Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Theatre Review: Dara

Sometimes the idea and the intention behind a play are more impressive than the play itself.

A play that explores the nature of Islam, and of religious tolerance, at the moment feels incredibly important, especially one that’s written by a Pakistani playwright for a radical Pakistani theatre company. That this is all happening in a subsidised theatre is, I think, one of the strongest arguments for the continued relevance and importance of subsidised theatre that you’ll ever get.

It’s a bit disappointing then that the resulting play, for all its good intentions and interesting ideas, feels more like a partisan history lesson than a compelling work of drama.

The play in question is Dara in the NT’s Lyttelton theatre. Written by Shahid Nadeem and adapted for a Western audience by Tanya Ronder, the play tells the story of the war of succession that brought about the end of the Mughal empire in the 17th century. On the one hand is Dara, a Sufi Muslim scholar, open minded and tolerant, his father’s favourite and more suited to a life as a mystical fakir than a ruling prince. On the other is Aurangzeb his younger brother, power hungry, religiously fanatical and carrying some serious daddy issues. Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the play tells the story of the two mens' lives from early childhood to Dara's humiliating military defeat and trial and execution as an apostate at the hands of Aurangzeb. It’s a great story to play with.

The climax of the drama really comes at the end of Act 1 in the (lengthy) apostasy trial scene. At times this scene is fantastic - philosophically interesting, well acted and sharply written. At other times it’s frustrating. The major problem is there’s just not a lot of suspense in this scene. Two things are instantly clear: that Dara is going to lose the trial and be executed and that we are supposed to sympathise with him and absolutely no one else. The prosecutor he spars with is heavy handed and intolerant, the judges are uninterested and/or corrupt, no one other than Dara is given a decent line in the whole scene. Only a blind and deaf person could fail to predict how the scene will end and it’s very difficult to invest in it as a result. Reminder: this is the dramatic heart of the play.

This point is demonstrative of a bigger problem with the play’s characterisation of Dara as 100% good and right 100% of the time. From some reading around the issue (well, reading the programme notes and an article in The Guardian anyway) I gather that this is a revisionist take on the Aurangzeb-Dara story, which traditionally sees Aurangzeb as a hero, and for an audience in the play’s original form and native Pakistan I'm sure this is how it would be perceived. In this adaptation it has the effect of completely deifying Dara and loading the moral dice so heavily in his favour that it’s hard to really invest in, or sometimes even believe, him as a character.

Some of the dialogue doesn't exactly help either. There’s a lot of exposition and a lot of grand proclamations that are a bit like being slapped in the face with ‘An Idiot’s Guide to Religious Tolerance’. As a result, some of the performances have occasional moments of woodenness - Zubin Varla’s Dara suffers particularly as a result (especially in the court scene), which is a shame as he does also have some great moments (especially in the court scene). On the brighter side, performance wise, Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb is very good, helped by better writing and a more complex character no doubt, and there are some great performances from some of the smaller characters, especially Anjana Vasan as Aurangzeb’s (Hindu) lost love and Nathalie Arman as Dara and Auraungzeb’s clever, sensitive sister (both also in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, incidentally, as are many of the Dara cast).

The biggest draw of Dara is the staging, which looks and sounds just beautiful. The set, all Persian architecture and latticed screens, is stunning, simple and effective. The costumes are luscious and vivid. The live music, provided by three musicians from a balcony on the stage, is gorgeous and (to my untrained ear at least) very authentic.
Overall then? Great ideas, fantastic intentions, but not quite realised. It’s good, has great moments, but is generally a bit disappointing. Shame. 

Dara is playing in the Lyttleton until April 4th.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Best Dressed at the SAG Awards

I'm not going to lie, I was kind of underwhelmed by the SAG red carpet.

There was a lot of 'oh that's nice but', with the buts ranging from distractingly creased fabric (Gwendoline Christie) to too much detail (Claire Danes) to just being a bit boring (Emilia Clarke, Felicity Jones). The continued fall from grace of Rosamund Pike - a disaster in Dior - is distressing to me as well.

But thankfully some ladies (and Eddie Redmayne - when does he not look perfect?) brought their A Game though. Here are my favourites, in no particular order...

Emma Stone in Christian Dior Couture

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This girl can do no wrong for me at the moment. After her unexpected jumpsuit at the Golden Globes, she pulled out this perfect take on the tux. The dress is fun, interesting and youthful and she 100% sells it. The ear cuff, effortless styling and those green eyes are the icing on an impeccable cake. Long may she keep marching to the beat of her own drum.

Camilla Alves in Donna Karan Atelier

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Running Emma close for my favourite of the night, I'm all about the colour of this stunning gown - especially set against Camilla's beautiful olive skin. The cut is immaculate, the demi-cape detail is perfect and her minimal styling is bang on. With a dress like that who needs jewels?

Reese Witherspoon in Giorgio Armani

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I love Reese's chic, minimal version of glamour and this stunner is no exception. With a dress almost completely devoid of detail - though I love the matte sequins at the neckline - and completely devoid of colour, the cut really has to be on point and this really is. A smattering of diamond and a simple hair and make-up look complement the minimal aesthetic perfectly.

Lupita Nyong'o in Elie Saab

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This dress is so unusual and I just love it. Abstract flowers and stripes are two of my favourite prints at the moment so combine them and add in sleeves and I'm totally on board. Another home run for the red carpet's most consistently well dressed woman. Love the braided hair too.

Natalie Dormer in Naeem Khan

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I'm pretty sure it's been scientifically proven that Natalie is the mos beautiful woman in the world and I almost always love her style. Another win for abstract flowers, I love the delicate print on this gown from one of my favourite red carpet designers. I just wish she'd teamed it with a punchy pink lip. Still a beautiful look, though.

Onwards to the BAFTAs...

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Christmas Reading: Amy Poehler, Katherine Boo, Stephen Fry, Hilary Mantel and George Orwell

One of the things I inevitably do a lot of over Christmas, other than eating until I feel sick and watching way too much TV, is get stuck in to some serious reading.

This year I managed five and a bit books in three weeks (two of holiday, one of being ill and off work with a horrible chest infection) which I consider very much time well spent. Here’s what I thought of everything I read over my festive and sickness period, in case you were wondering.

Amy Poehler - Yes Please
Cards on the table: Amy Poehler is my personal goddess so if you’re looking for a reasoned critique of her book then you best go elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, I loved every page of this. Part memoir, part manifesto, with some poems and photos thrown in for good measure, this is a supremely entertaining read. The memoir parts are interesting and enjoyably self-deprecating, the manifesto parts are right on. I loved the chapter on how you should treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Preach sister! Highly recommended for fellow Poehler fans and Parks and Rec obsessives, people interested in breaking into comedy and anyone who thinks they would enjoy haikus about plastic surgery (ie everyone).

Katherine Boo - Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Regular readers will recall how much I loved the National Theatre’s stage version of this and the book is equally, if not more, gripping. Undoubtedly the most absorbing piece of longform journalism I’ve ever read, the book rivals the best novels in its storytelling prowess (great word). Completely worthy of the multiple glowing reviews that litter the front and back covers. You don’t need to have seen the stage version to love the book, but if you have you will enjoy it on another level. (And if you haven’t seen the stage version then what are you waiting for?)

Stephen Fry - More Fool Me
This book demonstrates the law of diminishing returns when it comes to autobiographies. This is the third autobiog Stephen Fry has released and it’s by far the most self indulgent and least interesting. With the main narrative thrust being his 1990s cocaine addiction, though this is frequently forgotten, the book is an enjoyable enough read - some great Kenneth Branagh anecdotes were my personal highlight - but I don’t really understand the purpose of it. If you want to read a Fry autobiography, ignore this one and pick up the fantastic first volume, Moab Is My Washpot, instead.

Hilary Mantel - The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
This reminded me that I’m not a huge fan of short stories. A collection of Mantel’s more recent offerings in that genre - the titular, controversy baiting, tale is the only new offering - it’s a good read nonetheless. Some of the stories are great, particularly Harley Street which has a fantastic and genuinely unexpected twist, some of them are so-so but certainly none of them are anything like poor. They’re also not anything like as good as her novels though so if you’re looking for a Mantel book to read I’d suggest you start there. Speaking of which…

Hilary Mantel - A Place of Greater Safety
Ok, so I didn’t read the whole 800 pages over the Christmas break but I did finish it off and it’s superb. Telling the story of the French Revolution through the eyes of three of its protagonists (Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton), this is Mantel at her historical fiction best. The characterisation is razor sharp, the action is fast paced and vividly drawn and, even though it’s a long old read, it’s a supremely rewarding one. Not quite as good as Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies, but not far off.

George Orwell - Animal Farm
I picked this up as a stopgap in between finishing APOGS and getting new books at Christmas, which was an ill-judged move as it’s so short and so readable that it lasted me barely a day. More accessible and less harrowing than 1984, this is considered a classic for a reason and one everyone should read at some point in their lives. One of my favourite characters was the spoiled, precious pony who flees the farm at the first sign of socialism, which probably gives you a pretty accurate insight in to my psyche.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Best Dressed at the Golden Globes

Award season is here again - hurrah!

And also how the hell has that happened? The passage of time is a bitch.

It was a good looking red carpet this year wasn't it? A few minor missteps (Amal, you're brilliant and I love you but white gloves? Really?), a couple of pleasingly major missteps (Keira, Lana - just no) and a whole lot of loveliness. Some kickass major trends too - I'm very much in favour of red and silver making waves.

Here, in no particular order, are my favourite looks...

Diane Kruger in Emilia Wickstead

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One of two and a half silver looks that make my top five, I love the simplicity of this beautiful gown. Fit is always king for me and this is impeccable. I love the classic Old Hollywood styling too - the waves, the sort-of-subtle bling and that gorgeous mother of pearl clutch. The divine Diane rarely puts a foot wrong and this look is certainly no exception.

Emma Stone in Lanvin

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This Lanvin jumpsuit - an item of clothing to which I can generally best be described as ambivalent to - is just divine. Tapping into the silver trend with the stunning bodice, it's actually the mannish tailoring combined with the sweeping bow belt that does it for me. As-minimal-as-possible styling is the cherry on top of this fun, youthful, achingly cool look.

Julianne Moore in Givenchy Haute Couture 

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Sometimes, more is more. This is one of those occasions. All over sequins, ombre feathers, diamond earrings, that red hair; whatever Julianne is selling I'm buying it. Major moment.

Lupita Nyong'o in Giambattista Valli

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Just because she's not nominated this year, don't for one minute think lovely Lupita is bringing anything less than her A game to the red carpet. I adore this floral creation so much, especially the beautiful textured bodice. Simple accessories and that winning smile complete the look perfectly.

Amy Poehler in Stella McCartney

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Things I love about this dress: the colour, the simple cut, the sleeves and, possibly most of all, the pockets. Overall the effect is somewhat revolutionary in that not only does it look gorgeous, it looks COMFY. I would 100% wear this look and the fact that it's on such a beautiful tropical fish* as Amy P just makes it.

*If you don't get the reference, get off my blog.