Australian Arts

West Side Story

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

How strange to revisit the Nova in Lygon Street, Carlton, where a lifetime of films have been experienced, after an absence of almost two years because of virus lockdowns, and for the film in question to be of a work known since childhood, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is a square-shaped black and white version — made by Apple and destined to be streamed — with Denzel Washington as the man born to make himself king by murder, Frances McDormand as his wife Lady Macbeth and her husband Joel Cohen directing.

It’s a spare, tight, harrowing Macbeth filmed half the time in long light-drenched corridors that create an abstract space like an abbey designed by Di Chirico. It’s a claustrophobic Macbeth dynamised by violence and it is coherent to the point of paranoia with a kind of becowled, sinister figure (not unlike Bertie Carvell’s Banquo) but who shades the action — just before the slaying of Lady Macduff and her boy — and in a final gesture takes up Fleance, Banquo’s escaped son from whom a line of kings will spring.

If this overdetermines the Machiavellianism of a world steeped in blood it does have a weird satanic novelty. In comparable fashion, Kathryn Hunter is one witch grown to three like a spawning mutation though Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan is crisp and footsure, classical without any booming majesty. The text at every point is as lean as it could be in this hurtling, taut masterpiece which is the shortest and the most urgent of Shakespeare’s tragedies and this, together with the schematic look of the action — its corridors for carnage, its vast seas of grey smoky space — creates a sense of foredoomed nightmare.

Of the principals, Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth is much the most footsure because she can hit the notes and knows how much the deadliness as well as the remote poignancies of the speech come from the scathing precision and urgent emphatic brilliance of the argument she has with her husband and with herself. She also knows how to find the emotion in the cadence, the drama in the poetry.

Denzel Washington is a fine actor but he doesn’t know how to do this. He cottons on to the generalised emotion of what Macbeth is going through at a given moment without an especial inwardness with the detail — the notation of the heart’s sorrow and the mind’s nightmare — that comes through those panics of dialogue, those plangencies of the pentameter.

He is not a warrior of a Macbeth though he does incarnate Germaine Greer’s conception that Macbeth is the tragedy of a man who tries to kill his soul but can’t succeed. The performance grows in the last act though the dominant impression is of dramatic poetry that has had to be translated into prose for the actor to get a handle on its authenticity.

Shakespeare is also the groundplan for one of the biggest holiday films, Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. The idea of Spielberg, the determining influence on cinema for decades, actually deciding to do a new version of Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 modernisation of Romeo and Juliet boggles the mind and bespeaks obsession. West Side Story not only comes with a ravishing score and Sondheim lyrics, the book by Arthur Laurents is a very effective updating of Shakespeare’s most lyrical tragedy to the age of Tennessee Williams, and the Puerto Rican Sharks and gringo Jets up the ante with a killer racial tension when it comes to the Montague/Capulet feud. The show jettisons Shakespeare’s verbal music substituting Bernstein’s, and Jerome Robin’s direction and extraordinary dramaturgy with its densely dramatic jazz action gives precisely the right degree of stylisation to transfigure a slum romance headed for the dark. West Side Story was also made into a highly effective, wildly popular film in 1961 by Robert Wise with a strong cast headed by Natalie Wood as Maria (though Marni Nixon did the singing for her) and with Rita Moreno as Anita who sings ‘America’, the Chita Rivera role on Broadway.

Rita Moreno plays an old Puerto Rican lady in Spielberg’s version and when, in a cracked voice, the 90-year-old sings ‘Somewhere’ as a heartbreaking lament she brings tears to the eye.

Elsewhere this West Side Story is a mixed bag. You expect the man who invented the very idiom of contemporary editing to go for style at every turn in order to justify the re-jig but often he does the opposite. The lovers, for starters, are extraordinarily young, almost in the manner of Zeffirelli’s 60s Romeo and Juliet. Ansel Elgort as Tony is effective but a bit bland. Rachel Zegler in a debut performance as Maria is ravishingly beautiful and nearly childlike. The balcony scene is done brilliantly — and this is the great director’s hand — when Maria messes up her hair and pretends to have been asleep before she emerges for ‘Tonight’.

But as often as not Spielberg evades style. The post-coital scene has none of the erotic frisson kids got from the white underwear in the 1960s. Tony Kushner has adjusted the script — sometimes diminishingly, sometimes with an added power of Shakespearean fatality (as at the conclusion). But the rumble on a sea of arctic white captures the essence of Jerome Robbins’ original conception and has a graphic grace and power.

Nearly always, it’s the swirl of the high-kicking theatricality that releases the emotion, not the gestures towards a garbage heap realism.

That marvellous piece of Sondheimian patter, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke!’ is done with superb pizzazz but it’s generally the case that the ensemble is superior to the principals, just as the cinematised theatre (of a Vincente Minnelli kind) is superior to the realistic drama. On the other hand Mike Faist as Riff, the Mercutio figure, gives a lean and brilliant performance while Ariana DeBose, as Anita, is a powerhouse of panache and passion in an utterly strong characterisation that has every jot and tittle of the original supersized conception.

Spielberg’s West Side Story will hold your attention whether you think it’s the greatest of all musicals or whether you think it lacks the quality that makes Oliver!, say, or Cabaret transfigure their originals.

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