Friday, 14 November 2008

Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm by Paul Doust, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons, directed by Tanya Gibbons, produced by Stagecraft Theatre

Gryphon Theatre, Wellington, until 15 November

To produce a theatrical adaptation of a 1930s comic parody of a gothic romance set in rural England is a hell of a challenge, but it is one that Stagecraft and director Tanya Piejus rise to with aplomb.

Satire and slapstick don’t sit easily together as they are respectively cerebral and visceral, but this production teases out the best of both worlds, leaving the audience with a sense of satisfaction, rather than nausea, which is what might result if it all went horribly wrong.

Flora Poste (Charlotte Stevens) arrives at Cold Comfort Farm like some sort of cross between Mary Poppins and Pollyanna to sort out her assortment of dysfunctional relatives. She flies in (in an aeroplane – affected by a model plane on a wire swooping through the auditorium) to declare that she ‘cannot endure a mess’ and to sort them all out and tidy them all up – whether they want it or not.

Flora is based on one of Jane Austen’s supercilious heroines. Depending on your opinion, Austen creates distinctive characters who are either vivacious and perky or pretentious and smug, and Charlotte Stevens portrays her to a tee. Her upright bearing and prim expression are perfect, although her constant furniture straightening and arm waving get a bit distracting. I want to slap her. But then, I want to slap Austen’s Emma, so this is clearly the desired effect.

Aunt Ada Doom rules the roost with her extreme version of madness – this is an actor’s gift and Ginny Brewer accepts it with delight. The ingenious set design allows her to see ‘something naarrrsty in the woodshed’ from behind a screen, playing with her shadow and cackling like some hyperbolic anti-heroine – what a transformation when she emerges dazzling from her cocoon and sweeps away on a Harley!

Petra Donnison is magnificent as the extremely depressed, and equally obsessed, Judith, the reverse-Oedipal mother of Seth. Seth himself is admirably played by Greg Hornsby with surly charisma that has the women falling over themselves to dance with him when he scrubs up well in a tuxedo. Seth is a good character but not a nice person – he is constantly taunting Rennet and Judith. When he is plucked to become a film-star you wonder vaguely how he will cope in the shallow, vacuous world of Hollywood, but you don’t really care.

Indeed, the only truly sympathetic character in the play is Reuben (Alan Carabott). Despite, or perhaps because of, Carabott’s magnificence at playing comedic characters, he is the only one with whom I have any connection. I want him to take over the farm and his gentle but simple strength is an anchor of calm amid the shambolic sea.

The wild and windswept Elfine (Elyse Featherstone) writes poetry (‘I thought you might’) and wears smocks (‘There is no such thing as a good smock’). She whirls about the stage and twirls her hair around her fingers, fidgety and restless more like a petulant child than a romantic heroine. When she sweeps Eliza Doolittle-like down the staircase, there is no thought to what might become of the young protégé and how she will adapt to chic society.

Robert Hickey plays evangelical Amos with burning fervour, whipping up his flock, the Quivering Brethren, with fire, brimstone and a warming pan (‘In Hell there is no butter’ is one of the best delivered lines of the play), which makes his double-role as bumbling butler, Sneller, all the more remarkable.

There is a lot of doubling in the play, executed most effectively by Tomas Rimmer from rustic slapstick Urk to smooth talking (and dressing) Richard Hawk-Monitor. Felicity Cozens also morphs seamlessly from gorgeously gormless facial expressions as dumb bewildered Rennet, constantly throwing herself down the well, to demonic histrionics as the other mother, Mrs Hawk-Monitor.

Stephen Fearnley, apparently in his 150th production, dextrously plays both a farming yokel and an American film producer which is a pretty tricky combination. This brings us to another challenge of the production: the accent. The rural Sussex dialect, complete with faux vocabulary (mollocking; sukebind; clettering), is not an easy one to master but it is integral to the play. The accents wander all over the country with hints of Yorkshire and the Midlands in places but the actors refuse to be distracted by the geographical ramblings.

Tanya Piejus copes creatively with difficult staging issues from the cardboard cut-outs of extra characters needed when Aunt Ada does a head count, to the non-too-subtle lighting changes and the rising of the moon. Special mention must go to the foley operator, Robyn Sadlier who is both amusing and unobtrusive as she conducts proceedings from on-stage.

By the end, Flora has tidied up all the loose ends and provided solutions for everyone with the aid of her trusty literature – The Higher Common Sense, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and a copy of Vogue. Each character has a denouement with the puppet master and the tempo drops. This series of talking heads could have been dispatched more neatly, or even cut altogether.

The chorus of Quivering Brethren literally sweeps the stage clear and, as in Shakespearean comedy, everything ends happily ever after with a wedding. But are these ends tied up as neatly as Flora thinks, or is she going to retreat and let it all unravel? If played differently, with the cutting satire highlighted above the comic visuals, this could have taken on a whole new meaning.

A common analysis of Stella Gibbons’ original novel is that Flora is the personification of British imperialism, and this interpretation adds weight to that theory. She is bright and brittle and keen to confide in the audience, indicating that she is above these people and their squalid affectations, while imagining herself as the shining beacon in the centre of their world.

With nods to Shakespearean comedy, the Brontes, DH Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw, the play spins off in a literary jitter-bug. It is aided by terrific costumes and dialogue sprinkled with words like utterly, terrific, spiffing, top hole and wizard. It’s entirely ridiculous and yet it’s adorable. The more I think about it, the more I like it, in some inexplicable way.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

View from Above

It might not be the best idea to race up the campanile with a bottle of Chianti inside us, but that’s what we do. There are 414 steps and a sign warns that there is no lift. The steps are steep, narrow and, in many cases, spiral, causing lots of stops to let others pass going the opposite way and to catch our breath.

The view from the top is incredible and quite literally breathtaking.

A combination of wine, heat and dehydration sends me all giddy and I start shaking and worrying about what might fall over the edge. Meanwhile, Him Outdoors is merrily scampering about, delighting over the red roofs, and trying to locate distant landmarks on his map.

He especially likes the roof-top terraces we can spy on from above and watch people eating their lunch.

We clatter back down the steps and view Giotto’s Bell Tower with whole new eyes.

We head to the Piazalle Michelangelo above the city for the sunset. The buildings go pink and the lights twinkle on. We share a beer and think it’s all very romantic – walking back to the hotel tired but happy.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Florentine Sights

Him Outdoors has a culture limit, so I have to choose my sights wisely. On my last visit to Florence (about 20 years ago) I went to the Uffizi and the Galleria dell'Academia so on today's touring, I visited some different haunts.

Galleria Michelangiolo
The Leonardo da Vinci exhibit features machines reproduced and built to the specifications in his codices. There are prototypes for bicycles, helicopters and hangliders, diving bells and military equipment.

Wanting to please his investors he sketched improvements on cannons and catapults although his own feelings about war were far from favourable. There are hammers and cogs and hydraulic lifts; he is a forerunner of Mr. Otis, working out a safety cog that would prevent weights from falling back as they were being hoisted up.

He was an illegitimate child with no prospects (so a History Channel documentary intoned) and he made his name by sucking up to potential wealthy patrons, such as the Medici family – with works after being accepted as an apprentice at Verrucchio’s workshop. Many of his most fanciful and innovative designs centre on the enigma of flight, which fascinated him, and a whole room is dedicated to his airy creations.

His greatest notable achievement was to design the system of pulleys and cranes for lifting heavy objects that enabled the golden globe to be placed atop the duomo. Hence, despite secret accusations of sodomy – which caused him to be taken away and ‘questioned’ in the dead of night – he was to become Florence’s favourite son.

Museo del Bargello

This is apparently ‘Italy’s most comprehensive collection of Tuscan Renaissance sculpture.’ Danti, Cellini, Michelangelo, Donatello and Giambologna are among the weighty names represented. In many cases one of the ‘names’ would make a sculpture of someone or something, and then another ‘name’ would do one of the same thing so there are multiple versions of mythical figures all over Florence.

The building was originally the residence of the chief magistrate, then it was a police station complete with torture equipment and the city’s gallows. Now it houses many ancient statues in marble, sandstone and bronze, plus casts and models in wax, terracotta and plaster cast copies.

These statues are about 500 years old and the productivity of some of the sculptors is incredible, especially when you consider they were also busy fighting teenage mutant ninja turtle crimes.

I especially like Danti’s Beheading of John the Baptist. It’s massive and the configuration of the three bronze figures is remarkable. This used to be outside the baptistery but has been removed and placed in here for safekeeping.

I also like Michelangelo’s drunken Bacchus, although his patrons didn’t and they refused to accept the work. With his unsteady gait and unfocused expression, he looks exactly like many a reveller I have seen down the pub on a Friday night. Except with fewer clothes.

There is a fantastic work of Jason (complete with golden fleece), by Peter Francavilla, Donatello’s St George, and Giambologna’s beautiful bronze bird sculptures and fabulous Winged Mercury. I also like Vincenzo Gemito’s bronze statue of a fisher boy.

Donatello’s David is a counterpoint to Michelangelo’s arguably more famous one. They are too different for me to pick a favourite.

Many sculptors depicted their patron, Cosimo I de Medici, usually kitted out in gladiatorial attire and sitting mightily astride a powerful steed – clearly they knew which side their panini was buttered.

I race through the rooms of Persian rugs, ivory carvings, iconic paintings of Madonna and child, and painted ceramics – all are wonderful I am sure, but they are not my thing. My attention is definitely diverted by the statues, and I prefer those of classic and mythological leanings rather than the saints, crucifixions and madonnas.

Cathedral Maria del Fiore

Built to supercede those of rivals in Siena and Pisa, this is free to enter (as long as legs and shoulders are covered) although you have to pay to go up into the duomo or down into the crypt, so we don’t.
Despite the stained glass windows (by Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti) and the awesome (and I really do mean that in it’s true sense) frescoes on the dome, the interior of the cathedral is strangely unadorned compared with the fabulous façade.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Another day; another election

Yesterday was bright and breezy but I went to the polling station with a heavy heart. I knew that Labour would be voted out because the mood of the country is all about money.

Apparently in times of economic hardship, the people of the nation forget about the community; they no longer care about the environment. Sports, arts, leisure and their reputation on a worldwide scale are reduced to irrelevance. When the majority of the nation casts their vote, they seem to think nothing but 'Show me the money!'

And so Helen Clark has been defeated and stepped down as leader of the Labour party. I am sad to see her go. She has led the country well and made some brave decisions. Her downfall was Winston Peters and what some saw as pandering to the less fortunate. This took taxes, which they were unprepared to pay.

A typical comment on an election forum reads, 'Workers in this country are sick of subsidising bludgers and layabouts whilst struggling to make ends meet! Thank God NZ has seen fit to elect a sensible government that values hard work and enterprise at long last.' (I have corrected their spelling and grammar.)

I don't know how they expect to fund hospitals, schools and badly needed infrastructure, but then, if they don't look past their own front door, they probably don't consider this. If the promised tax cuts take place, they will have more money to pay for their 4WDs to take their little darlings round the corner to school, so they will not need public transport. And if they don't need it themselves, what anyone else in the country needs doesn't matter.

Democracy is defined as 'Government by all the people, direct or representative, ignoring hereditary class distinctions and tolerating minority views.' I suspect National and their voters might tolerate others' views but they will listen to nothing but their wallet. Days after a bright future is welcomed by America, I fear New Zealand is pluged into moral darkness. I hope I am proved wrong.