Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Entertaining Children

My brother, sister-in-law and their children are visiting. This is wonderful as I haven't seen my brother for a number of years and before two weeks ago had never met their youngest child. Whenever we have friends and family to visit, we take them on tours of Wellington and environs, but we don't really do this with people with children so we wondered how to entertain them?

Fortunately they love to entertain themselves, telling themselves stories and disappearing into their imaginative worlds. On Christmas Eve they 'helped' me bake the biscuits which were to comprise presents for the parents and other adults. We made star biscuits and hundreds and thousands of the sprinkles were consumed, along with blue icing which is now decorating the kitchen benchtops.

They enjoy playing with their Christmas presents, colouring books and dot-to-dots. It seems we are more amused by table football than they. One day we went along to a park and took a football. My brother and Him Outdoors played with the football for about an hour while the children were content with the swings and the slides.

As we usually do, we took our guests to the wineries out at Martinborough. I can thoroughly recommend Vynfields as a place to take little people. The wine tastings come on a tray so you can take them away and sit in the magnificent garden with a platter too if you like. This means you can enjoy them at your leaisure while keeping an eye on the children playing in the wide open space.

Apparently rocks under trees can be converted to peanut butter sandwiches for yellow aliens (don't ask) and stone tables make excellent space ships.

Ata Rangi also has a large area for running around and playing stuck-in-the-mud or Peter Pan. I was slightly surprised that Wendy and the crocodile were the characters to be as I had always thought Wendy was a bit wet, but I think the drawcard here was that she could walk a plank (or a bench, if we're honest). Meanwhile we could get stuck into the Craighall Chardonnay with impunity.

A typical Wellington childhood entertainment is Te Papa, and we went along to see the colossal squid. I thought it was a little odd that bits of it were cut up and put in specimen jars, although it was still pretty impressive stretched out in it's entirety.

The children liked the 3D video that accompanied the exhibit, although the two questions they kept asking were, 'What killed it and why?' (Answers: fishermen; for our entertainment) and, 'Where are the dinosaurs?' (Answer: there aren't any, but there are some fossils). In fact, dramatic though the squid may be (and we are reminded that it is a colossal squid and not one of the giant variety - they are quite a different kettle of fish apparently) it lost out in the popularity stakes to ice cream.

Movenpick on Herd Street does delicious flavours - hokey pokey, vanilla (with real seeds from the pods) and the raspberry/strawberry sorbet ('It's healthy!') were among the favourites.

A short stroll along the waterfront to the playground at Freyberg Beach meant everyone could play on a variety of vomit-inducing contraptions which finished off the afternoon nicely. So there we have it; how to entertain children for a weekend in Wellington without driving adults to distraction.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Seeing with new eyes

Him Outdoors is injured - he has hurt his Achilles tendon and cannot run. Usually this would be a disaster; cue much grumpiness and incessant moaning. However, I have to say it is not actually that bad this time. We cycle when we can (wind permitting) and walk when we can't.

At the weekend we went out for a walk along the Eastern Walkway to Tarakena Bay. It's one of my regular runs, but this time it was more leisurely and I took the camera along.

There are a lot of steps, both up and down which gives you a good workout when running - step sessions as Him Outdoors calls them. My description is less polite. When walking, you can still get a sweat up, although the need to take photos means you can call a halt to the steady march - I have developed subterfuge in my 17 year relationship with a fitness facist.

I also decided this would be a good opportunity to study the flowers. Wild flowers are so beautiful, growing wherever they may in glorious profusion.

The pohutukawa trees are out in bloom. Him Outdoors used to struggle to capture the name (he called them Pocahontas trees) but now he is proud of his knowledge, and pronunciation, as he marvels that Seatoun is Pohutukawa Central. Indeed, these scarlet flowers (remarketed in the '90s as the Kiwi Christmas tree) add daubs of festive colour to the surrounding scenery.

The hills about this place are smothered with fennel. In spring it is fresh and feathery green scented with a subtle aniseed; in summer the green deepens to a vivd hue and the yellow flowers are buzzed by bees. It smells as though you are running through a curry bazaar. Later in the season the stems turn tough and woody. We always say we should bring a trowel and dig up some bulbs to take home, but we never do.

The bays themselves are quite simply beautiful. In their way they are as stunning as anything in Northland, Coromandel, Marlborough Sounds or the Bay of Islands. And they are fifteen minutes' drive from the capital city. We can't afford to go away this Christmas break (having used up all our finances on our recent trip to Itlay and America - and the America section of those travels is still to come on this blog!) so there is extra pleasure in having all these delights on our doorstep.

Even the names of these places are exotic. From the Pass of Branda - which we can't help but say in a deep cinema voiceover tone to Tarakena Bay. There is also Flax Bay, Eve Bay, Reef Bay, Breaker Bay, and Signallers' Cove.

At the end of this trail at Tarakena Bay the Ataturk memorial overlooks the entrance to Wellington harbour. Apparently the site was chose for its remarkable likeness to the landscape of the Gallipoli peninsula, and the monument contains Turkish soil from Anzac Cove.

Although this looks like a giant urinal, it is really quite a moving memorial to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli who went on to become the founder of modern Turkey. It may seem strange to have a monument to a man who was partly responsible for the deaths of many soldiers of that country, but according to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage website, the Memorial is an outcome of an agreement between the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand governments.

In 1984, Australia asked Turkey if the cove on the Gallipoli peninsula could be renamed Anzac Cove in memory of the Australian and New Zealand troops who died there in 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign of World War One. The Turkish Government agreed to change the cove's name from Ari Burnu and also built a large monument to all those who died in the campaign. In return, the Australian and New Zealand governments agreed to build monuments in Canberra and Wellington to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The inscription on the memorial was written by Ataturk in 1934 and is read every year by the Turkish Ambassador on Anzac Day at the National War Memorial in Wellington. (As with any of these photos, you can click on the image to make it bigger and read the words.)

So I saw an everyday sight with new eyes. This really is a beautiful place and although we often do, we can't really complain. Another positive is that, having walked the track, the next time I run it, it will seem that much faster. I'd better go before I turn into that ghastliest of characters, Pollyanna.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Up Where We Belong

Capitan Fantastico does it again as Stevie G leads his side to another glorious victory - 5-1 against Newcastle at St James' Park. Though I felt slightly sorry for Shay Given (it would have been at least ten if it weren't for his excellent goal-keeping) and didn't like to see little Michael (Owen) with blood pouring from his knee, that's not enough to wipe the smile from my face. The boys done good.

Even Lucas and Benayoun played well - and I'm not usually forthcoming in my praise for them. Mascherano's return is welcome - he adds the needle to the midfield and his challenges are of the 'uncompromising' variety, shall we say. I would have liked to see Robbie Keane come on and so, by the look on his face as he smarted on the bench, would he.

Of course I miss Torres, but they managed admirably without him. Babel is becoming a tower of strength (sorry) and it's always nice to see Hyypia head one into the back of the net. I still rate Kuyt for his hard work, positional play and tactical awareness, even if he does lack a certain finesse and you could probably make an entire DVD of shots of him tripping over the ball - I'm sure someone already has.

Benitez managed a smile, which may be a first, and didn't even look too annoyed to be bothered by a mobile-phone-wielding fan as he sat in the stands supposedly recovering from surgery while chattering away and passing directions through to Sammy Lee.

Watching Liverpool must be one of the worst ways to relax - I certainly bite off all my fingernails and feel my heartbeat rise each time they step on the pitch - but at least this time he was rewarded with three points and a chink of daylight at the top of the league.

So Liverpool will now head into the New Year at the top of the table where they belong. I'm sure someone knows when was the last time they did this. I don't. What I do know is that I believe they can go all the way this season. Bring it on! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas tradition

Yes, I ‘do’ Christmas, and it seems there is a recent resurgence of people admitting they like it too. What’s not to like: friends; family; presents; food; drink; James Bond and a celebration of all the good things in life? And there’s the healthy dollop of tradition – I love a good bit of tradition.

Among the best traditions are those you incorporate into your own family, such as hunting down the perfect Christmas tree. We get ours on the 23rd December – it’s summer here and pine trees don’t last that long. When we lived in Queenstown, they grew like weeds and, because they aren’t native, you were considered to be doing society a favour if you went and chopped one down.

Him Outdoors also has his birthday that day, so I would send him out of the house with the boys to get them out of the way while I finished off whatever Christmas jobs were necessary for the big day. They would return triumphant like worthy little hunter gatherers and reward themselves with beer after potting the tree. It became a ritual.

Everyone who came into the house between then and Christmas morning had to hang an ornament on the tree, and we placed a fairy on top. Previous incarnations of said fairy have included Eric Cantona and Roy Keane – not Robbie of course, as he would be more like an angel. I would have had Ronaldo for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t bear to have that winker in my house in any shape or form. (
Now we just have a tiny tree because we live in a little appartment and it sits on the table looking festive.)

After that, we sit and talk, play games, eat, drink, read, do jigsaw puzzles and have an open-door policy for anyone else who is far from home without family, or looking for some peace and quiet away from theirs. Sometimes we get a ham from His Outdoors’ employers with which we make everything from salads and sandwiches to curry and stir-fry. We have chicken butties on Christmas Day and plenty of bubbles, and some special food for the cat which he doesn’t eat because he’s fussy – he’s a pedigree, don’t you know.

That’s our tradition – keep it simple. I suppose it’s what Christmas means to you and all that, but I don’t want unnecessary pressure at this time of year – or any time come to that. I try to avoid the shops and frantic commercialism and the rabid Christmas music. I love carols, but I hate those ‘jingle bell rock’ and ‘rocking around the Christmas tree’ tunes with their enforced sense of jollity which feels more like desperation.

I try and do the Christmas cards early, but I’m on my own here as Him Outdoors doesn’t help. He grumbles that he hates Christmas and if his parents get a card they should count themselves lucky. Apparently the ‘circular is so tacky’. I have no problem with this, as it’s a good way to keep in touch, but why do we only do it once a year? I am writing cards to people so if you haven’t got yours yet, don’t worry, you will, but it might not be in time for Christmas. In fact, as I haven’t put them in the post yet, it certainly won’t be in time for Christmas.

We are told it’s the thought that counts, but so many people still expect gifts tied up with ribbons, and dinner with all the trimmings. So to stem the rising tide of consumerism we are encouraged to make little tins of biscuits and other homemade gifts to prove our nurturing domestic goddess skills. You’ll notice men aren’t expected to do this. Why are we meant to have more time and inclination just because we’re female? Steamed puddings bring a whole new meaning to pressure cooking and if we haven’t got cranberry sauce, who cares? Does it really matter?

I went to church at the weekend. I sang the carols and said the prayers. I was generally filled with peace and goodwill to all mankind. The pageant was cute even with Joseph gurning throughout and Mary looking like she was about to burst into tears. The Indian girl with the wings who stood in the pulpit with arms outstretched to represent the Angel Gabriel was my favourite (that was the part I always got in the school nativity play).

But then the children started racing up and down the aisle and clambering all over the pews; shrieking and wailing. One kid even had one of those electronic computer things that bleeped and blipped all through the service so you could hardly hear a word. I tried to drown it out with ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. ‘Why don’t the parents teach them respect?’ I wondered, and then I put it in a bubble and let it go. It’s Christmas after all.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Happy Birthday Him Outdoors

By a quirk of serendipity (does serendipity have quirks? Or is that just fate?) today is my last day of work before the Christmas break and Him Outdoors officially gets another year older. This means there will be much rejoycing - hurrah!

And by another quirk of coincidence... I found a fabulous post on the Legends of Beer blog exploding 10 common beer myths. My favourite is myth no. 6: beer should be served ice-cold for best flavour (except it's an American site so it actually says 'flavor' but I'm prepared to overlook that in the spirit of all things festive).

"This is an unfortunate myth perpetuated by the major commercial breweries - especially for their lite beers. The fact is, flavor typically diminishes when beer is served ice-cold. It may make for a thirst-quenching, refreshing beverage, but often bears little resemblance to traditional beer. Several beers are, in fact, best served much closer to room temperature or slightly cool and are considered undrinkable when icy cold - such as Guinness and many of the traditional English ales."

Thank you Legends of Beer; In future, I shall direct all the Kiwis who refer scathingly to English beer (or any boutique New Zealand brew with taste) as 'flat and warm' to your website. In the meantime I shall go and drink some close-to-room-temperature-and-totally-delectable ales in celebration of/with Him Outdoors at The Malthouse - where they know how to serve a good drop. Cheers!

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest
Wellington Repertory Theatre,
Gryphon Theatre, November 26 – December 6

Oscar Wilde is in the highest echelon of playwrights – to my mind, only half a step behind William Shakespeare – and his plays are legendary with oft-quoted lines. Sometimes directors can ruin the sparkling wit by trying to stamp their own interpretation on them, but Julia Harris largely resists this temptation.

Stephen Walter as Algernon Moncrieff has some of the best lines of the play and he delivers them superbly. His mix of cynicism and bafflement is both comic and endearing, pitched at just the right level of understated savoir faire. If only men were like this in real life, women would stop complaining about the man drought. His understanding butler Lane (Chris Barker who doubles as Merriman) copes stoically with his indiscretions á la Jeeves and Wooster.

Hayden Rogers as John Worthing is the foil to Algie’s rapier. Often these two are played as a comedy duo, and here Jack is the straight-man. Rather than criticism of his lies and deceit (pretending to have an ailing brother and then ‘killing him off’ when he gets inconvenient), his even temper elicits sympathy as it is plain he will never succeed if left to his own bumbling devices.

The girls the boys are in love with are poles apart but both exquisite. As Gwendolen Fairfax, Danielle Duberguet is the ultimate in refinement – woe betides any man who attempts to resist her girlish determination. Rosemary Williams is sprightly and verging on feral as Cecily Cardew; no less resolved to snag her man despite flights of infantile fancy. The scene in which Gwendolen and Cecily become friends, adversaries and then friends again is the highlight of the play.

Lady Bracknell is one of the most fun creations for an actor and Margaret Hill doesn’t disappoint. Her icy demeanour gives an indication as to how Gwendolen (her daughter) will develop. After all, as Algie quips, ‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his’. She remains tight-lipped and ferocious throughout without a hint of warmth. How refreshing it would be to see her played with the merest suggestion of humour and flirtation. She is slightly one-dimensional but to her credit, delivers the famous ‘handbag’ speech with distinction.

Mary Coffey is an utter delight as Miss Prism with a unique blend of blushing girlishness and spinsterish insecurity. It is charming to see her paired with the Reverend Chasuble (Leslie Craven). His calm generosity of spirit ensures that this will be one relationship that is likely to last and brings a genuine smile to the audience. If this is a battle of the sexes, it is one in which all is equal – the women get their men, and the men are happy to be got.

I would question why it is set in the present. The use of cell phones, blackberries and laptops is incongruous in a play which hinges on the difference of town and country mores – the global village effect negates all the intricacies and farcical constructs that Wilde works so hard to establish. The dialogue is practically poetry, and when did you last hear a texting teenager speak in sentences of more than rudimentary grammar and vocabulary?

Also, Algie and Jack’s discussion about smoking jackets or going to a club so that they can sit and talk makes no sense in a modern context. This setting allows for some delicious wardrobe (once again the undisputed domain of the excellent Annabelle Hensley and team) but if the intention was for us not to get distracted by the period frocks, it has backfired by making us question the contemporary relevance. Whoever designed the poster has stuck with vintage Victoriana and designed one of the best posters seen all year.

The Importance of Being Earnest is like a sumptuous game of cricket – all dramatic tradition and tortuous tactics. Despite some devastating spin and dazzling confidence, five days of manoeuvres can end in a very satisfying draw. It is, after all, just a game.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Theatre briefs

I’ve seen some very varied shows in the last month or so. This time of year brings out some gems, and some garbage. Fortunately, the theatre I’ve seen has been more at the diamond than the rough end of the scale.

Backyard Productions put on Summer Shorts at the Gryphon Theatre which was a selection of five short plays with varied themes and a high caliber of acting. The Look of Love at Downstage is Jennifer Ward-Leland’s take on a range of love songs from writers such as George Harrison, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Stephen Sondheim, John Lennon, Jacques Brel, and Burt Bacharach.

I also saw the fabulous play The Little Dog Laughed at Downstage, which was everything good theatre should be – I was entertained, amused, provoked and inspired. It may well be a contender for the best play I have seen this year. Here are the highlights:

The plot – a gay male actor (Mitchell) and his lesbian agent (Diane) pose as a couple for the sake of the press. He has made his career on playing rugged action heroes and it won’t do either of their bank accounts any good for him to come out now.

He has a penchant for rent boys but starts a relationship with one (Alex) which threatens to blow his cover (I apologize for the terrible pun). Alex has a girlfriend (Ellen) who discovers his betrayal, although she can hardly complain as she has been prostituting herself for a sugar daddy. This is what passes for relationships in Hollywood.

Themes – theatre versus film – a rich seam of material is well and truly mined. When Diane pitches her idea to a screenwriter, it becomes apparent that the play is not as straight-forward as it seemed. There will be changes. How far would you go for money and is your reputation worth keeping if it’s based on lie?

The set (Daniel Williams) – a minimalist backdrop against which the Hollywood letters are strewn across the stage to become variously a drinks cabinet; a sun-lounger; and a bed. They are adapted and altered with a realism that makes them functional as well as decorative.

The acting – uniformly excellent. Small casts can sometimes make you wish to see another actor to break things up. With this ensemble you simply can’t get enough of them, baby.

Mitchell – Richard Knowles; it’s tough to play an actor playing an actor, but he pulls it off (apologies again) running the whole gamut of emotions through his relationship with Alex from anger, passion, denial, resistance, control and tenderness. His Tom Cruise smile and boyish enthusiasm is far from accidental.

Diane – Renee Sheridan; a slick bitch exuding glamour and insincerity. Her character is meant to be from New York although her accent is still stuck in the Deep South from her previous outing as Blanche DuBois. She is perfectly calculating and manipulative, never allowing feelings to get in the way of a good deal; exploiting the personal for the public attention, but never allowing the paparazzi to see the whole story.

Alex – Kip Chapman; I last saw him playing a totally different all-American role in The American Pilot and this proves his spectacular talent. His outré role-playing disguises his deep insecurity and when he falls for Mitchell the vulnerability is more raw and confronting than any amount of nudity or homosexual displays of affection (and there are plenty of those too).

Ellen – Sophie Hambleton; her portrayal of shallow, material and vacuous is superb. Although her anger at her betrayal is justified and well-acted, she knew what she was getting herself into. Her haircut may recall Katie Holmes but her righteous indignation recalls Diana, so-called Princess of Hearts.

These are some of the theatre stories of the week:

New version of West Side Story

Actor hurt by stage knife

The state of theatre in America

The second story has since been discredited, but what a great conspiracy theory while it ran! Among my fellow actors, there was talk of little else… Of course, that’s not true either but so what, since when did that matter?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Reflections of Venice 3

There are churches galore which, according to the tourist guide, all contain ‘important works’. We pass their façades, either as we sweep by on the water or as we walk through the web of waterways. The only one we enter, Chiesa della Pietá has an exhibition of violins and related woodwind instruments on account of Vivaldi being one of Venice’s favourite sons.

Other notable Venetians include Cassanova and Marco Polo – men of exploration and swagger; hedonistic rather than scholarly. I can’t imagine Leonardo da Vinci sitting down to his inventive drawings here. He would have been out partying in the streets, drinking and revelling, hiding behind a mask and not taking responsibility for his actions.

All is pretence in Venice, and not just the multitude of Carnivale masks. There are a couple of stone lions still in the city – the statues look friendly, but you used to be able to denounce someone by writing their name on a piece of paper and placing it in the lion’s mouth – the ensuing events were then far from friendly. I want to see these lions but we don’t seem to go their way.

The Venice Lion (St Mark’s symbol) is everywhere; in paintings and sculptures, carved on the side of buildings or stood atop pedestals – he is winged so could take off at any moment. I suspect those wings are clipped and his majesty is fading, otherwise I doubt he would remain here, and he looks sad rather than proud.

The Romanesque-Byzantine style of Saint Mark’s Basilica seems ostentatious with its gilt mosaics and five cupolas; its splendid marbles and gilded copper horses. The adjacent campanile was once a lighthouse although no longer, and the practical purpose of guiding ships into the harbour seems far preferable to me than a repository for a dead man’s bones.

The Torre dell’Orologio is something special with its blue and enamel face with zodiacal depictions to indicate the phases of the moon and its sundial and hands for pointing out the time rather more prosaically. It is familiar from having a baddie thrown through it by Bond in Moonraker and has pieced itself back together very nicely indeed.

Many of Venice’s treasure were hidden or removed when the Germans occupied the city during the war – the Venetians had learned their lesson from Napoleon’s previous plundering. Rooms were sealed up and ornate painted ceilings covered with tar to prevent the invading army from enjoying the gaze of cherubs – which might actually have put them off. But the Germans, with their love of art and fine things, did not destroy Venice; it remained intact throughout the war.

Long before the Germans’ arrival, however, there were specific areas for segregating the Jewish community. In 1516 the Ghetto was instituted by the Venetian republic as a compulsory place of residence for Jews. The word itself originates from Venice, being a contortion of the word ‘geto’, meaning to throw or cast as the foundries were located here in early times. There is an air of money-making with unfavourable connotations, which Shakespeare picked up in The Merchant of Venice.

But despite all this, I still like the place. I like the bustling market around the Ponte di Rialto; I like the occasional peaceful canals (literally backwaters) with the reflections of light from the water dancing on the brickwork.

I like drinking a glass of prosecco; the bubbles even eliciting laughter from a jolly gondolier who has popped into the bar for a break, his boater askew. I like watching the gondoliers negotiating the waterways and jostling for position outside the hotels, hitching their gondolas to the palina (the coloured striped pole painted in the noble family’s colours) while casually smoking cigarettes or chatting on cell phones.

And I like standing on the bridge, leaning on the balustrade and watching the lights of the shops and restaurants winking on in the dark; their reflection broken only by the watercraft that still plough up and down the canals with red and green lights hung for navigation.