ROMEO and Juliet: Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) embrace their love, their lives and the Bard. Photograph courtesy http://www.austinchronicle.com
IT’S A GREAT rarity for a child actor who wows his audience to go away and come back to the industry all grown up and wow some more. This is exactly what you get in Paul McGuigan’s film Film stars don’t die in Liverpool, which features Jamie Bell as Peter Turner. This unique love story which is based on the true story of American film actress Gloria Grahame (1923-1981), penned by Turner himself, is the kind of film that will give you hope for the future of this society – and its filmmaking culture – it’s elegant and beautifully constructed with strong messages and gritty performances. And like any other love story, it’s about giving with a full heart and letting go, but there are so many delicate edges to it, you will want to watch this film over and over again. Forever.
Seventeen years ago, Jamie Bell was the child who defined Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott (2000), a story about a Northern England boy, the son of a miner in the riotous 1980s who wanted to do ballet. Today, he’s an adult, but the maverick fire in his belly and his ability to embrace complex social issues is as refined and beautiful now as they were then.
Again, we’re in the 1980s, with all its dance moves and analogue culture, in this wild romance. And the girl in the love story? It’s none other than Annette Bening, who is magnificent as a Grahame in her fifties. The love is passionate and unconventional, and Peter’s mum is played by the inimitable Julie Walters. Indeed, with Vanessa Redgrave playing Grahame’s mother, this film offers a full house of fabulous actresses over 60 and it celebrates them in ways that make you value the elderly in your own community.
But more than all of this, Film stars don’t die in Liverpool offers the kind of perfection that very few films can. Featuring a mature understanding of silence and wall paper patterns, of subtlety and finesse, along the lines of Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, which remains arguably one of the finest Holocaust films ever; it’s about exploring your lover’s body and finding truths which she can never tell you. It’s about what happens when marriage doesn’t seal your love, giving your lover’s relatives priority over you when it comes to death.
You know how this film will end by the very virtue of its title, but the predictability of the work is not the point. This is a film that embraces the brevity of life with fierceness and verve. It heightens the bar for the possibility of telling a story of this nature, enormously. It’s a film that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into the glamour and magic of 1950s Hollywood, with all its illusions of sincerity, its stars and its unbroken dreams.
Film stars don’t die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan and is performed by Lee Adach, Anna Afferr, Tim Ahern, Lasco Atkinds, Rick Bacon, Frances Barber, Joey Batey, Roy Beck, Gintare Beinoraviciute, Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Suzanne Bertish, Leanne Best, Michael Billington, James Bloor, Edward Bourne, Mark Braithwaite, Michael Brand, Tom Brittney, Joanna Brookes, Jade Clarke, Kenneth Cranham, Paul Dallison, David Decio, Stephanie Eccles, Karl Farrer, Helen Iesha Goldthorpe, Vaslov Goom, Stephen Graham, Leon Grant, Leila Gwynne, Alan Wyn Hughes, Alex Jaep, Bentley Kalu, John Kinory, Isabella Laughland, Adam Lazarus, Ify Mbaeliachi , Gemma Oaten, Luana Di Pasquale, Gino Picciano, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Redshaw, David Soffe, Alexandra Starkey, Asmeret Tesfagiorgis, Glynn Turner, Peter Turner, Jay Villiers, Julie Walters, Nicola-Jayne Wells, Susan Westbury, Patricia Winker and Charlotte Worwood. It is written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the eponymous memoir by Peter Turner. Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, it features creative input by J. Ralph (music), Urszula Pontikos (cinematography), Nick Emerson (editing), Debbie McWilliams (casting), Jany Temime (costumes) and Eve Stewart (production). Release date: March 22 2018.
THE power of prayer in the face of reality: Brenda (Awethu Hleli), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) mourn; Pumla (Faniswa Yisa) jives. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.
FOUR FIERCE BLACK women toss caution and values to the wind in this carefully crafted take on hypocrisy, the culture of mourning and too much sugar in the African diet. Laced with political barbs and advocacy ciphers, the work is funny and crass, moving and evolved and little escapes the pen of the inimitable Mike van Graan in presenting a township world where three women get together to form The Substitutes, a professional mourning syndicate.
Darting along similar social fringes presented by films such as Radu Mihăileanu’s 2009 Le Concert which reflects on crowd sourcing as a political hook and a financial saviour, and Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, that presents a cemetery-centred romance, Another One’s Bread takes apart the idiom about one man’s meat being another man’s poison. Tumbling through the cultural preciousness of loss and sadness, it focuses on the business of death with a capitalistic eye and presents a platform for farce at its most shouty.
Pumla (Faniswa Yisa), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) live in a household where they need a little more money for jam, proverbially speaking. With a mix of vegetarianism, a spot of poetry, a story of Karabo’s niece Brenda (Awethu Hleli) needing a change of climate after a stint in jail, for crimes of passion involving sweets which were not hers, and a vegetable garden, they develop a repertoire and a funeral resource. Bringing in several references to Brenda Fassie, the work blends feel good social values with a shrieking intensity that forces you to go with the flow.
There are some hilarious choreographic moments and a richer understanding of loss wrapped up in the over-the-top characters and how they interface, which enables this work to soar, but Brenda’s very shrill antics and her lumpy costume sometimes hurts the work’s integrity.
Either way, the madcap subtleties of Karabo and the vulnerability of Pumla, who is the oldest of the four, lend the piece the kind of balance and charm that gives the notion of a fresh food stokvel, a plan to feed children in the environment, and the harsh and scary predominance of death in society to be presented without coyness, crude advocacy or blandness. And the political barbs fly with abandon, touching everything from Jacob Zuma’s school education to the #MenAreTrash tweet that went viral to Oscar Pistorius and his declarations of innocence.
It’s a lovely work, but the turning of the vocal volume all the way up, throughout does tend to bruise some of its more developed assertions, contexts and story lines.
Another one’s bread is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Pamela Nomvete. It features design by Jacqueline Kehilwe Manyaapelo (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Karabo Legoabe-Mtshali and Nthabiseng Makone (set and costumes) and is performed by Motlatji Ditodi, Awethu Hleli, Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa until February 4 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za
A boy and his kitty: Pieter-Dirk Uys as a child. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.
THE CHALLENGE OF conjuring freshness on stage is one not easily met. The challenge of conjuring freshness on stage, and making them laugh, and making them cry, and making them stand in awestruck ovation at the end, particularly after a lifetime of being on stage, is even tougher. Now at 71, self-styled veteran South African jester Pieter Dirk Uys does it again. His Echo of a Noise is a beautifully honed, all holds barred autobiography that ramps up his stage persona considerably: nary a heel or a wig in sight.
This is Uys stripped bare, using only his words and his memories, his inimitable face and his sheer honesty to convey portraits of his loved ones: his mother, Helga; his father, Hannes and his domestic maid, Sannie. And if you’ve read Uys’s autobiography Erections and Elections, you might have an inkling as to how some of the tale unfolds, but still, the work is fresh and pure. It’s funny and frank, candid and tragic, and conveyed with an infinitesimal sense of realness that is Uys.
It’s about an adoration of Sophia Loren and of Amadeus Mozart. It’s a confrontation with the idea of heaven and that of hell. And a speculation as to where cats like Boeboe end up. It’s a piano’s journey from Germany to Africa and back again, and a confession about his mother’s identity, and it contains and is defined by earth-shattering realisations about history and horror.
One moment in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) makes the film, a surreal tale of death and whimsy, with the fabulous Ruth Gordon in a central role, into a Holocaust film. It’s unspoken. It’s brief. But it is so devastatingly poignant that it becomes the nub on which the whole tale rests. Something similar happens in Uys’s confrontation with his mother’s identity. It happens over a cup of tea, with a woman from his mother’s childhood, and involves a tattoo of many numbers.
But the tale does not hold tight onto terrible moments and like a spot of quicksilver, it rambles away in a diversity of directions and with nuance and tears, fondness and laughter, Uys paints his mother: a gifted pianist with secrets and great sadness but also an ability to laugh with abandon. He paints his father with a devastating sense of balance and an unequivocal focus on the vagaries of old age and the tightness of discipline and church. Above all, he paints his family’s domestic maid with fondness and hilarity, revealing her as a prism to all the idiosyncrasy that constitutes what being South African in a world torn by values and rules, meant.
Echo of a Noise contains the sadness of sudden loss and the sadness of anticipated loss that constitutes some of the fabric of being alive in this world, replete as it is with broken dreams and shams. But it doesn’t allow itself to slip into maudlin, and you’re left utterly in awe for the man who makes it happen. It’s like spending a privileged 90 minutes having an intimate cup of tea with a giant: one you won’t forget in a hurry. It will touch you deeply – and it’s worth travelling to Cape Town for, in July, if you can’t make it tomorrow in Johannesburg.
Echo of a Noise is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, until April 9, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from July 4-15. Call 021-438-3301 or visit pietertoerien.co.za. See a political commentary on this show here.
In response to popular demand, the show will be staged for another brief season at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, June 14-18.