and effect in this film that it is just downright unnerving. As a viewer, you almost feel like you’ve feel lassoed and dragged along on this perverse, diabolical quest.

Cinematography-wise, this film is spot on; for as the trip gets increasingly more disjointed and nonsensical, we are greeted with abrupt, jolting cuts, that contribute greatly to the sense of unease this film will inevitably inspire. Special mention must be made of a psychedelic ‘experience’ towards the end of the film, a scene that will doubtless go down in film-making history. Possibly one of the most inventive, accurate and downright intense portrayals of drug-use in a feature film, it is worth watching on its own, even if the rest of this bemusing film puts you off.

There is a lot going on thematically in this film, but like a lot of surrealist works, those themes are the only thin tendrils holding it together. And they’re not even that tangible or self-explanatory at that. There’s a lot about divinity and cosmology, determinism and free will (where the rope imagery comes in) and sensory experience vs. intellectual experience. All set against a very particular 17th century background which seems to be relevant but I still can’t quite figure out how…

Ok, so there’s all that stuff going on in it, but what is A Field in England actually like to watch? Well, at first, rather boring. The dull monochrome, slightly-flawed acting and mumbling characters don’t prove for an engaging beginning. But then when it all goes ape-shit, you can’t help but be slightly perplexed and enraptured. I felt profoundly uncomfortable during the middle sections of the film, which were perhaps the most engaging, before it devolved into a hectic, action-heavy ending which seemed rather inconsequential and meaningless.

Looking over this last paragraph, it’s all quite negative, and if I used a star system to rate films I have absolutely no idea how A Field in England would fare…probably not very well at all. Yet, this is a film that I doubt I’ll ever forget, and I felt that it was a completely worthwhile use of the ninety minutes I spent watching it. It is incredibly low budget, the acting is pretty dreadful and it isn’t entertaining for long-stretches at a time… But I’ve also never even dreamed of some of the sequences this film has shown me.

If you’re into strongly visual cinema or a fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, this is for you. If you like pre-enlightenment allegorical morality plays, this is also for you. Otherwise, Ben Wheatley’s latest film is a rather hard pill to swallow. Or should I say mushroom? Either way, it’s stuck in my throat, and it still won’t quite let me forget about it…

Kill List

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley...

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley…

My attention was drawn to Ben Wheatley due to the recent release of A Field in England; an exceptionally strange film that fits snugly into the genre of 17th century psychedelic war-drama. Talk about a film standing in its own field…ahaha. *ahem.* Anyway, intrigued by this young up-and-coming director, I decided it was time to delve into the odd, oppressive world of Wheatley.

Kill List is Wheatley’s second feature-length film and certainly his most well-known. It follows Jay (Neil Maskell), a slightly gritty family man, who is starting to be ground down by the twin pressures of his marriage and the financial debt looming over his head. An opportunity presents itself however, when his old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend come over for what is to be a painfully awkward dinner. We then learn that Jay and Gal have a shared past in the assassination business, and that a new hit has come up; a job for which Jay comes highly recommended. After he reluctantly accepts, the film follows Jay and Gal’s execution of the job, which leads the duo down a rather dark trail…

Sounds like a relatively bog-standard British crime thriller, right? Well as it turns out, Kill List is one of the most inventive, astonishing and downright harrowing films I have seen in recent years. Trust me, there’s no hyperbole here. From midway through the film I was leaning forward, entranced, my mouth slightly open in disbelief. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I had been hit by a train. Five minutes after the credits had finished rolling, I was still staring at the screen and saying ‘fuck’ under my breath.

Why is it so shocking? Well, the violence for one thing. Some of the scenes in Kill List are just downright nasty, but not in a voyeuristic or stylised way. The setting is just so relatable, with recognisable two-up two-down houses, typical English cul-de-sacs, and Neil Maskell cuts an utterly believably character. When violence does erupt therefore, it is just very close to home, and executed with an ethos of savagery-over-style that makes you believe that this could happen right on your front doorstep. I would like to add the disclaimer that if you are at all squeamish, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Wheatley doesn’t want us to look away from the barbarous acts he portrays, and he has built a film so compelling around it, that it pretty much feels like he’s holding your head to the screen, forcing you to watch.

More importantly however, Kill List shocks because of its structure; namely, its insane defiance of genre expectations. This starts off as a kitchen-sink domestic drama. We are pulled into a world of marital squabbles, drunken bonding and bedtimes stories. Then, a third of the way through the film, it turns into something completely different: a hard-boiled, murky crime thriller. And then… oh, and then… let’s just say it changes into something rather different entirely. This is an acrobatic film, using every tool at its disposal to ease you in and get you comfortable with the characters, providing you with some gripping intrigue, and only then, once you realise it’s got you in its unforgiving talons, it throws the whole goddamn playbook out of the window.

Ben Wheatley has proved himself to be a master manipulator through his form, but the technique isn’t even cheap, because everything else in Kill List stands up to scrutiny. The cinematography is novel and effective, using abrupt cuts and black screens to give a rough-edged, erratic feel that suits the content perfectly. All of the roles are played competently and convincingly, giving the impression of an extremely solid film.

You can clearly see the influence of Shane Meadows in Wheatley; this is a film that owes quite a lot to Dead Man’s Shoes’ ruddy bleakness. But there is much more anger and anarchism in Wheatley’s approach to filmmaking; this is someone who is not afraid to take massive liberties with conventions in order to get his visceral point across. This becomes even more apparent in A Field in England which will be the subject of my next instalment…

The Mad King of Bel-Air


“Aarrrrghghghghgghhg…arrrrrrrrghghghghgh” – King Lear

When I heard that Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey the Butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) was playing King Lear in the Globe’s travelling production, I was all like “Unnnncle Phiiiil!!!!” But then I calmed down, and bought tickets.

When my excitement settled, I started to get slightly apprehensive. King Lear is my favourite Shakespeare play and apparently the comedy was going to be brought out in this production. The comedy!? Out of King Lear!? I would be less surprised to hear that Sophie’s Choice: The Musical was coming to town. And as much as I love Mr. Marcell, I could fully imagine a performance he was in devolving into silliness. Also, the run-time had been cut down by a full hour… This was going to be a massacre.

How much the better then that the Globe’s performance swept all of my doubts away. It was at once riveting, terrifying, hilarious and impressive. Joseph Marcell cuts a fierce Lear, barrelling thunder out of his mouth towards his ‘ungrateful’ daughters. As the interval approaches and Lear is foisted into the wilderness, Marcell’s performance becomes all the better as he unleashes the absurd comedy that he is best known for. He is truly able to draw comedy out of the madness, and Buckhurst’s direction has him place emphasis on all the most ridiculous elements.

What demonstrates that this is a strong production is that the comedy doesn’t overbear and detract from the tragedy. If anything, it intensifies it; the abrupt shifts in tone leaving us on the back foot for when Marcell breaks down into a pitiable wreck.

The rest of the cast are all extremely competent, with Dickon Tyrell’s (isn’t that a Game of Thrones character?) portrayal of Kent shining out in particular. The only actor to not play multiple roles, since Kent himself is engaging in a double-act, Tyrell commands the stage with his bold northern accent.

Yes, I did say the only actor to not play multiple roles, because this ambitious production has 8 actors take on 18 roles. Due to the break-neck pace of this production (characters leap on stage whilst the previous scene isn’t even completely finished) the cast become a whirlwind of costumes. Along with the multi-purpose wooden stage which seamlessly converts from court, to hovel, to military battlements, the whole production is reminiscent of a pop-up travelling troupe.

It was not a completely seamless act. I found Oliver Boot’s camped-up Oswald pretty unbearable, along with a scene in which Boot was supposed to be playing two characters at once on stage. Leaping across the stage to have conversations with himself, the play plunged too deeply into farce, which didn’t exactly flatter the more serious subject matter.

This was also the case with the famous eye-gouging scene, which was pretty much played for slapstick, with Reagan squashing an eyeball under her heel and giggling at the audience. Considering the comedic tone of the whole performance, there was potential here to smack the audience in the face by shifting to a darker mood, but alas the farce continued.

These however were my only quibbles, and minor ones at that. The production was a fantastically-blended tragicomedy that proved King Lear need not be all doom and gloom, as is so often the case. The performance continues its run for another week here in Cambridge and I strongly encourage you to see it. If my review hasn’t persuaded you, then ask yourself this question:

Do you want to see Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince, in his pyjamas, wearing a crown of twigs, flapping his arms, squawking like an eagle and leaping off stage into some bushes?

I thought so.

King Lear is running from Wednesday 17th – Saturday 27th July at the Master’s Garden, Corpus Christi College. Tickets can be bought via. Cambridge Arts Theatre: