MAX KLAPPER A LIFE IN PICTURES
Gate Theatre at the Electric Cinema, London W11
Opened 20 November, 1996

David Farr's contribution to this year's centenary-of-cinema beano is "a play with film", staged/screened in the Gate Theatre's (now, alas, moribund) neighbour, the Electric Cinema. It is a clever, audacious piece of work, patchy with multimedia imperfections and often impudently referential but none the less admirable.

The eponymous protagonist of Farr's script is a German-born director from Hollywood's 1940s golden age. As the story of his unfinished masterpiece unfolds, Klapper becomes an amalgam of Charles Foster Kane and Erich von Stroheim, with dashes of Fritz Lang and several others thrown in. Anthony Higgins gives a performance of Teutonic coldness, bursting into passion only for his work and quite impassive when he remembers the rosebud lips of his first beloved. Klapper's attempts to rewrite his youth, recreating its events with the proper ending, would be destined to end in tears and blood even without the self-censorship of a studio boss caught between the Hays Code and the House Committee.

Whilst Farr directs the proceedings on stage, Ben Hopkins has shot filmic components which tacitly cite most of the last hundred years of film: an opening shot suggestive of Last Year At Marienbad, a deliciously tacky batch of screen tests and, in a wonderful pastiche of Expressionist cinema, Max's adolescent memories. Hopkins falls significantly short only in the footage supposedly of Klapper's magnum opus, which (although nodding towards Menzies's 1935 film of Wells's Things To Come) often feels less like mid-century techno-fantasy than Wim Wenders's flat, affectless version of it in The State Of Things. (Of course, this, too, may be a deliberate homage...)

Emily Lloyd makes an erratic stage début as Klapper's manufactured leading lady Bella Kooling. Although the camera clearly loves Lloyd's Lillian Gish-like features, her live portrayal of Bella's transition from diffident ingenue to defiant, self-assured celebrity seems stilted and laboured, as if she were always thinking about her moves and inflections; she is noticeably more confident when called upon to act with her entire body than when restricted to gestures of hand and voice. She is not helped by the building itself: the space and dimensions of the Electric cried out to be used in this way, but unfortunately turn out to demand corresponding vocal techniques in order to cope with the acoustics of the place.

However, for all its dense tributes and references, this is a work which thrives even without footnotes one aimed at film lovers rather than film buffs. Despite the necessity of awkward staging to take account of both screen position and wing-space, Farr succeeds in calling forth the indefinably fatalistic atmosphere which characterises the best of his original work.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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