TELEVISION: Star Trek: Lower Decks, ‘Hear All, Trust Nothing’ (dir. Fill Marc Sagadraca)

In what is by far Lower Decks‘s best cold-open so far, the Cerritos arrives at Deep Space Nine for a diplomatic mission, but Captain Freeman needs the ship to stall so she can prepare for a last-minute diplomatic assignment. So, Ransom has them circle the station: ‘pretend you’re admiring the pylons’. Cue a beautiful, full orchestral rendition of the DS9 theme tune, as the camera pans lovingly as the Cerritos circles the station and the wormhole opens up in a recreation of the classic, super-boring title sequence. Then a pause. ‘Keep circling!’ says Ransom, and the sequence starts up again.

Animation: two Starfleet officers greet Colonel Kira Nerys and Quark on Deep Space Nine
Kira! Quark! Kira and Quark!

Deep Space Nine has felt horrifically under-loved in the new era of Trek. Picard is bringing back both Next Generation and Voyager characters; Voyager folk have turned up in TNG films; Janeway is present in Prodigy; the original series crew keep getting rebooted, including in Strange New Worlds; and Lower Decks so far has largely drawn on the same few series. So, it’s a thrill not to just get DS9, but to also get Nana Visitor and Armin Shimmerman returning to the roles of Kira (last seen, as here, as full Colonel and running the station) and Quark. Even if they don’t sound quite like they used to, it really does feel like meeting old friends. And Morn is in the bar.

As a hangout episode, this is a lot of fun. Boimler and Rutherford are just super-stoked to be on the station; Rutherford does the Jake-and-Nog thing from the balcony, while Boimler kills it on the Dabo tables, much to the Ferengi pit boss’s anger. Kira gets to reunite with Shaxs, and the two engage in one-ups-person-ship over who is most indebted to the other for their life, and it’s just so good to see Kira flying off the handle once more. And while it’s already been established that Quark’s Bar has become a franchise, both the ensigns’ excitement at seeing the original and the fact that this is so on-brand for Quark makes this a welcome chance to check in with him.

The main plot is a classic DS9-style Gamma Quadrant miscommunication. Trade envoys from the Gamma Quadrant are here to start negotiations, but are immediately offended that the Cerritos has been sent as a last-minute substitution. They are also angered by Quark’s new replicator tech – because of course, as we find out at the episode’s end, he’s ripped it off. And so there’s a kidnapping and an attempt to stop the ship from going back through the wormhole. Really, this is background – it’s great to see Kira and Quark back in their old dynamic but now with Freeman and the others as the Starfleet side, and it’s a straight-up old-school story, with surprisingly little comedy.

The meat of the episode is Tandy’s, though. On DS9 there’s an Orion security officer, who is psyched to meet another Orion in Starfleet. He tries to bond with Tandy over their shared (he assumes) love of pirating, and it forces Tandy to openly confront the fact that this is a part of her history that she has worked super-hard to move away from. It’s a great character story for her – she tries to be polite, but she’s also being pigeonholed and stereotyped in ways that infuriate her. The nice twist on this is that (a) the new guy was actually adopted and brought up on earth, and doesn’t know anything about pirating; and (b) her pirating past actually does help them when they’re trapped on the Gamma Quadrant aliens’ ship and she needs to take it over. The episode taps sensitively into the particular pressures of immigrants and diaspora populations separate from their home culture, and the ways in which they interact with stereotypes of varying levels of truth.

Mariner also has to work out her own truth – literally, as her girlfriend takes her to her friends’ ‘salon’ and they all have to do set-pieces sharing stories and skills, and clicking one another in congratulation. These women are the worst, but Mariner genuinely cares about Jenny and so holds her tongue, despite the sheer volume of passive-aggression she’s subjected to. It’s so, so wonderful when Jenny reveals that she had been looking forward to seeing Mariner take her friends down a peg or two and, with them trapped in a room where the air is being slowly sucked out thanks to ridiculous candles, Mariner gets to unleash by stunning all of Jenny’s friends while Jenny cackles. It’s a lot of fun, and a relief to see Mariner letting her hair down with a bit of casual aggression. And with that done, we’re away from Deep Space Nine – it was too short, but we loved to see you. And Kira still has Sisko’s baseball.

MUSEUM: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati

The imposing building which houses the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center stands on a rise overlooking the sweeping curve of the Ohio River, with Kentucky spread out before it. The location is important; the river marks a border between North and South, a border which has meant more at some points in American history than others, but which during the heyday of slavery signified the geographical line dividing states which practiced slavery and states where all lived free. A balcony (sadly closed on this visit) invites guests to look out and reflect on just how closely two existentially different understandings of people’s humanity could – or, indeed, could not – co-exist.

Exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The Freedom Center was the first major museum devoted to slavery in all its forms, taking as its particular focus the Underground Railroad (for which Cincinnati was an important hub), but also reflecting on other exploited groups and hosting a large activist exhibit devoted to ending modern slavery. In many ways, it is an excellent counterpart to the more recent International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, although the tone of the two museums is somewhat different; Liverpool, as one of the most important ports for the transatlantic slave trade, is focused on reckoning more with its own complicity in atrocity, while the Cincinnati Freedom Center feels more celebratory of those who worked to end the trade and the heroes who risked all to rescue enslaved people.

The personal comes out strongly in the Freedom Center, with a strong emphasis on individual testimony. Actual historical exhibits are somewhat fewer, padded out in the main ‘From Slavery to Freedom’ gallery with artistic renditions of the period and reproductions of historical documents. The most striking exhibit is a real one: an early 1800s Slave Pen, recovered and reconstructed from a farm in Kentucky, which stands by itself in the centre of the museum and acts as a soberingly physical evocation of the conditions in which slave-owners kept their prisoners. Much of the rest of the galleries are very text-heavy, sometimes a little overwhelmingly so, but all presented well to trace a journey from the economic and political forces that drove the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, the work of abolitionists, and the history of the Civil War.

The choices are often surprising. Given the museum’s name, there is rather less on the actual Railroad than one might expect; there is a separate, kid-friendly interactive exhibit called ESCAPE! which allows small people to explore hiding places and individual stories of unlikely escape in boxes and other hidey-holes, but in the main section of the museum it’s almost easy to miss the stories of the Railroad next to the fuller discussions and representations of the political work leading up to Abolition. The museum seems anxious, too, to ensure that it is widely representative of intersectional struggles: one whole section is devoted to women’s suffrage (though with no discussion that I can see of the role some suffragists played in deprioritizing African American rights in pursuing the needs of white women), and there are extensive sections devoted to Native Americans’ histories of displacement and conflict. At times, given this important diversity but also given the emphasis on white policy-makers, I was surprised to find that the primary focus on African American experiences of slavery and escape sometimes felt a little too displaced, but a room devoted to contemplative reflection of the victims of slavery, at least, felt well done and a necessary pause.

Much of the museum’s permanent exhibits take the form of films. These are of variable quality, and frustratingly cheap-looking, with surtitles filled with errors (especially embarrassing when these clearly come from mishearing of a South African speaker during a film about Nelson Mandela) and the screen picture low-definition. Brothers of the Borderland is the big showpiece: it features a (way too long) introduction by a much younger Oprah in a completely unnecessary pre-show lobby, followed by an ‘immersive’ experience which is kinda cool – the main cinema is filled with starlight, forest noises, and life-size trees and foliage to capture the banks of the Ohio, before a low-budget historical film dramatizes the work of John Parker and John Rankin as Railroad operatives working to rescue African Americans. The whole could use updating. Other films include a rather too broad glance through world history as a prelude to explaining the contemporary slave trade, and (at the time of this visit) a documentary which had been created to accompany an exhibition of photographs of Nelson Mandela. The footage of the photographer discussing his work in the museum is interesting and specific (if a little self-indulgent at times); the remainder of the doc discusses Mandela’s life but hilariously leans heavily on big studio movies about Mandela for its emotional beats and narrative arc, which feels rather like it defeats the point.

While bits of the museum feel dated or rough around the edges, its core mission continues undimmed. The section on modern slavery feels the most urgent, with an unapologetically challenging tone throughout (literally, at times, inviting guests to look into a mirror and consider how they themselves could have ended up becoming enslaved). Here, the emphasis on anecdote and testimony is combined with an aesthetic of shipping containers that makes the sense of trafficking visceral, and while there is hope in stories of freedom, there is also a striking call to action throughout. It’s in this, as well as in its interrogation of both local and global responses to slavery, that makes the museum important. In focusing on those who took it upon themselves to try to end injustice, even putting themselves at personal risk, the museum reminds us that this is a living history that could so easily be unwritten if we don’t do all that we can.

September 2022 round-up

Here are The Pedlar’s wares for September 2022.

TELEVISION: The Sandman, ‘Dream a Little Dream Of Me‘; Superstore, ‘Minor Crimes‘, ‘#Cloud9Fail‘, ‘Testimonials‘; She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, ‘The People vs. Emil Blonsky’, ‘Is This Not Real Magic?‘, ‘Mean, Green, and Straight Poured Into These Jeans‘, ‘Just Jen‘; Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ‘The Good Ones‘, ‘The Last Day‘; House of the Dragon, ‘The Rogue Prince‘, ‘Second of His Name‘, ‘King of the Narrow Sea‘, ‘We Light the Way‘; Kim’s Convenience, ‘Family Singing Contest

THEATRE: Going Postal (Storm Theater); The Two Noble Kinsmen (Ketterer’s Men); Puffs (Silver Line Theatre Exchange); Under Milk Wood (National Theatre).

CINEMA: Don’t Worry Darling; See How They Run; Spider-Man: No Way Home: The More Fun Stuff Version.

FILM AT-HOME: Blue is the Warmest Color; Repo Man; Repo Man supplements; Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

BOOKS: Amryl Johnson, Sequins for a Ragged Hem; Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

GAMES: Facts in Five.

TELEVISION: The Sandman, ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ (dir. Jamie Childs)

The appearance of Jenna Coleman on The Sandman inevitably calls to mind Doctor Who, a core reference for the aesthetic and tone of this series. Tom Sturridge’s Morpheus, with his detached intelligence, calm empathy, and thoughtless style, is reminiscent in some important ways of David Tennant’s Doctor, and the combination of bathetic British humour (albeit with more cursing) and supernatural incursion (albeit with a much more luxurious budget) feels on par. The excitement, though, is that Coleman is no assistant here. She’s Jo frickin’ Constantine.

A man kneels next to a raven framed by rain.
Man and raven share a moment

Despite Sandman being a DC property, the idea that the show might have a kind of crossover value might not have been immediately obvious to those who aren’t familiar with the comics, and Constantine’s immediately badass presence is thrilling, not least because it reorients this whole episode around the new character. Constantine is haunted by dreams, but otherwise is a fearsome exorcist who swears and sasses her way around London. She’s heard of Morpheus, but thinks he is a myth, and fascinatingly this episode feels like an episode of her show into which Morpheus intrudes.

Constantine’s own case in this episode is the kind of thing which certainly feels like it could sustain a show. She’s been called to a cathedral where a possessed British princess has turned up to marry a wealthy footballer. Erica, a vicar, and she have an easy rapport, with Constantine initially refusing to get involved ‘again’ with exorcising royalty, and the priest (herself sweary) persuading her to get involved. Of course Constantine does, but the tone is beautifully done. This is all noir, with constant rain and a disaffected anti-hero, but Coleman imbues Constantine with such mordant wit and a light touch that it becomes a pleasure to watch, and I for one would have been happy to see more of the exorcism adventures of Jo and Erica.

The twist, that the footballer is the demon, not the princess, is fun, and Morpheus turns up in time for a face-off; Constantine shows her full power while banishing the eight-foot monster, while the monster pleads to Morpheus for help, offering the location of Morpheus’s helm if only Morpheus will save him from being returned to hell. Morpheus is unable to prevail with Constantine, and the two form an uneasy alliance to retrieve the sand which Constantine was the last person to have, many years ago. In partnering, both end up needing to learn something about the other. Constantine gave the sand to her ex, who is now dying slowly, taken over by the dreams, and Constantine is humbled by a magic that is beyond her more straightforward biblical war. But Morpheus also needs to learn something about the humanity that he is purporting to try to save.

The beauty of the episode comes from the small touches, the fleeting moments of loss and desperation. The depiction of Jo and ex Rachel’s relationship repeatedly blurs in and out of flashback and fantasy, moving images of Jo suddenly transforming into nightmarish visions; erotic reunions literally disintegrate. When Jo finally breaks through to the real Rachel, she is a horrifically emaciated and weak figure, clinging onto the sand that creates dreams, putting Constantine through the wringer while a quietly compassionate Morpheus follows. It’s aching, and Morpheus’s choice to give Rachel peace so she can die ‘in her sleep’ feels like an act of kindness, even if it can’t save her.

Juxtaposed with this is a different story of letting go, as Ethel visits her son John and gives up her ring, immediately aging and dying and allowing John to escape the prison with all of her powers of invulnerability. The final conflicts between John and Ethel perhaps don’t have as much impact as they might have done if we had spent more time with the two characters, but Joely Richardson and David Thewlis do wonders with the material, establishing humanity for John without undermining how dangerous he is. As he walks out of his confinement in his pyjamas, watching as the guards who try to shoot him explode graphically around him, he’s a truly frightening presence, all the more so for his banality. And as The Corinthian finds him and puts a warm jacket on him, it’s clear that he’s going to be a real threat.

THEATRE: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs (dir. John Fregosi for Storm Theater at Staunton High School)

Going Postal is the point at which Discworld goes incontrovertibly steampunk, as recognized in Staunton High’s excellent production of Stephen Briggs’s stage adaptation of the novel. Any faux medieval remnants of the older Ankh-Morpork are swept away: here, Ollie Scheidler schmoozes about the stage with cane and eye-patch; Clacks mechanics wear overalls; and an uprising of postal workers look like they’ve joined the suffragettes. It’s a play about modernity and changing times, and a slick amateur production captures this beautifully.

Love the James Bond-style silhouettes

The stage is dominated by a surprisingly elaborate revolving set, which reveals a rotating set of locations including Lord Vetinari’s office, the competing inner sanctums of the Royal Mail and The Grand Trunk clacks service, and assorted other locations. Quite often, leading con-man-slash-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig stands downstage while the locations pass by behind him, giving the impression of traversing the city. The rotating locations emphasize the proximity of state power to the systems that keep the state working, and – as with Pratchett’s other ‘industrial revolution’ books – both seem dependent on the other. Vetinari (William Ruiz) is a particularly self-aware Patrician, one of the doors of his office leading to a deadly drop (‘you always have a choice’), and the constant unseen presence of his office is a reminder that he’s never too far away.

Within the milieu of the city, Moist finds himself tasked with reviving the post office, largely as part of Vetinari’s plan to introduce a competitive marketplace. It’s a surprisingly pro-capitalism play; the Clacks companies have got a monopoly on communication and thus have no motivation to improve their collapsing system, which often goes down for days on end. Vetinari stage-manages competition in order to bring Ankh-Morpork systems up to standard. But Moist, who takes on the job reluctantly and with no small amount of disdain, finds himself caught up in the latent energies of the mail service, feeling an obligation to the material objects that have been trapped in the defunct sorting office for years. There’s something romantic about it, about the material objects that may be less efficient than pure code, but which have personality – personality which has become free-floating and impresses itself frequently upon Moist.

This also draws attention to the people who make the system work. The Clacks industry, led by Scheidler’s super-fun, gloating villain, is run by rich folk who don’t care how things work; Alex Johnson’s Bill is sorely put upon to try and explain just what is needed to care for the infrastructure on which the Clacks depend. By contrast, Moist inherits a motley bunch of mostly elderly workers who have deep and abiding passion for The Regulations and for the value of the mail’s traditions. Dallon Mawyer brings the weight of history to Tolliver Groat, who oversees the office and who rediscovers his vigour through Moist’s rapid modernisation of the service; the show is repeatedly stolen, though, by Macbeth Preston as erstwhile pin-enthusiast turned stamp collected Stanley, whose relentless enthusiasm and litany of facts about pins and stamps are continually delightful. Jayden Golder as Moist, meanwhile, sets about inventing stamps, creating new forms of delivery, and also hand-delivering selected letters, making people care once more about the practices of communication.

There’s also a fascinating running discourse about rights. The golem Pump No. 19 (hilariously imagined as a golden Roman centurion, emphasising Pump’s age; Wren Broderick later appears as the 18,000-year old Egyptian Angammarad too) moves with solidity and fearsome purpose, yet is also the focus of abuse and terror among others. The strong but oddly kindly – if emotionless – Pump has a fantastic stage presence, and acts to make the connection between the state and the post, while love interest Adora (Rosalie Broderick) explains the niceties of the golems’ rights. Alongside this, in a reminder of Pratchett’s allyship – and in a move that feels especially important given the attacks only in the last week on Virginia high schools by a governor trying to undermine the respect given to students exploring non-binary and trans identities – a counter-worker repeatedly comes to Moist to complain about golems and dwarves using the ladies’ bathroom as they don’t have clear gender identities. Moist’s response both respects this worker ‘looking out’ for her peers, while also offering clear solutions – in one case, simply asking one of the golems to change his name to Gladys and wear a dress, a choice which beautifully mocks the over-investment of anti-trans sentiment in outward appearance. The golem is the safest character in the show, and the ability of Going Postal to speak so specifically to a current issue facing American high schools feels especially poignant.

A great cast of teenagers, with impressive (and impressively distinguished in terms of class/region) English accents and physical presence on the stage beyond their years, demonstrate a wonderful command of Pratchett’s humour and pace. While in many ways Going Postal feels arcane – who still buys stamps? – it also feels nostalgic for the kind of connection that the mail represents. And in its joyful exploration of how, even within a framework of commercial competition, a cynical con-man can connect to values that transcend money, it even manages to subvert itself.

TELEVISION: Superstore, ‘Testimonials’ (dir. Matt Sohn)

The arrest of Mateo by ICE at the end of Superstore season 4 has given the show a lot of meaty material to get its teeth into in season 5, and ‘Testimonials’ demonstrates the show’s increasingly masterful ability to wring comic gold out of brutal situations without underplaying quite how devastating those situations are. For Mateo, in particular, the arrest and his incarceration have had a horrifying impact, and while his presence still allows for laughs around him, the show is evolving to allow his character to develop and the consequences of his arrest to be felt.

A woman arrives in a staff room with lots of bags
Sandra – bring everything

What ‘Testimonials’ digs into is the obligations that co-workers have to one another and to their extended relationships. In the silliest storyline, Cheyenne is cleaning out Mateo’s locker, and Glenn and Marcus both compete to get it – Glenn because he’s really struggling with his knees in reaching down to his bottom-row locker, and Marcus – well, Marcus just because he fancies it. Cheyenne’s both-sides-ism as she weighs up both claims and finds them equally important, and then puts the two through an increasingly exploitative range of tests to get herself free stuff out of them (Glenn ends up offering tickets to Disneyland – capitalism always wins, and Marcus’s ‘That’s not fair!’ doesn’t hold water), is self-interested, and the whole scenario speaks to how we weigh up others’ needs against our own advantage.

This plays naturally into Jonah and Dinah’s dynamic, in one of the funniest realizations of the difference between the two. Dinah has agreed to be Sandra’s maid of honour, not out of any kindness, but out of an enforced sense of pity that Sandra has no-one else. But Dinah being Dinah, she has downloaded a list of maid of honour responsibilities from the Internet that she intends to follow absolutely to the letter, and those responsibilities do not include hosting a bachelorette party. Sandra is convinced that Dinah is just going to make it a surprise, and however strenuously and even violently Dinah denies it, that only convinces Sandra further.

Up steps Jonah, who of course can’t bear to see Sandra misled in this way. Jonah also straddles a fine line between genuinely kind and self-serving, and as he tries to first convince Dinah to hold a party, and then to try to organise it himself, it is perhaps no surprise that Dinah takes this amiss, accusing Jonah of trying to make her look bad, and threatening him with bodily harm if he does anything of the sort. This results, inevitably, in a hilarious party where Jonah has everyone eating cake in absolute silence between a barricade of boxes, shutting down any conversation – and even then Dinah finds them, and finally relents (though still insists that Sandra bring all of her own party supplies).

The combination of obligation and going the extra mile – which, of course, is the constant debate that zero-hours workers are forced into – is most strikingly manifested in the A-story. Here, Amy is charged with giving testimony to support Mateo’s essential worker status, in order to get him bail from detention. Amy gives her testimony, but the lawyer is unimpressed, and Amy is immediately put under pressure by Mateo’s mother and by her colleagues to step up. And so, the episode is spent trying to get increasingly lavish testimonials from colleagues, as everyone attempts to marry their care for Mateo with some version of a truth about his importance that will fly with immigration. And it’s hard to do.

The clincher comes when Jeff is brought back in, desperate to help Mateo out, but reluctant to put himself on the line. Devastatingly, when he’s made to realise that only his direct, on-the-record testimony will help Mateo, he refuses – he can’t risk his job. It’s only when Cheyenne and Amy work together to trick Jeff into thinking Mateo still has his and Jeff’s photograph in his locker (he doesn’t – they took it from Jeff’s Facebook) that Jeff relents and sticks his neck out. It’s a happy ending for now – Mateo is released, and is able to eat Sandra’s cake in the break room while he waits for his hearing. But the manipulations needed to get Jeff to put himself on the line to save Mateo mean that this is no utopia.

FILM: Don’t Worry Darling (dir. Olivia Wilde)

Don’t Worry Darling was once touted as an early favourite in the awards season build-up; over the last month, though, the obsessive interest in behind-the-scenes tensions (driven by a somewhat unhealthy online over-investment in Harry Styles, and to a lesser extent Chris Pine and Florence Pugh) has meant that the story has been about anything other than the film itself. It’s a relief to get to the film and find something fundamentally competent, if surprisingly unoriginal and incomplete.

A man helps a woman out of a car in a 1950s environment; a banner says 'welcome home Miss Alice'
Welcome ‘home’

The plot of Don’t Worry Darling feels like a feature-length Black Mirror episode, drawing on any number of controlled society genre mainstays from The Stepford Wives to The Truman Show to WandaVision. There are elements of The Village, Westworld and Get Out. The influences are so apparent that, in many ways, the film loses all of its surprise in the opening few moments. It’s quite clear that this picture-perfect 1950s society is artificial, not least when the men simultaneously drive off together at the start of each day, heading into the desert where they do mysterious work all day, while the women stay at home, cleaning and hanging out and preparing perfect meals for their perfect husbands, yet another day in their perfect lives.

That something is horribly wrong with this set-up hardly needs explaining, but it’s so obviously a problem that it doesn’t need the crying Black friend (a woefully under-used KiKi Layne) who explicitly tells the assembled neighbours that they’re not meant to be there. The film lacks any subtlety, and if it doesn’t immediately announce the specific undercurrent of nastiness that it’s going to explore, it telegraphs the tension so strongly that the rest of the film becomes somewhat tedious as it ekes out the sloooooooow revelations.

The film is carried almost entirely by Florence Pugh, whose Alice is the young #tradwife who begins having nightmares and waking visions, and from these starts to suspect something is wrong. Her exploration begins when she sees a plane crash (one of many plot points that has no clear in-film explanation, and where what they presumably intended to be invigorating mystery instead plays as incomplete plotting) and goes to the off-limits headquarters at the edge of the compound where everyone lives, an experience which suddenly leaves her back in her room and ever more plagued by visions. What follows is a very long paranoid trip; Pugh is excellent, but the repetitive imagery and rituals don’t trace much of an arc for Alice, or even give her a lot of agency. She’s experiencing unequivocally weird shit, and the fact that no-one else is experiencing this means that the film’s interest in a portrayal of gaslighting never quite coalesces.

The big reveal is that they’re all in a simulation; loser men like Alice’s ‘husband’ in the simulation – her ex in real life – pay a company enormous amounts of money for technology that keeps their desired partner comatose and in a 24/7 illusion of ‘happiness’ where they cook, clean, fuck and love on demand. Chris Pine is the conservative male rights visionary who has designed the community, where desperate men get to control their ‘wives’ around the clock, and see themselves as gifting these women happiness. It’s a fine idea, but horrifically underplotted. The film’s refusal to engage with the external context means that the dynamics of kidnapping and sexually assaulting these non-consenting women are left much too oblique; and the revelation that one of the wives in the simulation is doing this in full awareness as a way to live with her dead kids is similarly under-explored. Pine’s character’s wife, played by Gemma Chan, has her own sudden twist (literally) that raises more questions about what the hell was going on with this pair than it answers. There’s clearly a vision here, but the final act in particular feels horribly rushed and the universe under-developed (if this is a simulation, then why do the avatars of those policing it need to engage in a deadly car chase across their simulated territory in order to try and prevent Alice bringing it all down?).

There’s a huge amount of style in the film, but the nostalgia that the film taps into – while pertinent in an era of real life tradwives and calls for returns to clearly demarcated gender rules – also feels familiar for the wrong reasons. The film too often seems to include images purely for how they look (the repeated sight of a projection of synchronised dancers, for instance), and by focusing so unrelentingly on Alice to the exclusion of all others – and by having her awakening emerge not because of her own agency, but because of the visions she experiences – the film curiously empties out its characters of almost all agency. It’s a productive metaphor, but a blunt one that doesn’t seem confident in handling its own nuances.

THEATRE: The Two Noble Kinsmen (dir. Aoife O’Rourke for Ketterer’s Men)

A mistake that productions of The Two Noble Kinsmen often make is rendering the titular kinsmen indistinguishable from one another. But for Ketterer’s Men, the distinctions between Palamon (Curtis Dunn) and Arcite (Kelly Downes) were as important as the similarities. This production, by turns melancholic and hilarious in tone, suggested that, for all the play’s emphasis on interchangeability and substitution, love isn’t necessarily replaceable, and restoration might not be so straightforward.

Poster for The Two Noble Kinsmen
Unlocked

From their first appearance preparing for war, Palamon and Arcite established a close bond as brothers-in-arms, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they sought honour. But once in prison, chained to walls or floor, the tensions and distinctions quickly manifested. Palamon was something of a loser: a sarcastic, dour, defeatist scornful man. Arcite, by contrast, was full of energy and passion. Even in the blocking of their time in prison, with Palamon cutting across Arcite cattily from a prone position on the floor, while Arcite hopped about and expended energy at the other side of the platform stage, the two found a distinction. This only increased as the production went on: Arcite’s dynamic soliloquy following his freedom found hope and joy in the idea of disguising himself to return to see Emilia, and, alone after spending time with Emilia a few scenes later, he high-kicked the air and swigged from his wine. Arcite had a passion for life that juxtaposed his bitter friend.

Palamon’s bitterness seemed warranted here; when he interrupted Arcite’s joy, he shrieked and dragged his chains as if Marley’s Ghost. The physical distinction between the two made their long, semi-comic duel an attempt to postpone the inevitable. Palamon could barely lift his sword, and held himself slumped and weak, while the clearly stronger Arcite stood upright. Neither wanted to fight, especially given that Palamon would so clearly have lost. As such, Arcite’s attention to Palamon’s armour became a gesture of care, while Palamon’s to Arcite’s was more of a stalling tactic. As soon as the fight was interrupted, Palamon turned to railing loudly about his fate, and his call for Theseus to kill the two of them felt deliberate. If I can’t have her, he seemed to say – because I’ll lose this fight – then neither of us will.

Palamon’s preference for talking loudly about his love (‘I saw her first!’) rather than taking action felt self-absorbed and self-consciously performative, in the contemporary sense of ‘not actually doing’. But performativity was key across the production, in a way that seemed to frequently piss off Edward Loboda’s Theseus. Coming across like the Herod of Jesus Christ Superstar, Theseus presided grumpily over a court where he had authority yet was repeatedly spoken over, and his constant irritation provided some of the production’s best laughs, including on his ‘What are these?’ as he was shown the captured Palamon and Arcite, and on his angry admission that he felt compassion for them after Emilia’s later pleas. More importantly, though, he seemed petty. While it was only one Queen (Eleanor Sutcliffe) who petitioned him at the start of the production, joined by Emilia (Saraya Haddad), Hippolyta (Liz Blake) and Pirithous (Micaela Kluver), Theseus perceived the whole as an interruption and inconvenience, and sighed deeply upon granting his support to the gathered women. The sense that Theseus was fed up of people’s public performances of their own crises was palpable, informing his irritation with Emilia at the production’s end; he had wanted to kill the two rivals, but forced into a display of public trial by combat, he refused to let Emilia get out of being present for it.

In this environment of pettiness, annoyance, self-conscious performativity, and artifice, genuine emotional connection seemed rare, and this seemed to be what afflicted the Jailer’s Daughter (Becky Lawton). Lawton’s performance was all the more affecting for the diffidence of Dunn’s Palamon; why waste your energy on this guy? Across three soliloquies performed in increasing darkness, the Daughter’s performance became quieter and more distract, a loss of something rather than an addition of madness. The simple, Dogberry’s Watch-alike Morris dancers (Lewis Jones and Louis Robbins’s folk music throughout was a highlight, and Paige Calvert was an amusingly annoyed Schoolmaster trying to drill his hapless troops) who found the Daughter reacted to her singing with open-mouthed awe, and her plaintive laments continued to resound into the interval, a jarring note amid the jollity.

The production refused to resolve its tensions. The biggest arc was for Emilia, presented from the start as a somewhat rebellious youth but also fun-loving, changing between a succession of colourful outfits and offering a surprisingly bolshy defiance to her brother-in-law, including when pleading for Arcite and Palamon’s lives. She seemed thrilled to be hanging off Arcite’s arm during the brief period when he was admitted in disguise to court. But as pressure built on her in the lead-up to the duel, Emilia’s relatively carefree nature gave way to something with higher stakes, torn by the knowledge that a man was going to die, and that she was implicated in that death. Similarly, the Jailer’s Daughter didn’t present as traditionally stage-mad, but instead seemed calm, if insistent, as she grilled the men in the jail about Palamon’s whereabouts. But as she began slipping into delusions of the sea, the entire stage environment shifted to follow her, bathing her, the Wooer, and her father in artificial light and pulling them into a fantasy of being aboard ship that, in its lighting state and physicality, lasted beyond the end of the scene, placing us firmly within her headspace. The slippage away from reality here was complete and all-encompassing.

These tensions led to the production’s most original choice. A defeated Palamon crossed the stage with the Jailer (Joe Kennedy-Lydick), and while Palamon continued to snipe at his captor, the Jailer picked up an enormous axe that, finally, seemed to give Palamon pause. But as the Jailer raised the axe to swing it on Palamon’s neck, there was a cry of ‘hold!’ The Jailer’s Daughter ran in, followed by the Wooer (Josh Caldicott), fresh from his trick of playing Palamon. But the Daughter saw Palamon and ran towards him, forcing the Wooer to have to restrain her and push her away. She ran away distraught, pursued by her father, at which the Wooer picked up the axe and, with a roar of fury, sought to kill Palamon, replacing the alternative version of himself forever. This dark mirror of the main plot was shattered by the arrival of Pirithous to announce Arcite’s death, but suggested an irresolvable tension in the Wooer and Daughter’s future, the former condemned always to be a shadow of the man the Daughter had been obsessed with, and unable to shake off the memory of his doppelganger.

The final moments of the production left everyone facing loss and potential isolation. Palamon cradled Arcite’s dying body, weeping as his friend passed, and the sombre end to the production left Emilia alone onstage, joined eventually by the Jailer’s Daughter, who exchanged something with her. The one had lost Arcite; the other Palamon; both had been abandoned by a society that no longer had anything to perform, and now had to deal with the emotional wreckage. This sobering conclusion left a lot of questions about the responsibility taken for a society perhaps more interested in its public shows than its private care.

FILM: Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

For a film that came out so recently, the Criterion edition of Blue is the Warmest Color (the film joined the collection in the same year it premiered) seems surprisingly slight on extras. At least until one learns about the controversy around the film, with actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos complaining about the exploitative treatment of the stars during the filming of the sex scenes (this is not a film which had an intimacy coordinator). The very public and very fallout of the two actresses with director Abdellatif Kechiche, just after the three had received an unprecedented Palme d’Or split between the three of them, colors everything about the film in retrospect.

Two women sit on a bench next to a path, surrounded by trees and greenery
The film is far more erotic when they’re not touching.

What’s most disappointing is that the only bit of framing the film gets from Criterion, beyond a couple of trailers, is an essay by B. Ruby Rich which is basically an apologia for the director. What erotic film doesn’t have bad sex films, what great director doesn’t have actors complaining about his or her handling of them, was the criticism really to do with racism at a time of acute xenophobia in France? The essay has dated extraordinarily badly in its dismissal of the two young actresses’ attempts to articulate the harm they felt the experience had on them, and particularly with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement only a couple of years later, this feels like an immediately dated attempt to privilege art no matter what the cost. The essay literally includes the line ‘But wait. First consider the work’.

The work is good, though weakest in its much-trumpeted explicit sex scenes, criticised by the creator of the original source comic as an affront to lesbian love-making, an idea of gay love between women filtered through a voyeuristic male gaze. The scenes serve an important structural function in terms of establishing the freedom the two women at the film’s heart, Adèle and Emma, have with one another in their own private space. But the scenes do feel disconnected from the rest of the film, not least because they are montages when most of the rest of the film dwells on continuous, near-real-time encounters. And the camera, both in the sex scenes and elsewhere, spends a lot of its time dwelling on women’s bodies in ways that might mimic Adèle’s sexual awakening, but also feel external to Adèle (especially when it’s her body being looked at). The most important of the sex scenes is, in fact, the one which takes place at a cafe while the two are fully clothed, when Adèle’s desire for her ex-girlfriend overcomes her and the impulse emerges from the dramatic action, rather than divorced from it.

It’s a patient film, and frankly at times a little dull. Adèle is a teenager at high school, finding herself between readings of erotic French literature and playground conversations about boys. She starts dating, but as she confides to a male friend, there’s something missing. When a female classmate kisses her, she seems to find that missing thing, but is immediately rebuffed by the same classmate, who didn’t think she would take it so seriously. But when she meets blue-haired art student Emma, she finds the awakening she has been waiting for. A long affair later, she ends up cheating on Emma with a dude, gets thrown out, and then the two have a couple of further encounters before the film glides to an end.

The camera barely leaves Adèle throughout, acting as a close-up portrait of a coming-of-age. But the film feels self-consciously torn between its own artistic sentiments and its more political purpose. That is, the film is actually most interesting when it locates Adèle within a larger society. Images of her joining a march for funding public education bring together different generations of French protesters, and Adèle’s commitment to her teaching (which also aligns her with a more multicultural society than the more middle-class Emma) is the strongest element of individual characterization. The homophobia Adèle experiences early on from the supposedly liberal-minded but horribly catty girls in the schoolyard speaks of an ugly undercurrent to this faux progressive society, and the sequence in which Adèle serves simple Bolognese to Emma’s friends while they pontificate on the nature of art and existence implies a subtle class commentary. As a snapshot of French society in the early twenty-first century, there’s a lot going on here.

But this is unabashedly a film about love and growing up, and the two actors are phenomenal. The sequence in which Emma confronts Adèle about her affair is riveting; Adèle begins – as she has repeatedly throughout the film – by lying bare-faced, giving away the truth with her tears, but absolutely refusing to own the truth. But where her friend was able to take her away from the homophobes in the playground, here there is no safety net; the moment where Adèle suddenly clocks that she really is being thrown out and suddenly lets all of her fear show is brutal and heartfelt. And the depiction of the love between the two women is lush and romantic. While the taint of exploitation makes it hard to separate things out, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are at their best when acting rather than posing, creating complex, warm, messy, deeply watchable human beings, and their work, at least, is exceptional.

THEATRE: Puffs by Matt Cox (produced by Silver Line Theatre Exchange)

Silver Line Theatre Exchange, Staunton’s community conservatory, only moved into its new Warehouse Theatre a few days before opening its production of Puffs to coincide with the city’s off-brand Harry Potter celebration, the Magic and Mischief Festival. The theatre is a great, convivial space, and Puffs offers a perfect way to align the theatre’s mission with the city’s larger cultural life. Like Magic and Mischief itself, Puffs is a homemade, joyful, creative celebration of not being especially special – and certainly not officially approved – but of taking part nonetheless.

Makeshift school crest for the Puffs
The button eyes are a particularly nice touch

Puffs retells the story of the first seven Harry Potter books from the point of view of Wayne, a magic boy brought up in New Mexico by Muggles after his parents died, who only found out about wizardry when he received a letter telling him to go to A Certain School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Arriving at school, he decides he wants to be a hero who saves the world – except everything he does is over-shadowed by the exploits of one ‘Potter’ in the ‘Brave House’. And so, over seven years, he and his fellow hapless students in ‘Puffs’ flounder on the fringes of strangely familiar events, while trying to deal with the fact that no-one seems to care what they’re up to.

It’s an absolute riot. The cast, all locally based and most training with Silver Line, are sharp and funny [ NB the online program wasn’t working, so I don’t have cast names], and do a great job with a sharp script. The recreations of characters from the books and films are the most fun, from the self-aware (‘The headmaster looks different!’ says one character at the start of Book Three) to the mocking (a pitch-perfect Moaning Myrtle with toilet seat around her neck) to the parodic. The hero of the Puffs, of course, is Cedric, who moves in slow-motion and pushes hair out of his face, and spends the play’s first half rallying the despondent Puffs around the mission to come at least third in the House Cup. Moody turns up with one enormous cardboard eye covering half his face. And Voldemort gets to dance in a club in a 1981 flashback before deciding to go kill a kid, and has a long bit about how no-one seems to be willing to give him any shoes.

Yet there’s also meat here. Wayne is a mirror for Potter, right down to SPEAKING IN CAPITALS during Book Five; tiny maths genius (but appalling wizard) Oliver becomes his best friend and comrade in magical failure; and Megan begins as a wannabe ‘Snake’ – her mother is in Wizard Prison for assisting The Dark Lord – but starts becoming bookish. The trio’s uncanny reflections of Harry, Ron and Hermione at the start give way to a surprising and often affecting independence, the ‘Puff Hugs!’ and care between them developing more chemistry than the films’ leads ever did. For a play that is deliberately very, very silly, there’s a lot to invest in as the three try to wrestle with their feelings of inadequacy and find solidarity and value in one another.

The great thing about Puffs is that its overt leaning-in to amateurism and bad magic allows it to sustain both technical effects and self-parody. The repeated appearance of a guy clad entirely in greenscreen lycra to help objects fly ‘magically’ around the stage is a brilliant recurring joke, but the actual special effects (including Cedric’s propensity for making insects appear in Wayne’s hand, and some fun stuff with scrolls) are not only smoothly done but perfectly timed. And similarly, the performances can be both simultaneously heightened and also genuinely affecting. Leanne, a Puff who was raised alone and who has an endless stream of hilarious non sequiturs, ends up stealing the show with her winsome idiosyncrasies as this show’s version of Luna, then later has the audience almost on its feet as she sees off a whole slew of Death Eaters during the final battle. The audience shrieks as she was then suddenly killed off spoke to the pitch-perfect timing of the production’s juggling of tone.

For all Puffs works as a deliberately irreverent jaunt through Harry Potter for the fans, it’s also a corrective to the troubling world that the books create. The books (and films) lean into so many hateful and hurtful tropes, from their casual fatphobia to their surprising adherence to elitist models of education and class, that for many they’re now irredeemable. But Puffs re-centers the idea that education is meant to be for everyone, not for the ‘special’ ones, taking the throwaway cue from the Sorting Hat’s song in the first book that Helga Hufflepuff committed to teaching everyone the other founders didn’t want to, because that’s what school should be. And even though he’s waiting for Harry, the dead Dumbledore tells the dead Wayne that, whenever you feel you’re the supporting character in someone else’s story, there’s another story to write in which you’re the lead. In the context of a Magic and Mischief Festival where an LGBTQ+ stall proclaiming ‘No-one should have to live in a closet’ stands proudly in support of trans rights, and where the series creator gets no financial recompense, Puffs feels like a salve, a reclamation of a tainted mythology for a more genuinely inclusive purpose.