I’m Your Mannikin (again)

Granhoj_3_photo Per VictorThe Danish dance company Granhøj Dans return to Centaur Theatre next week with their Leonard Cohen-based show, Dance Me to the End On/Off Love. Here’s my March 2013 review of the show.

While theatre stages groan under the weight of juke-box musicals and tribute acts, Danish company Granhøj Dans offer a more challenging, and ultimately quite brilliant, take on the life and work of Montreal’s very own godfather of soulful introspection, Leonard Cohen. That Dance Me to the End On/Off Love is so entertaining, sometimes mordantly so, is quite a surprise.

That title, for instance, as well as the regulation black outfits (and occasional nakedness) of the thirteen performers, seem to promise an evening of Euro-gloom. So does lead choreographer-performer Palle Granhøj’s gnomic introductory remarks about the Word being his whilst the Words are by Leonard Cohen. Soon, however, he’s playfully pinging a rubber band off his bald head by the aid of strenuous facial contortions, and the audience immediately stops shuffling uneasily and responds with a warmly appreciative, and relieved, wave of laughter.

What follows is a mesmerising celebration, meditation, interpretation, distillation – whatever you want to call it – of Cohen’s monumental fifty-year ouvre, presented in a variety of styles: from flamenco to burlesquey blues, from spoken to written, from being croaked by the aid of a voicebox simulator to being bellowed by a singer immersed in his ipod. Visually, it’s even more startling, with Per Victor’s richly chiaroscuro design making use of boxes, curtains, projected images and, most importantly, an accumulation of mannikin-like reproductions of Granhøj’s head.

Sometimes, these pale, lightweight pates contribute irresistibly to morbidly comic routines. Sometimes, they come across as something more sinister, like impassively watchful mementos mori (the show was partly conceived as a reflection on the death of a much-loved fellow dancer).

Central to Granhøj choreographic style is what he calls the Obstruction Technique, which basically means getting in the way of where he and his fellow dancers want to get to. This provides some astonishing moments where, appropriately for Cohen’s tortured love songs, desperate yearning meets immovable force, such as when Granhøj repeatedly ensnares a passionately singing female dancer as she longs to take wing. Not surprisingly, the words which close the show – and sum up Granhøj method perfectly – are from Like a Bird on a Wire: “I have tried, in my way, to be free.”

Everybody will have their favorite moment. For some it might be the incredible contortionist “dance” of a naked performer trapped in a tiny wooden box. Or the cheerfully sadistic duet performed by a couple of grinning Sisters of Mercy. For me, it was Palle Klok’s disembodied head (surrounded, of course, by Granhøj heads) raunching its way through “I’m Your Man” while his fellow performers used the swoosh of sticks to provide some jaw-dropping percussion.

After a couple of joyous and richly deserved encores, Granhøj offers the mischievous but no less sincere wish that Cohen himself will turn up to catch the show. To which one can only say: go for it, Leonard, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

This review first appeared in Rover Arts Montreal

Posted in dance theatre review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Man and a Woman Equals Big Box Office

It isn’t hard to see why David Ives’ Venus in Fur, which plays until Saturday at the Centaur, is so popular with audiences. As I wrote in my review: “It’s got just the right aggregate of transgressively sexy shades, laugh-out-loud one-liners, knowingly glib sexual politics, and richly theatrical smartness to satisfy most tastes.” But it’s also a massive hit with theatre managements, and that isn’t difficult to work out either.

With a cast of just two – one half belonging to that gender which, records show, is more likely to buy theatre tickets and drag their male partners in tow – it makes perfect economic sense in these straitened times. The wonder is why playwrights aren’t churning out more of these male-female two-handers, because when they hit, they hit big.

Below are just five examples that have hit particularly big as they negotiate the thorny thickets of sexual politics and save on cast salaries. There are lots more of them out there – I’m sure you can think of others and might possibly substitute your own examples for one or two on my list. Some might even have been written by women, an admittedly glaring omission from my own list. All I can say in my defense is that in most of these, as in Venus in Fur, the women have all best lines and ultimately stick it to their ostensibly more powerful partners by curtain’s fall.


Michael Caine and Julie Waters in the film version of Educating Rita

Michael Caine and Julie Waters in the film version of Educating Rita

 Educating Rita

Willy Russell’s phenomenally successful 1980 play centres on a working class hairdresser tentatively entering the groves of academia, with sozzled professor Frank as her guide, mentor, and finally intellectual inferior.

Famously turned into an opened-out film with Julie Walters and Michael Caine in 1983, the original stage play simply had Rita and Frank bantering and bickering back and forth across a book-cluttered study.

At one point, the increasingly resentful Frank compares himself to Doctor Frankenstein and Rita to the creation who ultimately turns against him. Rita could so easily have become Russell’s own Frankenstein’s monster, a runaway juggernaut making any further effort on Russell’s part futile. But then he went and halved Rita’s cast size with Shirley Valentine and doubled his punter-pulling clout.



“It’s a tie.” Jodhi May battles Roger Allam in the premiere of Blackbird


Strictly speaking, David Harrower’s 2005 play isn’t a two-hander, given the last minute appearance of a silent third character. But for most of its 90 minute running-time, it’s a blistering, morally vertiginous duel between a middle-aged man and the young woman with whom he had a sexual relationship when she was twelve.

Its West End premiere featured powerhouse performances from Roger Allam as the remorseful but evasive Ray and Jodhi May as the damaged, possibly vengeful Una. It then went on to be performed all over the world – in Montreal alone in the last couple of years, it’s had productions in at least three venues, including the Theatre du Nouveau Monde.



Isabelle Blais and Pierre-Luc Brillant in La Licorne’s production of Midsummer


As with Blackbird, this is a male-female two-hander from a Scottish Playwright, this time David Greig, which has also recently done spectacular business in Montreal (it returns in December and early 2015 with a revival of La Licorne’s production).

Unlike three of the plays on the list, this one breaks out of the close confines of a single room to wander around multiple locations as its lovelorn young characters pubcrawl around Edinburgh to the accompaniment of live songs. Charming and unashamedly romantic, it also contrasts with the tooth-and-claw sex wars of the other plays.


blue room

Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen in The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse

The Blue Room

The casting of Nicole Kidman as one half of the cast (opposite Iain Glen) in David Hare’s 1998 adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde didn’t exactly scupper its box office appeal, especially given the inclusion of a nude scene (leading critic Charles Spencer to famously, or infamously, declare it “pure theatrical viagra”).

Hare updated Schnitzler’s 1900s setting to modern times as a roundelay of rutting couples, all played by the same two actors, court heartache, regret and, as delicately suggested by Schnitzler, syphilis.




Rebecca Pigeon and William H Macy in Oleanna

“Kill the bitch!” screamed audience members at the climax of David Mamet’s monumentally controversial ’90s play, as university professor John finally unleashes his rage at Carol, the feminist student whose accusations of sexual harassment have threatened his career.

Mamet’s play famously ignited furious arguments in the foyer, some of them reportedly resulting in ruptured relationships. Despite its ambivalence towards both characters, Oleanna carries with it the stench of reactionary contempt for uppity feminists – Mamet’s own recent political journey to the right further bolsters that reputation. But when Harold Pinter directed it with majestically complex sensitivity in the late 90s, it was possible to read it both as a horror story about the most savage aspects of female solidarity, and as a kind of modern Greek tragedy in which John is mercilessly stripped of his delusions right down to the raw core of his swaggering male hubris.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Review: Blood Wild

Montreal Fringe review

blood wild

Reservoir Dawgs

Blood Wild, Rabbit in a Hat Productions

It’s a mosey down to the Old West in Paul Van Dyck’s latest Fringe venture, Blood Wild, or at least the Old West as seen through the “print the legend” prism of popular culture. It centres on the aftermath of a heist as a gang of desperados hole up in a saloon and get to reckoning there might be a sneakin’ no-good double-crossing rattlesnake amongst their number.

Sound familiar? Any suspicions that this isn’t as much a homage to Tarantino’s blood-soaked debut as it is to a century’s worth of horse operas are blown away in the gunsmoke of the climactic Mexican stand-off. Which kind of puts it in danger of feeling more dated than if it had adapted Edwin S Porter’s 1903 Western The Great Train Robbery, Tarantino tributes surely having had their day in the sun as far as fringe shows are concerned.

But Blood Wild is a lot more than that. For one thing, the dialogue fair zips along with relishable cowpoke jargon that is absurd, poetic and instantly quotable: the Coen Brother’s could go prospecting for verbal nuggets here and have enough saddlebags-ful of goodies for several films. And the top-notch six-strong cast, each playing a familiar Western type, deliver it straight from the hip and with maximum conviction.

From the get-go, Karl Graboshas as bartender Slim, hobbling around and endlessly jawing homespun hokum, like a young Walter Brennan, draws us into Van Dyck’s irresistible combination of authentic jargon and fanciful pastiche. Alex Weiner, as the unhinged and nervously suspicious Willie (clearly the show’s Mr Pink) is also great barnstorming fun, and the two of them contrast nicely with Eric Davis’ laconic and possibly halfway decent Mitch, and Eric Baby’s cynically crooked and whiskey-soaked sherrif. Amongst all the fancy men’s-talk, Arielle Palik provides a still, silent oasis of suffering as the mute sister of Patricia Summersett’s engagingly hard-faced, soft-centred saloon gal.

From the outset, it’s clear there will be blood someways along the trail, and the tightly constructed script puts enough red herrings and sleights of hand into play to keep us guessing how, and from whom, the devil will eventually come collecting.

If at times the drama rises to the intensity of Greek tragedy, it’s hard to dodge the feeling that there’s scope here for giving us something even more substantial to chaw on. After all, Westerns haven’t been slow on the draw when it comes to dealing with the big issues: the closing of the frontier myth in The Wild Bunch, for instance, or the racist genocide behind that myth in Little Big Man, or the utter falsity of the myth in Unforgiven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Still, enough bellyaching. For what it aims to be – an hour’s worth of first-rate Fringe entertainment, expertly performed and beautifully designed – Blood Wild’s aim is true. 

Posted in Montreal Fringe review, theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment