Saturday, 30 April 2016

'The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

“I don’t want to be unhappy anymore!”

So cries Emma Bovary in despair, frustration and anger at the cards she’s been dealt in life. A boring, passionless marriage; life as a doctor’s wife in a sleepy isolated town; an ever-growing string of secret debts racked up to alleviate her boredom.

I’ve never read Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary but by all accounts (unlike the Peepolykus production of the play currently showing at Bristol Old Vic) it is not a comedy. The book tells the tale of unhappy Emma Bovary but denies her a voice in her own story. Something the play seeks to redress, while transforming the melodrama into a comedy via slapstick, song, dance and joyous silliness. All to fabulous effect.

Directed by Gemma Bodinetz, and rewritten by Peepolykus’ John Nicolson and Javier Marzan (who also star in the performance), this new version of Madame Bovary is a positively feminist affair of a woman whose, well, extramarital affairs and illicit overspending see her become the talk of the town and not in a good way. She becomes so unhappy, so desperate, so shamed that she attempts to end her own life… again, not necessarily the topics for a comedy. But I’m a firm believer that, done well and done correctly, comedy is the perfect tool for communicating difficult and uncomfortable subjects. And fortunately, via Nicolson and Marzan, Madame Bovary handles these topics well.

With a tiny cast of four (Jonathan Holmes and Emma Fielding complete the quartet), this group does a mind-blowing job of portraying a staggering number of different characters. Honestly, I lost count of the number of characters about 20 minutes into the first act.

The deliberate breaking of the fourth wall during this production of Madame Bovary works to fine effect to highlight why the play has been transformed as it has; and to really outline why Emma Fielding (who plays Emma Bovary) is so frustrated with her character, and the problems of playing Bovary as she was originally written. While the almost-slapstick use of physical comedy to portray, for instance, horse riding or time passing is hilarious; real laugh-out-loud good old-fashioned silliness. But possibly my most favourite of all the ridiculously silly moments is when Emma’s husband Charles attempts to sit at a table without a chair… just joyously funny.

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Flitting from the home of her tiresome father to her boring husband, and the beds of countless uncaring lovers thereafter, Emma Bovary is a woman squashed by patriarchy. Later readings have questioned whether her character is experiencing postnatal depression or bipolar disorder; all of which were unrecognised at the time Flaubert was writing. Yet Fielding portrays Bovary with a combination of stubbornness, lunacy and desperation… but I still promise you: this is a comedy.

Flaubert described Madame Bovary as a story about nothing… and perhaps in doing so he was deliberately revealing that it was in fact a story about all of the things of which we cannot speak (mental health, infidelity, marital unhappiness, spiralling debt…). Is it a stretch too far to compare this to Seinfeld: a sitcom about nothing, and arguably the most successful and popular sitcom of all time? At its most simple, this suggestion forces the audience to question what ‘nothing’ really means, because everything must be about something… but what that something is will vary from person to person, depending on how you yourself see the world.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! is performed at Bristol Old Vic until May 7. For more information and tickets, please click here.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

'Beat Girl' (1959), film review

If the censors had allowed Beat Girl (Edmond T Greville, 1959) to retain its original title of Striptease Girl it would be far more of an honest representation of this film than the revised title. And before I give anything else away, let me just advise any readers who have yet to see Beat Girl that this review is littered with plot spoilers.

Despite the presence of Christopher Lee, Beat Girl is a ropey old piece of deliberately controversial tosh designed to titillate its male viewer. It gave the censors palpitations on release and was eventually given an X rating after extensive cuts. It’s a shame they didn’t cut the whole thing and forget about it.

This is a film that is trying so desperately hard to attract some kind of notoriety with its barely-dressed teen actresses and teen idol singers (well, Adam Faith) that it forgot to include a plot that was more substantial than a pornographic B movie. Yep, the plot to Beat Girl is so lacking in any substance or logic that it fails to even convince as a terrible porn film.

The narrative makes very little sense. In a nutshell, a spoilt teenage girl is resentful of her divorced dad’s new French bride and wants some attention. On a deeper level, there are a lot of troubling and misogynistic tropes at play in Beat Girl and Christopher Lee – as the owner of a strip club and brothel – is shown molesting a young girl who we are repeatedly told is underage. Err, that’s sexual assault.

But let’s backtrack and look at the two female protagonists in turn here: spoilt brat Jennifer (Gillian Hills) and her not-much-older stepmother Nichole (Noelle Adam).

As the film progresses, we learn that 24-year-old Nichole married Jennifer’s wealthy dad Paul (David Farrar) to escape a life of prostitution and stripping in Paris: activities she clearly states she only resorted to due to her destitution and starvation. And activities that she makes clear she did not enjoy or want to be involved with. She keeps her past secret from Paul and wants to make a new life with him in London, only to be rumbled by Jennifer who spots Nichole talking with stripper Greta (Delphi Lawrence), who is recruiting women to work in the brothel, and spills the beans to her dad in the hope he’ll boot Nichole out.

On the other hand we have Jennifer, who we are repeatedly told is underage (Hills was 15 at the time of filming). Lacking attention from her dad who has been away for three months, but is absorbed with his work when he is home, Jennifer starts sneaking out at night to hang out with a hip beatnik crowd. Once Nichole shows up, Jennifer becomes intrigued by the life of a stripper and decides this is what she wants to do herself. Strip club boss Kenny takes a lascivious shine to schoolgirl Jennifer and wants to whisk her away to Paris to work as a stripper and prostitute, whereupon aggrieved and exploited stripper and prostitute Greta stabs Kenny to death to save Jennifer from rape and the same fate that met her.

There are a confusing set of messages at play in Beat Girl. On one hand, Jennifer’s friend Tony (Peter McEnery) is admonished by his friends for secretly drinking gin, but on the other hand stripping and prostitution is just fine. On one hand, Jennifer is scolded by her father for wearing make-up, yet on the other nobody notices that Nichole sleeps in an impressive amount of mascara and eyeliner. On one hand, the men in Beat Girl wear suits and full clothing, while on the other the female characters are lucky if they’re allowed to wear their underwear. And it is absolutely fine for both Nicole and Paul to slap Jennifer (a child) hard on the face on separate occasions.

This is a film where it’s OK for a policeman to say “I’d wallop you if it wasn’t for my pension”. I know it’s 1959 and things have progressed since then, but what Beat Girl shows - with its representation of sexual entertainment venues and women as sexual objects for consumption that can be bought – is that we haven’t come very far in the past 57 years. In 2016, sexual entertainment venues still exist on high streets up and down this country, and women are still only valued by their sexual worth – whether in advertising or in strip clubs. Interestingly, the strippers in Kenny’s club make it clear that they despise Kenny and that they hate their work and the sad old men who pay to watch them strip.

So that’s a glance at the patriarchal implications of Beat Girl. But how does Beat Girl measure up as a film? Well, it’s awful. The plot makes no sense, the acting is largely terrible, the blending between the beatnik and stripping clubs makes no sense, and why does Adam Faith keep bursting into badly dubbed song? This is a charmless, joyless film that at least shows just how dated, unacceptable and damaging the persistent exploitation of women as sexual commodities is.

The soundtrack by John Barry (James Bond) is enjoyable though.