Friday, 24 April 2009

Beware of False Gods

God of Carnage
Circa Theatre, 4 April – 2 May

Ferdinand (son of Annette and Alain Reille) has broken Bruno’s (son of Veronique and Michel Vallon) teeth with a stick. The middle-class, middle-aged parents gather to discuss the consequences like the polite and reasonable adults they are. Instead their civil conversation degenerates into adults behaving badly as they become as infantile as the children they are discussing. The question is asked, ‘Are we ever interested in anything but ourselves?’ and the answer is that I am certainly not interested in anything on this stage.

Veronique Vallon (Carmel McGlone) is a writer with expressive hand gestures who cares deeply about things, particularly at present the history of Darfur. Her husband, Michel (Andrew Foster) is a hardware salesman who appears to be acting in homage to John Cleese as Basil Fawlty. His impressions of a paralysed hamster liberated on the pavement and his mother hobbling along on crutches are hyperactive and amusing at least. Veronique has no sense of humour which is in itself quite funny despite the hints at alcoholism and deep depression.

Their world is highly structured with neat piles of art books, starkly positioned furniture (if this is meant to be a natural front room the setting of the sofa alone negates it) and arrangements of tulips. Living against a backdrop of red corrugated iron walls, it is clear that this couple are minimalists who don’t like mess. It is equally predictable that chaos (represented in this case by drunkenness and vomit) is exactly what will be introduced. This is because the god of carnage has ruled since the dawn of time, apparently.

Apart from people discussing their diets (thanks to my sister for pointing that out), the most boring topic of conversation on this earth is parents discussing their children. We are ‘treated’ to 90 minutes of debating different child-rearing techniques. Alain (Jeffrey Thomas) concedes that his son really is a savage, but despite the best efforts to interest children in reading and art, all boys really want to do is belong to gangs and pretend they are John Wayne or Spartacus.

Alain and Michel agree that perhaps the lads should just have it out ‘man to man’ until it is pointed out that they are only 11. Alain gets some of the best lines, such as ‘Children are the worst thing you can inflict on anyone’; ‘Children fracture and consume our lives’; ‘I’m not a pushchair father – it’s deathly all that’. Veronique questions, ‘Why have children in the first place?’ Why, indeed? There is no satisfactory answer to this question.

Alliances shift throughout the play between couples who fall in and out of agreement quicker than they down their rum. Initially the couples hold hands with an intimacy that will clearly be broken. When the Vallons bicker and Annette (Carol Smith) begins to argue with Alain, he cautions her, ‘Just because their marriage is fucked up, we don’t have to compete.’ Things reach such a state of suburban cliché, I am almost surprised that they don’t indulge in a spot of wife-swapping

In a rare moment of accord, the women agree that men are a dead weight when it comes to parenting and that they are instead wedded to their gadgets. Annette is irritated when Alain, a lawyer embroiled in a pharmaceutical debacle, takes increasingly frequent business calls. Having had a husband who is permanently on call and will answer his mobile in the middle of a conversation, I have to disagree with the reviewer who found this ‘compromised credibility’.

Evidently this is a play about words, which are emotive and have connotations. For example, was Ferdinand ‘armed’ or ‘furnished’ with a stick? The Reilles ‘don’t care for the word disfigured’ to describe Bruno’s toothless appearance. The courtroom parlance is introduced to the courtly parlour, as the couples find the art of co-existence goes deeper than the veneer of politeness.

It takes half an hour before they call each other by their first names; to ‘tutoyer’ someone is a big deal in France and this scene could echo the introduction of Gwendoline Fairfax to Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, except it lacks the comic and social commentary. It might be possible that the fault lies in the translation, but Chistopher Hampton (who wrote Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is not entirely to blame.

The acting is uniformly good, and each character gets their moment to shine with acerbic barbs and witty ripostes. All production values are more than adequately met, which indicates that the fact this falls flat is in the writing. Although I have never seen Art or any other works by Yasmin Reza, I had great expectations of this play based upon her reputation.

One of the characters says, ‘We are a lump of potter’s clay – it is up to us to shape something out of it’. The God of Carnage proves that sometimes idols really do have feet of clay.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Helping Hands

A big thank you to my friend Lindsay for alerting me to this project by a student in New York. Her intention is to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies and see how they might 'augment, improve and bring delight and art into people's lives.'

To this end, she built a 'human-like object' which rolls in a straight line with a destination displayed on a flag. It relies on people it meets to read this flag and to aim it in the right direction to reach its goal. She wondered if people with their cynicism and paranoia would bother to help a lost little robot.

The results are nauseatingly cute and overwhelmingly heartwarming. Curiously I imagine that New York and London would be two places where this experiment might succeed. There is humanity and compassion in these cities; it just manifests itself in a slightly odd way. This is truely one from the 'restore your faith in human nature' files.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


We go for a run along Riversdale Beach this morning; strangely tough on the muscles but good for the legs. People are out walking their dogs, all of whom seem to be having a great time racing around in the surf, chasing seagulls, each other, the wind and their tails. Is there a more engaging sight than the overwhelming exuberance of a dog on a beach?

It's nearly time for the long weekend to finish so we pack up and head home via Greytown. I've never been here before and want to explore. It feels like a bigger version of Arrowtown with its cute old buildings, antique shops and historic trees - there are even signs to point them out in case you don't notice them.

We bumble around looking in the shops. We love the Italian leather shoes, the bone-handled cutlery and the rows of golliwogs and rubber ducks. We are tempted by artwork, kitchenware and kittens.

The cafes are charging 10-15% extra and many of the shops are closed. I blame the public holiday surcharge rather than the recession. I hate the fact that the hospitality trade tries to make out it can't afford to pay staff when they are clearly raking it in. We eat lunch at the Swan Hotel and my grilled chicken salad is very nice.

It doesn't take us too long to drive home, which is one of the reasons we decided to go over to the east rather than up the west coast. Holidaymakers coming back into Wellington from up that way have to sit in traffic for four hours. Surely this negates any relaxing benefits that the holiday has bestowed?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Honeycomb Rocks

We head off down the coast in the opposite direction to Castlepoint. The countryside is just beautiful with gentle rolling hills and riotous colours under crisp autumn skies. Place names such as Kummerstein and Bismarck Road hint at German ancestry. The early pioneers to this region came from Sweden, England, Norway and Germany – they planted orchards and vineyards and made beer, like all good pioneers should!

We get to the end of the road and the start of our walk to the Honeycomb Rocks. We pick our way along the beach strewn with crayfish and paua shells and glistening strands of popping seaweed pearls. There’s plenty to feast on here, and birds chirp, screech, tweet and flutter all around. Flashes of brilliance indicate kingfishers and startled swoops from the long grass suggest a linnet-type bird (although my ornithology is rusty).

The path wends its way through weeds, reeds and long spiky grasses next to the beach, sometimes popping out onto the sand. It’s actually pretty energy-sapping in the legs.

Him Outdoors smells the telltale odour of seal. There’s a colony of them basking on the rocks, blinking their big brown eyes and languidly waving their flippers. I take a few pictures, using the telephoto lens and trying not to startle them, which is harder than you would imagine when some of them take to hiding in the grass!

We reach the Honeycomb Rocks which are really pretty impressive, eroded through wind and rain into strange porous formations. There are caves that look as though they could have housed hobbits, and a rock that both Him Outdoors and I instantly name Stegosaurus Rox – we can’t both be wrong, can we?

There is a rusting wreck in the sand – obviously the salvage job was too big to be considered. We throw smooth ovoid pebbles at it, like children delighting in the clanging sound when they reach their mark.

Walking back along the 4WD track is much quicker – it reroutes around the farm buildings but there isn’t as much hiking through tussock, bog and repetitive ravines. I am tired and weaving between the cabbage trees. I begin to hallucinate about the perfect beer to drink after a walk like this – such thoughts probably don’t help as they make me thirsty and we have run out of water – very ill-prepared.

When we get back to the car we drive back over the gravel roads to the bach. Him Outdoors says it feels like ages since we’ve been on a gravel road. He loves exploring new bits of the country, and now the car is covered in dust, it probably feels as though it too has been on an excursion.

After quick showers we get to the golf club earlier tonight and have our choice of meals – scallops for me and pork steak for Him Outdoors. The salads are all full up and not yet picked at. Once again Him Outdoors gets chatting to a bloke at the bar.

Jim is captain of the South cricket team. As an annual Easter event, people from the south play a team from the north, captained by Rosy. The division is made at the golf club and only people who own or are directly related to someone who owns a bach in Riversdale can compete – absolutely no ring-ins are allowed. They play for pride, bragging rights, and an old cricket bat trophy. What fun!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Easter Sunday

As it is Easter Sunday, I go to the little church in Riversdale – it is gorgeous. The vicar is a farmer, a youngish bloke who has the Tinui district as his diocese. He has no little (or large) helpers to assist with the Eucharist and does it all himself.

The service is very interactive; there aren’t enough prayer books or hymn books to go round and there is neither an order of service nor an organ or piano. People just nominate an appropriate hymn that they like and everybody sings it. A volunteer is asked to do the reading, another passes round the collection and people are encouraged to call out the names of those they would like to be remembered in the prayers.

Tania from Camp Anderson
tells me there are 62 permanent residents at Riversdale Beach and the congregation swells during the holidays. The simple wooden church is packed to the rafters with worshippers and wasps – there’s a nest here apparently.

Tania and her husband run programmes at the adjacent camp for boys and girls during the holidays. Usually they are mixed, but this week they are running one just for girls with lots of art and craft activities.

Tania says she is struck by how many girls don’t know that they are beautiful and she finds this very sad. It leads to abused and broken women and she wants to help them develop their strength and their self-esteem and to know that their beauty has nothing to do with their looks. What wonderfully positive and noble sentiments.

The sermon likewise, is that we should all just be good to each and share the love – we don’t need to become priests and spread the word – simply listening to someone’s sorrows or baking a banana cake for the person down the road is enough to support those in our community.

I receive the blessing – I love the beautiful words, and I feel at peace. The congregation disperses to their family commitments and I drive back to our bach to Him Outdoors and bacon butties.