Tag Archives: parody

Review: The Death of Stalin watched at Chapter Cinema Studio.

4 Stars4 / 5

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin pokes  irreverent fun at the likely sense of paranoia and ambition surrounding the demise of the tyrant and is hysterically funny.  

Production Details

 

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Written by Armando Iannucci et al

Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov; Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin; Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina; Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev; Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin; Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov; Paddy Considine as Comrade Andryev; Richard Brake as Tarasov;  Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria; Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan; Jonathan Aris as Mezhnikov; Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich

Country: France and the UK

Time: 106 minutes

Cert: 15 for strong language throughout and infrequent scenes of strong violence

Story of The Death of Stalin

The film is based upon the French Graphic novel La mort de Staline, which depicts the final days of Stalin and the upheaval occasioned by the death of Josef Stalin in 1953,  amongst leading members of the  Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The film shouldn’t be taken as a statement of historical fact, although in many ways it is surprisingly accurate.

Stalin’s court of the Red Tsar was so grotesquely idiosyncratic that it contained within its morose heart a strong vein of absurdity. If you want real history, go to a history book not a film, especially not a comedy. But surprisingly, the details are excellent: the khaki facade and wood panelling of Stalin’s mansion, the line of phones, the Packard limousines, the white summer suit of Malenkov. Yes, there are mistakes: the NKVD secret police was then the MGB; most of the titles are wrong. Molotov,
Mikoyan and Beria had all been sacked as ministers of foreign, trade and internal affairs four — or, in Beria’s case, eight — years earlier, and so on, but none of that matters.

Extracted from an article by Simon Sebag Montefiore featured in the Culture Magazine of the Sunday Times ( September 24 2017).

The film start with a supremely funny episode where the Russian pianist Maria Yudina is playing the achingly beautiful 3rd movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 which is being played on Russian State Radio. A phone call from Stalin to the director says he wants a recording of the concert just as it has finished. Of course, the concert has not been recorded, and as the orchestra and audience disperse, the direct frantically recalls them so that they can do part of the concert again, this time recording it. By now, the conductor has had an accident involving a blow to the head, the pianist will only play for a large sum of money and a team is sent out to the streets of Moscow to shanghai anybody they can find to fill the gaps in the audience and create a sufficient level of applause. Of course, the people that are brought in are the last you would expect at a classical concert, the dregs and low class of Moscow society. An eminent conductor is himself kidnapped from his bed to conduct and he turns up attired in dressing gown and pyjamas.

The pianist, has managed to sneak in a defamatory note within the record sleeve of the now recorded performance, which, when read by Stalin causes a cerebral hemorrhage subsequentally leading to his death.

Ludicrous as this seems, it does have an element of truth. Maria Yudina was playing this very Mozart piece in 1944, (not 1953 as in the film), at a concert live on Soviet,  radio when Stalin so taken by the performance, asked for a recording. However, as it was a live recording, it didn’t exist. So Maria was dragged out of her bed in the middle of the night and a makeshift small orchestra was assembled and the recording was made during the small hours with the one pressed copy going to Stalin.

It just goes to show that even the most coarsest of Georgian dictators can have the most supreme taste in music.

Maria’s sending of the note is totally fictitious and potentially libelous excepting the fact that she has been dead for forty seven years. This storyline does feature in the graphic novel and has been transferred to the film.

The director has cleverly adapted this truthful event into the plot of the story recognising its comedic potential. This is a prime example of Armando Ianucci’s supreme eye for comic material based on elements of fact.

The Script

The script maintains a high level of wit throughout; or at least, until the harder edged final twenty minutes. An abundance of highly amusing lines pervade throughout. I particularly liked the line uttered by Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev when given the dubious honour of managing the state funeral of Stalin.

Whilst his assistant is making Stalin as beautiful that a dead dictator can be, he complains, insisting he hurries things alone,  that He isn’t Clark Gable.

Incidentally, Gable was one of Stalin’s favourite actors.

There is anoter scene which comes straight out of Monty Python, and I don’t write that just because Michael Palin appears in it. Beria has kept his wife secretly in prison and Palin’s character Molotov, trying to ingratiate himself with the all-powerful spymaster and head of security, when his wife’s name comes up refers to her as a treacherous spy and other extremely abusive terms, not knowing that Beria has released his spouse who is standing just behind the door but not in Molotov’s view. Beria and Khrushchev knowing about the presence are increasingly getting more and more uncomfortable so Beria, to save further embarrassment announces her presence, so that when she walks in Molotov greets her with effusive affection in the total opposite manner that he had second before showed.

The Cast

If ever a more talented comedic ensemble class has been out together for a film in recent years, I would like to know about it. The talent on display is breathtaking. Mostly British, there are a couple of notable exceptions including the brilliant Steve Buscemi, Is there a better character actor in film today? Simon Russell Beale might be the one more likely to win awards for his portrayal of the brilliant, ruthless and ultimately dead Beria. He carries the right balance of playing an evil man but in a comedic way.

Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, becoming more and more paranoid due to Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev insistence that he will protect her in the aftermath of her father’s demise, when she had been previously unaware that she needed to be protected in the first place.

Rupert Friend as Svetlana’s crazed brother Vasily, is extremely funny, especially when it comes to composing and delivering his late father’s eulogy.

For me, the pick is Jason Isaacs, who doesn’t appear until half way through the film. However the wait is worth it. His portrayal steps right out of the graphic novel. He is totally OTT playing General  Georgy Zhukov with a broad northern accent and no-nonsense approach to all things militaristic. This is actually very close to the characteristics of the real life General – excepting he wasn’t a Lancastrian.

I could go on because there are other brilliant caricatures in this film.

Summary

This is the funniest film that I have seen in years. Admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but unlike so many other films of this genre, although it is totally OTT,  Ianucci manages to keep matters from getting out of control. The cast seem to have been enjoying making the movies as well as filmgoers receive it, which is usually a good sign. I recommend this unreservedly to those of you who like Ianucci’s work, (Veep), Monty Python fans and the films of Wes Anderson.

Critical Response

It has been received overwhelmingly positively and has a score of 7.7 on IMDB and a 96% approval rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

Trivia

A principal location used for The Death of Stalin is  “Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, West Kensington, London. This property which nowadays stores artificats from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, was used as “The Circus” in the 2011 adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy.

The film may well be banned in Russia, although it has a distributor in that country. n September 2017, a high-ranking official in the Russian Ministry of Culture said the Russian authorities were considering a ban on the film, which, he alleged, could be part of a “western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society.” That line could come right out of this film.

Official Trailer 

 

For listings at Chapter please go to

https://www.chapter.org/death-stalin-15

It plays until 9th November

Roger Barrington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review Of Mice and Men at the Chapter Seligman Studio presented by August 012

2 Stars2 / 5

 

August 012 performs John Steinbeck’s  Of Mice and Men for laughs and misses the mark by a country mile!

Introduction and Background

John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella was a new genre of work that Steinbeck invented. In his own words, it was strictly, neither a novel or a play, but a play/novelette.  In his eyes, he recognised that the novel was in a moribund state, but theatre was “coming alive”.  This genre used chapters for curtains and is scened in such a way that it can directly be transformed into a play. He eventually decided to write a play,  “in the physical technique of a novel.”

The story is about two itinerant farm workers who travel the road looking for work during the Great Depression of the United States in the early 1930’s.  Steinbeck was born and brought up in Salinas in California, and he witnessed the impact of over 300,00 migratory workers from the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and primarily and other prairie states had on his part of California.

The two workers, George who is intelligent and worldly but uneducated, and Lenny, his mentally disabled companion. They both dream of living in a better place in a better world, but their destinies are realised when they arrive to work at a plantation.

It is easy to relate this to the current situation in South Wales in terms of disillusionment and lack of hope, the displacement of individuality.  The explosion of migratory workers suggests, (without the nationalistic connotations), to the reasons why many people voted for Brexit last year.  So, it’s an ideal play to put on in this location and social climate.

The first production of the play, at the Theater Union of San Francisco opened to favourable reviews on 21st May 1937 and shortly afterwards.  it opened on Broadway, with legendary actor Broderick Crawford as Lenny.

If you look at the photograph of Lenny and George above, one thing that strikes me is that it heightens the claustrophobic intensity which is a feature of both the play and the novel. George and Lenny are trapped in their own sad world, and this has to be an essential feature of any production of Of Mice and Men.

August 012 Production Of Mice and Men

CAST

Anthony Corria; Sara Gregory; Neal McWilliams; Tom Mumford; Wil Young

All actors, with the exception of the two protagonists, George (McWilliams) and Lenny (Young) play multiple parts.

Director: Mathilde Lopez

Set Design: Tina Torbey

Lighting: Ace McCarron

Sara Gregory

Wil Young

Neal McWilliams

Tom Mumford

Anthony Corria

 Production Design

Just before entering the auditorium, I had a brief conversation with a member of the production team. The show had been sold out for its entire run, so, due to its popularity, I asked her whether it would tour. She answered in the negative, saying that the production was an expensive one due to the stage design, and it had been tailor made for the venue. So, then I asked her whether it would be brought back later on and she stated that this is a possibility, due to the demand from local schools, many of which were unable to be catered for during the run. I also overheard her say that this production had drawn from both the book and play sources.

Upon entering the space, I could see why touring is an impossibility. The stage had been crafted in such a way that it fitted the shape of the auditorium and could not be easily adapted to another space . There is no central stage, and effectively, it is a theatre in the round, with audience seated on each side.

Located in roughly all four corners were microphones and a dozen lampshades, some lit are overhead. Wide spaces between the rows of seat, enables the actors to move freely around. This results in a slightly negative way for you either have to turn your ahead around to see all of the action, or use your imagination.

The Show

When the play starts, Lenny and George are speaking to each other using the microphones and at diagonally opposite sides of the auditorium. This destroys the intimate, claustrophobic essential feature of the story immediately.

There is a great deal of audience participation in the production. This is fun, but, again, distracts from being focused on George and Lenny’s enclosed existence. It all gets rather manic  from time to time.

However, My main criticism is based upon the way that the dreaming of a better world is played. Using a filmic technique, or at least, this is the impression it left on me, George spoke into his microphone with background music and such a way it parodied either Hollywood or itself. At times, George reminded me of a demented evangelist.

This technique is used to better effect when the only female in the story, Curley’s wife speaks in a highly sensualised way.

Another example where the integrity of the story is shattered is with the shooting of Candy’s dog. This is a very important segment of the story. Candy’s old sheepdog had outlived its usefulness and according to Carson’s blunt should be put down as it stunk out the bunkhouse. The death foreshadows Lenny’s shooting by George at the story’s finale and also symbolises, through a developing pattern of creatures being crushed by Lenny, and ultimately, the fate of the rabbits and via, the fate of the Safe House”, the idealised world that the protagonists and Candy dream of.

The part of the dog is selected by a random member of the audience, who is led off stage to its fate. The audience member, naturally, looking a little embarrassed and smiling nervously, trudges off to the great amusement of everyone, thereby killing the dramatic impact. I didn’t hear a shot offstage, which might have readdressed the balance. Candy, later returns with copious amount of blood on his hands and the audience dog “actor” returns to his seat.

Neal McWilliams, (George) is the pick of the actors on display and Sara Gregory provides some nice cameos. She has to play both Curley and his wife, and if I am not mistaken, the role of Candy is played by two different members of the cast. This is a little confusing, but difficult to avoid with only five actors cast.

Another feature that didn’t work was the interchanging between the use of the microphone and natural voice within the same soliloquy. I didn’t see the point of this and I feel that it distracts from what is being said.

Summary

Of Mice and Men is a study of the hopes and dreams of men and of the necessity for men to have dreams. But these hopes and dreams are contrasted with the reality of the harsh world in which men must exist,
and the setting, costumes, lighting, and acting style must reflect this concept of contrast.

This is taken from a dissertation from undergraduate student Saralee O’Neill approved by the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in 1985. It sums up my argument perfectly. Being innovative, which this production most certainly is, doesn’t necessarily make it good theatre. The integrity of the story and Steinbeck’s deep feelings on this subject have to be maintained. Steinbeck wrote what he felt and what he knew about firsthand.

I concede that this production is very entertaining. The majority of the audience were senior school students, and, in the most part, their attention was maintained throughout, which is a considerable achievement in itself. I have taught this novella at University in China, and I wonder whether the students really were truly informed about this work of literature based upon what they had watched. I am of the opinion, that they hadn’t.

If your “Theatre bag” is of the One Man, Two Guvnors ilk, then you will probably love this production, but Steinbeck – it ain’t.

The run ended on 28th October 2017, but may return.

Roger Barrington