Хованщина (Khovanshchina) by Mussorgsky

a.k.a. The Khovansky Affair

Performance seen at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on 30/09/2017.

Performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) company.

An opera, subtitled a ‘national music drama’, in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky. The work was written between 1872 and 1880 in St.Petersburg, Russia. The composer wrote the libretto based on historical sources however the opera was unfinished and unperformed when the composer died in 1881.

Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history concerning the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy (Russian guardsmen from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, armed with firearms) against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Czars Peter the Great (Peter I) and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernising reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Czars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia. Supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky, who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent, demanded the reversal of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Sofia and her court were forced to flee Moscow. Eventually, Sofia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina (Khovansky affair) with the help of the diplomat Fyodor Shaklovity, who succeeded Khovansky as leader of the Muscovite Streltsy. Finally with the rebellion crushed, the Old Believers committed mass suicide (in the opera, at least).

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and recomposition, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Although the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Czar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter’s westernising reforms. It received its first performance in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition in 1886.

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Shostakovich Orchestration:

Strings: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses

Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)

Brass: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba

Percussion: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, tam-tam, bells, glockenspiel

Other: piano, harp, celesta

On/Offstage: unspecified numbers of horns, trumpets, trombones

Principal arias and numbers

Scene 1 — Red Square

Introduction: “Dawn on the Moscow River”, Вступление: «Рассвет на Москве-реке» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “Make a wide path for the White Swan”, «Белому лебедю путь просторен» (Streltsï, People)
Chorus: “Glory to the White Swan”, «Слава лебедю» (People)

Scene 2 — Golitsïn’s Study

Aria: Marfa’s Divination “Mysterious powers”, Гадания Марфы «Силы потайные» (Marfa, Golitsïn)

Scene 3 — Streltsï Quarter

Song: “A maiden wandered”, «Исходила младёшенька» (Marfa)
Aria: “The Streltsy nest sleeps”, «Спит стрелецкое гнездо» (Shaklovitïy)

Scene 4 — Khovansky’s Palace

Ballet: “Dance of the Persian Slaves”, «Пляски персидок» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “A young swan swims”, «Плывет, плывет лебедушка» (Maidens, Shaklovitïy, Ivan Khovansky)

Scene 5 — Red Square

Introduction “The Departure of Golitsïn”, Вступление «Поезд Голицына» (Orchestra, Chorus)
Chorus: “Show them no mercy”, «Не дай пощады» (Streltsï Wives, Streltsï, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa)
March: “March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment”, «Марш преображенцев» (Orchestra)

Scene 6 — Hermitage

Aria: “Here, in this holy place”, «Здесь, на этом месте» (Dosifey)
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Historical basis of the plot

The death of the young Czar Fyodor III has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan, who is 16, and his half-brother Peter, who is only 10, have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sofia acting as regent. Sofia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsin, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her alleged lover. Peter, if you haven’t guessed, is the future Peter I a.k.a. Peter the Great who established the westernised city of St Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, instead of Moscow, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernised, and based on The Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign. So what is being explored in this opera are the last days of ‘old’ Russia and what might arguably be called the prelude to it’s golden era.

Due to regulations applicable at the time of the composition of the opera in Imperial Russia, it was forbidden to portray members of the Romanov dynasty on stage, so Mussorgsky had recourse to a series of symbols and indirect mention of main characters in the plot. Sofia, Ivan and Peter never actually appear on stage.

The principal theme of Khovanshchina is stated outright in the choral number “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus'” in Act I (“Woe to thee native, Mother Russia”), which laments that Russia is bleeding and dying not because of a foreign enemy, but because of fragmentation within.

Something like a three-way civil war is in progress, which basically compresses twelve years of Russian history into one telling. The Czarist court is modernizing, and two powerful forces are resisting these changes: the Streltsy and the Old Believers.

The Streltsy are decommissioned elite soldiers/guards (“Streltsy” literally means “shooters”, just like “musketeers”), past their prime and on indefinite furlough. They are fanatically loyal to Prince Ivan Khovansky.

The Old Believers are Russian Orthodox Christians who have left the state-sponsored church because they disagree with the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms; they also challenge the line of succession to the throne and have refused to recognize the Russian Patriarch. Their leader is Dosifey.

Fortunately for Czar Peter, these two factions despise each other, as the Streltsy are rowdy degenerates and the Old Believers are pious ascetics.

Each of the three principal basses in the opera believes himself to represent the “true” Russia against her internal enemies: Prince Ivan Khovansky claims legitimacy by noble birth and military prowess, Dosifey by religion, and Shaklovity by supporting Czar Peter.

Costume

As seems a trend with WNO productions, such as The Magic Flute, they colour code the different factions.

Red: Khovanshsky and his private army the Streltsy. Khovansky himself, to stand out, wears a great coat with a large red fur collar to distinguish him from others and denote his status.

White: Old Believers members

Grey: Citizens of Moscow, Emma, the Persian dancer (i.e. the victim’s of the other factions actions)

Gold: Liberal aristocracy i.e. Golitsin

Green military uniform with brown great coat: Shaklovity and the Czar’s soldiers

Black: denotes a servant role it seems thus are worn by people with influence existing somewhere between the common person and moral factions if not with divided loyalties.

What I find awkward about this colour coding choice in the production is that even a passing knowledge of Russian history tells you these colours carry significant relevance.

The red of the revolutionary force seems at first glance an obvious choice: Khovansky opposes the monarchy and the Bolshevik’s too did in the twentieth century. So far so good. Shaklovity in military colours again makes him distinct from others as someone morally ambiguous. Golitsin in gold as a liberal aristocrat is fitting.

Grey is used for the chorus in the first few acts, Emma (a maiden from the German quarter) and the Persian slaves of Prince Ivan Khovanky who are victims of the events around them and suffer for it. A neutral body neither white nor black morally they’re swept along in events with no ability to choose their destiny nor protect themselves from the consequence of the actions of the others. Of course the chorus changes throughout the performance to which ever scene requires them to represent Streltsy, Schismatics (Old Believers), Persian slaves or otherwise.

Black is used for functionaries and those who fall somewhere between the morality of the factions. Varsonofyev, Golitsin’s retainer, wears this colour but with gold piping to show his servitude, Marfa who torn between her love for Andrei Khovansky and as a schismatic (acting at times as a diviner to Golitsin) and the scrivener who seems swept up in events around him.

The issue then is the white used for Dosifey and the Old Believers. White is the colour of those who support the monarchy or at least are of nobility, for example the term white emigrefor those who left or were exiled during the revolution and the white army, and yet in this production it is used for the old believers who oppose the actions of their monarchs.

But what other choice is there? Well the robes of Russian Orthodox priests are black so they could have easily just used that colour (despite the Old Believers breaking away from the state endorsed church) and had the ‘servant’ roles be another colour. Certainly if anything Shaklovity, as a loyal follower of the monarchy, should have. out of everyone, be dressed in white if the production is determined to have the setting updated to the early twentieth century quasi-civil war setting. Perhaps it seems I am nitpicking. Certainly Marfa being one of the schismatics (old believers) isn’t clear until much later in the performance as the colour coding leads uninformed audience members astray.

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Cast:

Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward

Prince Andrey Khovansky: Adrian Dwyer

Prince Vasily Golitsyn: Mark Le Brocq

Shaklovity: Simon Bailey

Dosifei: Miklos Sebestyen

Marfa: Sara Fulgoni

Susanna: Monika Sawa

Scribe: Adrian Thompson

Emma: Claire Wild

Varsonofev: Alastair Moore

Kuz’ka: Simon Crosby Buttle

Streshnev: Gareth Dafydd Morris

1st Strelets: Julian Boyce

2nd Strelets: Laurence Cole

Servant: Dimo Georgiev

Persian Slave: Elena Thomas

Production staff:

Conductor: Tomas Hanus

Director: David Pountney

Designer: Johan Engels

Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca

Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour

Choreographer: Beate Vollack

Assistant Conductor: James Southall

Assistant Director: Benjamin Davis

Production manager: Robert Pagett

Musical Preparation: Segey Rybin

Staff Directors: Deborah Cohen, Polly Graham

Lighting Realised on Tour: Ian Jones

Language Coach: John Asquith

Stage Manager: Katie Heath-Jones

Deputy Stage Manager: Suzie Erith

Stage Design

Overall the permanent stage decoration is of a decimated city reflective of Stalingrad or the general western depiction of Soviet Russia where everything somehow looks like a post industrial wasteland from 1935 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apparently the country lay in ruin for over half a century. I found that a disappointing stereotype to adhere to.

Ironically, during the 1990s, a number of areas did end up in a very run down state when the economy took a massive downturn until the millennium when it was revitalised again. Indeed a few areas are still in that state but they are the exception not the rule usually being sites that exist somewhere in the countryside left derelict. The only time a city such as the setting of the opera Moscow would be in this state was during war time. ‘But they’ve taken artistic license’ people will say to justify it. Yes and in the musical Billy Elliot they trivialise a very emotionally turbulent period of within living memory history for working class people in Britain for the amusement of the middle classes which trivialises the brutal conflicts between striking picket lines and police with irreverent song and dance number. Sometimes art offends intentionally to begin a dialogue and other times it does it through ignorance. The setting is not the Soviet union, as most audience members will assume, nor is it ‘mystic Russia’ as the launch event described it. It’s a caricature underplaying the brutal historical reality like pirates, cowboys and soldiers in children’s productions.

The designers obviously wanted an iconic image of early revolutionary Bolshevik led Soviet Russia and watched a lot of western produced films set in Russia during the Soviet era but mostly filmed elsewhere (Gorky Park, Child 44, Gulag, Silk Stockings, Ninotchka, etc) which all share the same grim grey and brown colour pallet to depict it as a post industrial hell – which in areas around factories and closed cities would be true as it is anywhere, but the impression in all these films is the entire country was like that – which means even over a quarter of a century after it’s end we still live with the propagandist image of the Soviet Union which is perpetuated by visual designers who type in Soviet Russia to a search engine, see Stalin era depictions in Western propaganda films and say ‘good enough’ and copy it. Unlike North Korea Russia doesn’t have an eternal leader and if they did it would definitely not be Stalin and, it should come as no surprise, the country did actually develop after Stalin’s death and not stagnant in the aesthetic of the Stalin era (although of course the Soviet Union had plenty of periods of stagnation in later decades but that’s a story for another time).

I just find it very awkward they depicted the setting like this when they seem to have chosen a quasi-civil war setting which inevitably reminds the audience of the real life conflict which occurred between the revolutionary Red Army against the monarchist White Army yet assigns the colours inappropriately. During the civil war the white army supported the Czar while in this production white represents those who oppose the Czar. The production covers a time period of about 12 years and apparently Moscow lay in ruins throughout that time. ‘Artistic license’ no doubt applies.

Below is a rough layout of the stage design.

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  • In the layout graphic you see the grey steps upon which performers sit or lay.
  • The green pieces are the scribe desks which each have a small desk lamp to illuminate them.
  • The green diamond is the pillar with a light on top of it which the scribe is forced to climb, by Streltsy soldiers, to read what is written on it. A pile of books/papers spill out of it when the illiterate Streltsy are informed of what is written there.
  • The purple barrier is on an overpass above one of the access points to the stage.
  • The yellow chair and painting are used when Khovansky confronts the Golitsin about Sofia.
  • The red hexagon is the bath where Khovansky is killed.
  • The red circle represents the ball on which the Persian dancer performs nude (actually she has body paint/skin toned clothing I think but I was sat in the gods so it was hard to tell when she discarded her silk dress).
  • The white ramp is lowered in later scenes when Dosifey comes to speak to the other Old Believers and when Khovansky, now an old man, tells the Streltsy to go home and await their fate instead of fight when the Czar’s forced descend upon Moscow to eliminate them.
  • On the left side is a wall with empty windows in a waffle like shape. At the start of the play light is shone through the gaps to show the dawning of the opera’s events and at the end, to bookend the opera, as the building in which the Old Believer’s commit mass suicide. At this point a smoke machine is lowered from above and the followers bring heavy stage lamps onto the steps which illuminate in the final moment depicting them tableau like in death.

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Things of particular note, both good and bad, during the Welsh National Opera (WNO) performance I saw.

The tower of leaflets in the first act which is opened and spills paper out across the floor is very effective in portraying the proliferation of knowledge the scribe causes by reading out the proclamation in Act I, scene iv.

The scribe, in act I, scene IV, and Emma in Act I, scene VI, are both bound with red chords to represent the social binding they both undergo through force by others. Sadly I don’t recall this being used again later so these come out as somewhat of an anomaly and I have to question why the idea wasn’t followed up with for later scenes.

When Golitsin is sent into exile he is carried lying on top of the painting used as the background of act ii. In his hand is a book he is reading while the actor, for dear life, hangs onto the side of the painting as he is angled towards the audience while pretending like he is relaxing. If you imagine some of the more naïve medieval depictions of saints which ignored realism you can image what this looked like. It was at one turn effective and yet oddly hilarious and I don’t think in this opera that was intentional.

In the mass suicide scene one person wouldn’t stop moving towards the back of the group. The smoke machine let out a little puff and that was it. It was on stage, hanging from the fly tower, for about 20 minutes only to do that. Or it may have meant to represent the thurible/censur used by Orthodox Christians but if so it still stands it produced only a slight puff of smoke and the staging of the scene makes you think they all just laid down rather than committed suicide via immolation.

I’m pretty sure the Russian pronunciation by some of the performers was off. The only one most would note is when someone, Shaklovity I believe, pronounces emphatically at the end of one line ‘Спасибо as ‘spa-see-boh’ when the naturalised way so say it is ‘spa-see-bah’. I don’t know if it was the performer or the director who went with that. Either way it really took me out of it a few times. At the launch event it was noted ‘for time’ that The House of the Dead would be performed in English while Eugene Onegin and Khovanshchina would be performed in Russia. Part of me wishes they had done this in English as I suspect they performers are not all experienced in performing in Russian if they’ve mostly been called to do works in French, German or Italian as there are inevitably differences in the languages. It’s a little sad but not completely unexpected. The actual performances themselves were of a high standard desptie all my criticisms.

In the WNO production, during the Dance of the Persian Slaves they have a single dancer in a silk dress perform over Khovansky while he lays in his bathtub. She performs a number of gymnastic postures and such then removes her dress. She has body paint across her chest and, I assume, flesh tone knickers on (I was sat in the upper circle so for intent and purposes she seemed naked but there’s no indication she would be otherwise WMC put warnings about it anywhere on the production’s literature) then climbs on top of a ball and rolls around the stage accompanied by bare chested men stabilising it. She takes Khovansky’s coat and drapes it over herself… then, after performing her piece, sits there on the ball for about ten minutes in shadow watching Khovansky be assassinated in his bath and all the other Persian slaves walk past and spit on his corpse. The dance was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov by agreement with Mussorgsky and I would be lying if I said it is noticeable that it stands out compared to many of the other pieces instrumentally. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov have very distinctly difference composition styles needless to say.

The assassination is well done as there is a shower head on the bath and thus when his throat is slit the tap is turned on and a shower of red blood rains down upon him before it’s turned off by the last passing slave and a sheet is drawn over the bath tub until Andrey is made to confront his father’s corpse.

There is a backlit walkway with folds down from right stage when Dosifey and later Khovansky address their followers. It really helps to emphasise the status they are held in by their followers when they appear from stage right on it. Dosifey strides out and is in as much, if more, strength as he was at the start of the play. His determination and disposition have only grown with time. This is contrasted when Khovanshy initially seems to emulate this when the Strelsty call for him. However instead of the barrel chested, physically imposing, leader of earlier acts we see a frail old man hobble out and beg his followers to lay down their arms and prepare for the Czar’s judgement to be passed on them.

It can’t go without mention that you have quite archaic depictions of women. Marfa is lovesick for Andrey and every action she takes is to be reunited with him despite his rejection of her, Emma despite being named is only someone for Andrey to lust after with no further contribution after her first scene, the Persian Slave(s) are there to be Ivan’s playthings, Sofia is never seen on stage but is represented by Shaklovity… the only woman of any note is Susanna (one of the older members of the Old Believers) who ultimately only serves to shrewishly condemn Marfa for her love of the younger Khovansky instead of dedicating herself to the cause absolute.

Khovanshchina WNO

Review conclusion

Clumsy. I think that’s the word I would want to use regretfully, if not lazy for cetain aspects, regarding this production. It’s a revival of the 2007 production and it seems like they haven’t built on what they learned back then. ‘A decade has passed, no one will remember what we did last time. We hardly do ourselves!’

At the launch event it was joked they dusted off one of the older works and apparently that’s all they did thinking. The photo used for the promotional material, even at a glance, is clearly the old costumes as you see a man dressed in traditional black robes and not this productions choice to have the Old Believers wear white. This isn’t a revival by a retread with a new coat of paint sadly. In Hollywood films we see remakes of older films that don’t add anything to the original, don’t find a successful new interpretation nor make their own version but just seem to retread the exact same steps as their predecessor and often makes the same, if not more, mistakes. Apparently that can happen in opera too from what I saw here. If anything it’s gotten sloppy trying to experiment on some aspects that they didn’t fully consider.

The performers do their best, proving their status in the world of opera and I find little fault with them beyond some pronunciation which can be expected if they’re not often called on to perform in Russian often (let alone the suggestion of there being little time to prepare which was suggested at the season lauch event) but I think it was a lot of the staging and other choices which really took away from, rather than supported, the production.

The Persian dancer certainly was out of tone with the rest of the production. You have to ask if it was mandated by someone with influence making what is meant to be evidence that Khovansky has abandoned any noble ambition and given into decadent hedonism watching ballet instead was turned into a burlesque show for the audience. It takes you out of it completely it’s such a contrast to every thing else even compared to other productions of the opera by other companies. A brave choice but one that should have been reflected earlier with the actions of Ivan’s son Andrey towards Emma to show that despite all Khovansky’s noble words we see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the end.

It seems like I am nitpicking at artistic choices or minor points but it all accumulates. WNO always put a lot of effort into their set designs and staging. You would be hard pressed to say they do anything less than excel in it otherwise but for this production the choices just don’t work. There are some great ideas but the way they get implemented seems half hearted or misinformed at times. Khovanshchina is one of the rarer operas to be performed so they really had a chance to establish themselves further as one of the great opera companies but instead seem to have ‘given it a go’ with a mindset that failure is highly likely. This season they were also simultaneously doing Eugene Onegin and The House of the Dead alongside this piece and I am not sure how those will have come across as they are in many ways much safer options compared to Khovanshchina which perhaps asks a lot of an audience in comparison.

On the whole you might think three and a half hours would be dreadfully long but I found it moved along quite quickly. The only times I noticed the time were are the start, which seemed to take an eternity to establish events, and at the end where it just seemed like, after the pardoning of the Streltsy, everyone left remaining now needed to each perform a piece individually before the finale. People joke about the ending of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy taking forever but really this opera was not well served by reinstating the parts edited out previously.

It is often asked if you need to read up about an opera before seeing it and it’s up to you. WNO on their own webpage introducing people to opera even say this. You might get more enjoyment knowing the story before hand so you can enjoy the performance or you might enjoy seeing the twists in the narratives played out before you without warning. Khovanshchina is definitely one opera you must read up about before or else you will get lost. The colour coding is a good effort to counter this but you will still get lost if you don’t follow it carefully or have prior knowledge of the proceedings.

Khovanshchina: The operatic example of what ‘too many chefs spoils the broth’ looks like.

Originally an opera (subtitled a ‘national music drama’) in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky.

After Mussorgsky died leaving it unfinished Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882.

Because of his extensive cuts and “recomposition”, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Of course then each staging might choose to make alterations themselves. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev’s request. When Feodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosifei in any other orchestration than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky’s finale, which is still sometimes used.

Even with only a passing knowledge of Russian classical music you can see that some of the biggest names of the twentieth century tackled the piece and with each alteration came tension on what was the best option. Rimsky-Korsakov streamlined the opera and made it accessible. Shostakovich, true to his own style, included the more experimental sections which perhaps to me make the piece feel excessive in length or, as can be expected of things added back in after a ‘finalised’ version has been created, the pacing is negatively affected so some parts move along at a pace and others seem to come to a screaming stop and drag. Rimsky-Korsakov, if you look up the alteration history, made a lot of shortened sections. It’s a topic far too long for a review as it deserves it’s own focused consideration.

I assume it’s the Shostakovich version performed as it’s not immediately obvious in the brochure which version they went with but no doubt made some adjustments to suit themselves.

It’s a good opera to go see once but I can’t say after this experience I will want to see it again and certainly having seen a few Welsh National Opera productions (Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc) this is by far one of, if not their, weakest productions by far. The staging which is one of the company’s strong points falls flat here and at a few points borders being comical or sensationalist for the sake of it.

This review is only about this one production and not the company as a whole. WNO are serious contenders in the world of opera but in this case they underserved Mussorgsky’s opera and, in hindsight, hid it between Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. They sold this seasons operas’ brochures all together in a single volume at the cost of £6 on the assumption if you are seeing one then you’ll obviously be seeing the others too all as part of the R17 event. I’m sure those are both far superior but sadly my experience with Khovanshchina has made me lose faith in them this season. For all I know it was one bad night but it just so happened to be the one bad night I went to see their production of the opera.

During the season Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are performed in Russian but The House of the Dead, for timing, is performed in English. Part of me wishes they did Khovanshchina in English too if only to have a bit more control over some of the finer details. The opera has some good arias, the chorus work at every point is astounding but there are certainly some parts which I think will test even moderately patient audiences. It’s definitely not a piece to introduce someone to the world of opera with.

The brochure is nice though and very informative about the different operas so that at least is a nice note I can end on. Buy that as an introduction to the different operas, discussion of their background and have some high quality matt prints of Russian paintings.

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BBC Adaption Review – Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Overall the tone is awkward. It’s not dark enough to take seriously and so you start seeing all the narrative conveniences. The original book was apparently filled with dark humour and swearing but it seems both have been toned down for a general audience for fear children might see this due to Harry Potter. People, as a contrivance to push the narrative forward with little challenge, just seem to give Strike information with little if any justification – many breaching the confidentiality of information act time and time again. The characters in this challenge of deductive reasoning be they red herrings, antagonistic persons or actual criminals are all but given pantomime level depictions in terms of their overt antagonism.

Our leading man is an Oxford drop out ex-military police investigation branch member which is as Marty Stu a characterisation as you can do short of saying he’s a blood relative of Sherlock Holmes for a detective story. But he has a prosthesis. That’s his one permanent flaw. Everything else can be changed. He is the wish fulfilment figure for women who wish to ‘fix’ the men they’re involved with. Robin finds him down and out but through her presence he gradually becomes a better man if not detective.

Robin is… bland? I want to say bland but it’s more true to say she is a character who has no real issues (although I know how her major traumatic ‘character development’ revealled later in the series which… suffice to say it was hinted at but it’s still the most blatant ‘if you don’t sympathise with this character and fogive all her sins instantly after knowing this you’re a monster’ tactic possible). She is there as an audience surrogate but doesn’t seem to have much development beyond some quite generic ‘recognises the value in this gruff but talented man’ aspects and an innate ability to gossip and lie using a bad Liverpool accents on the phone. Her fiancé is portrayed as a bit of an arse in order to make Strike seem better by comparison and attept to force us to sympathise with her if nothing else. She has a job offered by Strike yet applies for another job and is offered it (arguably Strike’s job was temporary and she needed something more secure but the series never gives this point it’s due), gets given a dressas a ‘bonus’ for her help (which is a bit sexist ironically considering how far Rowling goes out of her way to declare herself a feminist) but overall she just seems to be another narrative device with little charm.

Their names are a little on the nose too.

Comoran, while being the name of an Irish folklore giant, is also one letter off cormorant (hilariously closely connected to a bird known as a shag in what has to be some of the most juvenile ‘pretending to be mature’ naming possible by an author I’ve ever seen) are described by the RSPB as

“A large and conspicuous waterbird, the cormorant has an almost primitive appearance with its long neck making it appear almost reptilian. It is often seen standing with its wings held out to dry. Regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy, cormorants are supreme fishers which can bring them into conflict with anglers and they have been persecuted in the past.”

… so basically the film noir detective of the bird world.

While cute little robins are described as:

“sing[ing] nearly all year round and despite their cute appearance, they are aggressively territorial and are quick to drive away intruders. They will sing at night next to street lights.

… Robin. Batman. Sidekick. Also small but ready for a fight. Even Rowling had Strike acknowledge it in the book.

So our leading man is old school, a little pompous seeming and previously persecuted (and also he strikes!) while his sidekick is small but pluckyour grizzled male lead and his plucky, red head, young side kick and probable future love interest.

Show Premise

Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private detective operating out of a tiny office in London’s Denmark Street, is wounded both physically and psychologically. His unique insight and his background as a Special Investigation Branch Investigator prove crucial in solving three complex cases, which have eluded the police.

… Or, as with a lot of pulp fiction writing, ‘the police solved the case with the evidence at hand BUT THEY WERE WRONG watch as our intrepid, Ayn Randian wet dream of a protagonist,hero through brute force, social connections, illegal methods and sheer ‘right place at the right time’ luck achieves the impossible and reveals the truth! Women want him, men want to be him.

As mentioned everyone seems to have, even if only for a moment before dropping out, attended Oxford or Cambridge. The dual purpose being that Rowling is writing to reflect her audience because, it seems to her, only the most educated people apparently read books (apart from, of course, everyone who bought her books who didn’t attend one or the other of those institutions thus making her a worldwide best selling author rather than a literary curio) or these sort of things only occur to ‘the beautiful people’ and social elite whose lives are just so much more interesting than we common folk.

Often you would see that happen with Agatha Christie too but in fairness she was churning so many books out she needed to have as many instantly recognised short hands, e.g. people who go to Oxford or Cambridge are highly intelligent, wordly, knowledgeable and therefore would deduce with some evidence the facts of a crime, as many different locations as possible for variety to appeal (don’t like country estates? How about a village? The seaside? How about aboard moving trains?) and thus it was a bit of a ‘cheat’ since such culturally elite people were financially capable and prone to exotic foreign travel which still wasn’t anywhere near as commonplace as it is nowadays so addeed to the writing’s appeal. It aso reflected the end of the Imperial era’s mindset of venturing into the world and conquering the local troubles – which in this genre’s case is usually a murder or theft. However Rowling is writing that era’s detective story in the modern age and it is an awkward fit resulting in, ironically, a far narrower world in direct contrast to the same figures about a century ago.

In case you’re wondering the second book involves the murder of an author so she fell into that classic ‘write what you know’ author specific trap that early in the series! Stephen King would be proud.

Not one risky step whatsoever is taken in telling the story. If asked ‘please give me the most stereotypical detective story possible’ no longer will we turn to Agatha Christie, who more or less defined the genre single-handedly so originated what others would copy until it became a cliche, but we will turn to Rowling… oh I mean ‘Galbraith’ though we all know it’s her. If you are from Britain and remember when the news covered that it had been revealed she had been writing under a pseudonym then it was this particular book that was being referred to. I guess, as far as the publishers were concerned, it wasn’t selling well enough for such a high value author so they needed to ‘leak’ her name to boost sales.

You can have cliché characters, I mean 90% of literary detectives from the past few decades could fit into the depiction of Strike, apart from his leg, and you wouldn’t notice. Grizzled, likes a drink, ‘seen things’ in combat/police work and generally dislikes humanity except when women throw themselves at them for a quickie. One day someone will write a cross over where one detective replaces the other and no one notices until they actually see their face.

I think my main issue with this adaption, on the assumption the book covers these things, is we get small, but sequence destroying, skips in events. For example does Strike ever lock his office’s entrance? It must be on a latch as every walks in and out of it freely and occasionally people are sat in there waiting though both Strike and Robin hadn’t been in since yesterday. It’s a narrative device we often unconsciously witness. As an example: if you see a character pick up a key the audience acknowledge this and therfore you can skip to them opening the door and without  literally depicting them put the key in the lock – but here we don’t even have the ‘key’ mentioned in passing let alone seen sometimes before seeing the results. In the context of this series it seems everyone immediately gives Strike their life story and not barrier stops him except for tension (e.g. the safe opening). Nor, if I’m honest, do there seem to be any repercussions to certain actions. Does no one wonder where Lula’s will came from when Strike hands it over? Do we really think it would be as easy as Strike pretending to be taking a phone call to walk right into the studio of Guy Some? The police detective seems to just give Strike case information freely without quit pro quo. Strike pays off a criminal to steal the Satnav from the car and it’s never mentioned otherwise.

Everything slots too easily into to place to the point there is no risk nor resistance to Strike uncovering the truth – he even gives chase through a crowded market with little issue though he has an apparently ill fitting prosthesis! It all just comes too easily. If solving the mystery, as with Agatha Christie, isn’t the focus then give us more nuanced character development not just characters who are deemed highly intelligent because you name drop Oxford and Cambridge, are not morally good or physically capable just because they served in the army (was the criminal suggested to be ex-military? If so the depiction of ex-service men as either hero or villain is damning and isn’t a positive considering how many in real life find themselves incapable of re-adapting to civilian life thus falling between the cracks if they’ve no support) and not strangely flawless just because they’re female.

Apart from Rochelle, who seems more a figure of pity, all the women seem successful intelligent and only have faults because of the men they’re involved with. It’s a strangely anti-feminist (e.g. ‘here’s a dress as a bonus’, engagement issues being the main issue for Robin and Strike’s ex seems to instantly not just get re-engaged but marrying someone else in what seems to be a very brief time period), yet simultaneously misandranistic, tone posing as feminist as Rowling has with women where they’re both depicted as perfect, highly intelligent, beings surpassing their male counterparts with ease in every way but at the same time completely reliant upon them though every man has so critical flaw making them anything but sympathetic save for Strike as the leading man whose only permanent ‘flaw’ is a physical one. Most of the male characters are depicted as unrepentant in their antisocial behaviour and yet our leading man Strike, to a limited degree since this is the first book in an assured series (which other authors cannot reply on happening so their characters will evolve over a book), has some small progression from a misanthrope drunkard to a man slowly overcoming his limitations and finding worth in his life. Which is implied to be thanks to our heroine and her plucky attitude entering his life and not his own personal development having closure on what seemed a mutually destructive relationship with his ex. He just hadn’t met the right woman yet to make him a better man. The closest we got to a negative depiction of a woman was Strike’s ex who, after apparently having a very troubled relationship with him which they repeatedly tried to repair, quickly moved on though it’s presented as hypergamy. Oh and the ‘blow job for a fiver’ woman who just seemed, in the context of the series, to be a repugnant caricature of working class people or those on benefits – which Rowling famously once was before the first Harry Potter book got published and found it’s audience. It’s the sort of depiction of the less well off you only see in works of the pre-Victorian literature unless it’s by someone like Charles Dickens, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths or Dorota Masłowska and others where it’s used for social commentary to discuss why these people ended up like this and with their often jaded worldviews.

You don’t get that with Rowling. Bad guys are bad guys. Men are flawed and most can’t be redeemed. Women are perfect except when they rely on men. Men need a woman’s intervention to change. Working class people are very likely criminal scum unless they’re too stupid to be. Basically J K Rowling would like to be the 21st century Agatha Christie but hasn’t accounted, realistically, for shifts in both literature and society.

Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling

An irreverent look at the first three episodes of the series which cover the first book in the series.

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A quick introduction to our protagonists

Cormoran Strike

His name alludes to the bird cormorant however it’s actually the name of a giant in Cornish folklore, especially Jack the Giant-Killer. Strike is a very blunt indication to the audience of his manner. Considering the sort of names detectives have there’s no pont mocking how on the nose it is…

Has social connections currency (rock star father, supportive sister)

but is still down on his luck (has debts due to loans)

but even then can afford to bribe working class people.

Has fighting and investigation experience (Afghanistan veteran. Former military police.)

Limitations: A fake leg hence he isn’t fit for the army nor the police but has the skills hence he became a private detectives and moral convictions so he’s not a drug smuggler capable of knowing how to avoid detection.

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Robin Venetia Ellacott

Young.

Office temp.

The first time she met Strike he nearly bumped into her sending her falling down the stairs but then he saved her by grabbing her by the breast. This is never made an issue of and you half wonder if they’ll mention it at some point down the road.

Offered a job by Strike but the teaser for episode two suggests she already has a job interview elsewhere. Commitment issues then…

Inquisitive/breaches confidentiality (looks up data on Strike in depth though somehow has never heard of him despite his father being well known).

Engaged to be married so not a romance option… yet.

Given an expensive dress as a gift at the end. Because that’s what employers do of course.

Limitations: Commitment issues. Ginger. Her middle name is Venetia. She is a sidekick named Robin helping a detective who wears a lot of dark clothing. Even Strike remarks on it in the novel. Wink, wink audience I’m not a lazy writer it’s all meta-narrative intertextuality. I didn’t even bother to change the spelling to something like Robyn.

Verdict: Robin is a self insert fantasy version of Rowling and the sort of man she would like to do the dirty with. Taming him like Kathy tried to tame Heathcliff except Robin is going to be successful.

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The Case of the Clandestine Cuckoo’s Call

Episode 1

An introduction to the by the book cliches so we need never cover character development ever again. Ever. Even after the next ten or so books that Rowling has announced she has planned for Cormoran and Robyn to trundle through with their gradually building, unresolved, sexual tension.

A model leaves a party and returns home and changes into more comfortable clothes. Next thing we know she falls to her death from her balcony and lies dead in the street as the snow continues to slowly fall.

Three months later and it’s been ruled a tragic suicide… but is it? BUT IS IT?!

No, obviously, otherwise the rest of this show would have a very original ending for a detective series where Strike admits actually the police got it right. And Robin would be jobless but that’s besides the point. You tuned in to see a murder be solved not see the trials and tribulations of an office temp.

We begin when Robin, a plucky young point of view character, enters the scene.

She arrives at the office where someone angrily walks out.

We meet the dishevelled detective. Cormoran Strike. He has problems. He has a past.

The office is in disarray.

He is bleeding after a fight with his disgruntled ex-fiancée, Charlotte Campbell, who is exiting the scene. Also she plays no other role in the show except to cause Strike to go out and get drunk at one point so he and Robin can bond. So forget her name. In fact forget the name of everyone but Strike and Robin as they’re all cardboard cut outs you’ve seen time and time again in other crime dramas. Even in adaptions of Sherlocke Holmes no one notices if you omit Lestrade and Mycroft. Same thing for these books so I won’t bother with names for the most part.

As he chases Charlotte he accidentally bumps Robin who nearly falls down the stairs to her death. Except he grabs her breast. Heroic. How many women’s lives have been lost because a man feared to grab a woman by her chest when no other part of the body was in reach? We will never know…

He offers her the temp job. Maybe because he needs the help. Maybe to avoid an accusation of sexual harrassment. We will never know…

He heads out to go drink alcohol. Also to do research in places of group meeting. i.e. the pub.

Robin looks through his papers and looks him up online. Because you look up your employer after accepting a job obviously – and at work so you don’t waste personal time.

A squirely man, generically named John, comes to meet Strike and says his older brother, Charlie (who didn’t bite his brother’s finger), played football with Strike when little. Strike doesn’t remember him though he remembers Charlie. Ooh isn’t he blunt? Isn’t he honest? Already someones knees are trembling!

An investigative police detective offers him the police’s findings when meeting in a cafe. No pretext why… which is no doubt illegal. But that’s how it goes down in the dark underbelly of… wherever the hell this is set in London. Near a posh bit though meaning his office isn’t just run down but actively depreciating the value of properties around him due to how it looks. Really into that shabby chic look. Even has a completely random pipework piece of art on the wall to give it a more grungy look.

He goes to the apartment of the victim and the doorman lets him in to look around and there’s even a well timed coincidental meeting with the neighbours and their driver. Don’t worry the driver is irrelevant after a single conversation.

Strike goes to meet someone but UH OH it’s the uncle, Tony, warning him off the case! The uncle refers to his nephew John. Stop the investigation he warns Strike. John’s so jittery they’ve had to get a shake plate to counteract it as he’s doing structural damage to the law firms offices. He’s doing it at such a frequency he’s phasing through the walls now.

Then Strike walks down a street where out of the blue a working class woman offers him a blow job for money. Because that’s exactly what all working class women do with their day when you are a multi-millionaire author living in a mansion even though you yourself were on benefits once and should know better than describe them like that. He refuses but when he can’t instantly be given the information he wants from a drop in drugs rehabilitation medical clinic he pays the woman to create a distraction so he can trespass into the office, photo documents and contact the suspect.

He meets the suspect, Rochelle Lulla’s homeless friend she met at the drug rehabilitation centre, in a cafe but she runs away. However she only runs around one or two corners so even with the fake leg he keeps up with some effort.

During all this his leg gives him trouble going up stairs, and generally, seems to be an ill fit for him which he should get replaced. But after this episode it never bothers him again… in fact for a guy with a prosthetic he is rather sprightly… almost as if they never told the actor to be conscious that the rle required it whenever they did a full body shot…

The episode ends with him finding the homeless friend in a council flat lying dead in an overflowing, and steaming, bathtub. He tries to do CPR having first wasted time shouting her name in an over dramatic manner. Will she survive? This is the end of an episode and she isn’t Robin so obviously it’s no.

Also this show has really outdone itself. ‘Black guy dies first’ was in effect but also that women get it worse so the first two people to die are both black women… At this rate the door man needs to watch his back.

Episode 2

The homeless friend is dead. Life goes on. Apparently Strike is an Oxford dropout because we can’t trust anyone but a Oxbridge candidate to be capable of solving mysteries. Of course he is because ‘just’ being a former member of the military police wasn’t enough. He has a normal, if somewhat neurotically normal, sister who offers him a bed, which he refuses, and becomes instantly chummy with Robin as if they just instantly click. Meanwhile Strike goes to interview the dead girl’s mother and Lula’s boyfriend who wears a wolf mask because… that’s how Rowling sees the fashion industry? The model there strikes up a conversation with Strike. She was a Cambridge candidate… because we can’t have anyone who isn’t in the top 5% of society with money be a character it seems even for minor figures. She knew his friend and his father – but she assures him she hasn’t slept with them. Oh, okay, thanks… I mean did he need to know about that. Can you guess what happens? A detective meets a beautiful woman… come on… you don’t even need three guesses… that’s right they have sex because he is just that irresistible. She even likes the artificial leg. Then leaves him sleep in at her apartment as she goes off for a morning shoot. Because every detective is a lion sleeping on the rock in the midday sun.

After returning to the officer Robin tells him she didn’t gossip with his sister as if she did him a favour. She also tells him, after his given her a job that she’s got an interview for a HR job elsewhere and has written it in the work diary. I mean she is a temp so okay of course she has to apply elsewhere but to write it in the work’s diary is psychotic as if she thinks that’s normal and not throwing her current employment in his face. Strike visits the downstairs neighbours of Lula. Of course the wife is using the in door swimming pool because hey what well off past middle age woman doesn’t get introduced doing this activity? Oh also she wants grime like Strike. Because he’s a walking sex machine no woman can resist. He’s John Shaft – can you dig it? The doorman also uses that pool apparently we learn later. Robin goes to her interview, gives an incredibly vague answer and on the same day is offered the job… because that’s how life happens for some people apparently? I mean yes if you’re an internal applicant since you’re in the building but she is a temp from an agency presumably unknown to the company she just applied to.

Lula’s boyfriend is already in Strike’s office though the door was, presumably, locked. It’s never mentioned why he came in here and waited save we are meant to always detest him and suspect he did it. His characterisation is done so heavy handedly he risks going into a pantomime routine at any moment. Every scene he is in he is needlessly antagonistic to the point the only way he could realistically be like that is if he was permanently in withdrawal and mentally ill. But it’s never explained so ‘he’s just a nasty piece of work’ is all we can surmise. Also that he’s such a red herring that him actually being involved in Lula’s murder would have been a double fake out reveal.

So Strike figures out the neighbour wife was stuck out on the balcony because her husband is an abuser. We never have any interaction with the husband so we just have to accept this version of events. Women are always victims and men always broken in some way. So then we cut to Strike and the police detective discussing Rochelle’s (the dead friend) death. In a cafe. In the middle of the day. Apparently that doesn’t break any sort of courtesy rule let alone law leading to his immediate firing and likely sentencing for what might amount to an effort to pervert the course of justice if he’s unlucky. Nope – the metropolitan police are the reference library service of crime and you don’t even have to file a freedom of information act request to get extensive details from them.

Sometimes it seems like Strike assumes things and it happens to be true. A better writer might go with that and prove sometimes, even with his extensive training, he can be wrong by doing things by instinct.

So Strike talks again to the overly helpful doorman. Apparently the doorman uses the indoor pool. They seem to make a bit of a big deal about the fact he was away from his station for 15 to 20 minutes while going to swim. Personally I think he would be there longer if he did more than 2 or 3 lengths. Also, and more realistically, there are times when he would be away from the desk when he goes to the toilet. There seems to be some confusion between what a doorman does and what a guard dog does. He isn’t chained to the entrance. So the doorman gives Strike the CCTV recording of the night when Lula was killed. I guess as a pay off for not revealing he abandoned his post but still this is all a bit too easy…

Vashti comes up as a place where Lula tried on clothes on the day of her death.

Leather gloves come into the equation as they were a gift from Guy Some to Lula but the boyfriend also had a pair (why he has a pair of these unreleased fashion items is only, at most, brushed over next episode as Guy gives people stuff).

Strike finds clues like it’s going out of style. Oh wait no. They’re just being handed to him on a silver platter.

At the office Robin answers the phone and Strike’s ex is on the other end. He speaks to his ex and she has already, in what must be the space of a week at most, found a new man and is going to marry him. Hypergamy? Fear of becoming an old maid? We never know. She was a plot device to make us sympathise with Strike.

He says he’s going out for a while so Robin can shut up shop by herself.

She, for no real reason, goes looking for him and finds him in the pub from before. He is of course steaming drunk. However, unrealistically, he’s also terribly PC telling Robin she’s a good person and other such platitudes. The closest he gets to trouble is calling another man ‘beardy’ though of course he has something more than a 5 o’clock shadow himself.

So she takes him back ‘home’ to the office with a carton of chips.

He watches the CCTV on his laptop and announces ‘Got you’… because ‘oi beardy’ and wondering if he was about to get his clock cleaned would have been too funny a cliffhanger.

Oh and at some point he had taken his leg off and instead of putting it back on urinated in an empty cup and, when Robin offers the next morning to clear it away unaware what it contains, he quickly refuses and throws it out the window. If someone doesn’t find a clip of someone getting water thrown on their head out of the blue and made an edited together YouTube video of it then this is wasted potential. Also the uncle is having a fling with the abused downstairs neighbour wife (so maybe they get a happy end after the series though nothing is mentioned in the third episode).

Episode 3

We start immediately in a flashback of Sergeant Strike’s army days as part of a convoy of vehicles. A truck is blocking the path and he notices a guy use a mobile to phone someone. As the convoy is about to pass Strike calls out ‘wait!’ There’s an explosion. Next thing a boy, who was stood with the phone man at the side of the road, points an automatic handgun at Strike, looks at his missing leg and smiles before winking and walking away. The camera pans out and we see Strike lying on the ground with his leg missing surrounded by the corpses of his comrades.

He vomits upon waking. We cut to Robin, pristine walking down the road and arriving at Vashti’s to try on clothes and lure the shop assistant into gossiping about Lula’s last day alive when she visited there. Robin says Strike is her brother and when he turns up and gives his usual gruff offhanded assessment, after giving a a look up and down before revealing himself, that her dress is ‘nice’ and nothing more the shop assistant comments that her brother is like that too. With a little better execution this would have been an amusing scene but it loss a bit of potential in adaption.

Strike is still a bit hung over. Robin tells him what she learned about an abscent shop assistant having tapes a conversation with Lula where she divulges about being excited about meeting someone.

So it’s time to tick off another lead and they visit Guy Some at his studios which are filled with models and such. At reception Strike, unbelievably, pretends to be on the phone and walks by trying to blag his way in. Maybe it was meant as comedy or seriously – it’s hard to tell with this series. To be honest it should have been written a bit more as a comedy as it is so cliché. If it had been this series would be much better.

Guy stops them and calls them out on what they’re doing but allows them in. They go sit in his office and apparently his real name is Kevin. Again I’m not sure if this is meant to be funny or not. In fact he’s a little racist towards white people but nothing much seems to get made of it nor is it really commented on. Apparently that’s preferable to his story about how his father beat him when he wore a dress when little. They see the unreleased gloves and other bits which were given to Lula as a present. I think at this point Guy says he gave them to the boyfriend to so he’s off the hook finally.

So onto the next scene. They return to Lula’s apartment as if it’s got a revolving door. Strike bought flowers for no real reason besides a pointless face hiding moment. Why even return there really except to notice changes with are inevitable since it’s being cleared for the next tenant. They find a library card so Robin will go to the library tomorrow and do some research. Sure… I mean that was in your job description wasn’t it? He gives the flowers to Robin and this leads to her in the next scene having a minor conflict with her fiancé. He is talking of the future but she doesn’t know what she wants.

Meanwhile Strike is down the pub drinking and smoking.

The next day he goes to visit Lula’s adoptive mother. She insists on watching old movies which have a password on them for no good reason. The password is Leopard_1942. She says that’s the year she was born. Because you need to know she is old… no not just ‘of a more advanced age than myself’ no I mean the message is she is OLD O L D – the sort of old that children refer to when they speak about anyone who isn’t a child. Lula’s adoptive white mother is super old. So old. Practically dust already. Except… you know… there are still people that age alive and well so making such a grandstand of it is a bit convoluted but they treat her like she is over a hundred years old the way she behaves. The excuse of course being she is being heavily drugged medicinally so she is a bit out of it though it’s never specified in the adaption what the issue is save being terminally ‘old’. Strike bought some macaroons along to sweeten her up. She’s on a sort of drip feed medicine or dialysis machine so I don’t that’s wise.

So the nervous brother, John, appears. He tells Strike that Lula had been trying to find her birth father. I think it’s mentioned her birth mother was already dead.

Meanwhile Robin goes to the library and uses Lula’s card to see what books she checked out. Maybe things have changed since I last used mine but I’m pretty sure what she does using a computer there to see what ‘she’ last looked at doesn’t exist in real life. At the very least having access to digital copies of research papers… and if they were digital why would they need to be checked out when multiple electronic copies can be looked at simultaneously?

Strike returns to Vashti the next day and finds the other shop assitant there. He tells her recording conversations is illegal and demands a copy of it. So that’s some blackmailing going on there then…

Next Strike and Robin are sat where else but the pub.

Lula’s birth father was a Ghanaian academic but has died since. She shows Strike a photo of Lula’s birth father and birth brother. Strike recognises the belt of the brother’s military uniform instantly. He deduces she must have been going to meet her birth brother not their father. Well yes with the father being dead that would be the obvious answer unless this takes a turn for the occult.

Coincidentally the birth brother, Jonah, is still in the country and meets Strike at the embassy or military base. Her birth brother blames himself for her death as he couldn’t bring himself to meet her. Their father didn’t even know he had a daughter. He resented she was so well off while their birth mother suffered as Lula refused to aid her find her two missing sons before she died as she always sold her story to the press as she was so poor. Apparently Lula had informed him she was leaving everything she had to him and had wanted to piss off her adoptive uncle.

Later Strike encounters the uncle who immediately says he will have to add stalking to his charges against Strike for harassment. Strike says he paid the concierge to have an alibi though the uncle insists, from the very start, he had Lula’s best interests at heart.

Strike goes to a pool hall and enlists the aid of a down on his luck ex-soldier turned full time crook. He asks him to get someone to steal a particular sat-nav but not the car it’s in.

Robin turns the HR job offer down as she wants to be part of Strike’s line of work instead. She then goes home and has an argument with her fiancé. Out of the blue he makes a comment to the effect she will go sleep with Strike. He claims it’s a joke but there seems to be some previous event we, as the audience, are never told about which might tarnish our opinion of Robin. It’s a heavy handed scene to make us dislike him though we know so little about him. See ths guy? ‘I think he’s a wanker and you need to agree’ style writing.

Strike talks to the detective on the case and surmises that the killer will kill again if he needs to. Playa gonna play, killa gonna kill. At this point I do wonder if any women were ever under consideration apart from Rochelle. It’s a bit awkward the one working class character in the series to have relevance to the case was a former drug addict portrayed negatively (alongside miss ‘wanna blowjob’) while figures like Evan Duffield, Lula’s on and off boyfriend and depicted as nasty despite the drug use. The lower orders are animals who cannot control themselves apparently.

Back at the Creswel house the mother is drugged up and can”t remember anything about whether her son was there or not on the night. She then out of the blue comments on how her husbands friends were ‘queer’ and had good taste choosing John…

… um wait. Are we being told John a.k.a. Nervous brother was sexually abused by friends of the family? Or is she just severely homophobic (so we are back to the ‘so old…. she’s like a dinosaur’ image the show is portraying)? It’s a very out of place sudden moment.

Strike says he needs to use the toilet but really he’s going to go snooping around the house. There is usually a nurse present in the house so you would assume she was around but… I guess she was ‘using the indoor pool’ so she is out of the way without explanation.

The uncle arrives knowing Strike is there. How? Who knows but the pressure is on. Strike is in Lula’s old room, which he recognised by the red mittens her adoptive mother mentioned a few times, except actually it’s John’s room. He cracks the safe just in time to pretend to come out of the toilet and announce to the stunned uncle that he should give it a few minutes. Apparently the house had a few toilets which while possible would have been checked in minutes by someone determined to do so like the uncle just now.

Nonetheless Strike escapes with the documents. Next stop is the pool hall to pay off his criminal contact who laments that his ‘boy’ was very sad to have to leave the car where it was. Also he’s given a broken bike bell the robber also took for no real reason except I guess it was shiny and adds to a plot that never really gets developed during this adaption.

Back at the office Robin tells Strike she didn’t accept the HR job. He informs her that he probably won’t be able to keep her on once this job is done. She finishes for the day and… goes down the pub to cry and drown her sorrows. That must be one hell of a pub seat as it’s always the exact same pub and table they sit at.

Strike reviews the evidence. He has what is best described as a ‘recently on _____’ like episode recap of all the moments of the show so far in hopes the audience will instantly piece it all together. It’s trying to do the BBC Sherlock thing but on the cheap. It’s a bit embarrassing. Apparently when he said he ‘had you’ at the end of last episode he meant ‘I’ve a clue to follow’ rather than he identified the culprit.

John, with a bottle of wine, arrives to congratulate him on finding Jonah, the blood brother, to be punished for Lula’s death. Remember John, the adoptive brother, hired Strike to prove her death wasn’t a suicide, as the police concluded, but a murder.

But here is the denouement! He reveals the killer! He worked it out using the evidence suddenly… and because it’s coming to the end and someone has to be the culprit!

It was…

It was…

John! The guy who hired him!

Dun dun durr…

Strike had lured him out of the house via Robin setting up a false meeting and went and got the will. (Which I’m sure is illegal).

Strike tells him the following:

Tony, the uncle not the tiger, knew he killed her but couldn’t admit it to himself. How does Strike know this? It’s never really explained…

He lays out how Jon had the opportunity what with his mother being too drugged to know if he was home or not (oh also he lives at home with his mother – what a loser! I mean even if she is terminally ill let’s judge all people in a similar situation as weirdos right? Right? Because that’s what comfortably well off writer’s seem to be doing right now and ignoring the current housing economy and outdated things like family love), got the gloves at the flat to cover his finger prints (which is sheer coincidence) and framed Jonah for the murder (again how did he know Jonah was going to turn up? Another coincidence!) allowing him to remain appearing innocent. EXCEPT IT WAS PRESSUMED A SUICIDE SO HE WAS IN THE CLEAR IF HE HADN’T RANDOMLY DECIDED TO GET STRIKE INVOLVED. I have to assume he couldn’t find the will… but he had it already! There must be some other convoluted reason which the adaption glosses over.

He also knows he killed Charlie, john’s brother and Strike’s best friend when they were little, because he has the broken bell John kept in his car and the day Charlie died was the code to the safe in his room. The latter would be a memorable date and as for the bell it could have been recovered from the quarry Charlie fell into and John kept it in memory of his brother but… no it’s easier to suggest her took it from the crime scene when little as if to say he’s been a killer all his life. Some people are just born evil apparently and not because of circumstances moulding them COUGH-Voldemort and Snape-COUGH

The stolen will proves John is guilty. Maybe it wasn’t Lula’s old room but John’s so why did he have the mittens? A trophy? Maybe he wanted to be Lula. Maybe he’s gay. Maybe he’s a repressed transexual. Maybe he’s bisexual. Maybe it’s Maybelline. The show throws out the hints but never confirms it just like Rowling’s other works. Dumbledore was gay – the evidence was there in the series you just never put two and two together but Rowling can’t connect the dots for you otherwise she misses out on that lucrative super-conservative market of readers. And if you don’t notice it you’re a homophobe!

It’s obvious that John loved his adopted brother but when Strike took his attention away John couldn’t deal with it and committed an act of passion! And then Lula was with her drugged up boyfriend he knew he could be better for her but she rejected him and it was another crime of passion!

… and that’s what happens when you over read into things boys and girls.

Anyway so the will proves he killed everyone. Lula, Charlie – even Rochelle who ‘knew too much’ and phoned him to tell him about Strike and ended up paying with her life for it as she was deemed unreliable too (if John had a major issue with drug use, whether due to daily seeing what it did to his mother or otherwise, in the books it clumsily included here).

Strike declares that money was a secondary motive to John. The primary one was envy. Why? Because John kept Charlie’s bicycle bell. John’s mother liked to categorise her children: the smart one, the pretty one, the funny one – but John was always second in his mother’s eyes. (So add implied Oedipus complex too while we are giving him every issue under the sun to demonise him as bluntly as possible).

The leather gloves were the fatal mistake. They are porous. Criminals sweat and so John sweated over everything despite thinking he avoided leaving evidence. How Strike knows this and that John didn’t wipe every surface as well as wear the gloves is beyond me though it makes logical sense. It comes across more as a bluff than astute knowledge unfortunately. I mean skin flakes and hairs would also be left behind inevitably to be picked up by a thorough investigation. At least this has up to date, if glossed over, modern forensics being mentioned.

Strike says criminals sweat – and John is sweating.

So do people who exercise… Getting thin to manipulate people. Building muscle to strong arm people. It’s all there. People who sweat are all criminals. And if you don’t exercise but are sat in a very warm room the police are already onto you too. In Summer everyones a crook.

So that is the ‘playground taunt’ necessary to start the inevitable attempted murder fight. John breaks the bottle over Strike’s head. Then they tussle. Then the bottle is broken and being lowered onto Strike’s neck as he resists. They throw each other about a bit and break the frosted glass of the the door.

Then Robin appears and hits John with a fire extinguisher through the broken window. However, now having the advantage, Strike begins to repeatedly punch the unconscious John repeatedly in the face until Robin tells him to stop. There are no consequences to Strike’s assault. Act of passion and all that.

Time passes.

Time passes.

So John’s mother is also dead now. Thus all the Cresswell family members are dead save the uncle. He maybe be an adulterer but it’s with a woman in an abusive marriage which makes it okay (apparently). He says he will honour Lula’s will. He says he didn’t know what happened with Charlie and wanted to protect the family. (I have no idea why Lula didn’t like him actually though that seemed to play a part throughout it all with everyone assuming there was animosity between them). Also he will pay Strike what John owed him. Which wouldn’t happen in a noir story – the detective would just be thankful he got out alive.

At Strike’s office Robin answers the phone which won’t stop ringing constantly. Hey guess what Strike bought her ‘a bonus’. It’s the green dress she tried on at Vashti’s. She reminds him she knows how much it costs. He assures her it’s fine as they’ve plenty of work so he can afford to give her a permanent job as he was able to pay off all his debts.

For the final shot he walks out side, lights a cigarette and walks down the road in slow motion.

The End.

Fun fact: I looked up things and the downstairs neighbour’s wife is the sister of the partner in the uncle’s law firm. So everyone is connected however if it was mentioned in the show it is a very blink and you miss it moment. Hence why they were having an affair. Also Guy Some called Lula cuckoo so that’s where the title comes from. She didn’t call anyone though at the time of her death so… yeah. ‘It’s just a cool sounding title’… There are a lot of small elements you would have to be intensely focused on listening and absorbing in a short period of time but the overall tone and pacing of the show suggests it’s more easy going that it is. In fact there is a lot the adaption glossed over to the point a few minor characters got cut.


The collections of scenes from the episodes were compiled by Katerina Varela so please go visit her YouTube page and show her some support.

I quite enjoyed the story, cliche filled as it was, but it did have a lot of conveniences and I’m guessing a lot has been lost in the adaption from book to screen including seemingly minor, but essential, pieces which connected the various dots of the narrative.

Well I hope that was enjoyable. I will try to do it for the rest of the series too. Next is The Silkworm so that will be up in a fortnight unless they mess around with the scheduling again as they did by having episodes one and two on consecutive nights then left about a week until showing episode three which concluded this case.

28 панфиловцев a.k.a. Panfilov’s 28 Men a.k.a. Battle of Moscow

A 2016 war film based on the Soviet propaganda legend about a group of soldiers, Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, who heroically halt and destroy Nazi tanks headed for Moscow before they all perishing together on the battlefield. It is set in the Eastern Front of World War II and covers the 8th Guards Rifle Division operations during the 1941 Battle of Moscow

Supported by the gamers of War Thunder. The film was crowd funded by the donations of 35,086 people. Thus allowing the specially set up Panfilov’s 28 film studio to be made for the project with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund with assistance of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Culture and Sport in partnership with Shaken Aimanov Kazakhfilm with the assistance of the Russian Military-Historical Society.

… so yes. Just like the American army gives money towards Hollywood films that promote them, including the Transformers franchise, so too do Russian and Kazakhstan government departments. However if the Russian Military-Historical Society had access to the vehicles they are the ones who contributed the most although my assumption is they were more likely acting as the background extras in the scenes that required it while trained actors were at the forefront ad the vehicles were provided by the government departments.

Directed by

Kim Druzhinin
Andrey Shalopa

Produced by

Anton Yudintsev
Andrey Shalopa

Screenplay by

Andrey Shalopa

Starring

Aleksandr Ustyugov
Yakov Kucherevskiy

Azamat Nigmanov
Oleg Fyodorov
Aleksey Morozov

Music by

Mikhail Kostylev

Cinematography

Nikita Rozhdestvenskiy

Production
company

Panfilov’s Twenty Eight
Gaijin Entertainment

Release date

November 24, 2016 (Russia)

Running time

105 minutes

Country

Russia

Language

Russian

Budget

$1,700,000

Box office

$6,346,968 (January 2017)

₽385 million CIS
₽366.6 million roubles (Russia)
₸61.3 million tenge (Kazakhstan)

PLOT

USSR, late November 1941. Based on the account by reporter Vasiliy Koroteev that appeared in the Red Army’s newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), shortly after the battle, this is the story of Panifilov’s Twenty-Eight, a group of twenty-eight soldiers of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, under the command of General Ivan Panfilov, that stopped the advance on Moscow of a column of fifty-four German tanks of the 11th Panzer Division for several days. Though armed only with standard issue Mosin-Nagant infantry rifles and DP and PM-M1910 machine guns, all useless against tanks, and with wholly inadequate RPG-40 anti-tank grenades and PTRD-41 anti-tank rifles, they fight tirelessly and defiantly, with uncommon bravery and unwavering dedication, to protect Moscow and their Motherland.

SYNOPSIS

“Commemorating war does not only mean sorrow and grief. We also remember the battles and heroism that brought victory.”

– Commander, Panfilov Division, Bauyrzhan Momyshuly

November 14, 1941

A training barracks outside Moscow.

‘Of course mental strength matters most. Physical strength and courage too, but not so much.’ is the opening dialogue of the film.

Notably though in the dialogue you hear tovarishch ( Товарищ ) the subtitles omit this. Good in one way to avoid excessive subtitles but it omits indicating who is a citizen and who is a party member for those with a bit more of an in depth knowledge of the era.

A group meeting is held outside as the commanding officer or sergeant explains a tank’s weaknesses. Molotov cocktails are handed out.

The commander rides off on a white horse as the meeting continues.

A practise is arranged to train how to attack a German tank. The officers smoke saying the battle will be historic with looks of foreboding concern clear on their faces.

A war story report about a comrade Filin who was killed taking out an anti-tank gun with grenades is read by a lieutenant. The soldiers discuss the bulletin half mocking how often they’ve heard it repeated as they cut wood to make the tank model for their practise.

At sun set the wooden frame tank is dragged by the soldiers as one stood in a hole is informed how to act.

Inside the officers discuss recent military movements and the impending confrontation.

Many are Asian, specifically from Kazakhstan, which you wouldn’t see in a western film of these events despite the geographical area Russia covers as the old propaganda always depicted Russians as 7 foot tall, platinum blonde, white men with heavy athletic builds – which ironically meant they then had to go hire Scandinavian actors, e.g. the Swedish Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, to depict this stereotype as it really isn’t as common in Russian heritage as they would like to think (though of course you have the Slavic ethnic group we most common think of when thinking of ‘a Russian’ who share a common genetic heritage with the Ukranians, Polish, etc). Of course this all came to a head with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a universally well known Austrian, in Red Heat. The irony being that, in the Soviet era, they depicted Americans in much the same way, overtly tall and muscular brutes, and so there was a lot of surprise after the fall of the Berlin Wall, from both sides, that actually they look more or less the same as each other being a mix of ethnicities and appearances.

The officers remain and discuss their concerns as the soldiers have a snowball fight outside ignorant of their impending fate as they’ve been stationed doing little if anything besides digging trenches pointlessly for some time now.

Everyone prepares to move out the next day.

A soldier leaves his woman behind. Is she his lover, wife, girlfriend, cousin or sister? We never know. (I looked away for a second but I don’t think the scenes given any more context than ‘cliché scene to insert for soldier’s beginning to move out leaving their loved one’s behind’. We never see her again nor is she mentioned.

Later the commanding officer addresses the assembled soldier backlit by a spotlight. He says inspirational things – how they’ll defend their beloved motherland and the ‘great’ German army will know failure. History has known many brave warriors but none more so than them defending not only Moscow but the rest of their homeland.

Marching a soldier tells a story of a village who were being attacked by bandits so chose to fight and hired an expert – a samurai. 40 bandits vs 7 men. The warriors built fortifications. The gang was defeated. Someone says they heard it but it was in America and cattle herders. They laugh and joke.

The officers discuss not being detected by the Germans and ask the commanding officer not worry about it. The CO tells them to dig in and hold their ground. Stand firm but stay alive – that is the paradox they are presented with he admits.

The soldiers continue discussing their tales of heroic warriors. Now they move onto the battle of Thermopylae. (As seen in Frank Miller’s 300 or it’s film adaption by Zack Snyder). Perhaps it is just me but this film is being a bit apocryphal citing seven samurai and 300… would Soviet soldiers know of either of those events? Of course the film makers are alluding to their films by Kurosawa and Snyder which themselves are based on the embellished legends of historical events and therefore this is a knowing wink to the audience that the film-makers here too acknowledge what they are depicting is somewhat fantastical but intended, as the story was meant to at the time, be inspirational but at the same time early in the film, if not the first scene, we have the soldiers mocking such propoganda which isn’t something you see in American made war films. Quite refreshing really though of course this is one of many such films based on historical war events.

Later the soldiers are digging trenches and mock an old woman calling them heathens ‘worse than Muslims’ joking she mistook the Asian Kazakh Russians for Muslims and then asked if they ran out of ‘Russian Russians’. (again I would like to think this is a knowing wink to the audience but I have little doubt Kazakh troops faced prejudice at the time just as was the case in other countries including America which split their troop along racial lines often). They laugh and their supervisor scolds them it’ll be sunrise soon so they need to finish up and the Krauts will be there soon.

A machine gun is set up looking across the frozen fields before being put back into the hole.

A swerving trench is dug into a treeline. A captain criticises the placement of a cannon but decides they’ll test it later

Soldiers mock a soldier who, having read a political leaflet, asks where he can get a white flag… then add the Germans will kill you anyway so you’re stuck in the red army.

It was a common theme to jokes during the Soviet time: you could run from the red army but where would you go? If you run away during battle you’re only delaying the inevitable conflict. If, outside of times of conflict, you got the necessary papers to travel you can only go to another part of the Soviet Union unless you”re connected in the diplomatic services or find good enough forgeries. If you did somehow get outside the borders you probably have no connections as all the white emigre (i.e. the people who fled in 1917) escaped with their entire families decades ago and anyone who defects later has to have a use to the west to ensure they can do so (e.g. be an exceptional dancer, scientist, etc) or skillset (e.g. plumbing/engineering) in order to help them gain money to survive. In other words you’ve nowhere to go to… You’re already home… so get used to it and do what needs to be done to survive here! Fatalistic black humour is a keystone of Russia’s culture during this period.

One soldier wonders if they’ve disguised the cannon enough with white cloth and such. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ he’s told how the Germans shot their air planes in the tail as there was not defensive gun there in it’s design thus leaving them vunerable until redesigned.

In the trenches others discuss fighting for their land. Because it is their land and otherwise there’s nowhere to live. Two forms of it exist: the Motherland can be burned – its where they live however the fatherland also exists – but it’s how they live. Someone asked ‘but if a Frenchman learned Russian they wouldn’t make him Russian?’ He’s teased that a German couldn’t be but if they fought the Nazis and learnt Russian then maybe a Frenchman could be.

A plane flies overhead. Its said it has paper thin armour. A soldier raises his rifle and is scolded that its foolish to do so. He shoots anyway and is joined by another.

Kazhan and other languages are spoken as the group is mixed. Soldiers discuss asking how well those outside Moscow live. A sack of potatoes. An old man is given barbed wire to fortify his shack but he says it’s pointless. The soldiers passing by couldn’t have any delicacies only what they could scrounge.

In the trenches the captain gets a radio call. They are to rise early tomorrow. The artillery commander arrives tomorrow. They’ll get support fire if needed.

Elsewhere under cover of night the Nazis run forward in formation preparing for the conflict tomorrow. In the trenches the red army men sleep. The Nazis uncover their cannons and begin shelling just before dawn. In the nearby village the old men look out wistfully. This is the last we see of them. Assume they’re dead because there will be nothing left on the horizon once the battles over.

A red army solider wonders if they know their locations or are shelling randomly. ‘3 hours no losses – except their hearing’. The captain approaches teases they couldn’t sleep. No answers one, not with this lullaby and is told they’ll have time to stretch their legs soon.

The captain mocks it is an orchestra but soon there will be an intermission and they’ll swarm the buffet. A solider is told to wear a helmet to protect his head as dirt flies past him.

The Germans begin moving forward in formation behind their tanks. When the shooting stops they’ll have arrived face to face with the Russians the Red Army captain is told.

The Russians take position under cover of the forest and wait for two shots to ring out signalling their counter attack. A solider mocks the Germans think they know the Russian weak point. Kazakhs, he says to his friend, they’ll show them Kazakh men when they attack Kazakhstan and is agreed with.

All is silent as we pan across the trenches where the soldiers are ready with their rifles poised.

A spotter reports what the German forces are composed of.

The captain signals to fire a cannon.

The spotter corrects the range.

The captain signals to fire again.

It strikes and some infantry are taken out but still the tanks move ever forward.

The Russian command centre marks of the map the events. Planes fly overhead… but they are German and the red army mock they’re like vultures ready to swoop down.

The CO is informed on the telephone of events. The trench soldiers begin firing and take out some infantry. A cannon takes out the treads of a tank. A volley nearly hits the trenches. The music is all in the minor key but building. A fragmentation shell is shot at the tanks being abandoned and kills its crew but another German tank takes out a cannon on the forest edge though the soldiers get into the trenches just in time.

The Kazakh sniper repositions as cover fire takes more infantry.

The Germans withdraw. Why the infantry march alongside the tanks seems foolish.

It’s commented they didn’t take long to leave. He’s told they’ll be back soon as he strikes up a cigarette. Isn’t it odd he says again. He’s told not to worry.

Another pair chat mocking that the Germans probably think anyone left alive will flee.

The Germans will change their tactics and hit the weak points. This was just a test.

The captain runs across a field to see a man, Pasha, being taken away on a horse drawn stretcher. He’s told everything is fine that they will be there when he returns to the front… but the captain has a look saying the bleeding wont stop and Pasha won’t make it.

Back at the trenches the soldiers smoke in silence. Sombre music plays.

In the trench’s office the captain reports to the CO. Six injured and Pasha went for treatment. Told to keep it up. As if there is another option…

It won’t be a sprinkler next time, he reflects after, but a downpour when the Germans attack again.

Natarov refuses to move as he wants to shoot a plane. He is told to take cover when it fails. Volleys of German cannon fire rain down along the trenches line knocking dirt about

‘See they don’t want to fight, saving themselves for Moscow – which is good for us – puts us at an advantage’ a soldier comments.

Another mocks ‘them being cowards certainly puts us at an advantage, lets hope they don’t bomb us to bits out of fear’.

The banter continues but it is acknowledged they’re not idiots even if they see tanks burning and people dying.

A massive volley of focused shelling rains down over the trenches. A solider sees his friend is dead buried under unsettled soil.

The sergeant in the bunker who said they were fearful now changes his tone reflecting the red army ranks will be thinned so they must become a stubborn thorn in the Germans side. ‘The strategy is no heroics’. He scolds a younger soldier who comments that’s it not a matter of choice to be shot.

An injured solider is being tended to by someone saying visiting the dentist is torture this is nothing – just as a shell sends him flying.

The sergeant reiterates no heroics – just burn tanks.

The commander paces back and forth as the radio operator tries to contact the fourth company who are out of contact. No success.

Shells continue to rain down.

The forest is left in smoking devastation. Soldiers slowly crawl out of the dirt checking who is or isn’t alive.

The captain goes around checking surviving numbers and having everyone regroup.

The German tanks begin moving again as the Russian dead are moved off the battlefield.

Off the front two more carts are ordered to carry people away and a message to be sent.

The Germans begin another assault on land. The lighting in the damaged trench is very cinematic suddenly in this one scene for the radio report to the CO. only 28 men left … but no re-enforcements can be sent. He has to hold the line. The CO sits back down disconcerted knowing he’s just given the group a death sentence.

The captain says nine tanks need to be set alight to send a message. He gives a rousing speech that they’ve nowhere to run.

”we’re out of options, brothers. Although our land seems vast, and we are ready to die for it, we have nowhere to retreat. And we cannot die until we stop the Germans because we’re defending the last line. After us, that’s it. After us, it’s Moscow.”

The soldiers resign themselves to their fate and begin preparing as the tanks approach.

Yakov is asked if the story is true the Nazis tired to blast him out of a dugout with grenades and he threw 14 back at them? He mocks that the story has already been blown out of proportion to that level. Lies, he says, but when pressed admits it was 5. then later they threw a sixth so he wouldn’t have time to react. The soldier asks for more but Yakov says he’ll tell him later. ‘When?’ demands the soldier. ‘At night, before bed’. As the soldier leaves he adds it wasn’t in the dugout either…

The sergeant says now its a matter of precision so they need to let them get closer so they know they’ve definitely hit them. Someone mocks he’s happy not to be a tank crewman as it’s certain death.

An older soldier prays. A younger soldier asks what he’s doing and he says nothing ‘for the motherland’ and the younger guy says that’s how it should be.

Everyone waits tensely. A few treads are taken from tanks by cannons but return fire takes out the crew of one cannon. Then the machine gun of a tank kills the Kazakh sniper so his colleague takes the anti-tank rifle and fires at the treads of one tank successfully. He hopes his brothers in arms rest easy now.

A machine gunner takes out Fascist infantry and one soldier wields a grenade. Grenades are thrown at the tanks. The machine gun give a new belt feed. A Molotov cocktail thrown on a tank. A rifleman mocks the machine gunner must be going for a record as he’s leaving none to be shot. A tank tries to shoot the machine gunner but misses. Then the feed ends and echoing shots of lone rifles ring out across the battle field.

Another anti-tank rifle man shoots a driver mocking he wont be swinging his cross around here… as Grisha the older soldier aids him…

a grenade takes out a tank and as another soldier tires to throw one he’s hit but throws it still. The German infantry are on top of the trenches now.

Red Army men are laid out side by side in the forest as the cannons are dragged further back by bleeding men.

A tank descends on 3 men. A grenade takes out the tank but two are shot. The survivor throws the Molotov cocktail and empties his machine gun. Fortunately a rifle man stops the tank by shooting the loner gunner.

Ammunition is running low so the surviving soldiers let the tanks pass in hopes to regroup and deal only with infantry.

A man crawls through the trenches picking up a grenade. But his is shot before he can throw it. But he can still shoot. So he crawls over the top and fires until he passes out. The man who aided him took the grenade and realises they’re losing.

The battle field is a mix of snow and charred soil. An anti-tank rifle is carried across the line and prepared. It takes out the treads of a tank. A cannon takes out the treads of another. The man calls for someone to bring a shell but no one is left alive so he grabs on off a nearby corpse. But this is enough time for the tank to aim its cannon and take him out along with the cannon he was manning.

An anti-tank rifle man and his brother are taken out. Then another. The tank climbs over the trench but gets stuck ripping soil out burying the corpses.

Slowly the Red Army soldiers are being picked off now one by one and buried by the tanks pulling over the trenches.

But a man rises out of the dirt (Yakov?) and throws a grenade before dying and it stops on of the tanks.

This gives the remaining men a second wind and one runs up, climbs the exterior and throws a Molotov cocktail into the window of the tank hoping it warms them up.

The riflemen and assault rifles hold the line but Vasily is hit and passing out telling Grisha and others to fight on. The survivors are running through the trenches and throw a Molotov into a tank on their way. Grisha is told to fire ‘at the pedestrians’ and is covered by another just as a grenade lands near them. They’re both find and go to find Diev.

More German infantry run across the field and now the Russians are down to small hand guns. The Germans fall to the ground when they think a grenade has been thrown. They realise it was a fake

The sergeant tells the injured political officer its okay only a few are left…

The German infantry walk over the barbed wire as the Russians lie in wait. One man picks up a hatchet like trench shovel. That’s all they’ve got now. Another holds a knife. Tension builds.

But a machine gun mows the Germans down. Who is it? A German tank commander looks through his binoculars. Its… I don’t know who. Younger guy. The belt feed seems to never end nor get jammed. One German makes a break for it but the feed continues again suddenly. Daniil was the man on the mounted machine gun.

Over the radio the German tank commander has an order to withdraw. And so the tank line moves back.

The Red army men breathe a sigh of relief.

The sun sets over the quiet smouldering landscape as black smoke pours out of the tanks above the snowy upturned fields.

Daniil joins the sergeant ‘saved some aces for last’. ‘it was luck’. ‘luck had nothing to do with it’. He jokes they’ll tell their grandchildren there were more then the 14 tanks they fought. They lament everyone of them is a hero… because so few are left. That’s how they fight… that’s how war is. A few others climb the mound in front of them and look out upon the horizon. It was a victory but it was a loss. So it is in Russian war fare. There is no glory.

We end on a monochrome sweeping image of the Soviet Realism styled statues erected in those fields and the markings of where the trenches were.

During the credits we see more of the monument erected to the men who died in a park. I don’t know it but I’m sure people who’ve been to Moscow would recognise it as before it an eternal flame is lit.

REVIEW

The music in this film is quite simple in it’s composition but has it’s charm. It’s not bombastic orchestral work like an American film just simple strings and accompaniment underpinning the tension and moments of determination we see the ensemble undergo.

The recent trend of shaky-cam during conflict scenes is thankfully avoided here so you will always clearly see events and know where things are within context of each other. The camera work is on the whole serviceable for the rest of the film but nothing particularly memorable.

Costume wise perhaps I felt at the start everyone was a little too clean, as was the criticism of Enemy At The Gates, but then they had only been training not in conflict at that point and it’s certainly gone by the point they’re in the trenches. As the historical society was involved no doubt they aimed for as much visual accuracy as possible however, in contrast, as the events are based on propaganda it is easy to believe that many events or the film are exaggerated for effect.

Set design, apart from the interior of the Commanding Officers room, is limited to exterior shots of , at most, small villages or the trenches. Maybe a lot of it was filmed on sound stages for all I know but you wouldn’t think so. Again, along with the camera work, it’s serviceable on it’s limited budget and thus achieves what it needs to if not at times excels like that one very cinematic shot moment of the shelled trench room when the radio request is made to the CO.

Of course the film is biased to come degree – all war films are even when they’re praised for being unbiased – but it was crowd funded and so there is that level of being indebted to the contributors… just as major films are to their producers. However as I noted they give nods acknowledging it’s based on propoganda and therefore even if these events occurred they’re heavily embellished stories and should not be taken as a report of fact unlike some other war films. But on the whole it’s a straight forward affair and if you’re looking for something about the Eastern Front of World War II it isn’t one I would say you shouldn’t see. Are there better films? Probably but I like the straight forwardness of this and that it doesn’t do any ‘big damn hero’ stuff until the final moment and to be honest when you hear about some of the real life things that occurred during war time it actually underplays how dramatic it could have been portrayed.

If I do have a criticism it’s probably the translation and subtitles. They should refer to the Nazis as Fascists because not all the forces aligned with the Germans were technically card carrying Nazis though were aligned with them. Look at my review of the Estonian film ‘1944’ to see a different perspective on it. Thus there is that issue though I image many would offer the counter argument that the Fascists in this film are all but faceless mooks there to be ‘the opposition’ either to kill the protagonists or be mowed down by them thus giving them any context beyond ‘target’ is asking too much especially for something based on propoganda.

Also if you wanted to read the credits on screen forget it unless you’re watching this on a cinema screen and have it at 4kD…

As for the DVD: it’s no thrills. You just get the subtitled film and a chapter select.

You like war films? Give it a go. You want to see a recently made Russian war film. Give it a go. You want to see what crowd funding (which then gets further funding from government sources admittedly) can achieve? Give it a go. Just don’t go in with high expectations. It gets the job done and is reasonably entertaining but it’s not something you will remember much about afterwards.

Marvel Missions – Trading Card Game

Over 270 cards to collect.

8 per packet.

 

Cards in the pack I bought:

22: CHARACTER: Howard Stark [Captain America: The First Avenger]: Power Value: 38

25: CHARACTER: Nick Fury [Captain America: The Winter Soldier]: Power Value: 69

90: ALLY: Captain America and Scarlet Witch [Avengers: Age of Ultron] Power Value: 69

117: ALLY: Thor and Jane Foster [Thor the Dark World]: Power Value: 53

151: WEAPON: Hydra Chitauri Blaster [Avengers: Age of Ultron]: Power Value: 66

184: VILLAIN: Heinz Kruger [Captain America: The First Avenger]: Power Value: 45

234: CHARACTER: Natasha Romanoff [The Avengers]: Power Value: 73 [mirror foil card]

248: CHARACTER: Black Panther [Captain America: Civil War] Power Value: 83 [holo foil card]

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HOW TO PLAY

Step 1: Know your cards!

Marvel Missions is a game for 2 players. To win, you must complete game missions by defeating opponent!

Step 2: Assemble your team!

Take 20 cards from your deck and shuffle them. Then hold them face-up in your hands.

There are 2 great ways to play Marvel Missions!

BEGINNERS: Play until all cards have been used. Whoever has completed the most Red, Blue and Black Missions wins! Choose your Mission before you begin. Both players must play the same mission.

ADVANCED: Take on Avengers-level Missions where the first person to complete an Iron, Steel or Gold Mission wins! Choose your Mission before you begin. Both players must play the same Mission.

Step 3: Commence your Mission!

Both players take the first card from their hand and compare the Power Values.

Step 4: Complete your Mission!

The Player with the winning card puts it in their chosen Mission pile and the losing card returns to the bottom of the deck. Keep playing until you’ve got a winner!

TOP TIP: Make sure you have cards from a mixture of categories, as different categories will be needed to complete particular missions!

USE EVERY CARD TO WIN!

As well as Characters and Villains there are Weapons, Allies, Vehicles and Locations. All must be used to gain victory and complete Missions!

In the event of a tie, draw the next cards.

Step 5: MISSIONS COMPLETED

Mission Index

Red Missions [Beginner]

1: 1 Character / 1 Vehicle / 1 Villain

2: 2 Characters / 1 Vehicle / 1 Villain

3: 3 Characters / 1 Vehicle / 1 Villain

Blue Missions [Beginner]

1: 1 Character / 1 Ally / Weapon

2: 2 Characters / 1 Ally / Weapon

3: 3 Characters / 1 Ally / Weapon

Black Missions [Beginner]

1: 3 Characters / 2 Weapons / 2 Villains

2: 3 Characters / 2 Allies / 2 Vehicles

3: 3 Characters / 2 Weapons / 1 Location

Iron Mission [Advanced]

4 Characters / 3 Allies / 1 Vehicle / 2 Villains

Steel Mission [Advanced]

4 Characters / 3 Allies / 1 Weapon / 1 Location

Gold Mission [Advanced]

5 Characters / 2 Allies / 1 Weapon / 1 Villain / 1 Location

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REVIEW

I paid £1 for a packet of 8 cards which I supose is better value than some other series I’ve reviewed. It promotes that there are ‘Guardians of the galaxy vol. 2 cards inside lucky packets’ so to me that means they’re advertising you’ll get cards associated with the most recent, as of writing this, Marvel film but in reality they’re the ‘chase cards’ – or in plain English the cards they have printed very few of so you buy more packets in order to get them. I didn’t notice until noting the information down but the ‘mirror’ and ‘holographic’ foil cards are hardly distinct at first glance. It hardly seems worth their effort to have had both versions. I can only imagine the ‘super holographic’ foil cards have that diamond patterning that other cards series refer to as their holographic ones.

This series has high quality cards in terms of materials and the quality of the still frames from the films or the promotional photos used for the cards but otherwise feel incredibly bland. In truth you could argue that has been Marvel’s marketing strategy across the board when you consider how their use of digital correction in the films leads to there being no ‘true’ black to shadows leading to a washed out look and the indistinct music used in the films [go on, test yourself right now and see if you can hum the following: Batman’s theme, Superman’s theme, Spiderman’s Theme (the cartoon version more than the films admittedly is the one we all know)…. now how about Captain America’s? Thors? How about Iron Man’s? Leif motifs aside, which you can argue are the themes we remember, can you recall any music in the Marvel films? And no any of the tracks from Quill’s tapes in Guardians of the Galaxy do not count. It’s that generic a sound Marvel have opted for].

I don’t feel the game is going to be that enjoyable if you did get enough cards to play it to be honest. How many packs would you need to play it too? I would imagine, accounting for randomisation, about 5 if you’re lucky so that’s a £5 investment for 40 cards minimum. It plays similar to Top Trumps but with a few more restrictions. It’s a little too fiddly for first time card game players, which will likely be young children who have the Marvel bug and want to play it, but then I can’t see the strategic possibilities that could attract the more seasoned table top card gamer to embrace it. It sits in that awkward middle ground between the two markets and might be forgotten sooner than even a standard ‘picture on the front, standard blurb on the back’ collectable card series would be.

To their credit they’ve tried something new but it doesn’t look like it will work out as they’ve tried to be something for everyone and the only way this project will recoup costs is if it became an international fad. Then again with how much recycling has been done with stock photo assets here it’s probably been incredibly cheap, for a well established multinational organisation, to produce in order to gain a little of a market they have rarely been involved in. I know that there are the Heroclix available in specialist shops but these sorts of games don’t tend to last long in the mainstream and are the passion of a niche community which Marvel, regarding their cinematic universe, don’t invest in preferring to get a few dollars from many people across the globe than have the investment of a smaller community who will spend high amounts should the game appeal to them and a community exist (the latter being the most important variable and one they have very little control over).

But I suppose that’s the point. It’s just testing the waters and will be deemed an acceptable loss in the long run. After all did any of us really think the Pokemon card game would still be going strong over a decade after it began? No doubt they thought with Marvel’s appeal they could replicate the success but they forgot that it’s the underlying game which has kept the Pokemon version going all these years and it’s evolution in terms of rules and other elements not just because it’s part of the Pokemon franchise.

Ultimately it’s not worth buying these cards. If you want an easy to access version of this game you can play at any age and you get a full card set to be played with right out the packet go buy the Marvel themed Top Trumps set. I haven’t gone to see what it’s called but I have no doubt there is a Marvel themed set considering all the franchises they’ve done sets for by now. In fact for all I know there are sets for each individual film. Even if you spend £5 to buy the Top Trumps set it’s still more cards and potential game play than spending the same amount of money on these collectable cards. These might appeal to Marvel fans or collectors speculating they’ll be rare in the future, due to no one buying them, but that’s a gamble I don’t feel will pay off as all the ‘modern rarity’ speculation requires you buy everything and people just don’t have the money or patience for it. The imagery on the cards is all available at a quick internet image search or freeze frame of the films so… that just leaves the game and that feels incredibly weak and not worth the effort of investing in as there’s little if any strategy even for children to enjoy. If you get a special foil card of your favourite character you might like it but… no.

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Look out for special cards in packets including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Cards:

Mirror foil cards 1:1

Holographic foil cards 1:2

Super holographic foil cards 1:3

 

Published by Topps Europe Limited,

18 Vincent Avenue, Crownhill,

Milton Keynes, MK8 0AW, UK

Produced by Topps.

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(GB) Warning! Not suitable for children under 36 months. Small parts – choking hazard.

(DK) Advarseli! Ikke egnet til born under 36 maneder. Sma dele – kvaelningsfare.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1962 play by Edward Albee. It examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship.

The play is in three acts, normally taking a little less than three hours to perform, with two 10-minute intermissions. The title is a pun on the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), substituting the name of the celebrated English author Virginia Woolf. Martha and George repeatedly sing this version of the song throughout the play.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It is frequently revived on the modern stage.

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill star in a new production of the play, directed by James MacDonald, at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London currently (early 2017). This is the production I shall be discussing in this post from this point on though I do discuss the play in a broader aspect too while doing this.

Stage Layout

whose afraid of virginia woolf staging

 

Beige: stage floor

Light grey: Raised areas

Dark Grey: The entrance and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms.

Green: Access off stage. The lefthand door goes to the kitchen, the middle is the entrance to the house and living room and the one on the right leads to the toilet.

Purple: Offstage. I guess those sat on the right would have had some limited view but most events occur towards the front of stage.

Orange: The drinks trolley and the record player.

Red: the seating.

Brown: On the left the fireplace, centrally the table and the cabinet on which the piece of art sits.

Yellow: The triangle is the art piece they comment onn in the first act, the circles the bells that get hit at one point and the diamond a free standing light.

Thick black: Walls.

This image is an estimation of how everything was placed on stage. Kirsty Walk, during the brief break between acts 2 and 3 told us about the staging. The couch and lower level is set out like a boxing ring into which the characters enter to confront each other with the fireplace, doorway and reading areas act as the ringside where they take respite from the frisson of events as observers.

Plot summary

Act One: “Fun and Games”

George and Martha engage in dangerous emotional games. George is an associate professor of history and Martha is the daughter of the president of the college. After they return home, Martha reveals she has invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. The guests arrive – Nick, a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths), and his wife, Honey. As the four drink, Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse of each other in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple is first embarrassed and later enmeshed. They stay.

Martha taunts George aggressively, and he retaliates with his usual passive aggression. Martha tells an embarrassing story about how she humiliated him with a sucker-punch in front of her father. During the telling, George appears with a gun and fires at Martha, but an umbrella pops out. After this scare, Martha’s taunts continue, and George reacts violently by breaking a bottle. Nick and Honey become increasingly unsettled and, at the end of the act, Honey runs to the bathroom to vomit, because she had too much to drink.

Act Two: “Walpurgisnacht”

Traditionally, “Walpurgisnacht” is the name of an annual witches’ meeting (satiric in the context of the play). Nick and George are sitting outside. As they talk about their wives, Nick says that his wife had a “hysterical pregnancy”. George tells Nick about a time that he went to a gin-mill with some boarding school classmates, one of whom had accidentally killed his mother by shooting her. This friend was laughed at for ordering “bergin”. The following summer, the friend accidentally killed his father while driving, was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again. George and Nick discuss the possibility of having children and eventually argue and insult each other. After they rejoin the women in the house, Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Martha also reveals the truth about George’s creative writing escapades: he had tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed both of his parents (with the implication that the deaths were actually murder), but Martha’s father would not let it be published. George responds by attacking Martha, but Nick separates them.

George suggests a new game called “Get the Guests”. George insults and mocks Honey with an extemporaneous tale of “the Mousie” who “tooted brandy immodestly and spent half her time in the up-chuck”. Honey realizes that the story is about her and her “hysterical pregnancy”. The implication is that she trapped Nick into marrying her because of a false pregnancy. She feels sick and runs to the bathroom again.

At the end of this scene, Martha starts to act seductively towards Nick in George’s presence. George pretends to react calmly, reading a book. As Martha and Nick walk upstairs, George throws his book against the door. In all productions until 2005, Honey returns, wondering who rang the doorbell (Martha and Nick had knocked into some bells). George comes up with a plan to tell Martha that their son has died, and the act ends with George eagerly preparing to tell her. In what is labelled the “Definitive Edition” of the script, however, the second act ends before Honey arrives.

Act Three: “The Exorcism”

Martha appears alone in the living room, shouting at the others to come out from hiding. Nick joins her. The doorbell rings: it is George, with a bunch of snapdragons in his hand, calling out, “Flores para los muertos” (flowers for the dead), a reference to the play and movie A Streetcar Named Desire, also about a marriage and outside influences. Martha and George argue about whether the moon is up or down: George insists it is up, while Martha says she saw no moon from the bedroom. This leads to a discussion in which Martha and George insult Nick in tandem, an argument revealing that Nick was too drunk to have sex with Martha upstairs.

George asks Nick to bring Honey back for the final game – “Bringing Up Baby”. George and Martha have a son, about whom George has repeatedly told Martha to keep quiet. George talks about Martha’s overbearing attitude toward their son. He then prompts her for her “recitation”, in which they describe, in a bizarre duet, their son’s upbringing. Martha describes their son’s beauty and talents and then accuses George of ruining his life. As this segment progresses, George recites sections of the Libera me (part of the Requiem Mass, the Latin mass for the dead).

At the end of the play, George informs Martha that a messenger from Western Union arrived at the door earlier with a telegram saying their son was “killed late in the afternoon…on a country road, with his learner’s permit in his pocket” and that he “swerved, to avoid a porcupine”. The description matches that of the boy in the gin-mill story told earlier. Martha screams, “You can’t do that!” and collapses.

It becomes clear to the guests that George and Martha’s son is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. The fictional son is a final “game” the two have been playing since discovering early in their marriage that they are infertile. George has decided to “kill” him because Martha broke the game’s single rule: never mention their son to others. Overcome with horror and pity, Nick and Honey leave. Martha suggests they could invent a new imaginary child, but George forbids the idea, saying it was time for the game to end. The play ends with George singing, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to Martha, whereupon she replies, “I am, George…I am.”

Review

When people debate the greatest plays ever written this one is regularly in top 10s and rightly so, when acted well it is one of the most devastating evenings of theatre you can encounter.

However the live broadcast of the current production I saw of it was not…

In a sentence I found that subtlety was thrown out for overt caricature which led the dark dry humour of the play to be performed as if it was an American sitcom.

There are only four roles in the play.

Martha – (Imelda Staunton) A screeching loud New Englander

the daughter of the president of the college

George – (Conleth Hill) an associate professor of history

A put upon ‘family man’ with a whiny nasal tonality

Nick – (Luke Treadaway) A stereotypical all American corn fed jock

a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches maths)

Honey – (Imogen Poots) A squeaky voiced, ditzy, North West all American girl

Nick’s childhood sweetheart and wife

I think what set it off on the wrong foot was the preceding short documentary we were presented with about the play’s history with talking head after talking head telling us of how Albee has humorous dialogue. This led to certain members of the audience laughing at every few lines as if a laugh track was playing in their head telling them when, where and to what degree to laugh.

Do you ever feel like you’re the young child in the children’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? That is how I feel about this particular production. It has received glowing reviews but the bitterness of the characters and their predicament is lost in people doing the broadest impressions of Americans they can manage. For the time period and location the play is set it’s not inaccurate but I kept getting the feeling more effort was put into that side of the production than working on the nuances of each exchange between the characters. Maybe I just feel Imelda Staunton is too old to play the role. Yes controversial. How dare I say such a thing of a living legend. But it reminds me of when, in opera, you have people with visible grey hair performing the role of teenagers because they’re the ones with the ability to do so. The performance is good but when you have a very short woman in her 60s. Playing a woman in her 50s, pawing at a tall 32 year old (playing a 28 year old) it comes across as false he would have, at least in this production, an all but implied sexual liaison while his wife lies drunk in the toilet.

The whole production is oddly paced and plays out in the style of a 1960s sitcom in tone. I think what suits it better is to play it far more straight, to allow the black humour of the passive aggression play out without flourishes. Perhaps what I instinctively felt was there was no energy between the performers. Of course it’s about dysfunctional relationships but even that has an energy to it which I found lacking here and instead replaced with energy you expect of a comedy which doesn’t fit the tone I was expecting.

Imelda Staunton all but yells her lines. Each. And. Every. Time. This is a great acting by a living theatre legend? Her performance is praised but there is no nuance. Either she’s shouting, thrusting herself at Nick or rattling off stories intending to shame her husband… until the final scene which is performed well but is too little too late. Nuance be damned. It’s far too over the top. I saw her, in person, performing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Rose in the 2015 production of Gypsy and can’t help but feel she has brought over some of that behaviour when reprising the American accent which was a mistake. She is a good actor but something in the direction has led her and the others astray. Less shouting and I probably would have enjoyed it more. There’s a way to be loud without coming across as if every line should be shouted and she is more than skilled enough to do so.

Conleth Hill… I don’t know what to say. He plays the role of a put upon family man from a 1950s American sitcom. Burton played the role as a mild mannered yet passively aggressive man of letters while Hill plays the role as… Varys from Game of Thrones (who he plays) so I am a bit concerned he lacks range as I’ve not had the chance to see him in other productions. If you know Nathan Lane and how he performs comedy roles just imagine him in the role and you’re more or less where I was watching this. What are meant to be bitter barbs of a frustrated man come across like catty comments more fitting of a stereotyped gay character. Maybe that’s something they were implying in this production though I feel I’m giving them more credit that they deserve.

Luke Treadaway plays his role overly safe if not quite bland. Imagine a jock from a comedy film or all American young hero from a war film. There you go you know how he came across both aurally and physically. Admittedly the character lends himself to being played that way but it’s too blunt. The liaison between Nick and Martha comes across as so sudden and forced due to how things have been staged that it’s as if you put two cats on heat in a box and watched them writhing into each other. Partially intentional of course but a bit too forced here when the others are in the room still.

Imogen Poots also plays her role somewhat safe if not overly straight with little if any nuance. Someone apparently watched Grease and decided to replicate a Pink Ladies. The role is a foil for the others and is meant to offer some levity to the deeply embittered proceedings but here, where everything is on the verge of spilling into slapstick, it’s hard to make the role have any weight sadly. She is a good actress and makes the most of what she can thus stealing a few scenes but usually gets left in the sidelines. Often quite literally by being offstage for most of acts two and three.

There is, as the preceding documentary insisted, humour in the dialogue but by drawing attention to it with slapstick like delivery undermines the underlying tragedy of the narrative involving a marital breakdown and how the characters feel trapped by social conventions.

Each person is ignoring reality and perpetuating a socially acceptable facade. They do so to appear as successful members of society when in reality each of them is, in their own way, severely damaged. In their overwrought efforts to fit social norms they only exacerbates their problems until confronted with their reality which ultimately breaks them. Be it Martha marrying George because she wanted to remain a part of her feckless father’s world in which she herself could never impress him. George never becoming head of the History department. Nick who married his childhood sweetheart because that’s what everyone expected of him (especially after the phantom pregnancy) or Honey who you could argue remains a cypher to us beyond her existence as Nick’s wife.

The costumes were what you would expect so there is no fault there and the stage design gives an over burdened, claustrophobic, atmosphere helping emphasis the intensity of the character’s interactions with it’s excessive furniture tightly packed into a small area. Some liberties were taken in order to make it more of a chamber drama than other productions might but on the whole you don’t miss anything substantial.

The play is good. This production is not.

If you have never seen a production of this play before then go watch the film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I never suggest watching the film as, of course, it’s a completely different experience – however in this case I think the real life relationship of Burton and Taylor lent the dialogue exchanges a depth that is hard to replicate though, by their own admission, it took a toll on their relationship and Taylor felt she was playing Martha too much in real life afterwards. I feel the play is better played understated and straight while this version has overplayed the humorous aspects.

Personally I feel the delicate balance required for this play is lost and makes me wonder if, in trying to play up to the humour inherent in Albee’s dialogue, James MacDonald unintentionally played up the humour to differentiate this production from others and in doing so completely undermined the drama of the piece. It discredits the themes of reality versus illusion, as all comedy requires some level by trivialising or satirising of reality in order for us to cope with it’s harshness, and the social expectations both we and society expect of each other which few, if any can live up to.

Playing it for laughs too much means the impact of the reality is muted and because Martha is played over the top we see her more as a caricature not as a tragic figure who feels the need to exaggerate her actions in order to garner a reaction – first from a father who all but ignores her when she doesn’t serve his purpose and then a husband she feels is inattentive to her needs.

Nick is the overachiever being both an athlete and a prodigy who got his masters at 19 years old. He has to get things right at all times because that is what is expected of him. Even in the bed room he is expected to be a stud but ultimately, like all the men in Martha’s life, failing her as a ‘flop’. Honey gets pregnant (albeit it’s proven to be a phantom pregnancy soon after) so of course he will marry her as any good guy would. Failure is not an option.

Contrasting to him is George to whom failure is the only option and like any underachiever he plays the role of satirist playing out fictional narratives over and over to trivialise the dramas of reality. He fails Martha by not having children and by not being able to stand up to nor replace her father as a potent, in both senses, male figure in her life.

Honey… is a cypher. Is Honey even her real name or just a moniker everyone calls her by just like Lady Bird Johnson in real life because that’s the only name anyone around her uses? Do we hear of anything she does exclusive of Nick? Thus she is in the role of the trophy wife, as George was the trophy husband expected to have achieved but ultimately failing too for Martha.

Honey and George mirror each other as ‘failures’ – he as an academic and husband and she as a traditional housewife meant to serve her husband and cause him no trouble. Both fail to bear children in comparison to their alpha partners who, over the nights proceedings, are drawn to each other and have a tryst which ultimately leads them to realise that it’s not an equal they need but a partner who compliments and supports them. Honey, despite drinking, plays the doting wife to her husband obeying him when leaving while George, as Martha mocks at one point, makes her laugh and as the play ends he tries, but fails, to comfort her as she admits she is deeply scared now her bravado has been stripped away and she accepts reality now George has stopped humouring her about their son and no doubt any number of unspoken illusions they have maintained with one another until this point.


This review might be a bit patchy but I keep writing things and not posting them so expect, in the following few weeks, reviews of things that are a bit out of date…

Eurovision 2017

Grand Final: Saturday, 13 May, 2017

Location: International Exhibition Centre, Kyiv, Ukraine

Host broadcaster: NTU

Presented by Oleksandr Skichko, Volodymyr Ostapchuk & Timur Miroshnychenko

EBU Supervisor: Jon Ola Sand

The theme this year was ‘Celebrate Diversity’.

How best to represent that? Three conventionally attractive white, male model looking, presenters groomed to within an inch of their lives. The real theme seemed to be to cause as much epilepsy across Europe as possible considering how many rapidly flashing lights were used constantly throughout the night this year. I myself ended up with a headache. Also they seemed really petty about people saying ‘Kee-ehV’, like the food, instead of the correct pronunciation ‘Keh-eff’ to the point they used the alternate transliteration to enforce it. I doubt it made any difference in the end.

Also, since it was such a big story, it has to be mentioned that the Russian entry, Julia Samoylova performing Flame is Burning, was refused entry into the country. The Eurovision organisers, in fairness, tried to ensure Russia could compete by suggesting another entrant be submitted at short notice. Russia refused on principle. So the offer that Julia could perform via satellite was made but this too was refused. It’s either their entrant can perform on the same stage as everyone else or nothing at all. In the end it was nothing at all.

‘Eurovision isn’t about politics’ I often hear said. It’s hard to make that claim when there is still block voting for neighbouring countries by their judging panels and things like this occur.

Hearing the song again after the final event it’s better than some that did get to compete but wouldn’t have won. At least it would have stood out. I just find it hilarious that in a competition with the theme of celebrating diversity the judges are all industry manufactured male models and a wheelchair bound competitor is refused access. It can be argued Russia was trying to embarrass Ukraine since her application was a last minute thing but still. Dark comedy gold…

The presenters came across as very obnoxious on the whole. In fairness Timur, the bearded one, was likeable but I guess his English wasn’t deemed good enough though he doesn’t sound artificial and insincere like the other two. He got relegated to doing the waiting room bits. Maybe the Eurovision staff don’t like facial hair who knows? They liked Conchita Wurst.

Oleksandr and Volodymyr reminded me of the sort of presenters, at least here in the UK, who were male models first and then selected for training in media presenting as they ‘look the part’ thus don’t naturally develop a unique style which causes an artifice and arrogance, intentional or not, to be present in their mannerisms so they never seem sincere.

At one point when Katrina, of Britain’s winning entry in 1997, was giving the the British points one of the them commented that the year she won was the year the other judge had been born. That’s a great display of manners, let alone presenting skills, to remind people of their age and that they won, quite literally, ‘a lifetime ago’ as far as you’re concerned… It also didn’t help they flirted outrageously with other point announcers as if they were in a bar and felt like hooking up with anyone who appealed to them.

One of them did the prisyadka (knee bending) a.k.a. ‘the Cossack squat dance’ part of the Kazatsky (Ukrainian hopak stage dance) because they need to send the message ‘hey guys we’re just some fun loving dudes who happen to be presenting an international song contest but we know how to chill out like everybody else’… but the whole thing is so forced and intended for him to show off it comes off as self promotion when he does it with ease while others,who’ve never learned the correct technique can’t… plus he has plenty of space to kick forward while they’re packed in behind him. Yeah… I just found them needlessly irritating throughout the whole thing. Usually it’s joked that the presenters of the Eurovision each year are cheesy and artifical but these guys had it down to a fine art.

There also seemed an odd monochromatic colour scheme amongst the contestants this year. They were all wearing all white, all black or a combination of both. Some contestants, rebels that they are, wore grey! It was surprising to see any contestants wearing muted, let alone bright, colours. If you watch this event in black and white you wouldn’t be missing much.

So let’s carry on to the, hopefully, humorous comments about each entry this year.

1 Israel : IMRI : I Feel Alive

An off key boy band. What a way to start the events! However the pyrotechnics were good. Not much to add otherwise… an incredibly weak song to start the evening with. A real ‘we want to be part of the competition but definitely not win’ effort. Awkward. Even off key singers should get to perform #CelebrateDiveristy…

#CelebrateDiversity by singing off key!

2 Poland : Kasia Moś : Flashlight

As seems Poland’s ‘go to’ option every few year you get maximum cleavage exposure to gain the ‘dad vote’ e.g. 2015’s Donatan & Cleo performing My Słowianie. The dress seemed to be Leelo’s bandages outfit from The Fifth Element but with a semi-opaque skirt attached. The song itself reminded me of someone trying to emulate a James Bond film’s theme song. I am guessing there’ll be high points awarded from Britain due to the number of Polish nationals who have moved here for work in the past decade. (I was right – We gave this entry 10 points).

On a side note last year their entry, Monika Kuszyńska – In The Name Of Love, was in a wheelchair and that was a gambit Russia was going to play had their entrant been allowed into the country this year you might speculate.

#CelebrateDiversity … by being a statuesque blonde in skimpy clothing.

3 Belarus : Naviband : Story of My Life

A cute couple to garner lovesick fools’ votes. It reminded me of La Seine from the animated film Un monstre à Paris (A Monster In Paris) because of how it was staged. It was very enjoyable and uplifting. Very ‘Eurovision’ but in a good way. I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them so this is a good platform to introduce themselves to an international market who might not know them already. They should have been the first song to perform this evening just to enthuse the audience watching.

#CelebrateDiversity through Heteronormative relationships.

4 Austria : Nathan Trent : Running On Air

A sappy love song. The sort of thing people will buy once it’s been played to death on the radio at least once an hour, every hour of every waking day over a month, to the point they’ve been all but brainwashed into buying it. Then years later will wonder what the hell they were thinking at the time. At easy listening song. Inoffensive. A feel good pop song you will forget seconds after the video ends. I have and I’ve heard it a few times now while editing this post.

#CelebrateDiversity by being incredibly generic and forgettable.

5 Armenia : Artsvik : Fly With Me

Lady Gaga, during one of her more sombre moments, copies Madonna’s style in the late 1990s while doing an imitation of a Shakira song. The dancers are very impressive in a ‘this is a parody of interpretive dance’ way… they wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s music video to be honest. Nonetheless they will definitely be getting a lot of work offers after this. A good song paying respect to Armenian music in an updated style. Very good but the dancers are very distracting.

#CelebrateDiversity by creating a performance mixing your cultural heritage and modern techniques – and then undermine it by having two white dancers in alabaster make up to make them even paler… but they’re a blonde and a brunette which is diverse.. if you go by the dictionary definition.

6 The Netherlands : OG3NE : Lights and Shadows

A set of twins and their sister. The sister is, as Graham Norton put it, ‘the tall blonde one’. Their song reminds me of a country music song from America. The words flashing up… when it said ‘Not Give Up’ I just found it to be poorly implimented English. Their outfits are a 1980s sequins hell. Yes this is definitely a 1980s country music performance. Also I can’t look at their group name without it making me think it’s the name of a gynaecology organisation…

Do you see how they represent this year’s theme? That’s right – they are not all thin and they dress like very, very old women going on a night out in town. #CelebrateDiveristy!

7 Moldova : Sunstroke Project : Hey Mamma

They think they’re cooler than they are. People usually refer to something like this when joking about how dads embarrass their teenage children by trying to be cool but, in reality, being incredibly out of touch with current fashions. The fake saxophone playing is in that awkward position of ‘too real to be done as a joke’ but ‘not enough that it’s funny’. Also the fact that their dance moves equate to ‘shaking your leg after wetting yourself whilst drunk’ doesn’t help. The backing female singers costume change as soon as they walk towards the front of stage was pointless though singing into their bouquets (hiding their microphones) was novel. It all came across as an awkward ‘dad fantasising he’s still cool at a wedding reception’ moment. It’s enjoyable enough on it’s own but got drowned out during the competition.

#CelebrateDiversity by dad dancing and celebrating Heteronormative marriage (again).

8 Hungary : Joci Pápai : Origo

They are Romani so at least this entry does celebrate diversity unlike many of the other more standard Eurovision entries. He uses a mini milk churn as an instrument. The violinist wiggles her hips. The traditional swirling Romani, barefoot, dancer distracts you from thinking how potato shaped his head is and if he has a jawline beneath the beard. And is there some rapping too? Well, I liked it but we all know people traditionally dislike the Romani so…

Across the board this is the sort of entry Eurovision should have where it’s celebrating a country’s culture by mixing traditional and modern techniques to create unique music. Instead we usually get bland ballads, pop songs, techno dance or soft rock. So this is my moral victor of the evening. They’re my moral victors of the night. It’s one of the few that actually does #CelebrateDiversity by mixing traditional and modern musical techniques.

9 Italy : Francesco Gabbani : Occidentali’s Karma

Is he intentionally trying to come across as a stereotype of a sleazy guy? The moustache is one thing but then that raspy voice too is pure caricature… Then suddenly the gorilla appears. I’m sure there’s a good reason and it’s not just there as a hook to make people remember the song when the tele-voting section comes around. Apparently it’s a highly respected choreographer playing the gorilla role too. The backing singers look like they escaped from a ‘united colours of Benetton’ advert. #CelebrateDiversity (via mindfulness and consumerism). Meditation = celebrating another’s culture = celebrating diversity so that’s good but… it’s awkward when presented by ‘that creepy waiter you hope doesn’t serve your table again tonight’. The songs good but how they staged the performance is… odd.

#CelebrateDiversity by acting like a creepy waiter trying to have a one night stand with a tourist known to be into mindfulness and mediations… and dancing gorillas (furries).

10 Denmark : Anja : Where I Am

It’s actually an Australian performing. She moved there a suspiciously short time before the event. If you ever wanted the most generic Eurovision entry ever this is it. It’s intensely generic. It defies you to find anything unique about it. As if someone from the Disney channel was commissioned to create the most wide appeal, inoffensive, entry possible. It’s the sort of song you hear over the closing credits of one of their films. It’s good but highly forgettable.

#CelebrateDiversity by having a blonde white Australian sing for you representing a Scandinavian country…

11 Portugal : Salvador Sobral : Amar Pelos Dois

Graham Norton said it was a ‘marmite’ song which you’ll either love or hate. I found it to be the best song of the night. (It ended up winning in the end by quite some votes). It reminded me of a tear-jerking song from a Studio Ghibli film. How could this not be universally adored? The only downside is he hunches his shoulders, gesticulates a bit too much and apparently has really bad health due to his heart. His sister, who composed the song, had to perform it a few times during the preliminaries apparently… so he might be dead by next year. Be an inspirational figure overcoming your poor health to win the European Song Contest only to be dead by next year because of the strain it put on you. Dark comedy gold. I hope he will be okay though.

He actually made my night when he said it was a victory for real music over disposable music… saying that at the Eurovision song contest of all places. Balls… Of… Steel. You can’t help but admire him. And for the reprise at the end he did it as a duet with his sister so no questions a well deserved win. The sort of thing that would make the Grinch’s heart grow three times larger (ironically).

#CelebrateDiversity by having someone with chronic health issues, involving their heart, perform at a highly stressful, internationally live broadcasted, event…

12 Azerbaijan : Dihaj : Skeletons

A very 1980s formal wear inspired look. They brought their own chalk board wall covered in inoffensive graffiti including such words as BADBOY, SENSATION, READY, THORN, FANTASY, NOW I AM INTO DAYDREAMS, MY HEART, GRAVITY… It’s as if they’ve never gone into a real public toilet or the rough part of town in their life.

At the start she’s like a cat about to spit up a hairball. Wait – where are her hands? Is she… is she…. no she can’t be pretending to do that could she? There’s a guy on top of a ladder wearing a horse mask because… reasons. It’s all about sexual repression I guess. Then the walls come down and she takes her coat off. Yeah! She’s not going to be bound by societies norms! She’s going to stand up for her rights! If she wants to touch herself in a public toilet, while a guy wearing a horse mask stood on top of a ladder watches, she’s not going to let them stop her! #CelebrateDiversity!

It comes across like a performance art piece done by an amateur dramatics group. Skeletons – yeah, because… we all have one so we’re all the same under the skin… right? I actually quite liked it overall. It had it’s own distinct identity and should have done better. Also woof woof. Definitely blonde hair with black lipstick seems the theme this year for many female performers.

#CelebrateDiversity being kinky isn’t wrong… even when it involves a guy, in a horse mask, on top of a ladder watching you.

13 Croatia : Jacques Houdek : My Friend

He should have done this, as Graham Norton said afterwards though I was thinking the same thing, in a ‘half man/half woman’ costume split vertically. The long tails formal leather jacket is odd but not as much as him wearing bright white trainers with it. A classic ‘only in Eurovision’ entry. It’s novel… I enjoyed it… I just don’t feel it’s something I could enjoy outside of it being a one off novelty. He has those ‘over the thumb’ sleeves I see Bulgaria’s entry wearing later. So that’s this years fashion for the men then besides ‘the close shaved on the side of the hear with a big bouffant of hair on top hairstyle’ which is fashionable now anyway independent of the competition. Also as he’s very fat they’re really showing they #CelebrateDiversity.

#CelebrateDiversity by going so far as doing both parts of the song thus ensuring only a white man gets paid for singing… and being so barrel shaped to the point you wonder if he might die before the guy with the chronic health issues.

14 Australia : Isaiah : Don’t Come Easy

Looks like a pretentious prick. Just does. Get a haircut. He looks possibly ‘gender fluid’ (without being – similar to comedians who act like they’re gay but aren’t) thus can claim to #CelebrateDiversity. He also walks like he just lost control of his bowels. A very bland song and a punchable smug face (and sadly not the only one tonight either). Also put some socks on!

#CelebrateDiversity by looking like a woman in the autumn of life dressing casual smart for work or a special occasion.

15 Greece : Demy : This is Love

Half naked male ballet dancers in a shallow pool of water. Poland went for the dad vote, Greece is going for the mum vote so it’s very much #CelebrateEquality more than #CelebrateDiversity. Another ‘the dancers are far to distracting’ performance. They’re very good though they do at times pose like they’re dancing ducks. The songs enjoyable but I think it should have been staged differently as the dancers take away too much attention. Are they implying at the end the dancers are gay lovers? Well that definitely does #CelebrateDiversity.

#CelebrateDiversity by dancing like a duck.

16 Spain : Manel Navarro : Do It For Your Lover

Hawaiian shirts. A karaoke style song very reminiscent of 1950s surfer rock. The ‘do it for your lover’ chorus – Are you telling people to be more open about their affection or telling them to let their lover ‘experiment’ when they really don’t want to? It has that vibe due to the repetition. Just do it. Just do it. Just do it for your lover. If you really loved them you’d let them put _____ in your _____ while they _____ and _____ your _____! JUST DO IT! DO IT FOR YOUR LOVER! IF YOU REALLY LOVED THEM YOU WOULD DO IT! They need to hook up with the Azerbaijan guys – they’d teach them a thing or two about doing it for your lover…

#CelebrateDiversity by coming across like the sort of people teenagers are warned to avoid when given sex-ed in school.

17 Norway : JOWST : Grab The Moment

A wannabe Daft Punk look. Oddly the guy shows his face in the pre-performance VT so the mask during the performance is a little redundant. It’s easy listening reggae which suddenly kicks into talking about how he’ll ‘kill that voice in my head’. It’s different but the sort of thing Eurovision judges react poorly to – especially as it includes the word ‘kill’ in it. It’s got a good hook but the voice sampled modulation doesn’t really add much.

#CelebrateDiversity by coming across as if your mocking the mentally ill afflicted by ‘voices in their head’ they wish they could get rid of and hiring a guy who performs in an LED mask like many other DJs right now e.g. Deadmau5.

Half Time Break:

Look it’s Vitali Klitschko – the one Ukrainian sportsman everyone definitely knows even if they don’t follow sports. The VT skit is a self appraising piece of time filling to allow the behind the scenes team can catch up if somethings started going wrong.

The trio of male models learn from last year’s presenter who is also a male model in looks and now gets to live out his power fantasies via the VT. It’s a hard life being beautiful. All the jokes, and I mean all of them, fall flat. Any more mutual self appraising during this skit and it would be the preamble to the sort of scene on a DVD sold only in ‘private shops’ and be unsuitable for broadcast at this time of day.

#CelebrateDiversity through power fantasies.

On a side note I find there is this odd English diction I only ever hear used by Eurovision presenters… I mean I hear people speaking English as their second language, at all levels of ability, a lot and it’s only here they have this distinctly odd enunciation. Is it just me? Because the ‘accent’ is always the same no matter what country the contest is held in the presenters have that exact style of diction.

#CelebrateDiversity by having all presenters use the exact same diction no matter what country they’re from.

Anyway this little skit was appalling. They should have had them just strip and do body building poses while each stood on an individual small rotating platform for women (and some men) to ogle at for a minute or two while the rest of us went to get a drink. The sad thing is I think they would have happily done it. Timur would have just to not be left backstage while the others get all the glory.

Being this beautiful isn’t a crime and means anything you say, intending to be funny, should be deemed comedy gold and passed on through the generations because people ‘want’ you. Women (and gay men and anyone in between) want you, men (and f2m transexuals) want to be you.

#CelebrateDiversity

18 United Kingdom : Lucie Jones : Never Give Up On You

She is Welsh so I am biased. It’s better than many other performances if a little safe.

#CelebrateDiversity by playing it safe as you don’t want your country coming near the bottom of the ranking like previous years. (we were top of the bottom half – That’s an achievement!)

So instead of commenting on her I’ll mention I noticed a few of the female performers have had writing on their inner right arm so when they spread their arms I feel like they could have something really inappropriate written there in script and no one would notice until it was too late though it’s probably just lyrics from a song or poem they found to be inspirational. It seems some performers had to cover their tattoos while others can show them off.

#CelebrateDiversity by covering your tattoos because you’re not a salty sea dog laying drunk on the dockside.

19 Cyprus : Hovig : Gravity

A modern pop song performed by, presumably, middle aged men. A good effort but not enough to stand out. Embarrassing dance moves too at certain points – the sort of thing I saw in nightclubs years ago performed by drunk ‘lads’ out on the pull. Another dad dancing act.

#CelebrateDiversity by acting far younger than you are (or you look far older than you are) and doing ‘cool’ drunk dad dance moves

20 Romania : Ilinca ft. Alex Florea : Yodel It!

Ilinca woof woof. A dress that’s impossibly short and …she yodels. Instant marriage material no question! A woman with that specialised a talent is the sort who isn’t going to get embarrassed easily by anything so you can have fun and do what you like with someone casting a critical eye. Then there’s yodelling and rapping all in one act! The songs fun and what with the cannons and all might just be crazy enough to do well or even win (They didn’t but it was one of the highlights of the evening).

#CelebrateDiversity through yodelling and rapping in the same song. Then think about what you’re doing with your life and what led to this.

21 Germany : Levina : Perfect Life

She has a middle aged woman’s hair cut like the BBC sports correspondent Clare Balding. The front of the dress is incredibly conservative then you see its held on by arm straps leaving the back bare and she has bare feet. Grey, grey, grey – did she base her style on Angela Merkel? The song… I’m sat here listening to it and already forgetting it. Bland. It’s perfectly bland.

#CelebrateDiversity by dressing as if you’re 40 years older than you actually are.

22 Ukraine : O.Torvald : Time

A soft rock song. They’re wearing padded, pillow case shaped, tabards as if they’ve just come off their shift in the care home or prison canteen. It reminds me of the sort of bland inoffensive rock song you have over the credits of a live action Japanese film based on a manga. Then again I think Finland’s Lordi was more than the contest could take really regarding rock acts despite winning in 2006.

There needs to be a heavy metal version of Eurovision. Ghost BC representing Sweden, Lordi for Finland, a lad of Scandinavian death metal bands… it would be glorious.

I think that the host countries should just put in novelty acts or be allowed to only do the ‘while the tele-votes are being cast’ segments since they never put in potentially winning acts for fear they’ll have to host again next year and blew their budget doing it this year.

#CelebrateDiversity by dressing how you want to dress… even if it involves wearing padded grey tabards no one would look good in.

23 Belgium : Blanche : City Lights

A good song performed by a 17 year old in a ball gown suffering from stage fright. The intro reminds me of a song from a while ago. She has a very Adele like tone to her voice. It’s far too subdued and the gesticulating feels forced in order to have her move a little. She has potential for the future but it feels like people will vote for her because they liked the song when it was played on the radio or out of pity for how clearly she is out of her depth here performing live to an international, if not global, audience.

#CelebrateDiversity by watching a talented teenage performer with possible stage fright taking her first steps into performing for a stadium level audience.

24 Sweden : Robin Bengtsson : I Can’t Go On

The guy has a dead eyed look to him and acts up for the camera at the start walking onto the stage rather than start on the stage like everyone else. He reminds me of Robin Thicke… he just has that aura about him. Like he touched up someone back stage just before the performance with that same blank expression while admiring himself in a mirror judging his own mid-coitus performance. The song has a 1980s beat… there are lots of retro music aspects to this year’s contestants. It just comes across as insincere. Also he has trousers which are an inch or two too short which is fashionable. The use of treadmills for the dancing is a good idea though OK GO did it 8 years ago in their music video for Here It Goes Again.

#CelebrateDiversity by having a ‘male model level’ handsome group of backing dancers and having a ‘there’s something wrong about this guy but I can’t put my finger on it’ aura.

25 Bulgaria : Kristian Kostov : Beautiful Mess

Another 17 year old. He has a punchable face as he seems arrogant. It doesn’t help he has low clung trousers, the ‘thumb through the sleeve’ under shirt and the jacket design looks like he put it on back to front as if he can’t dress himself. Looks like he loves himself. Good song and performance – and he knows it. Good potential for the future as long as his ego doesn’t get too big.

#CelebrateDiversity by accepting that they’ve given a platform to an annoyingly smug yet talented teenager with a fashion style that will be outdated by next year so you know he’ll just look all the more ridiculous by then if the trappings of fame don’t get him first.

26 France : Alma : Requiem

Woof! France never fails. Another impossibly short dress. It probably would have done better if it wasn’t the final song when everyone’s got listening fatigue. A very enjoyable song with impressive graphics to compliment it. It’s the sort of song that would do better outside the contest probably.

#CelebrateDiversity by wearing a dress that defies logic it’s so short.

Thus we got to the ‘while you go and vote’ part where they put on some performers from the host nation.

First we have Ruslana performing It’s Magical.

A chain mail dress. That has to hurt when it gets caught on her skin. It’s one of those rare occassions where the backing dancers are wearing far more than the star. I mean they look like they escaped from the set of a film adaption based on a ‘young adult’ urban fantasy novel but still…

It’s a good song though. I wonder if competition entrants have a budget limit for their staging as you would imagine they would all be to this scale if they could in order to win votes via sheer spectacle.

#CelebrateDiversity by looking like an amateur dramatic society musical adaption of a young adult novel.

Then we got ONUKA and NAONI Orchestra doing a ‘megamix’ of songs.

Electro folk music… oh dear they’ve discovered my musical niche. It’s awesome. I can’t view it objectively… I mean the ‘low budget Star Wars storm-trooper’ costumes look terrible but that’s besides the point. If you were not focusing you would swear the dancers from the Armenian entry had escaped and decided to do their own thing.

#CelebrateDiversity through Ukranian folk music instruments and electronica. Awesome.

The Votes – Judge Panels and Popular vote

Then we got all the votes. The French announcer at about 11:30 is only wearing half a jacket. To be honest they all look a little odd in different ways whether it be way too poised, too delayed in reacting, under dressed, over dressed or any number of things. The hosts insulted the UK announcer at about 32:35 saying ‘1997, the year you were born’ and though the other guy tries to recover from it playing it off saying ‘I didn’t visit that Eurovision song contest’ the insult was already delivered. Flirt with the attractive younger announcers and insult the older ones. Nice.

Then they introduced the Georgian winner of the Junior Eurovision song contest who was very preconscious, in fact annoyingly so, implying she has a ‘tiger mom’ or is from a very privileged background. The sort of child you see in American productions (especially Disney Channel’s live shows) and years later have suffered from the pitfalls of the industry (drugs, alcohol, etc). She spoke clearer English that the presenters which was hilarious however.

Followed by last years winner Jamala:

Personally her song last year was overtly political and should have been changed… but you know… There is no official video of her performance it seems as someone walked casually up onto the small stage and bared their bottom to the camera. I was looking away when it happened and thought it was just someone in the crowd… but apparently it was front and centre! It’s good she remained professional however she does look like a mum of three whose been at the wine all day and suddenly fanced a song and dance when a song comes on the radio.

Then the tele-vote tallies were shown:

Suffice to say there were a few massive upsets because of it. We, here in the UK, were one place off being in the top half. I don’t care but it seemed like a do or die situation in the coverage at the time.

Also during the event Verka Serduchka (from Eurovision 2007) appeared a few times including a ‘Verka workout’ between the judge votes and the tele-votes announcements.

We have had Lily Savage and Dame Edna Everage so I’m not bothered by drag queen acts and the humour in these skits was good physical comedy. #CelebrateDiversity with drag acts.

But in the end of course Salvador and Luísa Sobral from Portugal won.

1:50 – 2:12 “We live in a world of disposable music, fast food music without any content…. this could be a victory for music… with people who make music that actual means something…”

Balls.

Of.

Steel.

To say that at the Eurovision of all places. The man is already a legend. Then he goes and duets with his sister later. I thought it was really nice he wanted his sister to perform it with him since she had written it and performed it when he hadn’t been available due to his poor health.

The presenters ushered him off embarrassed and then at 3:10 – 3:22 they boasted of how they love Ukraine, their motherland, then tell us how tolerant, modern and open a country they are.

Attach ‘… unlike Russia’ to each of those statements.

That was the intended subtext and you know it was despite them not mentioning Russia at all during the evening.

It was enjoyable. Not many standout performances nor many ‘zany’ novelty ones either in a similar vein to Verka as there was some crack down a few years ago on not allowing them or something which is a shame. It’s become a more po-faced annual affair because they’ve suddenly decided to take themselves far too seriously.

#CelebrateDiversity and make it an enjoyable event like it used to be rather than have a crackdown on what can or can’t be allowed, denying politics plays it’s role and just go with the flow allowing it to be the good humoured event it used to be without trying to sanitise everything to the point it’s bland. To be honest here in the UK we didn’t used to see any of it until the grand final so it was all the more special but in this day and age they show it and it makes it slightly less unique each year. Nonetheless it’s a good platform to introduce people to world music which they might not be made aware of otherwise so ultimately it’s a good thing.