Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 2

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2015 by Mistlake

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Having lost France in its entirety, England is in turmoil. The people’s discontent is brewing, and the peers of the realm pounce upon the weakness of their king Henry VI, plotting against him and each other to further their own agendas. In fact, the seemingly unassuming Richard Duke of York even has his mind set on winning the throne for himself.

This play (originally titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster just to confuse things) is quite a different animal from Part 1. The second part is an entirely domestic affair, although the shadow of the failed French wars lingers over everything going on, and the play has enough to chew on without going abroad for material. Too much to chew on, perhaps, for it lacks the sleek narrative flow of its predecessor (which, in all fairness, was written a couple of years later).

Characters abound as Shakespeare tries to cram in everyone who had any significant part to play in the War of the Roses and its surrounding occurrences. People like Lord Scales (the master of the Tower of London) and Alexander Iden (who earns the king’s gratitude in a specific way) and others have one or two scenes apiece, making 2 Henry VI a little bit scattershot, the very epitome of the confusing history play, where numbers of people show up all of a sudden without much context or explanation. On the one hand, this displays an uncommon degree of verisimilitude on Shakespeare’s part, since he’s not playing as fast and loose with historical accuracy as he would later in his career, but on the other hand, one could perhaps wish he had combined certain characters to reduce the number of bewildering cameos. I consider myself possessed of a tolerable knowledge of English history, but I’ve still had to read and watch 2 Henry VI a few times to make sense of it.

Compounding the problem of this wild-grown garden of personages is the fact that it takes quite a while before anything resembling a central character emerges. The title character is feebler than ever, a mere pawn in the power games played around him, and while York is constantly in the background pulling strings, he is not actually on stage that much (something that changes in Part 3). However, once York tasks commoner Jack Cade with starting a rebellion, Cade becomes the sole focus of the dramatics.

Cade and his ignorant, easily swayed followers (mainly butchers, weavers and other craftsmen) become the colourful character roster the play sorely needs. The one performance I’ve seen of 2 Henry VI (the BBC one from 1983) makes this rabble army tremendously annoying goons you just want to see punished severely this instant, not for their rebellion, but for their knuckle dragging apishness. In the text of the play, Cade and company are still repulsive enough in their hatred of anything above their own atavistic level (for instance, they kill a man just for being able to write his own name), but they’re also quite entertaining. Cade himself is a vicious, remorseless killer and iconoclast, horrifying in his brutish passion for violence and destruction, but he is also a buffoon. His pretentions and ludicrous claims of noble blood have his own people making continual fun of him behind his back. This mixture of frightening monster and blithering idiot makes Cade unforgettable even apart from the strangely 20th Century-sounding communist dictatorship he promises his adherents if they will help put him on the throne.

While Cade is far and away the most vivid character in the play, we’re also introduced to someone who will become more electrifying yet: York’s son Richard, who will of course go on to star in his own play, Richard III, as the vilest bastard in all of Shakespeare’s work (with possible competition from Iago). Richard doesn’t show much of his evil in 2 Henry VI, but it’s good to “see” him. He, like his father, becomes more prominent in the next play in the sequence.

There is much murder and mayhem in the pages of 2 Henry VI, so one can’t fault its liveliness. It’s an action packed play, a sprawling historical pageant where you can’t complain about the spectacle, drama, dialogue, juicy scheming or even humour, but whose overall construction would have been more elegant if Shakespeare had done his usual thing, suiting history to his story rather than the other way around. Maybe one can excuse him, since 2 Henry VI was one of his earliest plays. Also, while it does have a proper ending, it does feel like its main job is setting the stage for Part 3, which deals with the War of the Roses proper.

For all the play’s flaws and perhaps youthful inexperience, the verse is smooth and gorgeous, containing a classic line or two (“First thing we’ll do let’s kill all the lawyers), as well as stage directions which are too detailed for me to believe they were written by Shakespeare himself. There is no shortage of dramatic speeches and intense emotion in the unsurpassed language that is so characteristic of Shakespeare’s work.

Still a fine play, it’s just that we know that old Shakes could do so much better.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Book review: William Shakespeare – Henry VI, Part 1

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2015 by Mistlake

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King Henry V is dead, and his son Henry VI is too young and inexperienced to effectively wield the royal power. During the incessant wars with France, England faces a new, formidable foe in the shape of Joan de Pucelle (that’s Joan of Arc to you), who rallies the French Dauphin Charles and his forces to renewed and successful efforts against the English. In the midst of all this, a power struggle commences between Lord Somerset and Richard Duke of York, who following a quarrel pick a red and a white rose respectively to be the symbol of their factions. Thus the seeds are sown for the War of the Roses which will throw England into civil war.

The fifth play in the sequence beginning with Richard II.

Like most of Shakespeare’s history plays, The First Part of Henry VI has a complicated story and an enormous cast to make it feel rather daunting to a first time reader. This potential barrier is felt even more keenly when one knows that the narrative continues through two further, even more complex plays (and beyond them into Richard III). There really is no easy way into this enormous dramatic project, except to realise that Part 1 can be read as a stand-alone work.

My suggestion would be to attain a working knowledge of English history from the 14th Century to the 16th, and to read each play more than once, and if possible see them performed. You will be rewarded by seeing the many characters transform from an impenetrable forest into individual trees, by beginning to see just how skillfully Shakespeare has streamlined and dramatised the tangle of historical events, and by being able to smugly point out the historical facts he got wrong and the things he (or the chronicles he used as sources) simply made up.

Is it worth all this work? Maybe not if you regard it as work, but if you take joy from the process itself, the gradual clarity acquired will make you appreciate just what a thing of beauty this play is. There is a small minority who claim that the Henry VI sequence is the best thing Shakespeare ever wrote. I beg to differ, but like many of his works, these plays improve with each reading, and even the very first time there is no denying the power and beauty of the verse – it echoes and booms one minute, only to turn to trilling birdsong the next.

Evidently, Shakespeare didn’t write 1 Henry VI on his own; the evidence points to collaborators or to Shakespeare simply revising an older play, but if such is the case, the other hands involved were brilliant in their own right, for while there is some difference of expression within the play, the words remain uniformly gorgeous. The verse, which I think is the main reason why people read 1 Henry VI, has a remarkable number of rhymed couplets, which is unusual for Shakespeare, who generally favoured the more natural sounding unrhymed blank verse. The many rhymes, sometimes in alternating lines spoken by two different characters, make the dialogue sound more like interconnected poems than people talking, and when there are prolonged stretches of this, it does grow rather stilted. That’s nothing good actors can’t handle, of course, but it might be an obstacle to the reading flow if one is reading to oneself. Whatever its merits as dialogue, there is no questioning the fine quality of the poetry as such.

The complex story is solidly structured as the setting moves between England and France: the narrative divides itself neatly between increasingly violent disagreements at the English court on the one hand, and the tribulations of the wars in France on the other. There are threads connecting the two, such as the quarrel between York and Somerset preventing reinforcements from arriving in time, leading to a military disaster. Once one becomes familiar with the play and acquainted with the proliferation of names and titles (which would have been common knowledge in Shakespeare’s day), one finds it remarkable how much narrative sense the author(s) manage to create in this sprawling drama.

There is evidence to suggest that 1 Henry VI was written after the second and third ones, and if you know this, you can actually see signs of this being a prequel of sorts: before the events of the plays to follow, Richard Plantagenet needs to regain his lost title as Duke of York, which happens rather summarily, and most importantly, there needs to be some background to and foreshadowing of the War of the Roses, which dominates parts 2 and 3. This latter goal is achieved through 1 Henry VI’s most famous scene, the one in the garden, where the future enemies pick their different coloured roses. This scene is of course pure invention without historical precedent, but it is clever, beautiful and economical in a storytelling sense, as it cuts to the chase rather than have the characters tediously going on and on about the real and inconceivably convoluted events behind the war.

Looking at the surfeit of characters, there are a few who immediately stand out even on first reading. Two of them would be the main villains, both of whom, interestingly, have religious connotations: the not terribly pious Bishop of Winchester, who is utterly implacable and greedily ambitious, and of course Joan of Arc, who is revered as a saint in France, but is presented here in accordance with English tradition as a Satanist witch bitch with nary a redeeming feature. Then there is powerhouse soldier Talbot, whose martial prowess would put Ajax to shame. His super power – killing Frenchmen by the truckload – is not his most interesting feature, however. Much more intriguing is his passionate pride in his family name and the glorious reputation thereof, which informs the play’s single most touching and emotional scene. Another character, Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York, comes across as quiet and reasonable, and as a consequence less colourful than the people arguing and fighting around him, but he will play a much more important role in the second and third installments. Also, he is of course the father of Shakespeare’s perhaps greatest villain.

1 Henry VI may act as a prequel, but importantly, it does stand firmly on its own two feet, giving us a dramatic, violent and deeply felt tale of heroism, defeat, civil strife and foreign wars, with lashings of patriotic regret at the manner in which the military victories and conquests of Henry V were so quickly negated following his death. Henry VI himself may be a secondary character in the plays bearing his name, but there is nothing secondary about this play in the oeuvre of Shakespeare: commencing with a funeral and ending with a truce, The First Part of Henry VI sports a beginning, middle and end, all filled with enough poetry, bombast and stormy action to satisfy any sensible admirer of Elizabethan drama. In my firmly held opinion, it is far superior to the more widely lauded Henry V.

Followed by Henry VI, Part 2 and Part 3.

 

Rating: 8 of 10.

William Shakespeare

Film review: Horror Express (1972)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Eugenio Martin. Writers: Arnaud d’Ussau, Julian Zimet. Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Alice Reinheart, Ángel de Pozo, Helga Liné, George Rigaud, Juan Olaguivel.

This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1906, and professor Alexander Saxton (Lee) has discovered a frozen, prehistoric ape in Manchuria. He intends to take it back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. Before he can even depart the station, however, he already has one dead body to puzzle over, its eyes strangely turned white. During the train journey, Saxton and his old acquaintance Dr. Wells (Cushing) realise that what they thought was a dead ape is in actual fact a frisky critter bent on using its vast mental powers to cause a great deal of harm.

All right, there is much that’s hokey about Horror Express, primarily the clueless pseudo-science babble and the monster’s wildly inconsistent back story, which can’t decide whether it’s a supernatural being or just a highly evolved one. There are other bugs too: if the creature has been stranded on Earth since the rise of the first protozoans, say a billion years, what makes it think that its own civilization is still in existence? And then there’s … but no, I find this a film that’s quite difficult to wax grumpy about, despite my natural proclivities.

Plainly spoken, Horror Express is a wonderful horror movie. The script may be silly at times and repetitious at others, but Eugenio (he calls himself “Gene” here) Martin’s tight direction, together with the lovely turn of the century sets and rich cinematography, makes this fine and often superbly creepy hybrid of old style Gothic horror and the newer, gorier stuff of the 1970s.

The makeup effects are quite good too, especially the gory ones (for instance, Cushing once more gets to saw open yet another brain case) and the ones showing the monster’s glowing red eyes and its victims’ white ones. These effects, and the rather more iffy monster suit, are intelligently lit and shot by DOP Alejandro Ullea to make them look their best.

Tension is derived from the tried and true isolated environment of a train barreling through the wilderness, in this case Siberia, which is beautifully evoked by snowy model landscapes shot in atmospheric blue hues. When the creature starts exhibiting new abilities, namely the power to transfer its consciousness into other life forms (which explains how it ended up as an ape in the first place), suspense mounts. The viewer is at all times aware of the monster’s identity, but the characters in the story are not, which adds to the horror as our heroes try to find a way to identify the danger. Given the nature of the creature, its motives and abilities, Horror Express actually makes me think of The Thing, particularly John Carpenter’s 1982 remake. The icy isolation adds to that feeling, and Horror Express has the same kind of “who can you trust?” paranoia to it. Of course, the protagonists of The Thing aren’t British, which according to Cushing’s character makes all the difference …

All that I’ve spoken of so far would have been enough to make this an impressive little horror film of some originality, but there is one more element that makes it stand out, and that is the combination of actors, characters and dialogue. Much like in Murder on the Orient Express, the train abounds with colourful people, all of whom are important to the plot one way or the other. Notable are the Rasputin clone Pujardov (de Mendoza), a monk who goes crazier with each mile the train travels, and late-appearing guest star Savalas as scenery chewing Cossack Captain Kazan, as well as Reinheart as Cushing’s butch assistant Miss Jones.

Unsurprisingly, though, Horror Express belongs to Lee and Cushing fair and square. The script thankfully gives them some excellent lines, both serious and funny, to counterbalance the “scientific” derpaderp they have to spout. It also provides them with some nice scenes of physical action, not least when the movie goes completely batty at the end. Cushing and Lee were of course friends in real life, and it’s a shame they were almost exclusively cast as adversaries, because Horror Express shows just how much fun they could be when on the same side. You can tell they’re enjoying themselves (despite Cushing’s personal reasons for initially not wanting to do the film), and the dynamic is still there between them, since Lee’s pompous and rather aggressive Saxton is perpetually annoyed by and disapproving of Cushing’s curious, rule breaking  and mischievous Wells. Yet they end up working together against the threat, and it’s a joy to behold.

Horror Express is one of those curiosities, an enormously entertaining horror film that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The best commendation I can give it is that I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen it.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Film review: The Penalty (1920)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , on June 11, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Wallace Worsley. Writers: Charles Kenyon, Philip Lonergan, based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris. Starring: Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Charles Clary, Claire Adams, James Mason (no, not that one), Milton Ross, Kenneth Harlan.

A boy has both his legs needlessly amputated after a traffic accident. He grows up to become crime lord Blizzard (Chaney), whose decadent excesses include, but are not limited to, getting revenge on doctor Ferris, who maimed him, and an epically insane plan to loot San Francisco in its entirety.

This is a special one. Following the charming “mutilated child” overture, The Penalty at first appears to be a relatively standard gangster caper, but it gradually goes decidedly demented, introducing more and more bizarre elements until it reaches an ending as strange as the rest of the film. As may be deduced, there’s a lot going on, from the revenge and looting plans, to female police agent Rose (Terry) infiltrating Blizzard’s organisation, to Blizzard worming his way into the confidence of Dr. Ferris’ daughter Barbara (Adams) while posing for her sculpture of Satan. Oh, and then there’s the fully equipped surgery in Blizzard’s basement.

If you think the name “Blizzard” has turned up quite often this far, it’s for a reason. Chaney wasn’t first billed upon the The Penalty’s release, but there’s no question who owns the film. Everything in the story circles around Blizzard and his machinations (which make me think of Doktor Mabuse Der Spieler 1922), and while Chaney wasn’t unknown at the time, having made a bit of a name for himself in The Miracle Man 1919, this was the movie that made him a star. His performance is diabolical in every nuance, all frowns and smirks of singular malevolence, coupled with a gleeful viciousness and acerbic sarcasm – perhaps the most completely evil character he ever played. There is pain in him, however, and it comes to the fore at the most unexpected moments, being all the more touching for its unpredictable appearances. It’s fine acting, if really biiig by today’s standards, but the actual characterisation is not the main reason why Chaney became the talk of the town following The Penalty.

Even more remarkable than his intense portrayal of Blizzard’s personality is the suffering he was willing to endure to display his physical disability. You will believe Chaney really has no legs, twisted up behind him as they are in an extremely tight angle and held in place by a harness causing him severe pain. Blizzard wears a coat that completes the illusion. Even this is not the most amazing part, but rather that Chaney throughout the film runs, climbs, jumps and hobbles on these “stumps” as if he had been doing nothing else for years. This naturalness to his movements sells the whole character, making us believe we’re actually watching a legless man.

Chaney blows every actor in the film out of the water, and alas, it’s not just for the reasons stated above. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Terry, is either bland or simply untalented (or incapable of understanding the difference between stage and screen). The tepidness of the rest of the acting isn’t too annoying to watch, but it does amplify just how good Chaney is in this.

But where Chaney’s colleagues can’t give him the proper support, he is better served by the script and visuals. The script’s structure pours on the craziness in well measured increments, while providing an interesting and amusing mystery (why is Blizzard having his prostitutes making thousands of straw hats all of a sudden?) and plenty of wrinkles to the basic plot of the police trying to take Blizzard down. Visually speaking, nothing can really compare to Chaney’s acrobatics, but there’s an amazing sequence that tells us in pictures just what Blizzard’s wacky master plan entails, and his headquarters turns out to be quite the labyrinth filled with creepy basements, strange aids to its master’s mobility, and trapdoors and peepholes aplenty.

Finally, I can’t resist talking about the simultaneously hilarious and brilliant sexual metaphor of Blizzard having various women helping him operate the pedals of his piano as he plays. When he discovers that Rose is spying for the police, he can’t bring himself to kill her, because she knows how to “pedal” his “piano” the way it has never been “pedaled” before.

The Penalty is a gangster movie that becomes an exercise in shrieking madness, and much of what occurs in it comes as a complete surprise, since it is utterly bonkers. In a good way. It’s just too bad about the supporting cast.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Film review: The Unknown (1927)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Tod Browning. Writers: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young. Starring: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry, John George, Nick de Ruiz, Frank Lanning.

This review contains spoilers.

At a gipsy circus, armless Alonzo (Chaney) uses his feet to accomplish the knife throwing that is his livelihood, and many other tasks. He is in love with his assistant Nanon (Crawford), who hates men’s pawing hands, but begins to change her mind when warming up to dashing strongman Malabar (Kerry). What Nanon doesn’t know is that Alonzo does in fact have arms and only pretends to be crippled to avoid suspicion for various crimes committed in the towns the circus visits. He’s a dangerous man, and doesn’t take kindly to the budding romance between Nanon and Malabar.

There are a few nice twists in The Unknown, two of which I’ve spoiled above. The fact that Alonzo actually possesses a pair of fully functional arms is the lesser one. Cleverer is the way a typical 1920s cliché (à la The Man Who Laughs, not to mention Lon Chaney cliché à la He Who Gets Slapped) is subverted: at first Alonzo appears to be the typical melodrama cripple who suffers in silence as a more palatable suitor romances his one great love, but in actual fact he is the villain of the piece, while the strongman (equally stereotypically a bad guy, as in Browning’s Freaks) is a decent, loving human being here. There is one further, grotesque and horrifying turn in this film, but that one I won’t spoil.

The story is nice and tight, which may be because the only existing print runs just under 50 minutes, whereas the original one was 63 minutes. Evidently most of the missing footage, perhaps all of it, consists of early establishing scenes. I don’t know what they were about, but I can’t say I miss them. It is strange, albeit hardly jarring, that we get next to no back story on Alonzo, his loyal dwarf friend Cojo (George) or the doctor (Lanning) whose services are employed at one point. It would have been nice to know a bit more about the characters’ earlier lives, particularly how Alonzo and Nanon came to know each other, but you could put it down to economical storytelling. Everything that is really needed is right there in the film, and it’s about time I tell you just what a fine piece of celluloid it is.

Chaney gives one of the finest, most varied and most emotional performances of his career, pulling off with aplomb several heartrending scenes that make you feel for him despite him being a bit of an insane pig. In fact, Joan Crawford stated for the record in later years that working with Chaney on The Unknown and seeing his level of concentration made her decide to take acting seriously. Chaney is aided in no small measure by Peter Dismuki, an armless man who performed the incredibly nimble foot work where Alonzo plays the guitar, lights cigarettes and so on. All told, Alonzo comes to life as a completely unique figure, albeit built out of bits and pieces of silent movie archetypes. It’s also agreeable to see Chaney emoting with his own face, which is to say he’s not wearing any elaborate makeup for this particular role. His face has such a distinctness to it that it’s actually kind of strange that he often went to such great lengths to disguise it. Chaney may not be the subtlest of silent actors, but he is powerful and brings you along on his characters’ emotional treks, and in The Unknown he faces some of his toughest acting challenges.

Norman Kerry is charming here, managing to look ten years younger than in Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera two years earlier, and be nowhere near as wooden. Crawford already shows some star quality, and while I’m not necessarily a great fan of hers, I must say she nails Nanon perfectly, making it believable that two men as different as Malabar and Alonzo would fall in love with her.

Another splendid aspect is the way the tone shifts, starting out as romantic melodrama before introducing notes of unpleasantness (such as the early strangling of an obnoxious individual), and finally going for all-out horror with Alonzo’s growing insanity, desperate actions and climactic plans to avenge himself on Nanon and Malabar. This inexorable descent into ever greater darkness works all the better for taking place in a film which, as mentioned above, subverts the usual silent movie tropes, making us feel an illusory safety and believe we know what’s coming.  The Unknown is in fact remarkably unnerving in a way reminiscent of Freaks, only more so, maybe because the former film is more spare and focuses on a smaller number of characters. The result is an intense viewing experience that makes the movie feel even shorter than it actually is.

Visually, this is good looking stuff, although I would argue that the cinematography was never the most attractive feature of Browning’s work. An odd choice was made regarding the scenes of burgeoning romance between Nanon and Malabar: they are all shot through some kind of translucent textile that creates a pattern across the screen. Perhaps this was intended to make the love affair look more ethereal, whereas in reality it gives more of a rustic impression than a romantic one. Other than this, the best parts of the cinematography are some striking wide shots establishing locations, and several emotional close-ups of Chaney and Crawford. Like I said, it all looks very nice, but Browning’s auteurship lay in the stories he chose to tell, not in virtuoso visuals. One visual element that is highly impressive, however, is the way Chaney really does appear to have no arms – the harness he uses is utterly convincing.

The Unknown is one of Chaney’s very best films, missing minutes notwithstanding, and strikes an almost perfect balance on the treacherous knife’s edge of melodrama – it doesn’t go into arm-flailing excess, nor does it try to subdue into realism what is basically a big, brash tale. The only thing I don’t like about it is the title, which is completely random.

 

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: Christopher Marlowe – Edward II

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by Mistlake

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During the earlier parts of the 14th Century, English king Edward II enrages his nobles by focusing all his favouritism on his lowborn friend Piers Gaveston. Edward’s stubbornness in this regard, and the noblemen’s’ jealousy, lead to civil war and quite a bit of nasty scheming on everyone’s part.

Marlowe’s only foray into historical tragedy sticks, as far as I’m able to tell, pretty closely to actual fact, which in no way detracts from the entertainment value. Edward II was Marlowe’s final play before he succumbed to a fatal case of knife through the brain. This is sad, because this drama is possibly the best thing he ever wrote, and definitely the equal of any history by Shakespeare. Marlowe wasn’t even thirty when he was killed, so it’s only natural to wonder what he had left up his sleeve.

Superficially, the first two acts of Edward II are relatively conventional: the king rules poorly/unfairly and is met by increasingly angry opposition by the nobility, just the sort of thing Shakespeare dealt with in Richard II (and there are quite a few further similarities between the two plays). But even early on, Marlowe boldly undermines convention by implying that Edward and Gaveston are much more than just buddies.

That Edward is deeply in love with Gaveston there’s no room to doubt, as he showers his lover with titles and gifts, and can speak of nothing else even when threatened by open rebellion and a French invasion. Gaveston’s feelings and motives, on the other hand, are left tantalizingly opaque. He enjoys the riches, feasts and exalted position made possible by the king’s generosity, but we never know for sure whether his affection for Edward is genuine or if he is indeed the parasite Lancaster, Mortimer and the other barons say he is.

The whole Gaveston story, however, is merely a catalyst for escalating catastrophes to follow, where the warring factions fight and scheme with horrific and gory results, culminating in a murder so nasty that the stage direction for it is censored in my old edition! (Don’t worry, I found the relevant passage online.)

Edward II may open slowly and sedately (let’s say “passive-aggressively”), but it does no mean job of gathering steam as it goes along, reaching booming, climactic thunder in the riveting passages where Edward laments his fate in the face of losing the crown and, he expects, his life. By this time, Gaveston is all but forgotten, and the play instead homes in on Edward’s queen-turned-enemy Isabella and the overreaching Mortimer, who have their eyes set on the throne, which they mean to reach by deposing Edward and installing themselves as Protectors of Edward’s and Isabella’s underage son.

Mortimer, Isabella and Gaveston – all of them are more forceful and impressive than Edward himself, who is quite consciously portrayed as weak and ineffective, and fond of aggrandizing himself through words rather than deeds. He’s a bit of a whiner, and wholly incapable of listening to reason unless forced into a corner like a toothless rat. He is, then, not a terribly likeable character, except in his fierce loyalty to his friends, but who says he has to be? He is fascinating, and Marlowe’s writing is precise and clever, especially in the way Edward’s mournful soliloquies balance between eliciting pity and ridicule from the reader/audience. And not only is the writing well judged in terms of tone and intelligence, the language itself is on a level where I think Marlowe would do extremely well in a Verse Off with old Shakes himself.

In summary, Edward II is big and bold, beautiful and exciting, unconventional yet familiar, well constructed and clever – simply an amazing slab of poetry. And I like how Marlowe wasn’t as much of a royalist brownnoser as his more famous colleague.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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TV series review: The Americans, season 1 (2013)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: Joseph Weisberg. Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Annet Mahendru, Richard Thomas, Susan Misner, Alison Wright, Lev Gorn, Margo Martindale, Maximiliano Hernández.

On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Russell and Rhys) are a normal couple with two children, working as travel agents in the United States in 1981. In reality they are deep cover Soviet spies, called upon to accomplish missions which often include grave peril. This peril is multiplied when counter intelligence FBI agent Stan Beeman (Emmerich) moves in across the street.

As a marital soap opera about the Cold War, The Americans would have been quite entertaining even if that unique pitch had been all it had going for it. However, it’s also quite well written and fronted by an excellent cast, making it at its best riveting television.

One thing it does exceptionally well is to have running arcs through the entire season, while also using the Jennings’ status as KGB agents to give them Mission Impossible-style tasks which are usually carried out (or bungled) over the course of a single episode. The arcs include Beeman recruiting Nina (Mahendru) as a spy in the Soviet embassy, the Jennings’ ongoing feud with their handler Claudia (Martindale), Philip having a relationship with FBI secretary Martha (Wright) in order to get information, and most of all Elizabeth and Philip’s wobbly marriage, which latter is mirrored by similar problems in the Beeman household.

All of these strands work rather well, even if the marriage business keeps weaving back and forth, as if the writers want the standard “will they or won’t they” dynamic in spite of the protagonists already being married to one another. It is an interesting setup for relationship drama, though: for years their marriage has merely been part of their cover, and when they finally try to make it real, all sorts of things suddenly become problematic, such as the fact that both of them constantly have to have sex with others in the line of duty. Also fascinating is the presence of Paige and Henry, the Jennings children – they’re American kids without a clue about their parents’ secret life, and this causes Philip and Elizabeth no end of worry and guilt.

But this is not only soap. There’s a fair bit of action and violence, and above all suspense. Despite going into this show knowing that there was more than one season, which should mean our protagonists survive the first one, I was on the edge of my seat more than once, wondering how the hell they were going to make it out of a sticky situation without getting killed or caught. In episodic television, pulling off that level of tension is quite a feat of writing, directing and acting, and I can only applaud the passionate expertise that has gone into it. There is one episode, though, where the very nature of this kind of show (we’re mid-season, so we know this isn’t the end) ruins an intended surprise from the outset – not to spoil things, the Jennings’ find themselves in a predicament which, if real, means the inevitable end of their career, so it’s extremely easy to figure out what is really going on. This dud is the exception to the rule, however, and the other twelve episodes are top of the line.

Apart from the immaculate scenes of immediate danger, The Americans also generates suspense in more subtle ways. It can be the way Beeman and his associates nudge ever closer to the truth, and the way the Russians spies and diplomats try to counteract the moves made by the FBI. Or it can be the way Elizabeth and Philip are given hard, almost impossible assignments, forcing them to come up with clever solutions. In these latter cases, I enjoy how their ideas are smart, but not overly so, which means some level of realism is retained, and thus suspension of disbelief. Many of their plans depend on the their charm and allure to make others do part of the work for them, and luckily Russell and Rhys are good enough actors to make you believe they could charm the pants off anyone.

The most specific charm-based con they’re running is the one where Philip as “Clark” makes highly placed secretary Martha fall in love with him, which leads to a deep, meaningful relationship (at least Martha thinks it is) that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the show, thanks to its complexity and the demands on the actors. Martha should by rights come across as annoyingly gullible and blind to what “Clark” is really doing, but Wright is an amazing actress, making us believe in and care about the fact that Martha has been longing for true love for so long that she simply will not look a gift horse in the mouth, provided the horse is charismatic enough. Rhys also does splendid work here, amorally manipulating Martha into ever more treacherous ground, while subtly showing in his eyes just how queasy it makes him to exploit this loving woman.

Wright may be a standout, but the rest of the actors are no slouches either. I especially like the Russian ones, like Mahendru and Gorn; the Russian style of acting has a verisimilitude and relaxed naturalism to it that I admire a great deal, and on a show like The Americans this very style helps humanize what could otherwise just have been a bunch of wily, coldhearted KGB villains. The writing is there for them, too, so the scenes at the Soviet Rezidentura are something to look forward to each episode. Special mention should also be made of Margo Martindale as the Jennings’ incongruous little-old-lady-who’s-hard-as-nails handler. She is nothing short of wonderful in the part, her kindly face in stark contrast to the professional chill of her eyes.

Yet another fine thing about The Americans is its time period: 1981. A present day series on the same theme simply wouldn’t have packed the same punch, so the Cold War era works well, providing us with some real historical background material to fuel the plots (the “Star Wars” initiative, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan) while freeing us from the cell phones and computers around which most modern day political thrillers centre.

It’s a great show, and it would be ever so nice if it were to run long enough to reach 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginnings of Glasnost. I’ve already started in on season 2, and it looks at least as good as the first one.

Rating: 8 of 10.

Americans 1 5

Americans 1 4

Americans 1 3

Americans 1 2

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