Sealed with a kiss

Our theatre blogger reflects on last week's big production at Westminster Abbey.

"Help me," read a friend's email at 9am on Friday, "I think I'm a monarchist after all!" My suggestion was to take a deep breath; it would pass. As a desultory anti-royalist I sat down to "enjoy" the wedding with a protective armoury of irony and scare quotes. Oh, it was to be so very post-modern. As a theatre-watcher I was almost honour-bound to study the performance qua theatrical event (multi-media, site-specific, promenade, street theatre). After all, though you may well wish otherwise, you don't get audiences of two billion for your average production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But it wasn't long before I was also fearing for my own default republican principles. What a show! What - what? - was that catch in the throat as I watched the two princes, in their "let's pretend" costumes, emerge from Clarence House? Nausea, I diagnosed, hopefully. But no, there was something powerfully affective about this gig, even before the leading lady came on. The last time I'd looked - really looked - at these two men was nearly 14 years ago, as they'd trailed their mother's coffin: two Lost Boys. There was a connective tug of sorts. A tenuous one, perhaps, but we connect where we can.

Like many good plays, this plot is darkly absorbing. It's a fairy tale, all right, in the Grimm and violent Mitteleuropean tradition, where Little Red Riding Hood is eaten, Sleeping Beauty is raped, and the Queen in Snow White is forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes. German fairy tales (and the Saxe-Coburg yarn is no exception) don't end with happily ever after, but with something altogether more pragmatic, along the lines of "and they are still living here today, unless they have died". In this case, the fairy princess was long dead, though the memory of her puffed-up nuptials would lend a minor chord to the celebrations.

On, then - with sympathies fatally stirred - to the theatre itself. Westminster Abbey, the seat of Royal power since 1066 and all that, designed with shock and awe in mind and now charmingly "greened" for the event. Okay, the extras were an insalubrious bunch, and a tad over-decorated, but the leading lady adjudged her costume just right (in danger only of being stealthily upstaged by the supporting actress), and was perfectly composed under those beetling brows. The HD close-ups revealed just enough of her dry-mouthed nerves.

I faded in and out of the service, well used to cherry picking in churches; volume up for the music (we do trumpets very well) volume down, or even off, for the prayerful bits. And then triumphal rides through London, and she still waves like a normal person, really waving, not a codified, etiolated stump of a wave.

And what, if anything, did it all mean? Well, it means what you want it to. A celebrity hairdresser is quoted as saying it signifies the end of straightening irons, and the era of the heated roller. We will appropriate it to our own ends, as we always do. But for those who long ago lost faith in religion, we perhaps retain a hard-wired partiality to ritual, driven by the needy reptilian brain. Which probably explains the enduring appeal of theatre: we have a chemical craving to watch the shamans do their stuff.

It's also about shared experience, and perhaps it doesn't really matter what the event is. The more arbitrary, anachronistic and anomalous the better. For one day, most eyes were trained on the same thing, rather like in the prosaic near past, when, in another degenerate rite, we all watched the same telly of an evening. Rationally we may agree with Diderot that we will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but the responses of "the masses" surely have less to do with the power of the monarchy than the power of this collective experience, and the associated payoffs from the limbic system.

Collective memory will bind the event up together with the holiday, the unseasonably fine weather, an extended festive, estival Easter. And through all the storm of symbols and semiotics, at its heart were two human beings, not ciphers, who seem to know and love each other, and with whom for all the world I would not swap places.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era