Lucy Popescu

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Theatre review – Thebes Land

Posted by lucypopescu on September 15, 2017

THIS terrific meta-theatrical play by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco memorably opens the 10th CASA Latin American Theatre Festival.

Superbly translated by Rob Cavazos, adapted and directed by Daniel Goldman, Thebes Land succeeds on many levels. I’d love to see more by this playwright.
T (Trevor White), wants to write and stage a play about Martin (Alex Austin), who is serving a life sentence for a brutal patricide. T begins visiting Martin in prison in an attempt to understand his motivations for stabbing his father 21 times with a fork. Initially, the “Ministry of Justice” tells T that Martin can play himself in his Arcola production.

Then this is deemed too dangerous, they reverse their decision and, T has to employ an actor to play the role. RADA student, Freddie (Austin) is auditioned and cast and he begins to makes his own suggestions as to how the play and his character should develop.

Jemima Robinson’s imposing giant cage, complete with CCTV, dominates the stage. This serves as Martin’s prison, the basketball court where he meets T and the rehearsal space.

T enjoys referencing classic texts, art and music from Sophocles’ Theban plays, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to Franz Kafka and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C major. These references mean nothing to Martin and therein lies much of Blanco’s humour – how stories are constructed and interpreted to meet our own needs.

The play is also semi-autobiographical – as T and Freddie add their own creative ideas to the production, elements of Austin and White’s personal backgrounds are cleverly exploited.

The end result is funny, caustic, poignant and profound. Don’t miss.

UNTIL OCTOBER 7 
020 7503 1646

Originally published by Camden New Journal

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Theatre Review – Against

Posted by lucypopescu on September 15, 2017

 

In Chris Shinn’s multi-layered play, chameleon actor Ben Wishaw plays Luke, a brilliant Silicon Valley billionaire who believes God wants him to “go where there’s violence” and effect change.

Luke meets a diverse group of Americans from the parents of a boy who has carried out a High-School massacre to a pair of drug-addicts. Shinn also covers an array of subjects including gun crime, political correctness, bullying and the exploitation of workers in a food-packing company.

Luke becomes a messianic figure with a genuine desire to help, who is loved and vilified in equal measure. It’s fairly obvious early on what his fate will be but Shinn raises some interesting questions along the way.

Running through the play is Luke’s on-off relationship with his assistant and confidante Sheila (Amanda Hale), who is clearly in love with him. In a remarkable performance, Wishaw perfectly conveys Luke’s infuriating mix of charm, smugness, confidence and indecision.

It’s all played out on ULTZ’s pared back set. Shinn’s play is clearly FOR love, AGAINST hate and this is highlighted by the large double bed that appears out of the stage’s belly every so often, and is finally utlilised by Luke and Sheila in one passionate scene.

It is a delight to see Wishaw supported by such a talented and diverse ensemble. Particularly memorable are the interactions between co-packers Tracey (Adelle Leonce) and Melvyn (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), creative writing student Anna (Emma D’Arcy) and her pompous professor (Kevin Harvey) and Naomi Wirthner in two roles.  Ian Rickson directs with his usual panache.

Almeida Theatre

Running until 30 September

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Theatre review – Knives in Hens

Posted by lucypopescu on August 31, 2017

David Harrower’s visceral play opens with a raw act of passion and ends on a note of defiance. Set in a medieval rural backwater, we follow the fortunes of a young, god-fearing woman (Judith Roddy), married to a ploughman, Pony William (Christian Cooke).

It’s a simple existence, verging on the bestial, in which the nameless woman serves her husband and the land: “The wind blows. The sun shines. The crops grow.” She intones to herself as she sets about her work. She yearns to describe everything she sees around her and to articulate her feelings.

The villagers are bound by their superstition and prejudices and outsiders are rarely tolerated. But when the woman meets the local miller, Gilbert Horn (Matt Ryan), recently widowed and vilified by the community for his love of books, another world suddenly opens up to her.

William and Gilbert are physically similar. What differentiates them is the quill pen that the miller offers the woman. In writing about herself she gains self-awareness and with that comes power. But her new knowledge swiftly becomes tainted by violence.

First staged to great acclaim in 1995, Harrower’s multi-layered drama is full of surprises. We realise it is not love that the woman desires, she rejects any possibility of being defined by a man, but a role for herself. With that comes a name and advancement.

Flawless performances, Yael Farber’s terrific staging, Soutra Gilmour’s magnificent set – mud, a small pond, hints of cobbles, dominated by a giant millstone – and Tim Lutkin’s atmospheric lighting make this a memorable evening.

Donmar Warehouse UNTIL OCTOBER 7
Box Office 020 3282 3808

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film Review – Hotel Salvation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 31, 2017

Set in Varanasi, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s remarkably assured debut feature, starring Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, has already won plaudits and awards on the festival circuit. Shot when he was just 23, Hotel Salvation is a bittersweet meditation on life, death and salvation, focusing on a father-son relationship.  Haunted by a recurring dream, seventy-seven-year old Daya (Behl) is convinced it is time to die. Following tradition, he donates a cow to the temple, before persuading his stressed, overworked son Rajiv (Hussain), to accompany him to the holy city of Varanasi. Hindus believe that people who die there, after bathing in the River Ganges, escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth and achieve salvation. The pair check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’ (Hotel Salvation) where residents are offered just two weeks accommodation. At first Rajiv is beset by work calls and is desperate to return to the city. It is only his sense of filial duty to his father that keeps him there. While Daya accepts his impending death almost gleefully, Rajiv is torn between feelings of impotence, guilt and impatience. Slowly, though, father and son reconnect and begin to enjoy each other’s company.

Daya embraces his new environment and makes friends with the other residents, in particular Vimla (Navnindra Behi) a kindly widow who has been there for years – the hotel manager changes the name in the register of any resident who lasts longer than a fortnight. The inhabitants live in simple rooms, complete with peeling walls and mice. They watch their favourite TV series, sing hymns together and freely discuss death and the best way to go. When one of their number passes away, they all participate in the funeral rituals, reciting mantras, shrouding and garlanding the corpse and finally cremating the deceased on the River Ganges.

Rajiv is clearly out of touch with his emotions, his country’s spiritual heritage and changing mores. Rajiv and his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) want their daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) to marry a man of their choice and settle down. But Sunita is happy with her work and doesn’t want to give up her independence. Certain traditions, Bhutiani suggests, are outdated. Michael Mcsweeney and David Huwiler’s terrific camerawork emphasises the stark divide between Rajiv’s hectic working life and the more measured pace in Varanasi; the transcendent over the corporal.  Rajiv’s restrictive domestic sphere is conveyed through shots of cramped, shadowed rooms, contrasted with stunning tableaux of the Ganges, Varanasi’s ghats and temples.

As Rajiv resolves his differences with his father he recognises his own suppressed desires and the sacrifices he has made for his work. Towards the end of Hotel Salvation we suspect it has been more about Rajiv’s liberation than Daya’s. Rajiv’s spiritual side (his love of writing poetry) has been reawakened and he has learned the importance of accepting his family’s different needs. Bhutaini demonstrates an impressive maturity in his snapshots of life’s joys, pains and sorrows, order and chaos and allows us to see what Daya has understood all along – with death comes peace. For its UK release, Hotel Salvation is prefaced by the BFI’s 90 second film of Varanasi’s ghats by the River Ganges (1899), believed to be the earliest footage of India. It serves to illustrate the city’s timelessness and beautifully complements Bhutaini’s feature.

 

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

 

 

 

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Theatre Review – Road

Posted by lucypopescu on August 17, 2017

Jim Cartwright’s seminal play about the disenfrachised working class living in Thatcherite Britain in an unnamed Lancashire town has lost none of its power. Loneliness and poverty are the play’s pervasive themes and many of the characters use alcohol and sex as crutches to stave off despair.

Road was first produced at the Royal Court in 1986 and the reasons for its revival are clear in John Tiffany’s imaginative production – there is much that resonates with Austerity and post- Brexit Britain.

Lemn Sissay, as the wily Scullery, is a charismatic narrator who over the course of one night leads us down his local street to meet the various residents. Cartwright combines just the right measure of anarchic humour with more thoughtful scenes and the cast rise to the occasion.

Some of the action takes place in a transparent glass box which rises up from the belly of the stage. This emphasises that we are privileged outsiders looking in at others’ lives, but then the lighting changes and mirrored doors reflect the audience, reminding us of our shared humanity.

Many of the characters numb the frustration of their lonely existence with binge-drinking and casual sex. One of the most memorable scenes in the play is when a tanked up, middle-aged women, (Michelle Fairley), attempts to seduce a soldier (Mike Noble), much younger than herself, who is so drunk he is sick in his chips.

Road evidently helped pave the way for the in-yer-face theatre of the 1990s and TV series like Shameless. It’s great to see a large cast outside the West End and this is a joyful and timely revival.

Originally published by The Camden Review

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Film Review – Land of Mine

Posted by lucypopescu on August 4, 2017

 

Inspired by real events in 1945, Martin Zandvliet’s powerful film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners demonstrates that war’s aftermath can be just as brutal as the conflict itself. Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s Western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 Convention relating to the treatment of PoW.  Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen.

Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.  Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German solider and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off. Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you. Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.

The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and compassion aids the healing process.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

 

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Book Review Checkpoint

Posted by lucypopescu on August 2, 2017

There is a filmic quality to Jean-Christophe Rufin’s literary thriller, expertly rendered by translator Alison Anderson. Set during the Bosnian War in 1995, Checkpoint follows the fortunes of five French aid workers. The youngest, 21-year-old Maud, the lone female in the group, has cut her hair short and wears shapeless clothes, in an attempt to be taken seriously and to repel any unwanted advances. Lionel, the leader of the mission, lacks confidence and smokes weed from morning to night. Former soldiers, Alex and Marc, recruited because convoy drivers are in short supply, have their own secret agendas. Vauthier is the most sinister and repugnant member, hired for his skill as a mechanic, who the others suspect of being a spy: “He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him.”

The tensions between Vauthier and the two soldiers threaten to derail the mission and reach crisis point, when it transpires that Alex has spiked the load with construction explosives for extracting coal. His objective is to help a group of refugees hiding in a mine – the explosives will stop the tunnels from flooding and help preserve their industry. It is Maud who manages to persuade the other volunteers that it is a worthwhile endeavor, and “the most useful thing we can give these people.” But there are further revelations to come. The soldiers at each checkpoint become increasingly menacing, and they are all shocked to witness the aftermath of a brutal massacre of women and children:

On the damp earth there were fifty bodies or more, lying in grotesque positions. Their arms and legs were twisted, their heads lay at a painful angle from their necks, some had their faces in the mud. On the gray mass of bodies, most of which were clothed in dull, drab garments, the only color was that of blood. 

The frequent plot twists keep the reader guessing until the end, but this is at the expense of robust characterization. Vauthier, in particularly, remains a shadowy figure whose visceral hatred for Marc is never fully explained. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining the mission are revealed through passages of clunky exposition: We learn that Maud is a risk-taker, when she recalls a childhood memory of jumping off the adult diving board and fracturing her vertebra. Alex’s feelings of alienation are a result of his mixed race background and the reason why he falls for a young Bosnian refugee ostracized because of her ethnicity. Marc’s tough exterior is down to being a “war orphan” and bullied at school. At times, Rufin’s characters feel too simplistic, their motivations implausible, and this makes it difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of them.

In the novel’s second half, the pace never lets up and Rufin raises some interesting questions about the limitations of humanitarian aid. As a founder of Doctors Without Borders, Rufin clearly wants to lift the lid on this world. He understands the futility of taking chocolate and clothing through a war scorched land when another form of international intervention is desperately needed to halt the bloodshed. The Bosnian War may be long over, but Rufin’s concerns remain just as relevant today.

A longer version of this review is published on Versopolis.com

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Book Review – A HOPE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE SEA

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

Asylum seekers continue to be stigmatized in the media, so it is refreshing to see more books being published that give refugees a voice. We need to change the negative propaganda surrounding those forced to flee war, poverty or intolerance. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea poignantly illuminates some of the reasons why our fellow humans embark on such perilous journeys to reach Europe.

Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, brings to life the harrowing tale of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian refugee. In clear, accessible prose, Fleming chronicles Doaa’s happy childhood in Syria, the early months of the uprising, and the brutal crackdown that ensued. When life in the midst of a war zone becomes intolerable, Doaa and her family seek refuge in Egypt.

They are initially welcomed and cared for by local Egyptians, but after President Mohamed Morsi is deposed, resentment towards the refugees grows and Doaa finds herself regularly abused by men on the street. Her fiancé, Bassem, also suffers from an increased hostility towards Syrian refugees. In poor health and unable to bear “a life of limbo in a country where its own citizens were facing a sinking economy, high inflation, and rising food prices”, Doaa finally agrees to accompany Bassem on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.

Before they reach Greece, their rusty fishing boat is deliberately rammed by a group of mindless racists. Doaa’s boat capsizes and those on board are flung into the water. Most drown instantly, some die an agonizing death as they are hacked to pieces by the boat’s propellers. Witnessing it all, Doaa keeps afloat with the help of a children’s inflatable ring for four days and nights. She clings on to two baby girls until her rescue, persevering for their sake.

A particularly chilling moment is Doaa’s realization that those onboard had been sold fake life jackets and inadequate flotation aids. Many of Doaa’s group, including her beloved Bassem, die because of this. Out of 500 people, only eleven survive the catastrophe.

One can only hope that by sharing Doaa’s story, her remarkable courage, Fleming will help people better understand why so many are prepared to risk so much in order to reach relative safety.

Originally published by the TLS

 

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Book Review – Swallowing Mercury

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

In Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Wioletta Greg explores the rite of passage of a young girl growing up in in communist Poland during the 1980s. Partly autobiographical, it is set in the Jurassic Upland, in the small fictional village of Hektary.

Wiola’s childhood experiences are related through a series of vignettes creating a vivid portrait of a rural community. Daily routines are punctuated by extraordinary events. When a rumour spreads that the Pope will drive past their village, the local women gather in Wiola’s home to make pennants for bunting from scraps of material, and toast the Holy Father’s health with homemade egg liqueur. Later, the bunting is destroyed by “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” (Wiola describes this matter-of-factly, not yet understanding the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist state). While Wiola waited in the rain, the Pope flew elsewhere.

The villagers are as superstitious as they are religious. A red ribbon is tied around Wiola’s wrist as soon as she is born, “to ward off evil spells” and later, when Wiola faints in church, a red ribbon is tied in her hair “to break the spell.” Her mother tells her spiders are “sacred” and forbids her from killing them: “When the Holy family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road, that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.”

The shadow of communism is ever present in the “piles of Breeze blocks” that lie beside “haystacks, apple and cherry trees” and the state-owned farms that blight the natural landscape. But government repression is brought home most forcefully when a local official interrogates Wiola at school, about her painting in a competition entitled Moscow in Your Eyes. Her ink pen had leaked over the painting, ruining it with “a viscous ocean of indigo.” The officer tries to bribe her with chocolate to tell him who had put her up to this: “Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?” Wiola, whether in fear or weary of the questions, vomits, and is finally left alone.

Greg is a poet, and there is a lyrical quality to her writing. She draws on all the senses, rendered in simple, childlike prose and deftly translated by Eliza Marciniak. Early on, Wiola describes the sun as “white and spotted like a goose egg.” As she gets older, her language and sensibility become more complex: “The air smelled of metal. An inaudible blues hummed in the web of the telegraph wires taut from frost.” The smells and taste of childhood are also brilliantly evoked though food, ranging from buckwheat blood pudding and beef roulade with cabbage to fried doughnuts and sour cherries.

The book’s anecdotal tone draws the reader in, but it is also deceptive. Take Wiola’s description of swallowing mercury, after a doctor had attempted to sexually molest her: “I put an immersion heater in a metal mug, boiled some water and dipped a thermometer into the liquid. The mercury container burst. Silver beads spilled onto the bedding. I gathered them up. I hesitated for an instant, but when I remembered Kwiecien’s face, I swallowed the balls like caplets and fell asleep.” It is an act of defiance that nearly kills her.

Swallowing Mercury is a multi-layered, prose poem of Poland’s chequered past, and Greg is unflinching in her gaze: Whether it is the family’s fortitude, the clash of church and state, or the beauty and brutality of rural life.

Originally published by www.versopolis.com

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Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017

 

Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS

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