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FILM: September 2008

Keira Knightley gets better as she becomes older - but I didn't ask her any questions about her age when I interviewed her at a press conference after the screening of THE DUCHESS (cert. 12A 1hr 50mins). The film itself is a good, splendid looking production in the gorgeous costumes and wigs tradition. Keira plays Georgiana Spencer who was the Diana of her time in that at age 17 she married the much older Duke of Devonshire, (played by Ralph Fiennes), with a contract negotiated by her mother (Charlotte Rampling).

The Duchess

The main requirement is for Georgiana to produce a son but at first she only has two daughters and a disinterested husband who is keener on his dogs and bedding the maids than he is in her. She becomes a style icon and then finds a friend in Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), but is very saddened when she discovers her husband having an affair with Bess. Georgiana falls in love with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) who will one day become Prime Minister, but her husband forbids her to continue and she lives in a ménage a trois with the Duke and Bess.

Keira looks stunning in this film and in real life is even thinner but attractive. She puts in a moving performance as does Hayley and handsome Dominic - first noticed in The History Boys - who is mature in the role and also came across intelligently at the press conference. Keira sounds a bit like Princess Diana and certainly has her figure. She is also pursued by the public and men and is a fashion icon and both she and her husband have affairs and, of course, there are "three in the marriage" and, after Georgiana's death, the Duke married his mistress. There are other modern parallels, although Director Saul Dibb insisted that the film is telling this particular story not the present Royal family's and Keira adds that she was 11 when Diana died.

The film was shot in many of the original settings and others of the period, including the Bristol Old Vic, are incorporated to show places which are no longer around. Dominic and the two girls remarked that it was most useful being in the actual settings and getting a feel of the atmosphere and life at the end of the eighteenth century. Keira, in answer to a question on performing in huge costumes said that she had difficulty in breathing in the tight corsets and in using the toilet in her trailer. Apparently in the passionate love-making scene between Georgiana and Charles, Dominic wore a skin-coloured nappy!

Keira was delighted to have been given such a huge part which, she said, she found, "A massive challenge and terrifying." Hayley and Keira commented on the sexual relationship between the two women - Bess certainly had sexual power over Georgiana but was also a mediator between the Duchess and the Duke. The Duchess was a lonely person and looked for affection wherever she could find it.

The Duchess

Keira said that the film showed the danger of marrying so young, as the Duchess was, and she was also idealistic; the story is of a fairytale which goes wrong - more shades of the Diana & Charles marriage? And my question to Keira? I asked whether she had any desire to appear on stage and she answered that yes, she had the desire, no plans at the moment and then responded eagerly to Dominic's suggestion that she looked at a play he had in mind and then the three agreed that it might be a good idea if they all appeared together in a production.


THEATRE TIP

The latest new plays at the National Theatre are both devised or written by women. First the Katie Mitchell directed .SOME TRACE OF HER which packs as much variety into its 1hr 30mins, with no interval, as most plays twice the length. It's a multi-media piece using video, film, 4 live musicians and 8 actors who, in fact, operate all the lights, cameras, move props and other equipment along with playing various parts in this project based (very) loosely on Dostoevsky's novel. It looked spectacular but most of the time I hadn't a clue what was going on in the narrative.

Her Naked Skin

HER NAKED SKIN is a new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and the first full-length play by a woman to be put on the Olivier stage. Well, congratulations to Rebecca as this is a stunning production showing some of the torture suffered by militant suffragettes on hunger strike in prisons around 1913. Starting with grainy newsreel film of Emily Davison's martyr's death when she threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby, it goes on to show upper and working class women's devotion to the cause. So determined are they to win votes for women that they suffer the torture of force-feeding, graphically depicted in one horrifying scene of a female prisoner being held down by a number of guards while a nurse and doctor pour liquid through a tube into her nostrils.

The story develops through the growing love between Lady Celia Cain (a moving performance by Lesley Manville) and a young machinist (Jemima Rooper) as Celia realises that she needs to escape from her comfortable but undemanding life with her husband. Susan Engel is excellent as an older suffragist. My grandmother was a suffragette - though not a militant - and I can never understand how women ever fail to use their vote.

If you haven't yet seen it do go to THE 39 STEPS (Criterion), a very funny version of the Alfred Hitchcock film performed at full speed - under two hours - with just 4 actors. On the night I went: Callum Coates as Richard Hannay and Nigel Betts, Josefina Gabrielle, Alan Perron playing all the other parts.

39 Steps

They somehow manage to fit in all the scenes from the 1935 film with very clever changes of costumes and wigs or one character segues into another with just a different hat to show a change of person. There are some great bits of comic business too and the whole production is directed with enormous gusto by Maria Aitken.

There's a lot of humour in another show which is best known as a film: the Lerner and Loewe musical, GIGI (Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park) is famous as the 1958 film in which Maurice Chevalier played the old roué, Honore, and Lesley Caron was a delightful Gigi. Here Topol is a most amusing Honore, Lisa O'Hare a lovely Gigi aided by Thomas Borchert as Gaston with Millicent Martin as Gigi's grandmother and Linda Thorson (do you remember her in The Avengers?)as her aunt. If one can overlook the cynical story-line of a 16 year-old girl being trained to be a courtesan, the music and songs are well-presented, with actors managing to dance as well, the set is imaginative with very pretty costumes, and the setting in the park is absolutely splendid.

     
     

Carlie Newman

   
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