Screen to Stage

Having praised stage over screen in the case of ‘M Butterfly’, it made me think of a transfer in the other direction.  Step forward, ‘Billy Elliot’.  This amazing film, written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, was released in 2000 and became a stage show in 2005.  It tells the story of an 11-year-old boy whose dad sends him to boxing lessons.  Boxing isn’t his thing.   One day, the end of his lesson coincides with the start of the ballet class that follows and, as he has to pass on the keys, he has to wait around.

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Jamie Bell is excellent as the young boy who finds himself drawn to dance and then discovers that he has real talent.  Julie Walters is the inspiring dance teacher who encourages him.  Billy continues to dance even when his coal miner father forbids it.  How he deals with the negative stereo- types about boys dancing is a large part of the film.  All this is played out against a back drop of the 1984- 85 miners strike with Billy, his dad, brother and ill grandmother all trying to cope following the death of his mother.  Struggle against the odds is a big theme.

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I loved the film when I saw it and love it still.  The stage musical opened in 2005.  I saw it during its opening season.  I actually liked most of the songs but the story of struggle, acceptance, and finding your own way was submerged under a feel- good, musical- theatre gravy.  I know that both Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry were also creators of the stage version but the imperative to entertain (to laugh?) meant that some aspects of the story were ruined for me.

Here was a boy whose determination to dance, despite what others thought, provided the power of the story.  The ‘feel- good’ aspect came because he triumphed.  There are no cheap laughs in the film.  On stage, even ballet is mocked and this seemed at odds with Lee Hall’s central message in ‘Billy Elliot’.

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This seems to be a problem with West End shows and musicals in particular.  A night out needs to be fun.  The music and dance contribute to this.  Even the story is played for laughs.  I understand that this will sell the tickets but not every story deserves (or suits) this treatment.

So, why take a story as poignant as this one and turn it into a light-hearted feel good show?  ‘Billy Elliot’ was written for the screen.  It works best as a film.

I have two more observations, only one of which is grumpy!  It seems that every local journalist writing about a boy who takes ballet lessons labels him ‘a proper Billy Elliot’.  It is clear that the name has entered the language as a short hand for dancing boys.  Surely, though, only boys who come from backgrounds where dance isn’t a family tradition or where it is actively discouraged can be truly called ‘Billy Elliot’!

The poster for the musical show, below, is terrific.  I think it has been replaced now but this one sums up so much of what is wonderful and powerful about boys dancing.

billy-elliot-the-musical ‘Billy Elliot’ (The Film) is part of my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Stage to Screen

I watched the film version of ‘M Butterfly’ recently.  I saw the stage version in 1992, so I know this comparison is being made with a gap of 21 years, but the film did not match the play for power and intensity.  In fact, watching the movie version made me question why the play had such resonance for me.  I downloaded the LA Theatre Works radio version with John Lithgow in the main role and, even with sound only, it was immediately clear why it was so successful… on the stage.

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The story is one of deception.  Or maybe, it is more about self- deception.  Rene Gallimard is a French Embassy official based in China.  He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese singer, Song Liling.  In the Beijing Opera, female roles were played by males.  Whether Gallimard knows this or not is never revealed but we, the audience, know it and see the spectacle of a man making a fool of himself.  In any case, he first comes across a beautiful version of a woman playing Madam Butterfly. How this singer becomes ‘his Butterfly’ is the story we follow.

The play spans over 20 years, during which time they conduct a physical affair and have a baby.  The humiliation for Gallimard is complete when he is convicted of spying and his perfect woman is revealed to the world, and to him, as a man.  “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else- simply falls short.” Gallimard.

The strength of the play is the way in which it invokes our sympathy for Rene Gallimard.   We know we are heading for a tragic ending; he tells us this story from his prison cell.  His memories are conjured up for us on the stage so that we see the deception as it plays out.

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I saw the play with George Chakaris in the role of Gallimard and D.C. Chan as Song Liling.  The programme notes were cleverly written so I had no idea if D.C. Chan was a man playing the man who pretends to be a woman (or a woman playing the man who pretends to be a woman) until the end when there is a scene which leaves us in no doubt.  It was both shocking and so necessary.  No wonder, the memory of this play was so strong!

Although the film does what the stage play cannot, bring us amazing scenery and period detail of a busy Beijing in the 1960s, that is about the only way in which the film is superior to the play.  We do not see a broken Gallimard at the start so we meet him as a somewhat naïve but ambitious diplomat and follow him chronologically towards the fateful exposure.  John Lone as Song Liling is not a convincing woman, but maybe this is director David Cronenburg’s intention.  We watch as the relationship becomes intimate and question how he did not know.  When Song Liling, after his court appearance clearly a man, strips in front of Gallimard, it has none of the tension needed for this scene.  After all, we already know… plus, he never faces front!

Stereo- typing leads us to make assumptions about individuals.  In the theatre, I too was caught up in this.  The East is often portrayed as exotic and feminine while the West sees itself as muscular.  With the film, the audience is off the hook.  Other people may fall victim to stereo- types.  We see everything clearly.  Maybe this is why it lacked power.

So, even though Jeremy Irons is such a good actor and played Gallimard as a fool in love, and even though I am a big film fan, here is a story that is best left to the theatre. If you can’t see it, listen to the John Lithgow radio version.

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The stage version of M Butterly is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Here is a book I loved.  I heard it discussed on a BBC radio book review programme and immediately wanted to read it.  I knew that Jackie Kay was a poet but I had no idea she had written fiction.  This is a treat of a novel to read.

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The story is told from different points of view.  I am not always a fan of this technique; I usually prefer one voice more than the others.  Here it works well, layering the story until you realise the depth of love experienced between husband and wife.

The story starts with the death of Joss Moody, a jazz trumpeter. His widow has retreated to a holiday destination that meant such a lot to them both.  Her retreat is not just the action of a grief-stricken woman.  She needs to escape the media.  When Joss Moody died, his secret was revealed.  Joss Moody was physically a woman.

His widow was the only person who knew this.  Their adopted son, Colman, only finds out after his father’s death and his rage at the deception runs through the book motivating him to take revenge.

What struck me, throughout, was that, whatever body he had, Joss Moody was a man, a father, a husband.  The revelation did not alter what he had been to his wife, son and friends.  Why did his wife love him, when she knew who/what he was?  She wasn’t gay.  She fell in love with the man he was to her, and why not?  Love is where it falls.

Jackie Kay has written a book that stays with you.  It is part of my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Jubilee

Here is a book that lingers on in the mind after you’ve read it!  Shelley Harris has written a novel that shows how much England has changed for the better between the 70s and now.  Based around a photograph of a street party that became famous, the novel switches between the build up to the Silver Jubilee party and the present, when some of those involved try to get everyone together to recreate the photo at a reunion.  The photographer, successful on the back of this one image, is keen as are many of the children, now grown up.  One person isn’t.

Central to this story is Satish, a small Asian boy in the centre of the photograph in 1977.  He grows up to be a successful cardiologist and he isn’t pleased when people and memories from the past invade his carefully constructed life.  Both photograph and doctor hide secrets.  Shelley Harris’s skill is making us want to know what actually happened that day and what link there is between the photo and now.

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Satish lives with his family in a cul- de- sac in middle England, the only Asian family in an otherwise all white corner of Britain.   The photograph presents a picture of multi-cultural harmony and acceptance.  It is just the image for a newspaper to use to portray a benevolent, tolerant society.  It lives on, being reproduced many times over the years.  It is even used by a rock band on their album cover.  It is useful shorthand for a message of how tolerant we all were.

“Here he was, after all, an Asian boy happy in his white-majority Buckinghamshire village, accepted by its good-hearted people, and posing only a minimal threat to house prices.”

Satish understands that he is an outsider.  He plays in the street with the other children but he isn’t always welcome in their houses.  He knows the difference between child and adult insults; children say it to your face!  No wonder his view of that photograph is different.  The tensions, barely kept hidden behind curtains, come to a head on Jubilee day.

Adult Satish isn’t keen to recreate the photograph.  He has troubles of his own.  How he deals with both his stress at work and his big secret forms the second strand of the story.  In any case, why would he want to meet up with children who treated him so badly?

Having lived through the 70s, I believe that we are more tolerant and inclusive as a society.  This book reminded me that we have made progress.  I haven’t been made to feel like an outsider in this society, though. It may be too easy for me to say.  The most affecting aspect was that young Satish knew he wasn’t fully accepted by the adults but isn’t clear why.  He knew he was an outsider to the other children but couldn’t change that.   The book did stay with me long after I finished it.

Stories that explore cultural difference are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Two Pupils of Sloane Square

I discovered this sculpture (or should it be sculptures?) when hunting for London public art that was new to me.  As so often happens, it is the unexpected discovery that impresses the most.  I was actually on the hunt for David Wynne’s ‘The Dancers’ but found these two instead!

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The title of the work is ‘My Children’.  It is by artist Allister Bowtell who was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club so he knew this area well.

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‘My Children’ was unveiled in 2003.  The boy is leapfrogging a bollard while the girl is seated a little apart, looking in his direction.  The inscription on the plinth indicates that they are dressed in the uniform of the Royal Military Asylum as it would have been in 1814.  Children of soldiers were educated here when the Asylum was on this site..  Many of them were orphans, some had fathers serving overseas and some were just poor.  Girls would have been trained for domestic service while boys would have gone into the army.

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It looks as if the boy is trying to impress the girl. She looks as if she is trying not to be impressed!

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London sculpture is part of my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Raymond Carver: Happiness

Raymond Carver’s poems capture moments in the same way photographs do, although, in this poem, there is movement so perhaps film is a better analogy.  Except there is no great drama, it is just a human moment.  We see the ‘action’ through Raymond Carver’s eyes and something so ordinary has such resonance for him… and for me.

Many, many years ago a friend bought me his collection of his poems, ‘In a Marine Light’.  It sat ignored on a shelf for a long time.  I don’t remember what led me to pick it up and read it but this poem was the first in the anthology.  I read it, read it again, and then read the rest. These are poems that wash over you. It is significant that I have returned to ‘Happiness’ again and again.

It is a cliché to say there is something profound in the ordinary but this poem reminds us that life has ways of gently pointing out what is important.

Happiness

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Raymond Carver

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Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver’s poetry is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

London River

I don’t know why this film should have come to my mind now but, as it has, I am going to write about it.  Rachid Bouchareb is a French- Algerian film director best known for his film about the role of North African soldiers fighting for the Free French in the Second World War.  ‘Days of Glory’ was excellent but I have special affection for his 2009 film, ‘London River’.

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The story is a simple one but it works its way towards a conclusion that you both think is inevitable and hope will not come true.  A mother searching for her daughter and a father looking for his son find their paths crossing in London.  Neither has been unable to make contact with their child since hearing about a bomb explosion in the capital.  The story unfolds as the concerned parents try to understand what has happened.

The film is set in the aftermath of the 7th July 2005 bombings in London.  Brenda Blethyn plays a widow who rings her 22 year old daughter to check that she is okay but then grows increasingly worried when she cannot make contact.   Sotigui Kouyaté plays a Malian father working in France.  His estranged wife phones him from Africa to tell him she is concerned about the fate of their London based 21 year old son.  He sets off for England to try to find the son he hasn’t seen for 15 years.  These are two unassuming people who live alone and far away.  They look and feel out of place in London.

The first half of the film shows separate people conducting their own search in their own way.  Each is advised to start by visiting the hospitals.  When they first meet, the cultural boundaries are clear.  The mother is hostile at the Malian’s approach but, as it becomes clear that son and daughter were lovers, the relationship between widow and estranged father changes to something like friendship.  They continue the search together.

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In the film’s most moving scene, they find out that son and daughter were learning Arabic together.  “Who speaks Arabic?” the mother asks, displaying in that one plaintive question her realisation that she barely knew her daughter at all or anything of importance about her life in London.

You need to discover the ending for yourself, but here is a film about how much two people have in common despite their ethnic, geographical and  religious differences.  This is a film about trying to make sense of a world that has changed around you.  It is a gem.

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‘London River is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?