Friday, 12 June 2009

Dream On

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Stagecraft, Gryphon Theatre, 24 May - 6 June

In his diary Samuel Pepys called A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”. Director Paul Kay and assistant Joy Heller would take delight in this description of their version of the bard’s silliest comedy.

Set in the '80s with all the fashion and music that engenders, this production eschews any hidden depths (filial duty; loyalty and compromise; sexual politics; gender inequality) to frolic in the shallows.

This approach sits comfortably with the audience who are content to laugh at fluorescent lycra leggings, big hair, shoulder pads and sparkly eye-shadow. A friend once asked me in all seriousness why grown women wear glitter make-up; ‘Just who or what are they hoping to attract, and why?’ He’s got a point.

The set design (Anna Lowe) is intriguing with many levels used to great effect to denote the power struggles and parallel worlds imperative to any production of this play. Fairies eavesdrop on the mezzanine level and leap off it, and it would have had even greater use had Oberon (Stephen Walter) not broken his finger in rehearsal.

The coloured squares on the dance-floor suggest a Michael Jackson video as does the striking lighting design (Don Blackmore). Wreathes of dry ice may get the front row coughing but they add a mystical element to the wood, and the roving spotlights create a nightmare episode from a twisted fairytale into which the lovers stumble.

Helena (Melanie Camp) is the best of the lovers displaying a fine acting range from lover to fighter – one minute pathetic puppy dog; the next fearsome virago. The wedding feast (that is not a plot spoiler – if you don’t know it by now…) is organised by Anna Beccard as Philostrate, the wedding planner – she is my one to watch for the future. Meanwhile Matt Bentley as Theseus comes into his own as he harangues the mechanicals in their performance, channelling his inner Johnny Vegas.

His wife, Hippolyta (Jasmine Embrechts) gets to wear all the best costumes, looking resplendent in bikini, riding jacket and a distinctly un-'80s flapper frock. Most of the costumes, however, are hideous (although excellent; the wardrobe team are to be highly commended and I promise not to ask if any of those items are their own).

The fairies are all renamed as '80s constructs from Goth to Legwarmer and everything in-between. Thankfully we’re not in America or Bumbag would have to be Fannypack. They are more off-putting than ethereal, but Puck (Reuben Brickell) is fluid in his movements and I’m not surprised to learn he is a contortionist. He brings a mix of strutting arrogance and fawning cringe to the role which gives him an uncanny resemblance to Gollum.

The interaction between their king, Oberon, and queen, Titania (Michelle Jordan), is one of the highlights of the play. Oberon looks like Adam Ant and sounds like Keith Richard – the monotonous tone is originally jarring yet he is good enough to carry it off – ‘I am invisible’ – and my companion declares that she finds him quite sexy by the curtain call.

Titania occasionally appears awkward when she delivers her soliloquies and the audience attention wanders during her static stance. This could be because she is uncomfortable in her dominatrix outfit, but when she cracks her whip and stalks the stage we are soon brought back to heel. Their odd duet, Love is a Battlefield, has an edge, and not just because of the hilariously erratic dance (God we took ourselves seriously didn’t we?), proving that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’.

The rude mechanicals are the other stand-out of the show. The role of the long-suffering foreman, Peter Quince becomes Petra, a giddy aerobics instructor. I was concerned about a female cast in a male role (one of my frequent bugbears with staging Shakespeare) but I needn’t have worried. Rebecca Parker is one of Wellington’s finest amateur actors and she enhances every nuance of the script with a delightful performance.

Despite some over-simplification of the text (trust your audience!) these scenes are excellent and the play-within-a-play at the end, which so often seems like an unnecessary addendum, is a lot of fun. Alan Carabott once again displays his impeccable comic timing in the part of Bottom (who else?); Gillian Boyes is impossibly cute as Snout/Wall; and Helen White also steps up to the gender bending challenge of Frank Flute/Thisbe, finding a new paradox in the lines, ‘Nay, faith; let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming’.

The musical interludes provide distraction and a unifying theme as the cast break out into choreographed movements (like Fame School came to Whitireia Community Polytechnic). There was some great music in the ‘80s (The Cure; The Smiths; Depeche Mode; The Pogues; The Clash; Madness; Fun Boy 3; OMD; Blondie; The Pretenders; New Order; Happy Mondays; The Stone Roses; The Beastie Boys; Echo and the Bunnymen; Adam and the Ants – I could go on, and on) but none of it is used.

There is a hint of Ultravox, The Human League and Frankie Goes to Hollywood but many of the cast, who weren’t alive then, will think that the 80s consists solely (or soullessly) of tasteless disco pop and air guitars. A friend told me she feels slightly insulted that these youngsters look at the 80s as we look at the 60s – something to be scorned and ridiculed or plundered for comic effect and fancy dress parties – but we lived through it and we wore those clothes (and that hair and make-up) without irony.

Paul gleefully admits he has done the decade a great disservice. Apparently he has a level below which he refused to stoop (Air Supply and Def Leppard were mentioned) for which I suppose we must be grateful. For the final number, the cast line up to sing I Want to Know What Love Is underpinning (or is that undermining? Paul rants, ‘you should never have to apologise for a play’) the epilogue. Rumour has it one earnest cast member asked what their motivation was to sing the song. Apparently Paul replied, "Motivation? You’re a f*&%ing fairy!" I can only hope that story isn’t apocryphal (that’s my zeitgeist, Paul!).

My sister, not a big bardolater, loved it – she said it brought Shakespeare alive for her. This show should tour schools. Some of Shakespeare’s plays are for the gentry and others appeal to the groundlings. Paul told me he would never be so irreverent with King Lear for example. Having seen how well he can act angst, I would love to see him direct something weighty and dark. Maybe next time…

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What's the point of prison?

A couple of weeks ago, when down in Christchurch, I was given a tour of the women's prison. It's clean and, although not exactly comfortable, every necessity of food and shelter and many of well-being are provided for.

Facilities include a library, a mini gym and a games room. Some prisoners share villas with a couple of other inmates. Mothers and babies have special areas for family development. Legislation states that a baby born in prison stays with the mother for the first 6 months, although this may be extended with approval.

With a heavy dose of understatement, the corrections officer explained, "It's not the baby's fault - it's quite strange. The legislation currently is looking at extending that to the age of two which in itself is going to create a lot more issues. Currently our self care unit is the area where we keep mums and babies because you can’t be locked in the cell with a baby from 5-8; it doesn’t work. But toddlers in prison; where are we going to keep them?"

Prison nurse, Anne Hofmeester, tells me that some people don't feel prisoners are entitled to health-care or indeed any benefits at all. "They are quite shocked that we provide prisoners with any help. They think they should get absolutely nothing. People in the community get cross that they have to go to their doctor and pay – it’s $70 to go to after-hours – but prisoners get it for free."

When the prisoners have demonstrated that they are ready to be rehabilitated and they are no longer a threat to others, they are relocated to 'villas' within the prison, where they share with three others in a flatting type situation, learning to budget for their food and toiletries and getting a small allowance for these necessities once a month. According to the Department of Corrections, the average cost of keeping an offender in prison is $90,747 a year.

They work in various 'industries' which includes the sewing room, kitchens, gardens and painting and decorating. Some of them take courses through the Open Polytechnic. As a corrections officer said, "Why wouldn't you? You've got the opportunity there to make something - to better yourself."

Again, some people disagree with this. They argue that they would like to study and learn to sew or play a musical instrument, but they are busy working every day to pay for food, clothing and shelter. How can it be right that those who have committed crimes, get the perks? Well, I can see their point, but I guess it comes down to the purpose of a prison. Do you want to punish, or do you want to rehabilitate?

She says she connects with the prisoners by talking about their family. Many of them miss their children more than anything while they are locked up and, for those who break the cycle of re-offending, they do so because they want to spend more time being a parent and less being absent or detained.

The prisoners are locked in their cells for a couple of hours over midday so that the corrections officers can have their lunch and do their paperwork. They are also locked up alone (for now - there is talk of introducing double-bunking in some prisons, but that is a separate issue) from 5pm until 8am, unless they have special duties. The cells they are locked in are tiny. I spent three minutes in one and I got claustraphobic.

There is a sense of menace in this place, compounded by the close proximity and the boredom of the inmates. They are constantly watched and frequently resentful. No matter what these people have done, the corrections officer I spoke to explained that her job is to ensure the "safe, secure and humane containment" of the prisoners.

"Getting through the day safely without any incidents is always a good one, and ensuring that your prisoners are safe. That to me is your challenge every day – that yourself and your colleagues are okay, and your prisoners are okay. The judging has already been done, which is why they’re in prison. It’s not up to me to judge again."

Naturally, everyone who enters and leaves the prison is searched and monitored. There may be wide blue spaces above, but there are razor-wire perimeter fences around the premises. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde refers to "that little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky". When he learns that one of his fellow prisoners is to be hanged, he declares, "Dear Christ! The very prison walls/ Suddenly seemed to reel,/ And the sky above my head became/ Like a casque of scorching steel;"

To be deprived of freedom is a terrible thing. It may well be a necessary thing, but what do you do with people when you have locked them up? If you don't agree with the death penalty, which I don't, then surely you intend to release them back into society at some point. And hopefully they will have managed to have altered their behaviour in such a way that they will never want to return again.

Having seen the inside of a prison, albeit a nice new one with pleasant facilities, I know that I never want to be in there again, and certainly not if the means to get out don't rest in my hands. What price do we put on freedom? I know that I value it at more than a pool table and an open polytechnic course.

By the way, you can click on any of these pictures to make them bigger. The inmates can't.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Mutual satisfaction

I found some beer notes that I wrote a while ago, so I thought I'd share them with you here. They are about Epic Mayhem, which was available at The Malthouse at the time. I don't think it still is. This was back in February around beer festival time - sigh, how I miss those heady days.

Auckland brewer Luke Nicholas explained that Epic had grown by 200% in the past 12 months, so he must have been doing something right. In a typically erudite Kiwi fashion he said, "I'm making beer because I like it. I'm making beer with flavour because I like beer with flavour" and he struck a blow for beer enthusiasts everywhere when he said, "It's not just about cold fizzy lager".

Unable to compete with the major breweries, he indulges himself by playing around with combinations of hops and malts and various flavours. And so Epic Mayhem was born, beginning life as a festival brew, and winning best in class in 2006. It is a 6.2% amber beer with notes of citrus, spic, passionfruit, malt sweetness and caramel and apricot flavours. Only the word 'malt' makes the label out of place on a Gew├╝rztraminer. That isn't original unfortunately - I would love to claim I said it, but I would be lying. I can't remember who did though - let me know and I'll credit it!

And there are hops - yes, you knew we'd get there soon. Most beers sold in New Zealand have approximately one hop per bottle. The delicious Epic Pale Ale has 15. Mayhem has 26. That's a lot of hops. They're a mixture of US-grown Cascade and New Zealand-grown Riwaka hops. And they're all crammed into a bottle bursting to be let out. I can help with that.

Mr Nicholas has been in England making beer for the world's largest beer festival, which concluded earlier this month. I've told all my friends in England who drink beer (which is nearly all of them if we're honest) to try it. They think New Zealand beer = Steinlager and so assume that tasty Kiwi ale is an oxymoron. Their tastebuds should get a welcome surprise. If anyone had some while over there, please let me know.

Luke Nicholas also said (and this is my favourite bit), "I get a lot of satisfaction out of people who drink it and buy it". I'm pleased we make each other happy, sir. Long may our mutually beneficial arrangement continue.