RSC’s The Tempest – Barbican Theatre

 

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Left to Right – Mark Quarterly as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in RSC’s The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest by and large, has been both a platform for theatrical effects and also one of his most curious pieces of theatre. In the special effects department, thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-way collaboration with the computer company Intel, and Andy Serkis’ motion capture company The Imaginarium Studios, the production currently running at The Barbican is a triumph. Utilizing various digital projections, encompassing the ship-wreck beach set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the motion capture effects lend a mystical and wondrous presence to Prospero’s island. The fluid movement and timing goes hand in hand with Mark Quarterly’s whimsical and scene stealing performance as the fairy Ariel, his partially motion captured movements are evidential that the new ways of achieving theatrical effects through computers can be possible and could provide similar opportunities for future productions.

As a play, The Tempest is very limited on plot, neither having the familial strife of The Winter’s Tale or the psychology of Hamlet. What it does have going for however, is the invitation for audiences to experience the wonders of the island, much in the same way as A Midsummer Night’s Dream indulged in the frolics of the fairies. Connecting the two plays, places authorial context on Shakespeare’s bookended life, beginning his career as a young man and stepping away from theatre in his autumn years brought in the powerful parallel to Prospero snapping his magic staff. Simon Russell Beale is in fine form as the eponymous Duke of Milan turned power-weary magician who is coming to terms with his loss of influence and the inevitable loss of imagination. At times however his performance felt dwarfed by the sheer scope of the production’s effects. Thankfully his final scenes and soliloquy are all the more moving as the night of theatre draws to a splendid close.

The rest of the company did well in their supporting (if thin) parts, being something of a surrogate for the audience as they experience the trials and strangeness of the Island. Gregory Doran’s direction doesn’t break new theatrical ground, but is efficient in the handling of both performance and technology. I hope that computer effects for theatre can reach the full potential in bridging technology and live performance. It’s still a work in progress, but experimentation has been the key to elevating the medium. Despite its shortcomings, whether it is in regards to the material or the crowd pleasing special effects, there is something magical and sublime about The Tempest that still has audiences enraptured four hundred and six years since its premiere.

RSC’s The Tempest runs at the Barbican Theatre until 18 August

The Black Cauldron’s failure changed Disney in a big way

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In the years following the death of Walt Disney, the company were at a stand still, lacking in creativity and without a sense of direction. Their films were not performing well and they seemed to be behind the times. Audiences were changing and with seismic pop culture events in the seventies such as Star Wars, the new wave of American filmmakers and Disco, Disney was regarded as a relic of an era long gone. As the decade and a half progressed, the implication was that the company could never recover and that anything that could remind audiences of their golden era seemed unlikely. Production on their twenty-fifth feature film, The Black Cauldron began with a sense of optimism, but proceeded to plummet. The film is regarded as one of Disney’s big failures and many film and animation historians have regarded it as the film that nearly killed Disney and its animation department. But is the film really as bad as people thought? With every failure comes a story behind it and one that is both fascinating but also a case of what could have been.

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Fflewdur, Taran and Eilonwy discover the “fair folk” in one scene from the film.

The Black Cauldron is Book #2, in a somewhat obscure but well-regarded fantasy series rooted in Welsh mythology, called The Chronicles Of Prydain by an American author named Lloyd Alexander. The series centers around a young boy named Taran and his coming of age journey, (all too familiar in fantasy) from youth to maturity. He starts out as an assistant pig keeper, but dreams of being a grand warrior. His companions included Princess Eilonwy, a girl his age, Fflewdur Fflam, a bard and minor king, Gurgi, a wild beast-man and Doli, a dwarf. With promise of something great, Disney under Walt’s son in law Ron Miller, optioned the film rights for The Chronicles Of Prydain. The only problem was, that although Miller was excited about the project possibilities, back in the mid seventies Ron didn’t think that the then-new guard of animators were ready to take on the big project.

mbcb0Taran and Eilonwy as sketched by Disney animator Milt Kahl.

To the chagrin of the animators, Miller had them work on much smaller lower tier projects; most notably Pete’s Dragon and The Fox And The Hound. As he felt his “Walk before you run” approach, was the prudent course in restoring the company’s greatness. One of the then up and coming animators, Don Bluth, grew tired of the creative decline of the company and promptly left Disney in 1979, taking thirteen other disheartened animators with him. By the time production began on the film, things were already starting to unravel. Joe Hale, the producer of the still developing project, made changes to what was originally a sprawling story, under the pen of Lloyd Alexander and promptly capsulized characters and story elements. The direction soon began to become disjointed; what was trumped as “a classical fairytale combining the most exciting elements of Snow White and Fantasia”, now became severely over budget and inconsistent in theme.

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Concept art of The Horned King by Mel Shaw.

Exacerbating things was the regime change, under the then newly appointed Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. Katzenberg, upon seeing the finished version, deemed the film “dark and troubled” and wanted to re-edit the film. When met with opposition, he went into the editing room and cut twelve minutes of footage. Upon release, The Black Cauldron received mixed reviews (apart from a positive review from Roger Ebert) and bombed at the box office with an overall gross of $21.3 million. At the end of the whole debacle, the animators were moved from the studio, to a warehouse where they would begin to create wonders for the company in the next four years. Watching the movie, you can see that the animators had their hearts in the right place, the visualizing arresting character animation and the sense of atmosphere is evidential, which is certainly the case in any of the terrifying scenes featuring The Horned King (originally a minor villain in the books upgraded to main villain status here).

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The grisly looking concept art of the three witches by then Disney animator Tim Burton.

However story is always key, and you get an impression that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. So much that you aren’t able to distinguish what they were going for in terms of theme – a dark fantasy film or a traditional Disney film. The characters more thoroughly established in Alexander’s books, here seem to all be in search of both identity and purpose. Take for example, how the characters in the books undertake so much development and change and then compare it to the film. Thanks to how much Joe Hale abridged a great deal of the story, you don’t get a semblance of a connection or attachment to them. It’s bad enough that the only character you end up liking is the main villain The Horned King (voiced with breathy and creepy conviction by John Hurt), who also isn’t properly developed.

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The Horned King summons his army of the dead from the cauldron in the film’s climax. 

For all the film’s faults however, you can tell they were really trying to make a good film under a mountain of creative discord and executive pressure. Even after everything had been said and done, the film still does have its fans and may have been more ahead of its time than we thought. In 1997, after much fan demand and after years of being hidden away in the Disney Vault, the film was released on VHS and has since been re-released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital download. In spite of its cult status, the film’s turbulent production history fated it to be the “black sheep” of the Disney animated canon. In the aftermath of the film’s failure, the company was re-shaped in the intervening years to become more Hollywood minded and since the success of the Disney renaissance era films, has evolved into the multi-media conglomerate most people know of today. As of 2017, the Walt Disney Company still maintains the film rights to The Chronicles Of Prydain. Given how much society and technology has changed since 1985, they could make a more faithful adaptation of the book series. Last year plans were announced for a possible live-action film series. Could Disney possibly achieve what eluded them back in 1985? Watch this space.

Concept art and stills are the property and copyright of Walt Disney Productions.

Articles cited

1. Hill, Jim. “The Black Cauldron” : What went wrong. N.p., 9 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 July 2017.

2. Kois, Dan. “Revisiting The Black Cauldron, the movie that almost killed Disney animation.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 July 2017.

3. Ness, Mari. “A Demoralizing Disaster: Disney’s The Black Cauldron.” Tor.com. N.p., 08 Oct. 2015. Web. 14 July 2017.

4. Gibron, Bill. “The Black Cauldron: The Less than Wonderful World of Disney?” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 July 2017.

5. Bey, Adnan. “The Black Cauldron and the Seven Standards of Disney.” The Artifice. N.p., 28 July 2014. Web. 14 July 2017.

King Kong (A Comedy) – The Vaults Theatre

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Mel Brooks once famously said “a good parody should be funny without the viewer watching the subject it’s parodying.” While this philosophy is still true in some cases, it still is based on whether or not the jokes are original or organic. The Vaults, a theatre company in Waterloo, whom I’ve really come to admire for their alternative take on theatre didn’t quite hit the mark this time. King Kong (A comedy) as penned by Daniel Clarkson the same writer behind the hit “Potted” stage shows (which I’m sure were much funnier), tries but never truly does anything creative or new to send up cinema’s most iconic giant ape. I happen to be a fan of King Kong, I have seen the 1933 original by Merian C. Cooper and, for all its flaws, Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. Going in I had the knowledge of what I remembered from seeing both and felt confident that this stage show could deliver a good satire. The story remains pretty much the same, and follows filmmaker Carl Denham’s gamble on sailing to Skull Island to make a motion picture, only for said filmic ambitions to get thwarted when the characters fall foul of the mighty Kong. If you’ve seen both films, you know what happens of course. They take the gorilla back to New York and the rest goes south from there.

The slapstick humour of this show seemed very rooted in the stylings of vaudeville comedy and one liners reminiscent of The Marx Brothers. But whereas the humour in the films of The Marx Brothers was based around natural timing, the jokes here lacked the same punch. A smile only crept in here and there for me because there were times where the production seemed to be improving and then slid down the slope when something barely close to brilliance was surfacing. The production felt like a series of sketches trying to find a cohesive whole, and the intentionally minimalist set felt more at home at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The fourth wall jokes got old fairly quickly and the deconstructive self-awareness towards the 1933 film’s original time period and gender politics seemed forced rather than modernized. I know that the gender politics in the original film weren’t at all politically correct, but there still needs to be some originality and sense of wit around that particular subject.

I know that a parody can be good in the medium of stage theatre; I have seen The Play That Goes Wrong which handled its subject of Agatha Christie and the dire pratfalls of staging an Amateur Dramatics Society production with an amount of freshness while maintaining sustainability. Also most importantly it provides a relatable human focus on the characters. While I applaud the actors here for doing well with the direction and material, I never felt really any connection to the recognizable characters beyond exaggerated caricatures. Some may argue that in a comedy you don’t need to feel much except laugh. The dilemma is that without the necessary substance, you’re not going to be able to care about the people or even laugh.  Funnily enough a reference was made to The Vaults’ other current production Alice’s Adventures Underground. That may in fact be a clue that there is another production worth investing your time in.

King Kong (A Comedy) runs at The Vaults until 27 August

New Radicals: You Get What You Give

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Everyone has a particular song which has a personal meaning, the time and place can have a hold on how valuable that song was. Was it a time in the summer or an early childhood memory of a year gone by? It can vary depending on your memory. A particular memory for me was from the year 1999, despite being too young to remember I recall that it was a great year for mainstream music. Artists ranking in the UK charts at the time ranged from mainstream pop singers (Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys and Madonna), Big Beat DJs (Fatboy Slim, Armand Van Helden), Britpop’s remnants (Manic Street Preachers, Blur, Stereophonics), up and coming rap stars (Eminem), the one acid jazz band (Jamiroquai) and even latin and country music. It was a year of a lot of variety and range, rarely if ever seen in a year of mainstream pop music. It also saw the arrival of bands such as Muse and Travis; the former would become more famous through the majority of the next decade. There was however one little band from Los Angeles, that would gain the spotlight for one particular song and then promptly disappear in the midst of their success. The band New Radicals, were most certainly a band that had the potential to be something bigger beyond their sole album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, and a great majority of their (sometimes politically heavy) tracks are evidential of frontman Gregg Alexander’s artistic ambitions which will be covered in a later section of the article.

 

On first listen, the song isn’t vastly different than your typical song of the summer that pops up in the charts; it has an overall general airy feel good vibe with a sound that varies between Alternative and Pop sounding. It’s no surprise that it managed to chart at #5 in the UK and #8 in Billboard’s Modern Rock charts. The music video, filmed at the Staten Island Mall in New York feels like a scene lifted from a typical 1990s teen movie, of youths rebelling against the uptight establishment adults. What makes the song stand the test of time however, are the overall universal lyrics that could be fundamentally interpreted as something of a pep talk you’d give to someone in times of a crisis, or a transitional time in one’s life, be it graduation, moving away or starting work. The sing-along chorus illustrates the song’s testimonial and anthemic message in an uplifting and encouraging wave of motion.

You’ve got the music in you
Don’t let go
You’ve got the music in you
One dance left
This world is gonna pull through
Don’t give up
You’ve got a reason to live
Can’t forget
We only get what we give

While so many songs have faded from public memory, the meaning behind this song ages extremely well like fine wine, and takes its cues musically from other timeless eras and sounds: more specifically blue-eyed soul. Despite the uplifting and positive message, it is somewhat neutered by the following off guard outro which many could debate sealed the band’s fate as a one hit wonder.

Health insurance rip off lying FDA big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they’re multiplying
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson
You’re all fakes
Run to your mansions
Come around
We’ll kick your ass in

Gregg Alexander admitted that he wrote the outro as an experiment to test which area of subject matter the public would focus on, the social problems in America or the celebrity bashing. Predictably enough most people focused on the latter. When asked about Alexander, an irate Marilyn Manson responded: “I’m not mad that he said he’d kick my ass, I just don’t want to be used in the same sentence as Courtney Love.” He even added that he’d “crack his skull open if I see him.” Alexander however has since in recent years apologized to Beck and Hanson, even working with the latter on writing the song Lost Without Each Other for their 2004 album Underneath. The break-up of the New Radicals was without any strife or in-band conflict, it simply came down to the fact that Gregg Alexander began to tire of touring and being the frontman in the middle of an album cycle. In a press release, he announced his intention to go into music production and songwriting for other artists:

“I’m going to be turning 30 next year, and realized that travelling and getting three hours sleep in a different hotel every night to do ‘hanging and schmoozing’ with radio and retail people, is definitely not for me,” he wrote. “Over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’ [sic] to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm.” 

After that he withdrew from the public eye and immersed himself in the studio. Throughout the first three years of the 2000s he wrote songs such as Life Is A Rollercoaster for Ronan Keating and Murder On The Dancefloor for Sophie Ellis Bextor. In 2003, he won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals for the song The Game Of Love by Santana which featured Michelle Branch on vocals. All was quiet on the press front until 2014, when Alexander came out to promote the soundtrack for John Carney’s 2013 film Begin Again, for which he had a hand in co-writing the songs alongside fellow ex-New Radicals members Danielle Brisebois and Greg Nowels. The film’s particular song Lost Stars earned Alexander and Brisebois an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Overall a really good outcome and achievement.

 

In spite of the 1990s being long gone, why does the song in my opinion hold up and what personal meaning does it have to me which I’ve taken to heart? I believe universal appeal encapsulates it, and how unlike a lot of other songs from the particular year of 1999, it had no set demographic. While I’ve forgotten the specific time and place, I do remember hearing this song as a kid on the radio and its shelf life since its year of release has been surprisingly long. You can still expect to hear it on Absolute Radio 90s and has made various lists of the greatest songs of the 1990s. Despite Alexander’s success as a songwriter, you have to wonder whether the New Radicals could have been a much bigger band, and Alexander’s subsequent songwriting for other artists could be considered the blue print for what never materialized. Still whatever did or didn’t happen, this song will continue to evolve and endure, even as this current decade of mainstream music draws to a close, becoming both a nostalgic artifact and a song that transcends any era.

Articles cited:

1. Zaleski, Annie. “New Radicals’ only hit,.” The A.V. Club. N.p., 28 July 2015. Web. 05 July 2017. <http://www.avclub.com/article/new-radicals-only-hit-you-get-what-you-give-was-se-222559&gt;.

2. Nme. “RADICAL CAREER MOVE.” NME. N.p., 04 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 July 2017.

3. Staff, MTV News. “New Radicals Discuss Slighting Marilyn Manson And Courtney Love, Manson Responds.” MTV News. N.p., 02 Dec. 1998. Web. 05 July 2017.

4. Bassil, Ryan. “Revisiting the New Radicals Song That Taught Us How to Navigate the Future.” Noisey. N.p., 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 July 2017. <https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/8qqada/revisiting-the-new-radicals-song-that-taught-us-how-to-navigate-the-future&gt;.