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.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Reflections of Venice 2

Time flies when you’re wandering about and we run out of it, so don’t get to go to Murano. I buy some of the glass jewellery on the main island. The shopkeeper is furious that we want to pay by credit card and he snaps at us and throws the card on the counter, but of course he takes our money.

It becomes apparent that nothing in Venice is for free. Every other place we have visited has offered a map to find your way around and a brochure with sights highlighted – not Venice. When we see a drinking tap we hurriedly fill our water bottles, glancing around to check we will not be fleeced of our Euros or arrested.

There is a clear attitude that your money is welcome but you are an inconvenience, and hardly anyone smiles. Him Outdoors remarks that it seems like a theme park and I guess it does, visited each year by more than 12 million tourists.

The shops all sell glass, lace and masks to tourists (my favourite is the one with the hooked nose which is the Black Death Doctor; the beak was filled with medicinal herbs and essences to disinfect the air and protect the doctor from contagion during outbreaks of the Black Death).

Everything is retail and ‘hospitality’ – I use the term loosely. Venice used to be a hive of ship-building, fishing and trading, but now there is no discernible genuine industry save the men who make the gondolas (with wood from the Cadore region) but there are only a handful of them, and they exist to service the tourist trade also.

We visit the squero, the boatyard in which the gondolas are made. Only three or four are made each year to exact specifications – strong, fast and black. The laws concerning their build were ordained in the sixteenth century. They are 11 metres long, made of 280 pieces of wood, and coated with seven layers of water-proof paint. They are deliberately lopsided to counter the weight of the one-oared rower at the stern.

I like the boats – from the big noisy vaporetto to the silent (unless you get a gondolier who fancies himself as a singer) gondolas. Police boats cruise the canals and the bright red fireboats wait at the Ca’ Foscari ready to rush to emergencies.

It seems incongruous that a city built on water should have problems with fire, but most of the buildings are made of wood and highly flammable, so there are many fires – such as the inferno that destroyed La Fenice in 1996. I even love the private motorboats that drift about waiting to get to open water so they can open throttle.

But if Venice weren’t built on water, would anyone come? Would it be any different from any other town? There are Save Venice funds and campaigns to which people (mainly Americans) give money to restore artworks, buildings and churches, hoping to prevent bits falling off or entire edifices crumbling and collapsing into the lagoon.

So should we save it or not? I suppose the argument is similar with the Elgin Marbles or shrunken heads – if the natives aren’t going to look after them, then we should preserve them for the future. But isn’t this patronising? Should we let nature take its course, Ozymandias-style, and destroy things if need be? Aren’t there people in poverty who deserve our attention over artefacts?

If Venice is sinking, it is because she always has been. She is built on stilts submerged in the muck of the water – the caranto formed by alternate layers of sand and clay – which slowly subside with the inevitable passage of time. What would Darwin make of our attempts to maintain this patently inapt and inadaptable regime – is it like saving the Kiwi?

So yes, it is like a theme park, and it’s full of tourists and advertising hoardings – you can’t even see the Bridge of Sighs because the iconic structure has been prostituted to the marketing dollar.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Reflections of Venice 1

At breakfast-time on the television we see caribinieri storming crowds with riot shield and guns. We express concern but the man at the hotel just shrugs, ‘campagne, Napoli, Cammorah’, as if to say this happens all the time. Fortunately we aren’t going there; Venice is today’s port of call.

We drive to Treviso and catch a train (delayed) so it is midday by the time we emerge from the Santa Lucia station. We walk over the controversial new bridge of glass, steel and panels of Istria stone which I actually like – I’ve never had a problem with the juxtaposition of ancient and modern architecture, as long as it is tastefully done – á la Louvre pyramid.

We hop on the vaporetto and cruise down the Grand Canal, stopping at every station en route to let folk on and off until we are all disgorged along the waterfront. Geographically and metaphorically, the Grand Canal is the centrepiece of Venice; the chief waterway of art and commerce. I have been reading Jan Morris’ seminal work about the city in preparation for the trip and she puts it best:

“It is at once the Seine and the New Jersey Turnpike of Venice, the mirror of her beauty and the highway by which the cargo barges, horns blaring and engines a-blast, chug towards her markets and hotels. The ordinary Venetian canal feels frankly man-made: but most people have to stifle an impulse, now and again, to call the Grand Canal a river.”

We head to the Arsenale – Dad would be proud. Founded in the 12th century and surrounded by tall walls, it was the biggest shipyard in the world where 16,000 workers toiled with boiling pitch and tar to make weapons, oars and naval equipment.

We thread through the small back streets (calletta and rio tera – filled-in canals) trying to get away from the throngs and find somewhere to eat. Him Outdoors is in a sulk because he doesn’t like crowds and would rather have stayed in the mountains, but I insisted he had to see Venice.

As I am deciding which way to go, I hear a plop in the water and am astonished to think that perhaps fish actually live in these canals. I look down to see a rat swimming away. Of course I know there are pantegane (water rats) here, but I didn’t actually want to see one. I itch for the rest of the day and we find pizza and beer as far away from the water as possible – which obviously isn’t very far.

Fortunately there are a lot of cats in Venice which help with this population. On the island of San Clemente there are whole colonies of cats fed and looked after by Dingo, an association which supplies food, medical care and small shelters for cold winter nights. The Venetians traditionally love animals, which makes me feel kindly disposed towards them.

There are about 450 bridges in Venice (every guide book I read quoted a different number) and I feel as though we walk over at least half of them. Apparently there is a marathon on the second Sunday in March up and down the city bridges (Su e zo per i ponti) – I’m sure we conduct our own as we traipse around for eight hours. In every campo and down every ramo we find someone perusing a map, evidently lost.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

'Tis the season...

... for the office Christmas party. This time of year is frantic with parties and drinks and get-togethers. The papers are full of helpful articles about how you should go to your partner's party if you suspect he or she may be having an affair with someone at work; not revealing too much personal information that can be used against you at a later date; how to avoid making a total prat of yourself in front of your boss and colleagues by throwing up on your new shoes or snogging someone entirely inappropriate just because you got bored and drank too much. Thanks for that. If you got past all that, you might even go to a work party or two; some are decidely more fun than others.

We had a departmental one. Someone from work organised it - a meal in a pub, which we paid for ourselves. We went and had a few drinks beforehand and did the $5 secret santa thing. It was fun. although some people complained about the cost ($40) and pulled out at the last minute. Unfortunately the caterers didn't know this - it was really last minute - so we still had to pay for them. The fairest way to do this was to share the cost among us all, which we did. One of the people still refused to pay, so everyone else had to stump up the cash for them as well. This has created some tension in the office, as you can imagine.

We had another 'do' for the entire national office. There was a talent quest at which we had to perform some skit or other. This was held in an old church hall without any stage facilities and peeling paint murals informing us that God directs us in all our ways - not in the skits though I should imagine. Some of them were dreadful. I can say that, because we won, and we were pretty dreadful too. Then we went for a sit down meal (free to staff; $35 for partners and you paid for drinks on top).

I also make some contributions (by way of book reviews) to Radio New Zealand National. I was very kindly invited to their place one evening for drinks and nibbles. We all stood around in an office room for a couple of hours with sticky lables attatched to our shirts and glasses of wine in our hands, introducing ourselves to people we didn't know and striking up various conversations. Everyone was very nice there, and it was a pleasant evening, apart from trying not to dribble sauce and flaky pastry all over the place whilke looking polite and interesting. And how do you eat canapes, shake hands and hold a glass of wine at the same time while standing in the middle of a table-less room?

Him Outdoors had a 'do' for his office to which partners were invited. This was held at Mac's Brewery Bar on the waterfront. We had the set menu - I can recommend the enormous bowl of green-lipped mussels gently steamed in garlic, white wine cream for entree, and the glazed pork belly with red wine jus, roasted gourmet potatoes and a medley of vegetables for main. I think this was $60 per head, there was a tab at the bar and it certainly proved that the boss really could organise the proverbial.

Last night was the Stagecraft end of year bash. People brought a plate or contributed money and there was food to be had. You brought your own booze and those who wanted to performed pieces of theatre to the rest of the audience. After a couple of awards and speeches, there was dancing in the theatre and discussions in the green room. We did our own washing up. It was fun.

This sort of thing happens every year, but I mention it here because this year there is much hand-wringing and talk of cutting down on costs due to the current economic situation. Some companies are apparently getting their staff to volunteer at some community organisation instead of having a 'do'. Others are cancelling parties and gift-giving all together.

One lady told me that her company had decided to hold a picnic and simply invite all the workers' children - the workers provided the food and there was naturally no alcohol. Although she has two kids herself, she was furious at this news - 'You mean, I've been working hard all year and you want to give my kids a party? What have they done for you to deserve it?'

And therein lies the problem. What is this end of year bash about? Is it about the bosses thanking the workers and showing their appreciation for the work they have done all year? They might say there is no need - they pay them and that is appreciation enough. Is it so the workers can get together themselves and let off steam, in which case how much is healthy and when does it turn into a hothouse situation? Is it to impress clients, in which case a tatty old church hall isn't going to do much for you, although displaying your heart on your sleeve through some public display of charity might.

Before one of the 'do's we went to the Malthouse with a couple of friends. We drank the fabulous Golden Boy, the latest offering from the Yeastie Boys. It's incredibly like a true English summer ale and has a slight citrus taste. They use Maris Otter malt (the same as used in the fine-tasting Emersons' Maris Gold) and hops from Nelson. The colour is golden and the experience refreshing and delicious. I wore my t-shirt with pride for the rest of the weekend. I digress.

But this is the 'do' I remember most. Good friends; good beer; good venue; no need to provide any sort of entertainment or pressure to make conversation; and you could leave any time you liked or eat whatever you wanted. In fact, it was just like any normal Friday night. But it's at Christmas. It doesn't have to be big and it doesn't have to be clever, but it does have to be enjoyable.