Saturday, 6 June 2009

My Newest Favourite Thing: Life Insurance

Two things this week have made me think about life insurance. Dalu Mncube was mauled to death by a white tiger at a wildlife park and his family want his body to be returned to South Africa. Meanwhile, Tony Costa was hit on the head with a surfboard and killed leaving behind a pregnant widow and two young children. In both cases public appeals have been launched to raise funds.

Him Outdoors and I have life insurance, for one simple reason – we love each other. I have also made a will which spells out what I want to happen in the event of my demise for a similar reason. You may think this sounds morbid, but I know that I want to be cremated and my ashes taken to England. It costs money to transport a body. It costs money to hold a funeral. And the last thing I want my nearest and dearest to be thinking about is money.

I would like to think that Him Outdoors will be able to take time off work to grieve if necessary and to follow his goals, and continue with his life, without the fear of not meeting the mortgage payments. He feels the same thing if the situation were reversed. We have discussed it and made arrangements. Of course we don’t want it to happen, but we are financially prepared.

It costs less than $15 a fortnight to ensure (and insure) this for me and slightly more for him – he’s male, older, and works with electricity, all of which make him a bigger risk. That’s peace of mind for the cost of a couple of coffees a week. Sure, I won’t care when I’m dead, but I care now that I’m alive. And we don’t even have dependants. The thought of leaving your partner and kids with nothing for the sake of a measly pint of beer a week beggars belief to me.

And yet this happens every day. True, you may not be able to get life insurance for surfing or tiger taming, but what’s everyone else’s excuse? Is there an assumption that the public will look after you? How do we choose to which (news-)worthy causes to donate? Is this entirely media-driven? Or will we invent some ghastly game-show; Public Donations Idol? Text your vote for the most deserving grieving widow?

Why can’t we take responsibility for ourselves, plan ahead and consider those we love while we have the chance? A life insurance may not be the most romantic gift you can give your partner, but it may be infinitely more valuable than a diamond ring.

Friday, 5 June 2009

DVD Marathon

We have just had a long weekend to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday – thanks ma’am. However, due to a combination of factors (crap weather, a hideous cold and the fact that Him Outdoors was working all weekend) we didn’t go away or do anything special.

Instead I lay on the sofa doing my needlepoint tapestry (I know – I also baked banana bread, and lemon and poppy seed muffins – how domestic am I?) watching films on DVD. You know the ones that you always sort of wanted to see but never quite got round to because other things came up? Yep, I watched a handful of those.

Water – the plight of widows in India was not a happy one in 1938. Mohandas Ghandi is beginning to battle for women’s rights, but for now when they are widowed they join a poor ashram on the banks of the Ganges. The leader of this ashram pimps out the widows to make ends meet. Chuyia is not yet in her teens when she is deposited here on the death of her husband.

Beautifully shot and almost Shakespearean in breadth, this is a film of fantastic characterisation. It’s not full of big bangs, but it proves that still waters do indeed run deep. It was Oscar nominated for best foreign language film in 2007 – it didn’t win but is a very worthy nominee.

The New World – with Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis, this should have been great. It won accolades when it was part of the film festival and was nominated for an Oscar for best achievement in cinematography. It looks good, and that’s about it.

It is less about the establishment of a colony while interacting with the indigenous population and more about Farrell frolicking in the meadows with his Pocahontas to a weird ambient soundtrack and intense whispered voice-overs. It drags on remorselessly and if you’ve ever been to one of those raves where everyone is tripping out in the chill-out field and you haven’t taken the requisite drugs and don’t quite understand the fixation with the trees and the twinkly lights, you’ll understand the feeling.

Black Snake Moan – this is the sort of the film that Tarantino would love to have made. Craig Brewer did and, against all expectations, it’s very good. There’s plenty of sex and nudity but it never feels gratuitous and certainly not titivating. Despite the marketing suggesting this will be soft porn, it is a fresh twist on the classic redemption tale.

Christina Ricci gives an excellent performance as the trailer park trash with Stockholm syndrome for her bizarre captor, Samuel L Jackson, a man with a guitar and demons of his own. As soon as I get a minute I’m heading out to buy the soundtrack of gutsy blues music.

Cinderella Man – Americans (and Ron Howard) do the ‘little guy makes good and comes back to fight for the people’ films very well, even if this one does star an Australian in the lead role. Russell Crowe (in his Beautiful Mind rather than Gladiator style) plays the real-life boxer James Braddock who came back to boxing when he was on public relief and everyone thought he was down-and-out, because it was the only way he could feed his family. He proves he has the potential to be an acting heavyweight with this role, and the scene where he goes literally cap in hand to his former promoters to ask for money is a heroic piece of acting.

The whole package of 1930s depression with the rage and energy of the Madison Square Garden’s crowd is authentically executed. I was even convinced by the boxing scenes (which are usually woefully unrealistic), Paul Giamatti is excellent (he won the Critics’ Choice Award for best supporting actor), and Renee Zellwegger manages to keep her cute chipmunk factor turned down low.

It’s All Gone Pete Tong – strangely appealing, this tale of a high-profile dj (Frankie Wilde played by Paul Kaye) who loses his hearing is the surprise of the bunch. Great island scenery and throbbing beats remind me of teenage summer holidays. It’s all a bit footballer’s wives; sex and drugs and dripping with cash and no class until the tragedy kicks in.

Although Wilde is a complete tosser, Kaye makes you feel sympathy for the man who loses the sense that lets him do his job. As he learns a form of humility and the ability to feel the music rather than hear it, the mockumentary becomes curiously uplifting. I like the splicing with interviews of other djs about the legend’s mysterious disappearance, and I like house music. It made me happy, with a big yellow smiley face.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Not so miserable at all

Showbiz Queenstown’s production of Les Misérables at Queenstown Memorial Hall has sold out and has been receiving rave reviews and standing ovations. People are saying it’s better than Broadway, which proves to me that people either have very selective memories, or they’ve never seen a show on Broadway. This is not to say that it’s not very good, because it is, but I’ve seen the show in London and Manchester, and this version is very different from that of the professionals.

Firstly, let’s discuss Simon Green as Valjean. He is excellent. I have just realised I am a bit of a Simon Green groupie having seen him all around the country from Auckland (Evita) to Invercargill (Les Mis again, this time as Enjolras) via Christchurch (Rush!), and this is his best performance. His singing is as perfect as I have come to expect, but he actually acts as well. I felt his torment and, as he ages, his physicality alters convincingly as well as his voice and mannerisms so that I totally believe in him.

Usually with this musical I’m not interested in Valjean’s personal battle with Javert, or the love story with Marius and Cosette, paying more attention to the Thénardiers and the battle scenes led by Enjolras. This time the stags locking antlers was entirely intriguing.

Marty McLay in the role of Javert overcomes an unfortunate but necessary piece of miscasting. I believe he was originally cast as Thénardier but the original Javert pulled out, causing an exigent reshuffle of the remaining males. He may struggle with some of the lower notes, but what he lacks in vocal depth he more than makes up for with physical presence and is strong and imposing in his bearing.

I’m still not interested in the love-story, but that’s a plot issue. It’s ridiculous and implausible that two people can fall so passionately and devotedly in love with a single glance. Cosette (Emily Burns) hits the high notes prettily, looks good in a frock (plaudits to wardrobe manager Jan Maxwell), and her duets with Marius, particularly ‘A Heart Full of Love’, are charming. Marcus Figueroa is a fantastic find and plays embodies the part of the impressionable Marius beautifully. His ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is truly moving.

The Thénardiers often threaten to steal the show and they nearly do so here as Marty Newell and Kathleen Brentwood work brilliantly together. They bring an edge to their characters elevating them above the merely comic, which is an easy trap to fall into. Although there are plenty of scenes in which they play for laughs (Kathleen dancing by herself is especially memorable), they retain a sense of despicable greed and sly self-interest, demonstrating their commitment to Victor Hugo’s original message about the dark side to what John Key euphemistically calls the underclass.

Rachael Gerard as Fantine is as striking as ever, and her voice has a depth and richness to counterpoint Simon’s in ‘Come to Me’. She sings both this and the incredible ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ while seated, which is a challenge she meets with aplomb and, at the risk of sounding like a Pop Idol judge, she makes them her own.

Rachael has sensitivity and strength in spades, but ironically, this very strength is problematic. I don’t for one second believe she is vulnerable and when the factory girls turn on her, I fear more for their safety than hers – she looks as though she could take them all on with one hand tied behind her back and knock them all into the foreman’s cocked hat. Incidentally, every woman does a running-from-side-to-side movement until pushed by a male character to collapse in a kerfuffle of skirts and petticoats. This may have visual impact the first time but soon grows tedious.

So too does Eponine’s (Alice Fraser) folded arms. It’s a gesture I hate to see on stage. Once or twice indicates defiance or resistance – used constantly it implies the actor doesn’t know what to do with their hands. Alice sings like an angel (albeit with an off-putting American accent) and she has pathos and angst to (literally) die for. She is at her best in ‘A Little Fall of Rain’ – while she is lying cradled in Marius’ arms we can concentrate on her beatific voice and not be distracted by her awkward gestures.

And so to the singing children. I must admit I’m not a fan in any production – ever. I have no maternal instincts whatsoever (except for cats and certain Liverpool players) and so it is a huge compliment to say that little Cosette (I’m not sure which one I saw) is not too annoying and her ‘Castle on a Clouds’ melts away without any lingering cringe. Angus Reid (who plays Gavoche) will have a bright future in theatre once he learns that shouting isn’t projecting and that nineteenth-century Parisian urchins probably didn’t krump. His confidence and stage manner are highly impressive for an eleven-year old and with discipline he could reveal great promise.

The lighting (Glen ‘Scooter’ Reid) is sombre and frequently shadowy with a heavy reliance on spot-lights. This is stunningly effective when the menacing shadows encroach on the audience during ‘At the End of the Day’ – one of my favourite songs of the show – as the chorus spit out their words with plenty of intent and purpose. It also adds to Thénardier’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and the backlit barricades.

Some of the big chorus numbers (such as ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, ‘Red and Black’ and ‘One Day More!’) lacked the impact I was expecting. As the chorus were more than competent, and formidably led by Doug Kamo both on and off stage (as Enjolras and director), I can only assume this is down to staging. Having worked in the Memorial Hall many times I am aware of its limitations as a theatrical venue. The fact that a show of this scale was produced here at all is a triumph of which the entire production and technical crew should be proud.

It’s hard to wave a giant flag from atop a barricade when you’re afraid of crashing into the lights suspended inches above your head. No matter how hard they tried, this had to detract from the grandeur of the moment. Doug Kamo has a massive job to direct this masterpiece, but he orchestrates the elements and rises admirably to the challenges. I can but imagine the hurdles he had to overcome and the technical aspects of the production are well-served.

The orchestra, which is not even in the same room (how can you do a show without it? How can the powers that be when deciding that Queenstown doesn’t need a purpose-built theatre consider this acceptable?), does a phenomenal job. The sound mixing is generally excellent (Tom Lynch) and, if the singing is occasionally half a beat behind the music, it is a credit to all involved that it doesn’t happen more often.

This socio-political understanding is lacking from some of the group numbers, (‘Red and Black’ and ‘Master of the House’ risk appearing messy) and some dynamism is missing from the characterisation among the company. The women at the factory or the men at the barricades for example, often look more concerned with standing in position and singing in tune than they do in fighting for their lives. The much-touted revolve proves more distracting than anything with cast stepping on and off like toddlers on an escalator.

However, I heard a great, if somewhat obscure, compliment from an audience member behind me: when Enjolras dies on the barricades and they revolve to reveal his prone form, she whispered, ‘You can see him breathing’. I should hope so too. For one moment there it seemed as though she had forgotten she was watching a show in a provincial town hall and thought she was transported to post-revolutionary France. As an actor and/or director, who could ask for anything more?

This Les Misérables is different to other versions I have seen and I took different things from it. It allowed me to focus more on the principals and individuals rather than the madding crowd. Doug Kamo has used the privations to his advantage and created a unique interpretation of an adored show. Highly commendable and highly recommended.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Books read in February

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in February. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.
The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway (4.2)

The siege of Sarajevo was the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare, stretching from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. The United Nations estimates that approximately ten thousand people were killed and fifty-six thousand wounded. Snipers lined the hillsides and took pot-shots at the citizens below as they went about their daily business, collecting water from a tap at the brewery and queuing for bread. On 27 May 1992 several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread and killed twenty-two of them. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailović, a renowned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagion in G minor at the site in honour of the dead.

Steven Galloway has taken these facts and woven them into a fictional account, told through the voices of three individuals; Kenan, Dragan and Arrow. Although Kenan is a young man with a family and Dragan is an old man with nothing but his memories, there is little difference between their tone and they seem very similar. Arrow is a female sniper with a twisted sense of morality who is given a mission to guard the cellist and shoot anyone who looks to be aiming for him – get to them before they get to you. She justifies her hatred for the men on the hills, because they were the ones who taught her to hate in the first place.

Daily life is unconscionable as people race across the streets. Hiding from snipers, ducking and dodging bullets has become normal. The nature of death is random and arbitrary and all anyone can do is try and keep going. Kenan keeps going for his children who ask why this war is happening, and Dragan stays because he is an old man who doesn’t want to leave his city. They realise that no one from the outside world is coming to help them and they try and cling to their humanity. Life is reduced to the fundamentals and extremes. There is a strong sense of defiance as the people of the city long to have something that is worth saving when the dust finally settles.

This novel is an elegy to that besieged city and the people who survived it. It weaves the narrative strands together with a mournful beauty that resonates like the timbre of the cello. It is hauntingly beautiful, full of despair and a glimmer of hope.

On Top of Everything – Sarah-Kate Lynch (3)

For this novel, Sarah Kate-Lynch explores the world of cosy tea rooms, and the shabby but chic side of London. Florence’s husband leaves her (he’s gay but he still loves her) the same day that she gets bought out of her antiques shop. All she has to look forward to is her son, Monty who is due back from his gap year in Australia. When he returns with a much older wife in tow, Florence is devastated and seeks to rebuild her world.

She realises that she put everything into her family and now they no longer need her, she has no one to talk to. “What had happened to my friends, my life outside being a wife and mother? When had I stopped making an effort to keep in touch with the outside world? When had I become so wrapped up in myself, in ourselves?” She decides she is going to renovate her house into a teashop and serve afternoon teas. In her quaint and naïve imagination, she will enjoy this because of the people contact.

Of course she meets a new man – Will is the handsome and capable builder in charge of the renovations who has a past that he has learned from.

Assumptions that everyone else is stronger and happier are proved wrong as each of the characters has a chapter or two written in their own voice. Crystal, the Australian wife is not as confident as she originally appears and is a compulsive list maker. Poppy, the sister, is an imbecilic but loveable hippy who tries to kill herself because she hasn’t got a boyfriend and is too weak to face the world.

A lot of the dialogue is trite and clichéd, but there are still a few flashes of the rambling humour of her early work. Sarah-Kate Lynch is the Kiwi queen of comfort novels, but with On Top of Everything, she moves away from Maeve Binchy and strays into Freya North territory. It’s not a good development.

The Last Dickens – Matthew Pearl (3)

There is an endorsement on the cover of this book from Dan Brown. I’ve never read any Dan Brown but I suspect that people who appreciate his action romps through faux-cultural worlds would enjoy this tale. When Charles Dickens dies without completing his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his American publishers set out to discover if he may have hidden the final instalments or if there are any secrets to be revealed. Of course there are.

Mysteries and murder abound in this wild ride from Boston and New York to the streets of London and the opium dens of China and India, with several trans-Atlantic voyages and secret passages en route. Osgood, the publisher, uncovers the fact that Edwin Drood is based on a real shady character who faked his death, set up an opium empire, and is determined not to let anyone discover his true identity.

It soon degenerates into a mediocre thriller littered with improbable coincidences and perfunctory dialogue and description. The story hurtles along at a rapid pace incorporating dramatic chase scenes, a plunging elevator car, and a man who simply won’t die. There are discourses on duty, conscience and moral motivation, and conflict between the old and new worlds in the different expectations of society.

In some respects one could say this is similar to Dickens’ own work, but this is Dickens-lite at best and the writing couldn’t be further apart. It doesn’t impede the action, but nor does it stand out, and Pearl clearly has no understanding of women. The ineffective female side-kick who gets to play hostage and shriek a lot is set up with one eye on the film rights.

The interest in this novel comes from the focus on the publishing trade and the art of writing. The constant urging for the next big thing in the underhand consumer-orientated world of publishing questions whether we should have more faith in the reader. For all his vapidity, Matthew Pearl is a great fan, and The Last Dickens is his tribute to the great author. As an airport pot-boiler it probably fits the purpose, but if you want something challenging and well-written with great characters, a gripping yarn and a social conscience, stick with the master himself.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Winds of Change

Today is Whitsun or Pentecost. From the Ancient Greek meaning fiftieth day, Pentecost is not the noise made by Ivor the Engine (as I used to imagine when a child), but is rather the fiftieth day after Easter.

According to the New Testament, it was the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles ‘as of a rushing mighty wind’ with ‘cloven tongues as of fire’ and they all began speaking in tongues, going out and about preaching to crowds and gathering new followers to the church.

This all sounds highly dramatic and is the basis of many works of art depicting a strangely violent purification process. I particularly like this from Linda Schmidt who is a textile artist and quilter. I can imagine ribbons of flame make a great subject for patchwork.

One of my favourite parts of the story is that when the disciples all started babbling away in foreign languages, sceptics claimed it was because they were drunk or ‘full of new wine’. Our vicar pointed out that ‘alcohol rarely helps me speak English any better, let alone a foreign language!’ Peter is said to have leapt up indignantly and announced that they couldn’t possibly be drunk because it was ‘but the third hour of the day.’ Like that’s any excuse!

Alexander Sadoyan also warms to the theme with this remarkable portrayal in oil on canvas.

In legend, King Arthur always gathered his knights to the round table on Pentecost and had a big feast and declared a quest. In reality, medieval English folk had a ‘benefit feast’ to which everyone was invited and made a small contribution to the church which was used for repairs or distributed as alms to the poor. Special ales were brewed and Morris dances were performed. Any excuse for a festival. As with most traditions, it was partly parish and partly heathen but it sounds like a lot of fun and a time to celebrate community.

It is a day I have always associated with wind, in which case, what better place to celebrate it than Wellington? Or perhaps Christchurch where the famed nor’westers drive everyone mad, although they do get the sheets dry. I found a poem that I wrote two years ago about the wind in Wellington, which I feel fits perfectly here.

Morning regime

It’s windy in Wellington,
No surprises there.
No wonder the women all have short hair
I think as I walk past covens in cafes
And down to the sea.

Waves whisk foam like frothy cappuccinos
And the wind whips my breath
And the salt and seaweed away.
I lurch sailor drunk in erratic zig-zags
Sea-legs on shore.

The in and out pebbles
Clatter like castanets;
Driftwood dances tangos.
Is this what they mean by multicultural?

I am blasted by sand and water
Rough edges smoothed out
Dead cells sloughed off
No need for further beauty or exercise regimes
I am ready to face the city.
Picture by Tiffany Chantel.