David Lister: Film can learn from theatre

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I would like to take the people behind the remake of the film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London to see A Streetcar Named Desire.

That would be just before I lined them up against a wall and shot them. This week's remake of the Seventies movie and the restaging of Tennessee Williams' classic have no real connection at all. But the two openings on the same week (see Performance Notes below) made me think how theatre so often beats film hands down when it comes to re-imagining a classic property.

Tennessee Williams' great play looked fresh and dynamic, not least through the casting of the compelling and affecting Rachel Weisz as Blanche. She was, startlingly at first, much younger than the usual stage Blanche. Ah, said the production team, but Williams did actually say she should be 30, so that's fine. It's a little disingenuous, as 30 in 1947 meant something very different from 30 in 2009. In 1947, 30 was on the shelf. But the casting certainly worked.

Some critics also found it hard to take Blanche worrying about her appearance, when played by the beautiful Weisz. But in my very limited experience, it's the beautiful women who worry most about their appearance.

Hers was a powerful and affecting performance, played as a far more self-knowing woman than is usual. Without the exaggerated gestures and speech that generally accompany the role, it made her desperate end all the more shocking. The director also went against convention in bringing the figures from Blanche's past life that haunted her imagination on to the stage. This too brought powerful and haunting moments, without at all compromising the writer's original vision.

There's a difference, of course, between restaging a classic piece of theatre and remaking a movie, with different script and to some degree different plot. But both are re-imaginings. Of course one has to ask just why Hollywood would want to touch a flawless comedy thriller like 1974's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

One would want to ask the film-makers why they would alter its memorable pay-off, why they would take the humour out of the film, why they would want to pander to their stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta and write them lengthy speeches, not realising that one world-weary, hangdog look from Walter Matthau's scrunched-up face in the original was worth 1,000 words.

The restaging of a play and the remaking of a film are different creative enterprises, but what theatre shows is that you can keep to the writer's original vision, plot, humour and twists, and through imaginative casting and direction present the original ingredients in a disturbing and enlightening new way. It's what used to be called in a phrase now blighted with pomposity "artistic integrity". Of course, theatre directors have a lot less choice than movie directors. They can't play fast and loose with the plot or the dialogue, as playwrights and their estates keep control over the words and often aspects of the staging. What a shame the same does not apply in Hollywood.

Modern art goes on the offensive

Glasgow art gallery has certainly received some vitriol for its pretty dodgy idea of asking people to write comments on a Bible.

A number of people have questioned whether defacing a Bible is art by any stretch of the imagination, and one or two people have questioned whether Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art would have issued such an invitation to the public if the holy book in question were the Koran.

When I say one or two people, it is a very significant one or two people, as one of them was the Pope, whose adviser was reported as saying: "It is disgusting and offensive. They would not think of doing it to the Koran."

The management of the Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art merely has to respond and say: "Yes we are quite indiscriminate in how we view works that explore art and religion, and of course we would repeat the same exercise with the Koran."

Curiously they have failed to say this. Perhaps they are all on holiday.

A masterclass in damning with faint praise

The newly published writings of the post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Attlee's Great Contemporaries published by Continuum) give a lesson to present-day political diarists in how to demolish a colleague. Attlee always somehow gives the impression he set out to praise.

The party chairman Harold Laski, he says, was "a brilliant chap, but he talked too much. A wonderful teacher – you must be able to talk to teach, and we need all the teachers we can get – but no political judgement".

This is followed by a passage actually headed "Another Brilliant Chap". The economist and historian G D H Cole, he writes, "was another brilliant chap. A very clear mind. But he used to have a new idea every year, irrespective of whether the ordinary man was interested in it or not". How useful praise can be as a way in to damning someone.

I also see that in one of the essays Attlee says that Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison may not have got on because of "Ernie's distrust of Herbert as a slick wire-puller"l Morrison was, of course, the grandfather of Peter Mandelson, which is not to suggest that slick wire-pulling runs in the family.

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