Thursday, October 27, 2005

Family Affairs

Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years is conventional and disappointing

Part of my high expectations for Mike Leigh’s return to the stage for the first time in 12 years undoubtedly sprung from his exemplary record as a film director, but I’d be deluding myself if I didn’t concede that I’d also fallen victim to the press hype and hyperbole surrounding this production. There has been much speculation and excitement about Leigh’s improvisatory working methods (which have been in place now for many years) and the fact that the work did not even have a title when commissioned by the National Theatre in London. In this case, I’m saddened to report that the weight of considerable expectation has proved to be an overwhelming burden.

‘Two Thousand Years’ delves once again into that familiar Leigh theme, dysfunctional family life, but with far less insight and impact than he managed with his award winning ‘Secrets and Lies’. Danny and Rachel are a middle class, liberal and avowedly secular Jewish family living in Cricklewood, North West London. Danny is a dentist and loves to tell appalling jokes; Rachel is supportive but independently minded. Despite (or perhaps because of) being born on a Kibbutz, Rachel and her family have consigned any religious dimension of their heritage to the scrapheap of irrational beliefs.

They are therefore shocked when their disconnected, vacant and moody son Josh turns to religion. His adoption of Jewish study and ritual is just the first in a series of events which bring simmering tensions in the family to boiling point, and one might expect it to usher in a typically incisive examination of unspoken feelings and passions.

Sadly it doesn’t. Leigh has deliberately elected to set the family’s story against the backdrop of the past year of political life, both globally (terrorism, Israel/Palestine and the war on Iraq are all discussed) and nationally (Rachel’s socialist father is horrified by the convergence of Labour and Tories). Perhaps it’s a product of the somewhat stereotyped nature of the characterisation (Danny and Rachel read The Guardian!), but much of the political discussion felt forced and unconvincing.

There are some very witty moments, such as when the idealistic daughter Tammy answers the question ‘why are we all here?’ with her desire to play her part for good in the world and Danny takes up this theme by stating ‘that’s why I still take NHS work – that’s my attempt to do good’. John Burgess does an excellent job in his role as Rachel’s disgruntled, sardonic and confrontational father. Mostly the humour is, however, very conventional (much of it feels less adventurous than an episode of ‘One Foot In The Grave’), and the descent into farce in the closing 30 minutes following the arrival of Samantha Spiro’s histrionic estranged family member is clumsy and predictable (her character achieves the extraordinary feat of appearing more shallow than Dorian from ‘Birds Of A Feather’). Her unannounced arrival after eleven years of silence would certainly be expected to cause shock and conflict, but the overacted comedy here fails to explain why Josh suddenly appears to resolve many of his personal issues in the final scenes. The implication is that he embraced religion as a means to escape the mundanity of domestic family life – and has now rejected it because he has now been shown the importance of maintaining close familial relationships.

Leigh is usually a master of integrating the personal and political – but the real theme at the heart of ‘Two Thousand Years’ is singularly personal – that of relationships between parents and their children. The political dimension is therefore somewhat fudged. I’m aware of Jewish families who see their religion in cultural rather than spiritual terms – but would any family really be so shocked that their son had taken an interest in his family history, whatever their opinions on faith? Religion seems so significant an element of world politics at the moment that Leigh could, and arguably should, have made more of these issues, rather than simply giving them cursory debate over endless cups of tea (the one residual element from Leigh’s last film project, the excellent ‘Vera Drake’). This is the sort of project described in less enlightened quarters as ‘very politcal’ – but in many ways, the politics of this production are mostly banal. This is a strength in as far as Leigh’s directorial presence is mostly detached and non-judgmental (more evidence against those who accuse Leigh of being ‘patronising’ towards his characters), but it also means that arguments remain fragmentary and undeveloped. At times Leigh just seems to be throwing too many ideas and subjects into what becomes a somewhat cloudy mix. In characterising Josh as withdrawn and uncommunicative, we don’t get a sense of where he draws his palpable anger from and his reasons for embracing religion remain frustratingly elusive. His rebellion and defiance includes a firm refusal to respond to interrogation or justify his actions.

If Leigh remains unconventional in his working methods, this time the result lacks originality. The confrontation at the end feels like a deliberate retread of 'Secrets and Lies' but there are no overwhelming revelations and it seems like a rather obvious device to bring about a somewhat straightforward and contrived resolution. Where there are signs of directorial influence from Leigh - they are not entirely encouraging either. The structure of the play is very bitty, with short, often perfunctory scenes split by snatches of music. Where on screen Leigh is a master of sustained and believable emotions (always heightened by his use of close-up shots), he seems here to be constrained by the limitations of the single location stage play. Whilst 'Two Thousand Years' is intermittently entertaining, it's hard to believe watching it, that Leigh once mastered this very form so thoroughly with 'Abigail's Party'.

The stage set is a pointed and accurate replica of a liberal North London family home, made all the more amusing when Tammy introduces her new Israeli boyfriend. She points at the small collection of books – ‘here is the library, where I received my education’. It’s therefore an even greater pity that the action that takes place within it seems so surprisingly stilted.

Wildlife Extravaganza

Animal Collective/Caribou/Aoki Takamasa and Tojiko Noriko/Kieren Hebden – The Scala, London 25/10/05

Bloody hell – I should really make it to Eat Your Own Ears gigs more often. What a superb line-up! Well, now I’ve got the free advertising for an excellent promotions company out of the way, we can get down to the nitty gritty of reviewing the evening’s music…

The Scala was packed out tonight, which I found pleasantly surprising after my last experience there (a half-empty but entertainingly shambolic Alfie gig). Given that these acts make challenging, sometimes confrontational music that is unlikely to get much in the way of radio or TV exposure, it’s refreshing to realise that such material can indeed attract a substantial audience. The Scala makes for the perfect evening for this sort of affair, and it was pleasing to see joyous dancers and chin-strokers in equal measure.

First up, Aoki Takamasa and Tojiko Noriko soothed us with their beguiling electronic reveries. It was certainly all very pretty, but really no more than exactly what you’d expect a Japanese male/female laptop electronica duo to sound like. Of all the acts on tonight’s bill, they were the least concerned with pushing boundaries, dealing as they did with the kind of delicately rustling sounds so familiar to anyone who has ever heard the likes of Susumu Yokota.

That could not be said for DJ Kieren Hebden (Four Tet) who managed to play intelligently selected and frequently inspiring records in between the live performances. I must confess that I have no idea what most of these records were, but Hebden’s avowedly anti-specialist sets veered between genres with effortless ease.

Dan Snaith’s Caribou may have had an enforced name change, but their sonic brand remains very much intact. Despite an obvious reliance on electronics and backing tracks, it’s often hard to believe that there are just three musicians on stage, especially when two of them are bashing seven shades of shit from two drum kits. This is highly kinetic, thrilling stuff. The Krautrock-inspired grooves are appropriately relentless, but it’s the unrestrained arrangements which add originality and invention to the mix, and the mid-song instrument swapping is a joy to watch. It all seems to have been mapped out with mathematical precision, although Snaith is wise enough to leave room for an old-fashioned, summery approach to a good melody which contrasts neatly with the frequently frenetic music.

If Animal Collective are sometimes baffling on record, as a live band they are totally bonkers. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to state that this really sounded (and arguably looked) like nothing else around. It was a complete performance, with Panda Bear standing, energised and focussed behind his skeletal drum kit, and Avey Tare and Geologist trading quirky physical movements. Animal Collective’s killer weapon lies in their brilliantly executed vocal choreography, not just in terms of conventional harmonies, but also in their intricately competing yelps and screams. This made for a percussive performance in the broadest possible sense of the word.

Tonight’s set was divided into four extended segments which combined pre-released material (mostly from the excellent new album ‘Feels’) with the band’s customary tendency to develop prototypes of new material on the road. The integration of drones and electronic sounds with post-rock infused guitars arguably sounded more comfortable than it does on record, and it’s pleasing that the band seem to be leaving the more provocative, high-treble feedback experiments of their earlier records behind. Where once they may have preferred to bury their peculiar lyrics and turbulent melodies beneath thick swathes of noise, they have now developed an effective means of combining the various elements of their sound.
Influences can be detected beneath the dense and quirky exterior – perhaps the clearest is Syd Barrett’s taste for nonsense poetry and confounding song structures. If Animal Collective refer to any formative template though, they have stretched and manipulated it into something modern and largely unrecognisable. They have crafted a weird and wonderful world that is entirely their own.