Thursday, 5 March 2009

My Fringe Bits

The Frogs Under the Waterfront
2-7 & 16-21 February

We mill around outside Mac’s Brewery on a fine summer’s day – it’s so tempting to give in to a Sassy Red, but I am here for the theatre. Upstairs past the brewery itself – those hops are calling to me – we are given a safety briefing and a smelly lifejacket. Our safety comes first, apparently, which is nice to know.

Back down to the waterfront where we sit on wooden steps and squint into the sun as Simon Smith struts his stuff as Dionysus. He is excellent in a Hugh-Laurie-as-foppish-Prince-Regent-in-Blackadder-the-Third sort of way. This similarity has actually been pointed out in almost every review I’ve read of this play, including one by John Smythe, so it must be true.

Smith has a lion skin draped around his shoulders as he pretends to be his half-brother, Heracles. This enables him to engage in a ‘dramatic pause’ when Heracles (William Arthur McDougall) actually turns up Heracles who is far bigger, gruffer and hirsute. It’s funny and ridiculous while engaging and Smith appeals directly to the audience, while alternately abusing and ignoring his slave, Xanthias (Michael Ness) – a herald of things to come.

A gaggle of schoolgirls perch around the perimeter of the set, dangling their legs above the water and admonishing others to be quiet so they can eavesdrop on proceedings – teenagers actually blagging their way in? That’s not like your usual dramatic performance. ‘Frogs’ begin ‘ribbitting’ their way around the edges of the audience before diving into the water in coloured wetsuits. Again, somewhat out of the ordinary.

We get into pedal boats to be ferried across the water, under evil-smelling piles covered in crusty mussels and curious slime. The leader of this flotilla is Amalia Calder as a sort of ferrywoman welcoming us aboard in imitation Cockney. We were given pebbles at our briefing with which I suppose we are meant to pay for our passage, but no one collects them.

We are all hooked up together and the croaking amphibians haul and guide us to our destination – a beach area underneath Circa. It’s a strange, damp atmosphere lit with flaming torches, and the underworld has a new home. Dionysus is still pretending to be Heracles but is alarmed when his reception isn’t quite as planned. Pluto (Matt Clayton) threatens to torment him, so he swaps his lion skin with Xanthias, who is warmly received by a comely maid (Lucy Edwards) so Dionysus demands his fake identity back.

There’s a lot of flailing about in the water, deliberately drenching the spectators – we were warned not to wear nice clothes. Songs and poetry abound and Abacus (Scott Ransom) is as confused as to who is whom, so he ‘tortures’ them to find the truth – one is a God and they don’t feel pain apparently. Dionysus reigns and is required to judge the poetry competition between Aeschylus (Rob Hickey) and Euripides (Luke Hawker).

We are ferried about to the next act where Aeschylus sits suspended above the water in a Lazyboy sipping whisky and discoursing on theatre and the nature of verse. Meanwhile Euripides hurls himself about in a safety net and wails Coldplay and U2 lyrics as modern variations on poetry. These are scoffed at and rejected – there was a time when art was limited to those that could – now everybody’s at it, and it’s all Euripides’ fault apparently.

It’s fun; it’s irreverent and it’s jolly good theatre. At the Fringe awards, it won Best Outdoor, and was a finalist in the Most Original Concept and Best of the Fringe categories. As Lynn Freeman wrote in her review, ‘If any show epitomizes the best of a Fringe festival, it's Frogs.’ She’s right.

Read other reviews of Frogs

Read my reviews of other plays I’ve seen at The Fringe:

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Books read in October

I know this is all a bit behind the times, but I am trying to catch up! Just because I stop posting the book reviews it doesn't mean I have stopped reading, and someday I may catch up again. In the meantime, the following are short reviews of the books that I read in October. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt (4.2)

John Berendt tells the story of the rebuilding of La Fenice (and the court case over its destruction) which gives his Venice saga a point of difference, but he keeps going off on tangents, telling other stories and, when he returns to the main narrative, repeating himself. He generally uses other people’s words so he can’t be blamed or criticised for an opinion. He seems to have a grudging admiration for the city and this inspires some beautiful passages of prose.

Venice is an anomaly of a city; filled with strangers trying to preserve it, and locals who resent their intrusion. People, particularly Americans, are prepared to raise large sums of money to ‘save’ Venice and restore its buildings and treasures. Many of these funds are raised during Carnivale, a festival which traditionally mixed the creeds of Apollonian restraint and Dionysian abandon. As with most things Venetian, the interlopers have hijacked Carnivale. Mask shops have taken over the town, begun a new industry and squeezed out the old.

The message of Berendt’s book seems to be that Venice, like a proud cantankerous old lady wants to survive by herself. She has her own laws and customs and does not appreciate interference. She will take the money and the help that is offered, but do not expect her to be grateful. As with women everywhere, she has been assigned Madonna/whore schizophrenia. You decide which is her true personality.

Crime Brûlée – Nancy Fairbanks (3.4)

This style of mixing crime with recipes is a fast-growing and apparently very popular genre. Nancy Fairbanks sets the serving of murder and mystery in New Orleans (pre- Hurricane Katrina) where she can mix the ingredients of swamps, jazz, voodoo, alligators, Mardi Gras, and all the usual clichés that come with the Louisiana city.

Carolyn Blue goes to New Orleans with her husband Jason who is attending an academic convention; he is a chemist who draws molecular compound modules on serviettes. She has got a publishing contract to write a book about the local food and takes the opportunity to catch up with old university chums. Her best friend, Julienne, argues with her husband, Nils, on their first group meal and subsequently goes missing. Carolyn’s suspicions cause her to attempt to find Julienne with perilous consequences. A succession of unfortunate events befalls her, such as being mugged, cursed, run off the road and pushed into a swamp.

Carolyn is a little bit scatty, like a younger (forty-something) Miss Marple. Is she naïve or simply stupid, and how did this woman ever win a publishing contract? The vague and flighty conversational tone can be amusing and works in places, but at other times the novel seems rushed, with loose ends and inconsistencies.

She is fairly shallow and self-obsessed, as are the rest of the friends, who are also pretty bitchy. Carolyn has matching outfits, shoes and handbags, and her wardrobe is all planned out daily. Although Carolyn is supposedly distraught by her friend’s absence (none of the others take it seriously – her husband suspects she is having an affair and the police can’t investigate foul play until she has been missing for at least 48hours), she still repeatedly goes out to eat and then details the contents of the meals. It is hard to care when the characters clearly don’t, and the denouement involves a blatant deus ex machina, as if the author doesn’t really know or care how to solve the mystery. None of the characters are likeable, which isn’t exactly a crime, but their superficial and one-dimensionality is.

Crime Brûlée is less about the crime and more about the brûlée. Despite the pedestrian style and the constant rhetorical questions asked by the narrator, the book is interesting for its information about the food and the history of the city. The murder seems tacked on as an afterthought or as a framework to be filled in with edible details. It is similar in concept, if not style, to Sophie’s Choice but with cooking replacing philosophy. Crime Brûlée is quick and easy to read, and the lasting impression is of the flavours of the South rather than the mysteries of the mind.

Loving Frank – Nancy Horan (3.9)

Strangely, it is not necessary to know much about Frank Lloyd Wright or architecture itself to enjoy this novel. It is about him and his visionary organic style, but it is more about the relationship he had with Mamah, a married woman who left her husband, children and her entire family to be with him, invoking the wrath of society. With no letters to work from, the author has surmised her feelings, and her bravery at following her heart and risking everything without guarantees is particularly well imagined.

Like the novels of Kate Chopin, Henry James, or Willa Cather, Loving Frank examines the consequences of a society that constricts women. Stifled by suburbia, Mamah worries that she is being punished for her dissatisfaction with what other women have. She attempts to balance personal fulfilment with a fertile and loving connection to the lives around her. She has to work if her husband cannot support her, and should she remain in a loveless marriage or risk alienating her children? Although this is set at the turn of the twentieth century, there are no answers to these questions, and they remain quite contemporary.

Escaping the confines of Puritan America, the couple flee to the hedonism of the Old World where Europe offers treasures and beauty with colour and passion. But beauty cannot be indulged purely for its own sake, and, just as architecture must be functional as well as aesthetic, so Mamah and Frank have to return to America.

Mamah believes whole-heartedly in Frank’s vision and is attracted to his passion which ignites his movements. When she begins to worry that he is a hypocrite, it is a crushing blow. Mamah wonders if it is his insecurities that make him believe he is the only one with refined sensibilities. He justifies spending money they haven’t got, and he doesn’t really live in the real world. He is interesting, but interesting is not safe, so which do we choose? This is an eternal novel, quite splendid but gentle, which explores that dichotomy. I imagine there are very different reactions to Mamah’s choices, but there will be no definitive solution to her problem.

The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall (4.1)

This book is certainly different and a little bit odd, but it also manages to be intriguing so all is forgiven. In 2007, debut novelist Steven Hall was hailed in The Guardian as the next big thing. This is indeed, a novel for the intellectual, or at least the person who likes to think of himself as such. It is part love story; part philosophic construct; and part fast paced thriller.

Eric Sanderson wakes up with amnesia. He has vague memories of his girlfriend, Clio, and he knows something awful has happened to her but isn’t sure what, so he begins a search for her, his own identity and the meaning of life itself. He follows the instructions he has left himself (as ‘the first Eric Sanderson’) into the underworld, both literally and figuratively.

Meanwhile he is hunted by a thing – a big shark-type monster. This leviathan preys on words and thoughts, invading his mind, threatening to engulf him, and introducing the terrifying concept of madness. While we will Eric to keep one step ahead of the predator, and there’s no denying it’s clever, we also question is any of this actually real?

In an almost nerdish manner, Hall indulges in literary gymnastics including a flipbook shark, drawn with letters, enlarging over fifty pages to devour the reader. He also connects with his sensitive side, however, and his pain and feelings of loss are achingly credible. How much do we invent because we simply don’t want to let go? And what happens when we know we have to?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Happy Birthday Neighbour

Today is a good friend’s birthday, so Happy Birthday to her. When we lived in Queenstown, she lived ‘over the fence’. She put carriage steps against the fence so that we could pop over to each other’s house for a cup of tea (or, more usually a bottle of wine) and a chinwag.

We shared jigsaw puzzles and personal problems in equal measure, and many laughs were had at parties or just lonely evenings that weren’t lonely anymore. Noise police were frequently called and I think we managed to get rid of all the other neighbours in our radius several times over.

They had a spa pool where we used to while away long winter hours under the stars. We had a huge gum tree that I loved but it blocked their sun. I agreed to have it cut down, although I cried (I know; sentimental tree-hugger) and they made it into a garden seat so I could sit and read in the shade.

I missed them very much when they moved to Auckland. I missed the sound of the dice rattling in the Yahtzee cup. I missed the ‘pointless’ food we used to eat with our gin and bourbon. Her husband makes the most amazing platters of nibbles (those are far from pointless) and loves to barbecue things he has shot or fished himself – the day I found the dead deer hanging in the shower is not one I’ll forget in a hurry.

I began to think about neighbours and the ones I’ve had over the years. When I was a kid, my neighbour was a barmaid in my local pub – which was a nightmare until I actually turned 18. My best friend (Our Gracious Hostess from the American trip) lived over the road and we used to ride around on our bikes ‘cackling and terrorizing the neighbourhood’ – I have this on good authority from another great friend who lived just up the road.

When we lived in Poughkeepsie, NY, our neighbour was a retired policeman. He was a lovely gentleman and yet, as a teenager, I was slightly afraid of him. He was always inviting us round to play in his pool, but he was a cop – and a New York cop at that! He must have dealt with guns and villains every day of his working life and I knew he would see right through my adolescent sassiness.

In Manchester in the early 90s I lived on an estate in Hulme. It could be rough and you wouldn't go out alone after dark. Him Outdoors and I were courting then, and when he came to call there would be young ruffians swinging on the gate. They grew to recognise him and his car – they nicked the badge off the bonnet but told him when he had left his windows open and it started to rain.

One day after he had knocked at the door with no answer, he was going to leave when they told him that no, I was in, and just to knock louder. They were right; I was in the bath with the stereo on. It was a weird feeling to know they watched the door and knew the comings and goings of me and my flatmates. I also knew that nothing bad would happen to me on their patch – I was their neighbour after all.

Now I live next door to a hairdressing salon. The hairdressers are often sitting on the back steps having a cigarette and I stop to chat about the weather, how busy they are, and my cat – who wanders up and down the counters in front of the mirrors like he’s on a catwalk. Once an apprentice stroked his beautiful little head but she had hair dye on her hands and Chester sported a funky pink rinse for a while until it grew out. She was made to apologise to me and she felt dreadful, but Chester didn’t seem to mind, so I didn’t either.

Our neighbours do make a difference to the way we feel about a place. I have made great friends with some of mine and have fortunately never had any of those ones from hell that feature on reality TV programmes. Relationships with those who live next-door or over the fence make up a community. There’s lots of stuff in the bible about being a good neighbour – everybody needs them apparently. Australians even make soap operas about them. So do we, but we call them Coronation Street, Eastenders, or even Brookside, although they buried each other under the patio.

Him Outdoors told me that at Leeds University lectures were rescheduled around Neighbours because so many people were opting for the intrigues of Ramsay Street rather than electrical circuit theory. We loved Neighbours in the 1980s. We couldn’t get enough of Charlene, Scott and Plain Jane the Super Brain. When Harold got swept out to sea and Madge did whatever she did, they came to England to tour the pantomime circuit.

Our love affair didn’t quite stretch to Home and Away. Although it looked more alluring at first glance (it had a surf club, which we thought was terribly exotic) the appeal was superficial and soon wore off – it was the Dannii to Kylie’s Minogue. We just didn’t really see her as the desirable girl next door.

Neighbours aren’t meant to be glamorous but they are meant to ‘be there for one another’, sharing fortunes both good and bad as well as cups of sugar. Actually, I’ve never borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbour, but I have borrowed eggs and jump-leads, although not at the same time. And if you’re lucky, ‘good neighbours become good friends.’