Gilbey on Film: We need to talk about Kermit

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

Aside from nostalgia, the primary responses to the generally encouraging quality of the new Muppets picture have been surprise and relief. But why?No other series with the exception of the Carry On films has maintained a comparably high standard over such a long period of time.

There may have been a slight falling-off in the late 1990s with Muppets from Space, and I can't vouch for the occasional TV films (such as a Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz), which I haven't seen. But elsewhere the various filmmakers and brand custodians over the years have been responsible for inventive entertainment that is never shy of breaking the fourth wall. Until The Muppet Movie in 1979, the customary route for TV shows transferring to cinema had been to spin out a typical 30-minute episode to triple the length, with little regard for the demands and contours of the larger medium. But the Muppets' movie outings justify themselves fully as pieces of cinema, building their gags and narratives around our familiarity with the form.

The new picture is called, simply and cleanly, The Muppets -- thank goodness the makers of this "reboot" didn't go for Muppets Begin or Muppets: Fully Loaded. The songs by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie are suitably infectious, if not quite equal to the earworms composed for The Muppet Movie and Muppet Christmas Carol by the Bugsy Malone songwriter Paul Williams.

The rudimentary getting-the-gang-back-together plot begins with Walter, a Muppet, seeing The Muppet Show on television and finally discovering what makes him different from his (human) best friend (played by Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script). It's a coming-out story in essence -- a metaphor for realising that you are not alone in the world after all -- but the movie doesn't labour that point. Instead it sticks to the Muppet films' overarching commandment: Thou shalt not waste any opportunity to remind the audience it is watching a movie. So the road-trip which forms a large chunk of the picture is completed more quickly when the characters opt to travel "by map" (remember the red line inching across the page of an atlas in the Indiana Jones series?), while someone suggests that the lengthy recruitment of all the old Muppets back into the fold might be experienced more enjoyably in montage form.

This self-reflexiveness has long been the way of the Muppets. Remember The Great Muppet Caper from 1982? No, of course you don't: that's why I'm here, to remember it for you. There's a whole production number outlining the characters that the Muppets will be playing in the film we're about to see, and lots of dotty dialogue spoofing storytelling conventions. ("Why are you telling me this?" Miss Piggy asks after a particularly clunky speech by her another character. "It's exposition," comes the reply. "It's got to go somewhere.")

The Muppet Movie even begins with the cast gathering in a private screening room to watch The Muppet Movie. (At one point, the print burns up, Persona-style.) When the musicians from the Electric Mayhem catch up with Kermit and Fozzie in the desert, they are able to do so only because Kermit had given them a copy of the screenplay earlier in the film -- all they had to do was flick forward to page 57 ("Exterior. Desert. Night"). The adventure leads to Hollywood, where a studio head (played by Orson Welles -- who else?) asks his secretary to prepare "the standard 'rich and famous' contract" for the assorted felt animals who have crowded into his office. The Muppet Movie ends with the Muppets beginning work on The Muppet Movie -- the film we are watching. Far from being self-indulgent, the device works magically to draw the cinema audience closer.

Such playfulness has its echo throughout the NBC sitcom-about-nothing Seinfeld, and especially in Season 4, which is devoted to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander) trying to get their sitcom-about-nothing made at NBC. (Some of the story ideas they pitch are lifted from earlier episodes of the show.) It's there too in the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly Synecdoche, New York (about a playwright mounting a scale version of his own life) and Adaptation, which stars Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and shows fictionalised scenes from the set of the writer's previous film, Being John Malkovich. Bravely, the film itself also turns into the same artistically compromised screenplay that Kaufman is shown writing -- a point missed by those critics who complained that the movie sold out in its final stretch.

The Muppets is a good example of the tradition of TV-oriented comic reboots which includes The Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky and Hutch and the forthcoming 21 Jump Street; it also has a slight head-start over those titles because its irreverence is already deep in its DNA. (It may be a reboot but it isn't a makeover.) I wonder where the series could go next; the excellent Muppet Christmas Carol, an affectionate and faithful adaptation of Dickens, and the almost-as-good Muppet Treasure Island, suggested that the form was particularly well-suited to adapting other texts. Glancing at my own bookshelves for ideas doesn't prove especially fruitful. The Muppet Who Fell From Grace with the Sea? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Muppet? We Need to Talk About Kermit?

"The Muppets" is released on Friday.

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.

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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.