Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Act One presents White Crow @ The Gate Arts Centre

An ancient tale transformed into a thoroughly modern, thought-provoking piece about 21st century Britain and identity politics.

“What will happen to Wales in the case of Scottish independence?” It’s a question posed by many academics here at Cardiff University, and one which fuels Act One’s latest production, White Crow. The premise is that forty years in the future, Scotland and Ireland have gained independence - the former peacefully, the latter through terrorism – leaving Wales to be walked all over by England. Ruled ever more strictly by Westminster, Wales becomes increasingly destitute, giving rise to radical nationalist groups. White Crow explores difficult questions like where is the boundary between nationalism and being proud of your country, and just what is best for the future of Wales.

White Crow, however, started life as the Branwen branch of the Mabinogi, the foundational myth of Wales. The myth tells of Bendigeidfran, King of Wales, his brother Efnissien, and their little sister Branwen (Welsh for White Crow). Branwen marries the Irish leader Matholwch who imprisons and tortures her, so her brothers, with the help of Pryderi must fight to free her.  Under the guidance of director Aled Bidder and production manager Ellen Green, over ten months of preparation, improvisation and editing, the myth was transformed into a remarkable play which combined hard-hitting political commentary with a deeply personal story. The main characters and plot points remain, but this time Ben, Niss, Branwen and Father Pyrderi are involved in a much larger struggle for national self-determination. Many new characters have also been added, including the sibling’s parents Eirlys and Llyr, and their friend turned political opponent Bran Lloyd who serves as catalyst for much of the play’s political philosophising.

The long preparation process and strict editing (which I believe caused a few arguments at the time) ensure that this unique, original and collaborative play is consistently engrossing. Pacing is often a problem with Act One plays, which usually feel far too long, but White Crow was kept tight whilst tying together many diverse plot strands. Particularly effective was the clever use of temporal shifts, flashbacks of Bran in his early days with the movement and relationships with Eirlys and Llyr interwoven with Ben’s assent in the nationalist movement. The juxtaposition of the two periods really added to the sense of Bran’s heartbreak and regrets, although they did seem to perplex some audience members - a fault of the audience not Act One I believe!

More than just a great script, however, the production brings together an extremely talented cast and creative team. Right from the beginning, Act One successfully create an oppressive atmosphere symbolic of the political climate, encapsulated in the black crows that constantly surround the stage. Like many other audience members, I was genuinely frightened when I walked into an almost black auditorium and found myself face to face with a giant crow. Apparently many hours of rehearsal and improvisation were dedicated to perfecting the birds, but it certainly paid off! Besides avian impressions, much of the power of this production comes from the very strong central performances of Greg Davies (Ben), Ben Atterbury (Niss) and particularly Alex Mann, who really stood out for me as disillusioned politician Bran Lloyd. In fact, the whole ensemble seemed the strongest Act One cast that I have seen, bringing to life the strong emotions and high drama of the script with subtlety. They were also very versatile, with some beautiful singing (particularly James Rollinson) and once again proving Act One’s stage fighting prowess, although some of the cast could do with a bit more work on their accents (especially Irish ones)!

The production received a well-deserved standing ovation and it’s not hard to see why. White Crow is in a league of its own when it comes to amateur productions, both in terms of the performances and especially the quality of the writing. Act One pull off a real achievement with this production, combining gripping entertainment with serious political commentary. I will be recommending it to my Nationalism professor and to anyone who wants to see an exciting, engrossing new production. 

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Je Kiffe Elektro Kif @ Sherman Cymru

If kif means love, then je kiffe this high-octane dance piece which brings the exuberance of Paris' latest craze to British stages.

So what is Elektro Kif? It's a brand new dance-theatre production directed and choreographed by Blanca Li, celebrating the vibrant and eclectic electro style of dance that sprung up in the clubs and on the streets of Paris over the last few years. It's a style that's still evolving, blending together breaking, disco, popping & locking and even some classical dance moves. The incredibly talented troupe of eight dancers, brought together by Blanca as the winners of various dance competitions, all come from very different backgrounds and bring this to their performance. Blanca says she witnessed the birth of the dance in Paris and knew she had to bring it to the stage.

However, Elektro Kif is more than just some very impressive dancing. Telling the story of one day at a college, the show displayed a real theatricality, turning mundane activities like eating lunch or a trigonometry class into spectacular entertainment. The boys' characters really shone through, and mixed with the energy of the performance and the extremely colourful costumes, the result was the most fun I've had at the theatre in a very long time. I couldn't help smiling through the whole thing! In the post-show talk, the boys all agreed that they really love performing in the show and their enthusiasm is what makes Elektro Kif so special.

It was wonderful to see such a mixed audience at Sherman Cymru for Elektro Kif last night, including lots of teenagers. Dynamic performances like this are so important for getting a new generation into the theatre. Everyone in the audience seemed blown away by the skill and energy of the boys, as well as the positions they could get their bodies into, and many women were seen still swooning long after the show finished.

During the post-show talk, someone asked if they'd been watching Got To Dance, but as company manager Glyslein Lefever responded, as the prize is to perform in a professional show, they've already won. They're performing around the country and wowing audiences with their incredible skill. The tour continues for another month, so don't miss out!

Friday, 24 February 2012

A R Penck - does the A stand for Awesome?

No attempt at analysis here, just that my Dad told me to Google German painter A. R. Penck and I was very impressed by what I found. Get Googling yourselves!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close will surely have come to your attention for being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar before even having a cinematic release, but it also fits nicely into my current studies of literature to film adaptation, in obvious and surprising ways.

The film, directed by Stephen Daldry and adapted by Eric Roth from Jonathan Safran Foer's iconic 2005 novel, has been almost universally panned. It has a 45% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and The Guardian even asked whether it was the worst Best Picture nomination ever. I think this harsh criticism is at least in part inspired by the Oscar nod: if it were not up for the award, I doubt people would have reacted with such vitriol, but rather indifference. After all, judged on its own merits, it's alright. I was very ready to hate it after seeing the trailer - and knowing the book - but it was fine. Yes it's shmaltzy, over-sentimental and contrived but I didn't have an urge to give up on it at any point during the two-and-a-bit hours, I very much liked Max von Sydow and I thought Oskar's meetings with the various Blacks were well executed.

However, I absolutely loved the book. I read it all in about 8 hours, not wanting to put it down. Adapting Extremely Loud... was always going to be a very difficult part, as much of its magic relies on how it is put on paper. The book is a mixture of Oskar's streams of consciousness, letters he writes and receives, letters his family write, photographs, newspaper clippings, things his mute grandfather writes in his daybooks to communicate with people, and even tester papers from a stationary store. As you can see below, the layout of the book tries to imitate the way the characters write (in this case the grandfather trying to fit as many words as possible on his rapidly dwindling paper - part of the fun is trying to read these palimpsests). The film was never going to be able to recreate this, but the annoying thing is that it didn't even try to create a similar feeling with innovative filming or montage techniques, instead giving us a very mundane film.

The worst sin of the film-makers though, in my opinion, was the complete sanitation and Hollywoodising of the story. What really caught my attention in the novel was how Oskar's grandparents' lives were changed forever by the bombing in Dresden. By almost completely ignoring this crucial part of the story, the film-makers have not only removed a very relevant comparison with Oskar's current situation (perhaps in was thought that 9/11 is incomparable?) but also gave me the impression that they believed it wasn't proper to consider the suffering of Germans at the hands of the Allies. This is, after all, an extremely patriotic film. Scenes at the Twin Towers have been added in and there is much more focus on the courage of those there. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it just doesn't leave much room for considering that others have suffered too.

It's not just the Dresden bombings that were erased, but the complex adult relationships. In the book, Oskar is angry that his mother is spending time with another man, but in the film Sandra Bullock remains a devoted, grieving widow. I got the impression that the film-makers thought it wasn't appropriate for her to move on so quickly, or even to seek solace with company. Yet it is the relationship between Oskar's grandparents that is most sorely missed. The delicate balance of remembering and forgetting, supporting each other and causing each other pain was for me the most captivating part of the book, a sensitive examination of a very real relationship. I was very disappointed to see it gone. Moreover, much criticism of both the film and the novel has been that the young protagonist Oskar is 'extremely pretentious and incredibly irritating', which I agree with, but in the book it's not so much of a problem as there are lots of other characters who are far more engaging. In the film, on the other hand, it's all on Oskar and he does grate on you. However, while it would have been very easy to put a man in with Oskar's mother, doing justice to the complexities of Oskar's grandparents would have required much more time than this already long film could offer, so maybe I should just accept that the film could never have been a full recreation of the book, and take it for what it is? After all, we're always told in class not to reduce the question to 'The book is better and that's that', but to look at what we can learn from how the film has been adapted. In this case, I think we can mainly learn a lot about attitudes to 9/11.

Talking of class, I was very surprised to find a link between Extremely Loud... and the latest of my course books, Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum. I read Extremely Loud... only a few weeks before The Tin Drum but the obvious intertextuality didn't occur to me until I stumbled across an article called The Extremely Loud Tin Drum. Then suddenly it was so clear: two Oskars, one with a drum, the other with a tambourine, both finding comfort in their grandmothers... The filmic Oskar Schell even had a striking resemblance to Oskar Matzerath, with the piercing Bronski blue eyes.

I take this as a clue to the intentions behind Extremely Loud... The Tin Drum became known as the great novel of the twentieth century for its vivid and over-arching descriptions of the rise of Nazism, WWII and ensuing capitalist era. Although on a much smaller scale, Extremely Loud... aims to continue this portrayal of major world events through the eyes of a child, from WWII to 9/11, focusing on the devastating personal consequences. If only Oskar Schell had been half as complex, witty and engaging as Oskar Matzerath.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Ffresh Festival Part 7: Documentaire

My final session at Fresh Festival was one of my favourites - the international documentaries. The first two were brilliant, the third was pretty boring but well-made at least.
Love Hacking - Jenni Nelson - USA (Stanford University)
This was a really sweet documentary about Tim Heath, an inventor/tech-geek and Mormon who travels to Nepal to marry Surita, who he met on a Mormon dating website and has never met in person. His friends and religious leaders tell him he's crazy but he thinks he's found true love and that's worth the risk. Some of the people in the audience were laughing at Tim and writing him off as a weirdo who is being used because he's incapable of finding human contact elsewhere. However, the film-makers deserve a lot of credit for not judging Tim in their film, but rather presenting him as a sensible man doing what he thinks is right. I was quite moved by Tim's journey rather than pitying or ridiculing him.

Pit-Hole - Jiří Stejskal - Estonia (Baltic Film and Media School)
Another fascinating documentary sensitively covering a subject that could easily be ridiculed, this time about a family in Kiev who are determined to keep their house and land while big construction companies demolish everything around them to create modern flats. This film both keenly develops its characters - a surprisingly modern Ukranian family - and gives a rare insight into the modernising drive in the Ukraine since the end of communism.

Personal Velocity - Jon Vatne - USA/ Norway (The New School University)
I have to say I was a little bored by Personal Velocity, which profiled two bike riders, one reckless and one sensible after losing a friend (or lover?) to a bike accident. The camerawork - showing bikes weaving in and out of traffic - was impressive and the characters were well-developed but I feel like the film had nothing to say really.

Ffresh Festival Part 6: Ffresh Fiction Postgraduate

Another day, another batch of Ffresh Films, this time postgraduate fiction, which like undergrad fiction was quite mixed. Some great films (technically or scriptwise) and some right howlers.

Queensbury Rules - William Scothern, Nick Williams & Mark Pengelly - Newport Film School
I really liked this film about a young amateur boxer preparing for a fight. It was technically very well made, the story was engaging and the juxtaposition of him preparing for a fight and flashbacks to his life outside the ring worked really well to create a well-rounded character.

Luella and Me - Rob Howells - Newport Film School
An ice-cream man has to fight the local council to keep his van, helped by a free-spirit with a dark past. I believe this film was made with all unprofessional actors, which was quite evident, but the story was really sweet.  

Bubbles - Leyla Pope, Sara Parry Jones & Geoffrey Morgan - Newport Film School
The most technically accomplished of the films, with some really beautiful photography. The story neatly combined many threads, but I didn't feel much empathy with the characters, which would otherwise have made this an outstanding film.

Skin Deep - Torkjell Strømme, Ben Jenkins, Riccardo Bacioalupo & Ben Jenkins - Newport Film School & University of Glamorgan
Eurgh. Ok, that's a little mean. I get what they were aiming at but it didn't work. Bad acting and an overwrought script.

The Passing of Mother Prudence - Chris Marsh, Liz Chester & Chris Grindley - Trinity Saint David
I have to say I hated this film too. The judges loved it, especially the way it created a sense of fear. Apparently to make things scary everything needs to be out of focus, which just annoyed me. And the scary noises from the wardrobe were silly. And the mother's crying was so fake. And there didn't seem to be much point to it. Sorry.

Ffresh Festival Part 5: Undergraduate Fiction

Right: on with the Ffresh round-up! Undergraduate fiction was certainly the most mixed of all the categories, in terms of quality and also subject matter. It seems the graduates knew what they were doing a little more!

Heel Toe  - Alison Scarff - Swansea Met University
A quirky little film about a man with an addiction to women's shoes and his wife learning to adapt. Odd, as you'd expect, but quite joyful and fun to watch.

Between Viewings - Raphael Biss, Daniel Cripps, Vaia Ikonomou, Craig Lewis, Ashleigh Whitfield & Joseph Gidley - Newport Film School
One of my favourite shorts of the festival, this was an uplifting tale of an estate agent who re-evaluates his life when he has to sell his family home. Although it's not professional quality technically, it's beautifully written and really made me smile. The main character also had heaps of charisma - as you'd expect from an estate agent - which really made the film.

Channel 7 The News Resolution - Adam Elliot - Aberystwyth UniversityThis film was a bit of everything - a send-up of the news, rants about modern politics, scenes at an AA meeting. While it was praised by the judges, I thought it was just a mess and it seemed to think it was a lot cleverer than it was.

Coming Out - Milo Howitt, Jon Brooks, Ashley Hancock & Chris Hoskins - University Of Glamorgan
The judges were impressed by the way the film-makers created a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, but I think it just freaked people out, judging by the muted applause and bewildered expressions of the audience after the film. That's to say, they created the mood well but we weren't really convinced by the reason for it.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Ffresh Festival Part 4: It's My Shout

It's My Shout was without doubt my favourite part of the festival (excluding Jonathan Caouette time), as all the films were both brilliantly written and well executed. It's a testament to the It's My Shout scheme, which gives aspiring film-makers the chance to work with BBC Wales to turn their dreams into reality. I spoke to Victoria Stephens and Kate Samways from It's My Shout at the festival about how to get involved, and how to watch the films too.

As for the films themselves, they were all stories of children or young people in Wales told with real warmth and feeling. Films like ABC Dad (Director: Angharad Lee - Producer: Lisa Edwards -Writer: Bethan Marlow) and Sweet Sixteen (Director: Gavin Porter - Producer: Pip Broughton - Writer: David Davies-Llewellyn) are, in different ways, two moving stories of young people trying to improve their lives. Siblings are the focus of both Monster (Director: Jamie Adams - Producer: Lisa Edwards - Writer: Greg Glover), a really funny story of two boys trying to teach their ridiculously spoilt sister a lesson, and King of the Castle (Director: Jon Rennie - Producer: Pip Broughton - Writer: William Smith) a much more serious but sweet film about the relationship between two brothers after their fathers death.

Love Struck (Director: Leyla Pope - Producer: Lisa Edwards - Writer: Ali Blodwen-Jones) really stood out for me as a clever and charming way of telling a story. A modern reinvention of the Welsh fable ‘Llyn Y Fan Fach', according to which if you strike your lover three times you will lose her forever, the story is told through a poetic, rhyming narration over images of school children acting out the story.

However, is is Tentboy (Director: Ryan Owen - Producer: Pip Broughton - Writer: Michael Waters) that made the biggest impression on me. Tentboy was my favourite short of the festival, in a league of its own in terms of quality (they'd even somehow managed to get James Bolam in it). It's the story of an outsider whose parents start to worry about him when he takes to sleeping in a tent, but he has a plan all along. The main character is extremely likeable and very well acted. I know all these films will have been shown on TV (on BBC Wales in Autumn 2011), but this one really feels like it wouldn't be out of place in mainstream scheduling.

Make sure you check out or @itsmyshoutltd on Twitter and watch these charming films which will soon be available on their website.

O Go My Man @ RWCMD 10/2/12

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing O Go My Man, a recent play by Stella Feehily, perfectly brought to life by the Richard Burton Company at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Here's my review in audio form:

EDIT: When I went to Blood Wedding I discovered the costumes from O Go My Man on display.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Malaysian Society presents Festival of Diversity IX

If you’re like me, you probably know little about Malaysian culture. Well, the Festival of Diversity is the Malaysian Society’s annual chance to change that with a song and dance spectacular - this year, Pahlawan the Musical. For the first time ever the event is taking place at St David’s Hall, giving the society an opportunity to reach a much wider audience.

I say Malaysian culture, but actually Malaysia is a multicultural country, composed primarily of Malays, Chinese and Indians, and all three are represented in the show, both in terms of the cast and the routines. It was a desire to raise awareness of this unique cultural mixture that inspired the first Festival of Diversity nine years ago, as André Lim, former President of Malaysian Society, told me. He explained that back then it was little more than a talent show, a sort of Malaysia’s Got Talent, but over the years it grew into a play and then into its current musical format. It is one of the three key events that Malaysian Society runs throughout the year. While Festival of Diversity focuses on culture, the Cardiff European Games bring together Malaysian students from across Europe for sporting competitions, and an annual Leadership Conference focuses more on business, politics and economics. Through these events, as well as day-to-day activities like mentoring new students, the Malaysian Society works to create a community of Malaysian students, not just within Cardiff, but all over Britain and beyond. The musical is a particular draw for Malaysian students from far and wide; law student Linnie Ooi explains that she came down from Aberystwyth for the show last year and this year has friends visiting from all over Britain for the event.

The main event of the night, Pahlawan the Musical, reinvented the age old folk tale of Hang Tuah, a warrior from the 15th century Malaccan Sultanate, torn between love and loyalty. He has become a hero fighting pirates with his brother, but when the Sultan sends him on mission to procure the beautiful Princess Tun Teja’s hand in marriage, Tuah’s life is turned upside down. This story is told through both drama and song, but I was surprised to find that the songs were not traditional Malaysian pieces, or even new works in that style, but mainly adaptations of songs from popular West End musicals like Wicked and Miss Saigon, and pop hits from Michael Jackson to Coldplay (with two Malaysian pieces thrown in). Nonetheless, I am reliably informed that the incidental music was very typical Malaysian fare and the overwhelming feel of the show, from the brightly coloured traditional outfits to the martial arts fight scenes, was undeniably Malaysian. Moreover, the electrifying dance scenes, a highlight of the show, showed off the diverse styles of the different cultures that make up Malaysia.

On the whole, the cast gave very strong performances considering they are all amateurs. Vingesh Raja as Tuah gave a solid, heart-felt performance (although he did lose himself during the songs in a charmingly overblown way that reminded me of when I sing along to musicals in my bedroom when no-one is watching!). As his brother Jebat, Leon Lee put in a particularly strong performance while Elizabeth Wong as Tun Teja displayed a surprisingly good voice. Comedy relief came in bucket loads from Sivaram Prasad who hammed up the role of Sultan Mahmud, turning him into a perfect pantomime villain. Equally funny and charming was Amanda Chong as the vivacious lady’s maid Suria, whose rendition of I Can Hear the Bells was the best vocal performance of the musical. All in all, despite a tragic ending to the show, my overall impression of it was very cheesy but very fun, I think because the enthusiasm of the cast and their joy in performing was infectious.

However, the musical was not all the Malaysian Society had on offer tonight, but rather sandwiched between two other exciting, energetic performances. The first was from special guests Festival Drums all the way from the University of Liverpool. This was a perfect start to the show, impressively choreographed playing of traditional drums, and I was especially pleased to see that the drummers included a wide range of people, not just Malaysians, showing that the event really is trying to be inclusive. Then after the musical came the Dikir Barat, which seemed to be moment everyone had been waiting for judging by the cheers when it was announced. This traditional seated dance, involving lots of clapping, and accompanying upbeat songs, was a real highlight. It was incredible to see about a hundred Malaysian Society members dancing as one and with so much energy, while the crowd sang, clapped and cheered along.

By the end of the night, I have certainly learnt a lot more about Malaysian culture. I can now recognise traditional music, dress and dance styles, have learnt a key story from Malaysian folklore and even have a few recipes to try out from the programme. But more than that, I feel like I have really learnt something about the spirit of Malaysia. One of the aims of the show was to celebrate “a people, proud, diverse and united despite the apparent differences in creed and colour” and in this aim Festival of Diversity most definitely succeeded. From not just the performers but the audience, the overwhelming passion for their homeland and strength of their community was obvious and inspiring. Directors Stephanie Wong and Aqil Ariffin, as well as the enormous team of performers and crew, deserve a huge congratulations for putting such a successful night together and bringing a little bit of Malaysia to Cardiff. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Ffresh Festival Part 3: Ficcion 1

Day two of Ffresh Festival for me starts with Ficcion 1, a collection of international short fiction films. This was a bit of a mixed bag, with films differing greatly both in terms of theme and quality.

Enmesh (Ambitious) - Ainur Askarov -Russia
The story of a young child in a rural village who dreams of stardom and lives for the weekly screening of a Bollywood film in the village hall. The film nicely juxtaposes daily routine and escapist dreams. The subtitles were such bad quality that we couldn't read them, but it is a testament to the film-makers that I still felt moved by the story without understanding any words.

Last Train (Ostatni pociąg) - Weronika Tofilska - Poland 
My favourite of this batch of films, a high-quality production and engrossing, subtly moving story. Anthony's life is miserable - monotony of work, unappealing wife, drab surroundings - and only brightened by memories of his first love (the juxtaposition of the grey concrete of real life and the vibrant colour of memory is particularly effective). One of the best things about  Henryk Niebudek has a face so full of character that he wouldn't need to say anything for you to identify with him. The whole film is available below:

Beyond - Gary Sofarelli -Australia (Sydney Film School)
A very atmospheric film that verbalises nothing, implying its meaning instead through cuts between a man trying to swim the entire length of a pool without breathing and images of a happy family. Visually impressive, this film won the Best International Fiction award.

Essai de Narration incoherent(e) - AUNVEL# -Germany (Hochschule für Film und Fernschem Potsdam)
Incoherent is certainly the right word for this film, which just left me bored. It felt like it was trying far too hard to be clever or unusual. I couldn't tell whether only subtitling half of the dialogue was a fault or a stylistic device, but I assume the later. Formed of cuts between mundane conversations between two friends, an angry drunk in a bar and an otherworldy woman who licks mud/oil/something disgusting off herself and later suffers excessively gory violence. Not recommended!

Pictures from

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Ffresh Festival Part 1: Graduate Documentaries

After weeks of anticipation, Ffresh Fesitval is finally here! Ffresh, subtitled as 'the student moving image festival of Wales', is organised mainly by Newport Film School and the University of Wales, Newport in order to celebrate the work of local film students, as well as providing them with access to great films and film-makers from around the world.

Yesterday the festival started with the shortlisted films for the Best UK Graduate Documentary. Although nominally 'UK', all the shortlisted entries were from the Newport Film School, but I have little doubt that this is because the school churns out high quality film makers. The five films shown were all different styles and very varied subjects, but all very interesting.

Finding Walter - Michael Moore
A personal exploration of Walter Dew, a famous Scotland Yard detective, who was involved in the Jack the Ripper case and made his name 'catching' Dr Grippen, presumed wife-murderer (although new evidence suggests he was innocent all along and framed by Dew to take the pressure off the failing police). Moore is a distant relative of Dew, as a rather awkward family tree scene with an actual tree shows us. This film seemed a little amateurish compared to some of the others, but still interesting.

Crossman -Christopher Beard & Sam Werkiester
Following Lindsey who has spent most of his life walking around the world carrying a crucifix to share the word of God. His devotion to his religious duty took over his whole life, ripping his family apart. While fascinating, the long scenes of group prayer in the street also felt quite awkward. I wondered whether the film makers were religious themselves and whether that would change the film. While I personally left feeling that Lindsey was quite crazy and selfish in how he left his children, the film-makers did seem to make a very neutral film, just giving the facts and leaving us to judge them, which is an impressive feat for such a divisive subject.

Mostar - Sebastian Feehan & Josh Bamford
My favourite of all the films, both for the professional way it was shot and for the sensitive way they treated the difficult, but fascinating, subject matter. Mostar was the most-fought over city in the Bosnian War, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since WW2, and this film tells the story of that violence and destruction through the eyes of a survivor, Nedzad Kasumovic, who risked his life to film the conflict. A clear yet thought-provoking entrance into a very complicated subject.

Eighty Eight - Sebastian Feehan, Josh Bamford & Hannah Bone
The one film that seemed vaguely uplifting, a portrait of 88 year old widower Ralph Settle who refuses to let age stop him. He competes - and wins! - in various sports against people a quarter of his age, busks in town and even goes to nightclubs and hangs out with the young-uns (that bit felt a little awkward). Even this one got sad though when Ralph talked of how he still can't get over his wife's death. I could imagine this film sliced between programmes on Channel 4 one evening.

Mourning of the Valley - Andrew Gough, Paris Palmer, John Shand, James Earing & Ian Morley
It wouldn't be a Welsh festival without at least one mention of the mining communities in the Valleys, this time the 1913 Senghenydd mining disaster where 439 men lost their lives. This film stood out technically as it combined interviews with very well acted documentary drama.

The winner will be announced tomorrow. In the meantime, I look forward to more films today.

Ffresh Festival Part 2: Walk Away Renee

The crowning glory of Ffresh Festival 2012 is that, thanks to the British Council, acclaimed D-I-Y documentary maker Jonathan Caouette has come to Newport for a retrospective of his work and a film-making masterclass.

Caouette shot to fame in 2004 with Tarnation, the story of his family told mainly through the home movies that he has been filming for most of his life. 

While I sadly missed Tarnation yesterday, I was lucky enough to today be part of the first audience ever to see the new cut of Caouette's latest work, Walk Away Renee. This film follows Jonathan's journey across the country moving his severely mentally ill mother Renee from a home in Houston to one near him in New York. At the same time, it recaps and adds to the story of Jonathan's upbringing and Renee's condition that he detailed in his first film (I followed the film perfectly without having seen Tarnation first). 

The result is completely engaging, not only because the story is so moving and treated with equal frankness and sensitivity, but because it is visually stunning. It should already be clear from the above trailers that Caouette has a unique visual style, a flare for montage that distinguishes his films from the staid style of the traditional documentary. Caouette described his film-making as "idiosyncratic", which perfectly summarises his distinctive style. Even at about two hours long, the film kept me captivated and never felt like it was dragging on. Quite the opposite - Caouette reveals so many facets of the 'characters' and makes them so engrossing that at the end of the film I still longed to know more about them. 

In interviews after Tarnation, Caouette argued that people who suffer from mental illness deserve more empathy and understanding. With Walk Away Renee, he has once again created a film that will raise awareness of what it is like both to be afflicted with mental illness and to care for someone who is. It is heartfelt yet never preachy or didactic films like these that will hopefully change public opinion. The fact that on top of this Caouette has managed to create a genuinely mind-blowing piece of visual art is just the cherry on the cake.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Twitter & TV - a step too far?

I may be a recent convert, but I have fallen hard for Twitter. What started as a way to share this blog with people has turned into a fountain of knowledge for me. Most of this knowledge is admittedly useless, like how Aiden Grimshaw has an album coming out soon (ok I was quite excited about that one) or that people think it's hilarious pretending celebrities are dead. Nonetheless, I do believe that following Venezuelan authors will give me insights for my research (even if 90% of tweets are along the lines of 'Boo, Chávez'), that following people like @femfreq and @openculture is expanding my mind, and that following local theatres and cultural centres is keeping me much more in touch with the artistic community here.

However, watching Being Human last night, I couldn't believe how warped the idea of Twitter and its uses has become. As the programme started, #beinghuman was displayed across the screen and at the end the announcer had to read out things like "O.M.G. Russell Tovey" and "Noooo Nina". I felt genuinely embarrassed for him. I noticed the same thing with Come Dine With Me. What is the world coming to?

I understand that the logic behind TV's Twitter obsession is that if you read out people's comments they will feel like they're famous for five minutes, creating a desire to keep watching the programme. But surely if you're watching something like Being Human it's because you're interested in the characters and the plot, not whether you'll get to be mentioned on TV?

I know I'm just as guilty as anyone of tweeting the odd pointless comment when I'm bored/overexcited, but if I post inane drivel people can chose to follow it or not. If they don't follow me, they don't have to read it. So unless I'm following the person who thinks Russell Tovey is the best actor EVA, please don't make me listen to it over the credits.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Open House @ Sherman Cymru

Today I braved the snow to visit the Sherman Cymru's Open House, along with a large crowd who had gathered to celebrate the reopening of what is so much more than a theatre.

The Sherman Cymru ( was originally opened in 1973 as part of the University of Wales and has since been through many guises, but has always been at the heart of the local community. In February 2010 the Sherman closed for a £6.5million redesign to create a space that would really cater for the community's needs. Beyond its spectacular new façade and much improved seating for the utmost comfort during performances, the new building was designed to create a space where people of all ages and walks of life could come and be creative. There is a new café/bar area with free Wi-Fi so the Sherman can be a space to gather and discuss or a retreat to focus on work. Moreover, the new writing and rehearsal spaces mean the Sherman can continue and improve its role as a key centre for new creative work, particularly in Welsh.

One of my favourite parts of the new building is the memory wall, where anyone can add a note or a picture about what the Sherman means to them.

It was heart-warming to see that this theatre has such a special place in so many people's lives. I particularly liked the letters like the one below (sorry it's so fuzzy), where people said they went on their first dates with their future spouses at the Sherman. I hope that the new building will provide even more of these special moments for years to come.

While I was there, I spoke to Suzanne Carter, PR & Campaigns Manager, who told me more about the new building and what to expect from the next season:

I also asked some long-time patrons what they thought of the new Sherman:

Special thanks to Deryn Tudor for her lively and informative tour, and all her help with lost keys!!

Act One Presents King Lear @ YMCA Cardiff 3/2/12

As Act One’s latest production of King Lear was advertised as “a dramatic re-telling of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies”, I was sure it would have been rewritten in modern English, and was pleasantly surprised to instead find that directors Madison Fowler and Piers Horner, with their talented cast and crew, succeeded in their mission to create an engaging Lear for the twenty-first century whilst remaining faithful to Shakespeare’s play.

The idea behind the production was to “bring Lear to a wider audience by heightening the violence and raw power of the text”, updating the story from pre-Roman England to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where Lear is the leader of a gang of survivors and Gloucester an ex-policeman struggling to adapt to the new world. This background is set out for us in the programme which sadly suggests that the Daily Mail survives the end of civilisation, and brought to life though Mikey Boyle’s minimum yet highly effective set design covered with graffiti including a Banksy-esque Grim Reaper. The nightmarish setting is further enhanced by music composed especially for the production by Nick Cotton (@fblockisadj), a dark mixture of classical and techno that perfectly suited the oppressive mood of the piece.

Given the description in the advertising and the ‘strictly over 18s’ rating, I expected a truly graphic production and Act One did not disappoint. The performance began with the very violent murder of Lear’s eldest son and continued with similar scenes dotted throughout the production which made it seem more immediate and gripping. Act One have certainly been taking their stage fighting classes seriously. However, what should have been the most harrowing scene, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, instead was messy and distant because of the decision to pre-film the scene and project it onto the stage. While I understand it would be difficult to make this scene work well live, the projection seemed out of place and distracting from the raw power of the rest of the production.

As for the acting, it was generally quite good, but a bit of a mixed bag. A special mention has to be made for Ellie Hepworth playing the Fool who had to spend half an hour on stage alone keeping in character as we took our seats; it was a tough ask and she dealt with it commendably. The central performance of the play, James Davies in the title role, was strong. He rendered Lear’s descent from powerful leader to madman with sensitivity and subtlety. Lawrence Dixon’s rapper inspired portrayal of Edmund was a particular highlight. It could have been an annoying gimmick but actually really worked and suited the scheming and unhinged character perfectly.  As his half-brother Edgar, Oliver Ferriman was also very impressive.  He combined extreme physicality (there seems to be an Act One tradition following the Panto that every production this year must have at least one almost naked male lead) with a genuinely moving performance. Dom Gwyther, as their father Gloucester, gave a very natural, engaging performance, which is sadly more than I can say for some of the other parts. For me the sign of a good actor is when you forget they have a script and it seems the words they are using are their own. Unfortunately, some of the cast fell into the usual trap when performing Shakespeare of thinking that shouting will make the words make more sense instead of really engaging with them, whereas others were competent but just lacking that essential spark.

On the whole, Act One produced an engrossing vision of King Lear, thanks to impressive central performances, set-design and music. Their desire to draw in a new audience to Shakespeare by bringing out the violence and the passion of the play was a clear success, as audience members delightedly professed that the production had made them understand and enjoy this complex play for the first time. I look forward to seeing what they do with Measure for Measure in March.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Cardiff Illustration Presents Eccentric Worlds & Nonsensical Scribbles

There's nothing I like more than free art, so today I went to see Eccentric Worlds & Nonsensical Scribbles, an exhibition of work by BA Illustration students from Cardiff School of Art & Design, in the Capitol Shopping Centre (right at the end, opposite Sainsburys).

I was really impressed by the wide range of illustrations, from cutesy children's illustration to some quite disturbing pieces; video animation, installation pieces and even T-shirts. I tried to take photos of some of my favourites but being surreptitious meant they're a bit blurry.

I particularly liked the one on the left because of the meeting of text and image, and the one on the right as part of a whole series examining/subverting official portraits of rulers. Go and see them in real life while you still can (til 5th Feb). If you can't make it, here's the official website: with more photos and links to the students' websites.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Les Misérables feat. Ramin Karimloo 27/1/12

On Friday night I had the immense pleasure of going to see Les Misérables. It was the third time I'd seen it live, as well as one school production and watching both the 10th and 25th Anniversary productions more times than I could count. I know every word of the three hours, plus some that have been cut since the Original Cast Album. But that's nothing rare; I saw one woman proudly proclaim on Twitter having seen the show tens of times in the last few months. In 26 years it's been seen by more than ten million people all over the world. So what it is the secret to its enduring popularity?

Musically, the songs are at turns rousing, romantic and heartbreaking, both catchy and repeated enough to remain stuck in your head for days after, but other shows can boast the same (not many other shows, granted). The lyrics aren't great really compared to other shows (although they work so much better in French), but it's what those lyrics express that I think is at the heart of the show's success: the genius of Victor Hugo's epic novel with its incredibly engaging characters and at its heart the message of unwavering faith in a brighter tomorrow and the redemptive power of lover. As a wise person on The Story of Musicals   said, when the whole cast turn to you at the end and ask you to join in creating a better world you can't help but feel uplifted.

Les Misérables has always had a special place in my heart. Although I remember seeing other shows when I was very young (Oliver and Grease come to mind), I first saw Les Mis on my 13th birthday and it was the show that sparked the huge passion for musical theatre I've felt ever since. So on Friday night I was smiling through every moment, but not just for the music and the story. The cast were just incredible, the best cast I've seen live, especially Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean (current cast in the video above).

I first saw Ramin as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera on my 16th birthday. At the time I fell for his beautiful voice and equally beautiful looks. Chris in Miss Saigon followed, and then Enjolras in the 25th Anniversary Les Mis last year, which is when I was really blown away by the power of his voice. At his tour late last year I got to enjoy more of that voice (although at the time I was annoyed that other people had to sing too and I couldn't have two hours of him uninterrupted) but it wasn't til the 25th Anniversary of Phantom when I really noticed what a wonderful actor he is. His Phantom just gets to me, no matter how many times I watch it. His acting is so subtle - a rare thing for musical theatre - and always seems so right. The moment at the end of Phantom when he's waiting for Christine to decide between him and Raoul and the tiny movements of one hand express so much emotion is one of the most powerful I've ever seen. So when I heard he was going to star as Valjean I couldn't contain my excitement. While Alfie Boe has an undeniably powerful voice and Colm Wilkinson (in his own words) has the voice of an angel, for me Ramin was perfect as Valjean, an unbeatable combination of beautifully textured voice and genuinely moving acting.

In short, if you haven't seen Les Mis yet, or even if you have, go to see it now while you can. The music and the story will always be engaging but a cast this strong is a rare treat.