04 October 2012

Theatrical Delights: NT The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time review

Theatre has become a definite new interest.  I prefer going to the theatre now than most movies.  So, when another chance had arisen to take advantage of the National Theatre Live at Portland's Third Rail Repertory Theatre, I was there.

The National Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time is another example of  amazing stage work that is actually taking place in Britian.  Based the on the 2003 novel of the same name by writer Mark Haddon, the piece expertly adapts the first-person point-of-view book to the stage.  I must, unfortunately, admit that I have never read the book, but knowing the past production value of the National Theatre and being familiar with a couple of the actors in the play I guessed that I would not be disappointed. I was not.

Picture from a www.timeout.com review,
 which gives 4 stars to the piece.
The Curious Incident, as I'll refer to the play from now, had a wonderful stage presence and design.  In contrast to the large main stage used in Frankenstein, this production was played out on a decidedly smaller, more intimate stage, which made me feel at bit closer to the main character, Christopher Boone.  The rest of the company not only acted as other characters, but at times a visual representation of Boone's unique perception of the world (played by Luke Treadaway) around him, as he reacted to the bustle of the train station or simply lying on his bed, takes the audience to his physical space and limitations.

The set was simple, yet ornate.  The only objects on the stage where white boxes, but projections and Treadaway's chalk drawings gave a new dimension that I think could rival the most detailed pieces.  A favorite scene of mine took place on the train. Boxes are set up in rows, as if seats on the train with actors sitting on them when all of the sudden they move to an L-shaped position, lying on the floor next to their boxes.  The POV shifts and suddenly they are, once again, sitting in their seats with a projected scenery speeding by.  I don't know how the actual audience viewed it, but viewing it on the screen, with a changed view was quite impressive.  Another scene featured the same technique having Boone (Treadaway) make his way down a projected escalator.  The stage was at could be a train, a station, a neighborhood, or even Boone's home by the change of lighting and projections.

This is the first time I had seen actor Luke Treadaway, but after this performance I am sure he has a great career ahead of him.  His interpretation of Christopher Boone made someone like who had never read the book and come to the play a bit green, leave the theatre feeling like that had met someone genuine and real.  And, it was fun to see my favorite Mrs. Hudson, Una Stubbs, break out from the confines of Baker Street in this play.

After seeing the play, I do want to read the book for myself soon.  For even though Haddon never claims to be commenting on autism or austim-spectrum disorders, it is clear that Christopher lives with one as do many others in our society.  I think that getting a glimpse into their view and experience in life makes the play and book exceptional works.

03 October 2012

Doyle Delights: Less delight, more dull--CBS's Elementary falls short

Last Thursday night, the 27th of September I spent one hour being bored.  Bored. Bored. Bored. But, I had to watch.  It was Sherlock Holmes! One of the most delightful British delights. Yes, I watched the latest reincarnation of the world's most famous detective.

And, boy is he famous! In an earlier blog, I wrote about the resurgence of Holmes via the Downey Jr./Law Warner Brothers movies and the Cumberbatch/Freeman BBC series.  American television has now decided to throw their deductions in the ring with CBS's Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller as the great detective and Lucy Liu, as a female "Joan" Watson.  Good news:  Elementary is not BBC's Sherlock.  Bad News:  Elementary is not that great of a television show.

At its core, Elementary is an American police procedural made for an American audience.  So, my beef is why call the character Sherlock Holmes at all?  The only things Sherlockian about the show is Miller's British accent, a brief mention of beekeeping, and a police captain called Tobias Gregson.  Bringing this Holmes to New York City and "modernizing" him in this way has stripped the character of Sherlock Holmes to an unrecognizable, unimaginable, and uninteresting detective.  Canonical (and well adapted on-screen Holmes') are far different from this warm, humanistic Holmes.  Elements of this Holmes simply seemed off.  Holmes does eventually become a warmer person (over 50+ stories and 4 novels) but it is does not happen until later, and its moments are fleeting.  Holmes would have never said that he hates it when he's right, on the contrary, he loves it!  He does not "spare feelings", he is brutally honest.  I certainly don't consider myself to be a Sherlockian canon purist, but this one strays a bit too far for me.  

Having a Sherlock Holmes, there must be a Watson.  John or, in this case, Joan...it didn't really matter to me. A female Watson works, it's fine; however, once again when an adaptation goes too far from the original source then something isn't right.  Joan Watson is certainly not Dr. John Watson in more than their difference in gender.  One: she is no longer a doctor.  Watson needs to be a doctor, in some capacity.  I just didn't buy the "sober companion".  She has no military background.  Watson needs a military experience, Watson needs to be ready for their adventures, if there are any "adventures" in Elementary.  These two main pieces of Watson's character have been taken away, not to the detriment of the show, but to the detriment of the character.  As with Holmes, when one takes away the essential elements of a character there is no reason to call them those names.

Luckily Elementary's Sherlock Holmes has a British accent.  Then his name might best be Greg House.  Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes is by far the least traditional Holmes I've ever seen on screen.  Un-kept with a five-o-clock shadow certainly doesn't fit my image of the gentleman that is Sherlock Holmes.  It is just the pilot, but Miller didn't quite seem comfortable with fast-paced dialogue and seemed to make odd, erratic movements appear unatural.  There are some actors that can pull off fast-paced dialogue (i.e. David Tennant's and Matt Smith's  Doctors 10 and 11, or even Rathbone's, Brett's, Downey Jrs., and Cumberbatch's Holmes').  Unfortunately, it felt as if Miller was trying too hard.  Liu is the type of actress that could play a Holmes-type character.  I felt she was too limited in the "sidekick" role, and as it turned out made her own interesting deductions.  She is definitely more than a conductor of light and that may prove to be a problem as well.  In the end, Miller and Liu's performance did not convince me of an immediate friendship that Holmes and Watson shared.  It is likely one that will grow over time.

If Elementary brings new readers or brings people back to the canon, then I couldn't be any happier.  But, will the differences be too much?  Will readers wonder why Holmes is in London?  Why Watson is a male and ex-military? Why isn't Gregson in more stories?  Time will only tell.     

02 August 2012

Olympics 2012: Opening Ceremony and Tennisspotting Day 1

Location, location, location.  Yes, the Olympics location is probably the hitch that has pulled me in...London.  An opening to Olympic coverage from BBC One:

A British Opening: Ceremony review
I have never watched an opening ceremony.  I have never really paid much attention to the Olympics, but again location makes the difference.  So, for the first time I watched the festivities of the opening ceremonies with great interest.  I'll admit it straight off, I didn't make it through the whole event, only through the Bs of the nation march, but the interesting part of the whole ceremony had already past by then.  Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, NT's Frankenstein) did not disappoint.  In a first act, the history of the United Kingdom was played out in Boylian style, as anyone who has marveld and enjoyed his production of Frankenstein can attest, with a tribute to the agrarian lifestyle (accompanied by real animals and English countryside sod) to the industrial revolutionary smokestacks and factories. The Industrial Revolution felt like a scene right out of Frankenstein with huge gears, workers cracking various machines, and the soundtrack of Underworld.  It was Boyle doing what he knows.  Sir Kenneth Branagh took center stage in this act with one of the only speaking parts in the whole ceremony.  

Act two, my personal favorite, focused on children's literature of the UK and the NHS (National Health System).  Performed by actual NHS doctors and nurses playing medical caregivers, we saw an evening in a hospital with bedtime stories and dreams with some of Britian's most well-known evil-doers from Captain Hook to Cruella de Ville and the Queen of Hearts to Lord Voldemort haunting their dreams only to be saved by a fleet of Mary Poppinses.  All quite magical.  JK Rowling introduce the segment by reading a portion of JM Barre's Peter Pan.  The only thing a bit odd was the large baby at the end...couldn't tell if it was cute or creepy.

The third took spectators on a trip of the last 50 years of British pop culture and the evolution of the digital age.  Telling this story through the eyes of a boy meets girl scenario, the audience was taken through a trip on The Tube (via colored tubes carried by performers) and different decades showcasing the best of British music from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols and David Bowie to the ever-modern Muse.  All the while, internet-like images of text messages and status updates pop on screen as the would-be couple makes there way to each other.  By night's (and decade's) end, they have found each other and share a kiss.  

It was an impressive sight on the telly and I can only imagine how much more amazing it was to see on site.  If every opening ceremony is done with such dazzle, I can see why they are highly anticipated.  It was a fun start to the Olympics.  Nice job, Britian!

Opening Ceremony photo from internet press
Olympic Tennis: Day one
As a tennis player and fan, London is a prime spot.  I've enjoyed watching Wimbledon since the days when Pete Sampras and Jim Courier were two top men's players...boy, do those seem far off...and still enjoy catching games and highlights of recent years.  Wimbledon, like Roland Garros or other Grand Slam sites, can be sacred for tennis buffs.  My two trips to clay-court heaven in Paris, are always etched in my mind:  the first as a teenager on a school trip through Paris was an unscheduled, spontaneous stop for me, but I will never forget the enormity and awesomeness of the site, and the second trip I was fortunate enough to actually sit in the audience of early-round matches.  An experience, any Roland Garros spectator knows, that is unforgettable. 

Back to the All England Club and the Olympics, a perfect site to hold the tennis matches, the club gets to host a unique experience for the third time. previously in 1908 and 1948.  Tennis will likely be the only sport I watch and the first day didn't disappoint.  Even from the telly, it seemed the atmosphere was different.  The colors of nations flying on and off the court and the enthusiasm of national spirit flowing from the crowd.  It was a nice change of pace.  Men's doubles matches were two different matches with, I must say, unsurprising results.  I saw two matches of US vs. Brazil with each country taking one win to advance.  One match featured two brothers who have played together a long time and two singles players who were playing together for the first time.  Guess who won and lost?  Yes, the doubles brothers won and singles men lost.  Really, I think that would have been a no-brainer.  Who would pair two great singles players and think they could win when they've never played together?  I think US Tennis will have to rethink a future decision like that.  On the other hand, the Bryan brothers were a joy to watch.  Their match was extremely close and they played like a well-oiled doubles machine.  I'll continue to watch and follow tennis results; I've got Belgians to root for in singles matches and the American brothers in doubles.  My choices are set and maybe on my next trip to England, I will make my trek to the courts at Wimbledon.

30 June 2012

Theatrical Delights: Review of National Theatre Live's Frankenstein

View of Stratford theatre where I saw Taming of the Shrew in 2008
One of the things the British are known for is amazing theatre.  I was lucky enough to experience it for myself when I went to Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon during a visit to England in 2008, and it will be an experience I will never forget.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, or RSC as it is commonly called, is likely the most recognizable company, but London's West End is the equivalent to New York City's Broadway and the city has many of its own theatrical treats--a haven for theatre-going buffs.  One of the best treats in London has to be the National Theatre.  Settled beautifully on the South bank, the National has featured some of the most memorable plays in recent years.  War Horse to One Man, Two Govnurs, and Frankenstein are just a few  of the plays that have made a splash in one form or another.  The National Theatre now broadcasts their best pieces to theatres around the world via National Theatre Live (NT Live).  As a budding theatre-goer, I was particularly attracted to NT Live's Frankenstein.  If I couldn't be in London, I figured a virtual screening of it would be well worth it.  I was not disappointed.

The unique take on director Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Seconds) Frankenstein delivered an amazing interpretation of Mary Shelley's classic novel.  The production's two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature each night throughout the production making it a different play each time:

Miller's Creature and Cumberbatch's Frankenstein
Last summer, I drove up to Portland to one of the only theatres in the state that wisely chooses to screen NT Live productions, the Third Rail Repertory Theatre.  Being unfamiliar with the original novel or  many screen adaptations, (my only Frankenstein was Gene Wilder's hilarious rendition in Young Frankenstein) I was a true novice and learned the story was actually quite different.

The story I saw was nothing to laugh at, but to genuinely contemplate.  Decisions.  Ethical, moral and even societal which are as true today as they were in the 19th Century.  Questions of science and our role in creation hang in the background of the Creature's self-awareness and growth and subsequent chase to the end of the earth, and seemingly time, with his creator.  In the first minutes, the stage is nothing but the Creature's flailing about in attempts at understanding the patterns of movement and learning to walk with no one to guide him.  A blind man educates him and befriends him, but friendship is fleeting for the Creature, which leads him to commit his first act of revenge.  Seeking a real companion, the Creature returns to his creator only to be disappointed and, once again, seeks revenge on he who hurt him.  An act that leaves both Creature and creator seemingly bound to each other.

Miller's Creature was innocent and childlike.  In fact, one great thing about the virtual screening was a behind the scenes intro where the actors explained their inspirations for their performances.  Miller pointed out that he found inspiration from his toddler; therefore, his movement and speech were indeed childlike allowing me to feel sympathy for the character as I saw my own young niece in his honest and unblemished Creature.  The reactions of society to his seemingly unnatural state made him an altogether different being.  Therefore, it made for an amazing contrast to Cumberbatch's Frankenstein.

As a fan of BBC's Sherlock, Cumberbatch's Victor Frankenstein was, for me, a mirror image of the great detective.  That's not a bad thing, in fact, it's a performance that's full of vigor and madness, but also humanity--particularly at the end.  Victor Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes could almost be seen as similar creatures.  Both of them locked into science to do their work and ground their beliefs.  So, though it was an excellent performance, I felt like I had seen it before and, ultimately, the combination of Miller's child-like Creature and Cumberbatch's Holmesian Dr. Frankenstein left me feeling like I had watched an odd episode of Sherlock, instead of a piece of theatre.  In the end, I enjoyed it, but I was left wondering how the other version turned out and how I would have reacted to it.  

A view of the South Bank and the
National Theatre worthy of Frankenstein.Photo courtesy of a friend in
London, Heidi Ober.

Cumberbatch's Creature and Miller's Frankenstein
Last weekend, I had the good fortune to see that other version.  After a hearty meal at one of the few Brit pubs in town, I was able to go to an encore viewing of Frankenstein via NT Live and Third Rail Repertory Theater.  If I had to choose between one of the two as the better piece of theatre, this version would be my pick.  The story was exactly the same so I did focus more on the brilliant technicalities of the staging and lighting.  Unfortunately, a virtual screening does not do the scenery justice, but I could tell that the bunch of simple strings of light bulbs, a modern soundtrack, and the sparing use of scenery set an unforgettable stage.  Not to mention a turning and raising piece of the stage!  The technical aspects benefited both versions and was an added dimension that I'd never seen in a play.

Cumberbatch's Creature was exquisite.  That's the only word for it.  A completely different interpretation and performance to his co-star which seemed to make the play tell a different, yet familiar, story.  Cumberbatch revealed, in the behind the scenes intro, that his interpretation of the Creature came from adults who had to re-learn movement and speech a second time in contrast to a child learning them for the first time.  The difference in the two performances was evident in the first scene. I was grateful for the close camera angles as Cumberbatch's body twisted and writhed in the attempts to learn and master movement (he'll make one heck of a Smaug!).  In contrast to Miller's speech pattern which, much like a child, seemed to improve upon more practice, Cumberbatch visibly continued to struggle with speech even after learning to read.  Even with the role of the Creature switched the themes and questions posed were still evident.  The societal outcast and abandoned creation of Frankenstein was even more sympathetic this time around due to the continued clear and striking difficulties manifested by the Creature.

Miller's Victor Frankenstein was a calmer, more controlled version in my eyes.  His dedication and belief in his work was still there; however this creator appeared to be more frightened and unsure of what to make of his creation, as opposed to the wild, fast-talking Frankenstein portrayed by his co-star.  All in all, my preferred version of play.  The RSC released a recorded version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart on disc and I have enjoyed it despite not being able to see the original.  If the National Theatre were to do something similar, they would already have one sale!  And, if Frankenstein ever gets to Broadway, as War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors have done, a trip to New York may be warranted.

Both versions of Frankenstein were worth an outing for this theatre-goer and I wouldn't have missed any of them.  I am only slightly disappointed I couldn't be in the London audience last year.

04 June 2012

Doylian Delights: Doyle's former home--Undershaw--saved from development!

Undershaw Saved!
in Oregon adds its voice to the campaign.
The local Baker Street Irregular scion

At 2:30am on the 30th of May I was still up and, it turns out, it was a good thing because I got to hear the news when those of us on this side of the Atlantic who cared where either tucked away in bed or maybe starting their day. 

A cause that had become important to me a couple of years ago--the preservation of Conan Doyle's residence Undershaw, came to a head last week with a judicial review in London's Royal Courts of Justice. On  April 23 the Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT), an organization dedicated to preserving the building, went to court to oppose a decision that would grant permission for the property to be split up into nine separate homes.  The Trust was backed and supported by a global campaign of people from around the world who did not want to see the author's home destroyed for future generations.  After a day in court, the judges took the opportunity to delay the decision.  The judgement could have taken as long as two months, but a week later a judgement was announced that planning permission 'must be quashed' because of  'legal flaws' during the process.  

John Gibson, a Conan Doyle scholar who helped found UPT, reacted to the news by saying that it had been a long and difficult battle, but he was thrilled with the decision to 'quash planning permission to redevelop the property'.  

He also said, " Conan Doyle's life and works are a fundamental part of British culture and arguably their stock has never been higher.  We have been absolutely delighted to see enthusiasts from across the world get in touch and pledge their support to our efforts."

What's next?

Now that the permission has been halted, what's next for the Trust and Undershaw?   The Trust continues to work on preservation by submitting an application for an upgrade in status from grade II to grade I.  What does that mean?  According to the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport website,   a grade II buildings are noted as 'special interest'.  It means the building is 'protected against unauthorized demolition, altering or extension', which means if proper channels are taken then it allowed to be changed.  Grade I is a building with 'exceptional interest' and could not be changed under any means. There are several criteria for each listing.  Undershaw has been listed as grade II since 1977.  

The ultimate goal for the property would be to see it preserved as a single building, and as a museum or centre for future generations.  Claude Monet's home at Giverny outside Paris, France, and Horta's home in Brussels, Belgium, have been restored and converted into just such sites of cultural and historic information.  Having visited Giverny myself and being an enthusiat, I would love to see Undershaw preserved and restored in such a fashion.  I would pilgrim to England PDQ to experience the place where Conan Doyle worked, lived and wrote and resurrected perhaps his most (in)famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.  I am happy to have done what I could do (and will continue) for this worthy cause.  Yay, Yay, Yay!


26 April 2012

Doylian Delights Book Review: 'An Entirely New Country' for an entirely worthy cause, Undershaw.

My Introduction to Sir Arthur C. Doyle: 
It was exciting to get this particular book in the mail.  I had a feeling I would enjoy it since my ever-growing Sherlockian tendencies find me reading (even re-reading) most of the canon stories over the last few years.  It did not disappoint.

My first foray into learning more about the creator of Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is through Alistair Duncan's excellent book An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes.  Duncan's book, which focuses on the ten-year period Conan Doyle spent at his home Undershaw in Hindhead, Surrey, England, develops a tantalizing timeline of events in Conan Doyle's life in and around Undershaw that shows not only the author, but a potential politician, avid sportsman, and family man.  The years between 1897 and 1907 spent at Undershaw, we learn via Duncan, were full of  activity for both Sherlock Holmes and his creator.

As a reader of Holmes, the most insightful years on the timeline is the year of 1901 and the beginnings of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Much like today, the phenomena that is Sherlock Holmes continued even after his "death".  The background and ultimate reaction to possibly the most famous adventure was so interesting that I found myself jotting little reactions and notations in the margins.  And it seemed that even more than 100 years later, I was finding similarities between our 21st and early 20th century societies making my read even more extraordinary.  Sherlock's eventual return soon followed in 1903 and '04, which are surely sections of equal interest to Holmes readers.

Leaving 1907 and returning to 2012 left me wanting to learn more about Sir Arthur and the times that he lived.  A recommended read for any fan of Sherlock Holmes, whether one is a recent or longtime fan.  The final pages of the book show Undershaw in its current state:  a rather sad and dilapidated shell of what it once was.  Today, it is in danger of  being torn down and rebuilt into townhouses.  For the past couple years, there has been a great effort to spread the word across England (and the world) in order to save the home.  Duncan's book is part of that effort with proceeds from the book going towards the cause.    

The Cause: Saving Undershaw-the ten-year residence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Undershaw during Conan Doyle's tenure.
This picture can be found in the book. 
One of the things I love about England (and Europe in general) is history.  There is so much to absorb and to imagine.  You could be standing in a street, cathedral/church, house, or sometimes even a pub and be in the midst of history.  Literary history is no exception.  London is filled with Dickens.  Bath has Jane Austen connections.  Undershaw should be part of that literary history.

Noteworthy information :
  • The first design drafts of Undershaw were done by Conan Doyle. 
  • Apart from the house of Thomas Hardy, Undershaw is the only literary house in England that can claim the resident's input in its design.
  • Conan Doyle came up with the name of Undershaw for his new home. 
  •  Undershaw was used a small hotel and restaurant for almost 70 years, where it was visited by many Doyle and Holmes enthusiasts.
The state of Undershaw today: broken and boarded. 
Much has been done to raise awareness over the past couple years.  The Undershaw Preservation Trust was formed and is working hard to fight the plans for development.  Awareness efforts have increased as the date for judicial review gets closer.  Fans and enthusiasts from all over the world are now doing what they can to save the site such as taking photos from various sites all over the world with a message to "Save Undershaw".  In London, local Sherlock fans gathered in Trafalgar Square to inform locals and tourists about the state of Undershaw with great success.

Despite all the efforts there still can be much more to help save this historic, literary site.  Please visit the Undershaw Preservation Trust website for more information on the Trust and Undershaw itself.