Jum­bled film lacks co­he­sion and depth

The Mercury - - GOODLIFE -

FALSE or se­lec­tive mem­o­ries are hardly vir­gin ter­ri­tory for lit­er­a­ture or cin­ema. Maybe the great­est film ever made on this sub­ject was Akira Kuro­sawa’s 1951 movie Rashomon, which weaves its story around four very dif­fer­ent ac­counts of a rape and mur­der.

We are some way short of that kind of qual­ity in this jum­bled movie, an adap­ta­tion of author Stephen El­liott’s best-sell­ing book of the same name.

This is es­sen­tially a story about a son’s rec­ol­lec­tion of his child­hood in which he casts his fa­ther as an abu­sive par­ent in a best-sell­ing mem­oir.

No won­der, then, that the son (James Franco) is a se­ri­ously dis­turbed writer, ad­dicted to drugs and kinky sex. To add to his prob­lems, he’s suf­fer­ing from a se­vere case of writer’s block which is threat­en­ing his blos­som­ing ca­reer.

One day, he is read­ing an ex­cerpt from his work at a pub­lic meet­ing about his sup­pos­edly dev­il­ish fa­ther whom he claims is dead.

Sud­denly, the old man him­self, Neil (Ed Har­ris), stands up and la­bels his son a liar. Not only am I still alive, he says, but I deny your ver­sion of what hap­pened.

To add to the con­fu­sion, El­liott has sav­aged this film, di­rected by Pamela Ro­manowsky, say­ing that an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his work is one thing, but get­ting facts plain wrong is quite an­other.

This, iron­i­cally, is just where his movie char­ac­ter can be ques­tioned. If he lied about his fa­ther’s death, can we be­lieve any­thing he says?

Those who haven’t read the book will have to take an ag­nos­tic view of th­ese mat­ters; all we can do is en­joy the film – or not.

The di­rec­tor has com­bined the movie’s fa­ther/son theme and the na­ture of truth with a cur­rent mur­der trial which at­tracts El­liott’s in­ter­est.

This has been done per­haps as a way of help­ing him in­ter­pret his own past, but also as a way of break­ing his writer’s block with a non-fic­tion lit­er­ary ad­ven­ture along the lines of Tru­man Capote’s In Cold Blood.

The case is a com­plex one about a hus­band (Chris­tian Slater on good form) who may or may not have mur­dered his miss­ing wife.

While in court, El­liott be­comes at­tracted to a jour­nal­ist (Am­ber Heard) cov­er­ing the case. She is also haunted by a trou­bled past and the two be­come an item, de­scend­ing into a mael­strom of drugs and sado-masochis­tic sex.

This is a film stuffed with ideas, emo­tions and dif­fer­ent points of view, but the over­all per­spec­tive lacks co­he­sion, depth and force.

Franco skates over his prob­lems, un­able to clearly as­sess his past, and his at­ti­tude to it. In many ways, he is in head­long re­treat from his trou­bled, unattrac­tive self.

By con­trast, Har­ris ably plays the movie’s most con­vinc­ing char­ac­ter, a tor­mented man who has long ag­o­nised about his failed mar­riage, the death of his wife and the dis­so­lu­tion of his fam­ily.

El­liott’s re­la­tion­ship with the jour­nal­ist is par­tic­u­larly un­con­vinc­ing. It seems, at times, that the film-maker has used it as a dose of left-field sex to spice up the ac­tion.

Heard can con­sider her­self ill-used in a film that never re­alises its con­sid­er­able am­bi­tions.

ANY­ONE who may still have any doubts that Dur­ban’s Kick­stArt theatre com­pany de­serves the many awards it rakes in year af­ter year sim­ply has to be pointed to­wards its lat­est stage work to see why it is in a class of its own.

The truly daz­zling pro­duc­tion of Stephen Sond­heim’s wise, warm, wacky and witty Into the Woods is a tri­umph – a com­plex mu­si­cal for grown-ups that is packed with great mu­sic, de­li­cious word­play, food for thought and many su­perla­tive per­for­mances.

Not rec­om­mended for chil­dren un­der the age of 8, this is a very clever, twist­ing tale, by turns frothy and light, dark and men­ac­ing.

It is also rather long, take note – run­ning just short of three hours with a 20-minute in­ter­val.

It in­volves criss­cross­ing fairy­tale char­ac­ters who, through var­i­ous wishes and quests, face in­creas­ing dan­ger. They get to learn many life lessons about self, fam­ily and com­mu­nity in a tale which, laden with mirth, motto and me­taphor, can also be mov­ing to the point of tears.

As far as any­one I know can re­call, it has never be­fore been staged pro­fes­sion­ally in Dur­ban since com­poser and lyri­cist Sond­heim and co-cre­ator James Lap­ine first took it to Broad­way in Novem­ber 1987.

Dur­ban di­rec­tor Steven Stead, who rates Into the Woods as his favourite mu­si­cal, con­stantly chal­lenges his team to push the bar higher, and this lat­est suc­cess emerges as a show so very good that out-of-town­ers would do well to fly or drive to Dur­ban to ex­pe­ri­ence its en­chant­ment.

It is dom­i­nated by yet an­other su­perb set by Greg King, de­pict­ing a gloomy woods, on a re­volv­ing multi-level cen­tral struc­ture, that sprouts from chil­dren’s books gripped by roots and drip­ping with moss.

It is hugely ef­fec­tive, es­pe­cially when em­bel­lished with mag­i­cal light­ing by Dur­ban’s Tina le Roux.

The ensem­ble cast fea­tures clear stand­outs, not least a lively Katy Moore as a feisty Red Rid­ing­hood; Lyle Bux­ton as both an ego­tis­ti­cal prince (more charm­ing than sin­cere) and a creepy wolf; and young Nathan Kruger as an­other vain royal.

Also of note are Peter Court as both a nar­ra­tor and a mys­te­ri­ous man who weaves in and out of the plot to skip the story along, and big charmer Graeme Wicks (Pinoc­chio in Kick­stArt’s Shrek The Mu­si­cal) as dimwit Jack, of beanstalk fame.

A spe­cial men­tion must go to a won­der­fully an­i­mated and amus­ing Marion Loudon, bet­ter known as a singer, who is a con­stant scene-stealer as Jack’s slightly loopy, ex­as­per­ated mother. Lisa Bob­bert is cast in the showy role of the witch, played by Meryl Streep in last year’s Os­car-nom­i­nated film ver­sion of the mu­si­cal which cut some of the stage pro­duc­tion’s songs, char­ac­ters and darker el­e­ments.

The witch’s curse or­ches­trates a lot of the chaos in the woods, and she ap­pears un­der cloak, wild wig and mask for much of the show.

Bob­bert has some fine mo­ments here, not least an af­fect­ing de­liv­ery of the touch­ing Stay With Me, which has her try­ing to warn the im­pris­oned but re­bel­lious Ra­pun­zel (a fun Haylea Houn­som) of the dan­gers of the world.

Princes wait there in the world, it’s true, she sings. Princes, yes, but wolves and hu­mans, too. Stay at home. I am home ...

Bob­bert cer­tainly has a strong pres­ence, but I wasn’t the only one who bat­tled at times to grasp some of her lines on open­ing night, when she also seemed to strug­gle with high notes in the fi­nale’s Chil­dren Will Lis­ten show­stop­per.

I can’t help but won­der how per­fectly this role would have fit­ted Dur­ban’s Charon Wil­liamsRos, who has just ended a Cape Town sea­son as pie-maker Mrs Lovett in Kick­stArt’s tour­ing Sweeney Todd.

Into the Woods’s big­gest bou­quets must go to Frances Cur­rie, who has the show’s stand­out voice as an at­trac­tive Cin­derella, and the ex­u­ber­ant Jes­sica Sole, who has come a long way since be­ing a mem­ber of Dur­ban a cap­pella swing trio Dr Fly and The Nurses.

Soon to reprise her award­win­ning role as Princess Fiona for a Jo­han­nes­burg run of Kick­stArt’s Shrek The Mu­si­cal, Sole is a great, big bun­dle of joy.

She is in very good voice play­ing the wife of a child­less baker, por­trayed with aplomb and great sen­si­tiv­ity by the ever-de­pend­able Bryan Hiles.

Fash­ioned with much love, flair and great at­ten­tion to de­tail that in­cludes pup­pets with fully vis­i­ble pup­peteers, Into the Woods sits along­side Kick­stArt’s Naledi Award-nom­i­nated and Mer­cury Dur­ban Theatre Award-win­ning Sweeney Todd, and Lit­tle Shop of Hor­rors and Cabaret, as the bright­est of di­a­monds in a crown of daz­zling gems.

Chore­ographed by Leigh Meyer, fea­tur­ing cos­tume de­sign by Neil Stu­art Har­ris, sound de­sign by Ross van Wyk and truly ex­em­plary mu­si­cal di­rec­tion by Drew Rien­stra, this is a treat that has Stead and team at their finest.

By Stead’s own ad­mis­sion, it seems most un­likely Into the Woods will be staged again in this part of the woods for a long time to come, which makes this pro­duc­tion even more of a must-see.

Tick­ets cost R120, R150 and R200, and book­ing is at Com­puticket. Go!

El­iz­a­beth Sneddon Theatre

A scene from the Dur­ban pro­duc­tion of the Stephen Sond­heim clas­sic su­perbly di­rected by Steven Stead and de­signed by Greg King. This ex­cel­lent mu­si­cal, a clever cau­tion­ary tale for grown-ups and not for chil­dren un­der 8, is at the El­iz­a­beth Sneddon...

James Franco and Am­ber Heard in

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