Review: Steppenwolf

 

Steppenwolf Review: Intro

Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse’s modernist existential masterpiece, was written during the Weimar years in Germany and enjoyed a considerable resurgence in popularity as a counter-culture classic during the swinging sixties. As such, the 237-page novel is preceded by a certain reputation. My interest was piqued whilst I was studying aspects of Weimar literature and I read a brief synopsis describing the main character, with whom I felt I could instantly identify (i.e miserable,  loner, not excited by anything etc.).

The title refers to the German name for the steppe wolf – or the wolf of the steppes – which, from what I can gather is a representation of a kind of duality in a person’s psyche. The wolf represents animalistic urges or desires and throughout the story the main character, Harry Haller, is continually struggling with inner conflict. He is resigned to a life of unhappiness and has thoughts of suicide, yet wonders why he has not gone through with it.

I decided to write this quick review of Steppenwolf as I found it was a challenging read that it would be beneficial to reflect upon.

 

Reading Steppenwolf

The narrative is presented through a discovered manuscript, which is found by Haller’s landlord after he moves out of his digs. The landlord also adds his own comments to the story and at one point Haller describes the content of a book he acquires – so there are several pages wherein the reader has stepped through three narrative perspectives. It’s easy enough to follow, but I found Hesse’s prose (or at least the translation) to be fairly dry at times. Given that much of the book appealed to me and seemed very relevant to my own life, I struggled to get through it.

One thing that is abundantly clear though: Herman Hesse is a very, very smart man. I knew little of his background before reading Steppenwolf, but the way in which he dissects the psyche is truly incredible. As I mentioned previously, I felt myself able to identify with the main character over and over again – something which I feel reflects the brutal honesty and accurate insight which Hesse seems to possess. Of course, the protagonists alliterative name suggests that Hesse is in fact writing about himself and this would explain the focus on Haller’s consciousness, but without reading more into the author’s background I couldn’t go any further into this.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I finished the book and I don’t have much else to say on it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Steppenwolf is a difficult read, but something in the prose just made it a little laborious. For me, the most fascinating aspects of it were of a historical context. Hesse’s characters talk of the inevitability of ‘the next war’ and at times touch upon a commonly held belief at the time that Germany did not lose the Great War. That being said, the novel is hardly portentous and I feel that, more than anything, it reflects the author’s dissatisfaction with the political situation in German. But then, what do I know?

 

 

 

 

 

Lawrence After Arabia, Hampstead Theatre – Reviewed

 

lawrence_of_arabia-1Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—the much chronicled but little understood hero of the first world war, has been something of a historical enigma since his death in 1935. This play by Howard Brenton attempts to cast light not only on his character and personal relationships, but also his disillusionment with the British military establishment, and his unease with the fame thrust upon him after the war.

Lawrence After Arabia

Commissioned to mark the centenary of the start of the Arab Revolt, The play focusses on Lawrence a few years after the war, and is told through conversations between he and his close friends: the writer George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte.  These conversations are interspersed with flashbacks to his time in the desert, to provide context to  what’s being discussed.

Prior knowledge of Lawrence’s escapades is not necessary, as Lawrence After Arabia stands alone as a narrative piece, but appreciation of his social position and the political climate would perhaps be better understood if the viewer is at least familiar with his accomplishments in Arabia.

Lawrence frequently visits the Shaw’s house, as Charlotte helps to edit his biographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  As she progresses through his notes and diaries, inconsistencies in Lawrence’s accounts begin to appear. Notions of anti-establishment, sexuality, and the imperial gaze that Lawrence comes to realise and abhor, are discussed as we delve deeper into his psyche.

Despite these conversations being pure conjecture, the events they describe are based on a collection of historical accounts and theories regarding Lawrence’s sexuality, his alleged penchant for self degradation, and his desire to escape the limelight. Furthermore, the inaccuracies that Charlotte Shaw discovers in Seven Pillars of Wisdom are genuine, and the subject of ongoing debate.

The issue of sexuality is constantly present, like an elephant in the room, until it is eventually directly confronted by Charlotte Shaw. The play alludes constantly to Lawrence’s alleged rape at the hands of the Turks, when he was their prisoner in 1917. Historically, Lawrence’s sexuality has been a subject of debate (though many contemporary sources claim he was actually asexual). The story of the rape itself is also thought to be a fabrication by Lawrence, in an attempt to publicly flagellate himself for what he saw as his betrayal of the arabs.

The Cast

Lawrence is portrayed by Jack Laskey to have an almost childish zeal, at times possibly over-acted but in no way unconvincing. Jeff Rawle, as G.B Shaw, provides the occasional comic relief and Geraldine James carries her role as Lawrence’s confident superbly. Khalid Laith brings poise and bearing to his Prince Feisal, whilst the American reporter Lowell Thomes—the man responsible for Lawrence’s fame and villain of the piece, such as their is one— is played convincingly by Sam Alexander.

The Verdict

Clearly well researched and offering a fascinating insight into this enigmatic historical figure, Lawrence After Arabia is an understated masterpiece. Superb performances and an emotionally undulating script make this an engaging piece of drama, that is as challenging as it is educational. Whilst it only recounts a minute period of his life, it offers anew perspective on Lawrence’s complex persona and addresses colonial attitudes to imperialism and sexuality, that are not entirely irrelevant to today’s audience.

✭8/10✭

 

The Witch – Reviewed

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Intro – Real Witches Of the New World

Released in March of this year, Robert Eggar’s The Witch is a refreshing break from the over-produced and tiresomely predictable horrors that have churned out of Hollywood in recent years…

It follows the misfortunes of a family of puritan settlers in 1630 New England, after they are forced out of their community and attempt to start a new settlement at the edge of a foreboding forest…

Eggar has rooted this work in realism and historical accuracy and uses low-key British actors as opposed to porcelain looking starlets, ensuring the dialogue is delivered as closely to the original articulation as could be reasonably expected. Furthermore, the complete absence of special effects further punctuates this picture’s break from the mainstream.

Witches were perceived as a genuine threat in the 17th century, both spiritually and physically. As Eggar frequently stated in interviews, his intention to emphasise this real world threat, the movie presents the traditional images and folklore of witchcraft, akin to those originally featured in the more macabre Grimm fairy tales, before they were sanitised by Disney.

The English Actors

Ralph Ineson gives a commendable performance as the family patriarch. His undeniable Englishness and rough demeanour lend themselves well to the role – a far cry from his days as ‘Finchy’ in The Office. The family children are all played adeptly, given what must have been a challenging environment for them to film in. Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter, Thomasin—who is arguably the focus of the suspicions throughout the movie—seems a little lacklustre in comparison to her fellow artistes, but believable nonetheless. The really standout performance is given my Katie Dickie, as the grief ridden Katherine who maintains a constant air of foreboding throughout the movie.

Script, Plot and Themes of The Witch

The script itself is based upon surviving diaries and notes of contemporary accounts. It has echoes of Shakespearean dialect. To give an idea, much of the conversation is in the nature of ‘what say thee’, ‘she be the witch’ – essential to maintain the illusion, but at times a little challenging.

There isn’t a great deal by way of a plot, it’s fairly basic: the family leave their original plantation, start their own and struggle to provide for themselves. All the while a malevolent presence seems to be stalking them. The merits of The Witch lie in it’s atmosphere, accuracy and the gradual building of suspense, rather than any narrative set-pieces.

The themes  of The Witch are introduced in the opening scenes: religious devotion, familial conflict and fear of the unknown. The ritualistic elements of both puritanism and paganism – particularly the those of prayer and sacrifice –  are built upon throughout the picture as we, the audience, experience the family members’ personal conflicts and temptations as they struggle to meet the impossible standards of the puritan dogma.

The family’s constant struggle for survival against both natural and supernatural elements add an urgency to everything and exaggerate the consequences of even the most minor malady.

Low level camera angles or shots partially obscured by tree branches help to create a sense of claustrophobia, despite the events taking place against the backdrop of expansive wilderness, and Mark Korven’s soundtrack is of the atmospheric, that is, non-musical kind and at some times abrasive to the ears. It builds discord and an uncomfortable  response, keeping the viewer on edge.

The Verdict

An unsettling experience overall— the idea that children are being targeted by a evil daemon is never going to be lighthearted and the eerie soundtrack and claustrophobic cinematography do a good job of keeping the audience in suspense.

Mention has to be made of the satisfying ending. At times The Witch looks as the it is leading toward the now cliched plot-twist or ambiguous ending, but fortunately resolution to the story is offered as blatantly as slap in the face and it was refreshing to see Eggar commit to it in such a way.

That being said, It did feel a little unfulfilling. Perhaps this viewer has now been corrupted  by years of exposure to the aforementioned cliches, but the film as a whole didn’t feel quite engaging enough to rely so heavily on the atmospheric subtlety that it did. If viewed as a creepy historical thriller, then the film is a tour de force, but as a film to scare the living daylights out of the viewer, it falls short.

Overall, The Witch is a welcome break from the copious supernatural fantasies that have proliferated in cinema over the last decade. It gives viewers a genuinely suspenseful cinematic experience as well as an insight into historical superstitions and existential hardships of the 17th century.

✭7/10✭

MANGA SHAKESPEARE! Series Review

Shakespeare Reimagined

A few excursions to the Globe have taught me that it’s a good idea to be acquainted with the plot of a Shakespeare play before seeing it performed – I mean, imagine being one of that handful of people that always leave half way through, presumably  because they can’t follow what’s happening!

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This is where the Manga Shakespeare series comes in. A useful cheat sheet, bridging the gap between text and performance, his most famous works, abridged and reimagined, in Japanese comic book form. Admittedly not for purists, the series is nonetheless a new and fresh take on the works of our most celebrated playwright.

Each edition opens with a full colour character list and has a convenient plot summary at the back for reference.  At around two-hundred pages, they are a quick read and, as such, there can surely be no faster or more cost effective way to blag some Shakespeare expertise.

I finished The Tempest in a couple of short sessions on the train, The whimsical imagery of which lends itself well to the graphic novel format. As You like it was likewise a quick and delightful read and I am currently in the middle of Othello – the artwork of which is my favourite thus far.

My only reservations at this point are that the stories do occasionally feel a little chopped. The texts obviously have to be cut for the format, but it seems clumsy in places – similar to when a movie has been obviously edited for length.

Manga and Shakespeare…

I’m no expert on Manga, but the illustrations are fantastic and really give a sense of action. The characters are expressive and everything has the illusion of movement. Most of the background settings have been re-envisioned (Manga Macbeth is set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, for example) to make them more appropriate to the style. The three editions I own are illustrated by three different artists and each have their own nuances and build their own atmosphere.

oth_bw_01Setting any snobbery aside, as all Shakespeare productions are, after all, interpretations, the series works really well. Despite being heavily cut, the words and images form a cohesive story.  My only quibble is that, aside from a few colour pages in the intro (which look incredible), everything is in black and white, as is the tradition with Japanese comics. It seems a shame as the opening pages look so good, the following monochrome ones seem a bit drab.

All in all, Manga Shakespeare editions are fun and easy to read, providing an accessible way to approach The Bard’s work. Highly recommended, but only as a starting point – Nothing can beat seeing the plays as they were intended: in performance.

✭✭✭✭⭐︎

Pomona, National Theatre – Reviewed

Pomona National Theatre Review, Pomona Review.

Written by Alistair Mcdowall and set in the underbelly of Manchester, Pomona is a kind of looping dystopian nightmare that unfolds in cars, brothels and a mysterious underground lair. Dealing with themes including sexual exploitation, violence and organ harvesting, it’s not exactly upbeat stuff.

The play opens with a healthy dose of the surreal – a man in underpants and a duffel coat gorges on chicken nuggets whilst giving a ranting synopsis of Raiders of the Lost Ark to a young girl. Watching silently in the corner is a strange figure in a bizarre octopoid mask…

Initially the weirdness is more of a curious novelty, but the story soon starts to unfold and quickly engages. At times the plot seemed a little confusing -the idiosyncratic style and surreality were a little bewildering and I am certain that a few of the key themes went over my head, but Pomona is generally easy to follow.

Ollie (Nadia Clifford) searches for her twin sister who, along with several other women, has disappeared. She soon finds that everything is leading her to Pomona. Ollie’s search is interwoven with two other characters playing a role playing game, which simultaneously gives the audience a kind of alternate reality.

The ominous Pomona itself, a mysterious concrete wasteland hidden in the centre of the city, was obviously symbolising something of the unknown and unpalatable aspects of life, that are concealed – or ignored – despite being all around us. An ambitious attempt, but I felt that the story was perhaps not the best vehicle to convey such messages.

The cyclical narrative was both interesting and slightly infuriating. Whilst it was thought provoking, the movie goer in me, raised on classic American adventures (such as Indiana Jones!), wanted to see some sort of traditional resolution to the story, but many questions went unanswered. I may be missing the point, but at times I felt the play was a little too disjointed.

The performances were commendable; the characters were individually captivating, though the interaction between each occasionally seemed superficial.  I felt that Clifford was a little weak at the beginning. Perhaps she was just initially overshadowed by the more interesting character of Zeppo (Guy Rhys) who, along with Sam Swann as Charlie, gave the standout performance.

Strobe lighting, complete darkness and chaotic scene overlaps added to the excitement; though giving a distinct impression that the play was aimed at a more youthful audience, they were a creative way of meeting the challenge of an arena stage.

Thought provoking and entertaining, the story was just a little too movie-like to not be resolved.

✭6/10✭