Friday, 14 August 2009


When I was swimming today, I noticed signs in the changing rooms about lane etiquette. Basically, they informed swimmers how to behave around others: stick to the left; swim at the same speed as others in your lane and change lane if they are faster/slower than you (there are slow, medium, fast, and aqua-jogging lanes, all of which are clearly labelled); allow others to overtake you if they are faster; only overtake between the flags; leave the ends of the lanes free for people who are turning.

I would have thought this was obvious, but apparently not – hence the signs. A UK website dedicated to work etiquette has a page about
what and what not to do in a lift. Advice ranges from pressing the hold button when you see people rushing to catch the lift, to acceptable topics for conversation. Honestly, there are people who need to be told these things.

My favourite bit is the piece of advice that admonishes against using a mobile phone in a lift. It simply says, ‘It’s bad manners’. When I was a child, that was enough of a deterrent for anything. Being impolite was tantamount to eating tripe or listening to Val Doonican – something to be avoided at all costs.

On the occasions where I got a bit excitable and started to converse rather more loudly than was strictly necessary, my mother would say, ‘I’m sure the whole bus/park/world doesn’t wish to know about the minutiae of your day’ and I would blush, understandably chastised and be quiet until I had something interesting to say. Some might say they’re still waiting… You just didn’t want to ‘draw attention to yourself’ as this was considered a Bad Thing.

Recently I was at the theatre and a group of young lads were in the seats behind me. They were obviously in Wellington for some sporting tournament or other (either that or they revelled in wearing matching tracksuits) and they been dragged along to the theatre to keep them out of mischief. It soon became apparent that they had no idea how to behave in a theatre – I suspect this was a first for them.

They texted on their mobile phones, they asked each other what was going on and at one point they became directly involved – one of the actors was illustrating the dank depressing feel of the bach by trying to light a fire with damp matches when one lad offered him a lighter. To be fair, a couple of them seemed to be engaged as they made (loud) comments such as, ‘Oh wow, he’s really upset!’ and ‘She’s going to be really annoyed about this.’ But they had no comprehension that they were disrupting everyone else’s enjoyment.

I’m not alone in this experience. Linley Boniface wrote about a traumatic cinema visit with ‘people who believe their conversation is far more insightful, entertaining and hilarious than what’s happening up on the screen.’ Doing, or not doing all of these things are common courtesy and common sense, attributes which perhaps we are loosing in society.
Instances of complete oblivion to others are rising, not only in the pool or the theatre but also, and perhaps more dangerously, on the road. What is worse than ignorance of others is wilful disregard. When did we decide that our needs were so much more important than everybody else’s?

I blame two things – the i-pod and L’oreal. When plugged into a machine full of tunes you have illegally downloaded from the internet, thereby killing the potential of recording artists to actually make a living (but why should you care – you’ve got it for free!), you become unaware of everyone and everything else around you, existing only in your personal bubble. Words like communication, community, commonality, cease to mean anything to you. Because you are so special.

Or, in the words of an insidious marketing campaign that promotes vanity and makes money out of hiding what people really look like behind layers of make-up, ‘Because you’re worth it.’ Are you, really? When did we become so narcissistic? Was it when schools were no longer allowed to fail children who didn’t pass their exams? Was it when we started giving certificates to everyone who showed up and extra points for spelling things correctly? Was it when we started making reality television out of spoiled brats? Bob Brockie mentions some suggestions in a recent opinion piece.

As a human it would be nice to think you are entitled to clean water, fresh air, sufficient food, shelter, clothing, free education (up to 16 and then for those with aptitude) and a health service. As for the right to mouth off and assert your individuality at everyone else’s expense – I don’t think so. Some may call it etiquette – that’s clearly a tricky French word that people don’t understand. Let’s make things simple; it’s basic manners.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Unequal Balance: Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure (Three Spoon Theatre)
Bats Theatre, August 5-15

Measure for Measure is known as a ‘problem play’, as it holds comedy and tragedy in unequal balance, and director Alexandra Lodge certainly seems to be confused. Having seen the Three Spoon Theatre production at Bats, I am no clearer as to what she considers this play to be about.

The slick introductory dance to the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks (the all-time favourite single of the late great John Peel) seems to suggest it is a play about young people and sex. Well, that will certainly grab audience attention, but as the play progresses she turns her consideration to themes of justice, compassion, leadership, empathy, wisdom, experience and power.

She begins with a blank canvas. All the cast are dressed in white which apparently represents ‘the reaction to anatomy – the idea of cleanliness and outward appearance’ – they might just as well be anaemic smurfs or sperm. The patchily-lit set with its exposed pipes reveals the internal plumbing complete with dripping, gurgling, belching and squelching sound effects signifying the visceral and sexual content. It also resembles scaffolding involved in the building process as steps and levels provide delineations and boundaries.

We are reminded ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall’ or (in the words of another writer a couple of centuries later) that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Duke Vincentio (a sardonic and softly spoken James Davenport) pretends to leave his city and places the ‘precise’ Angelo in charge. Richard Falkner plays him with commendable exactitude that allows no room for manoeuvre.

When he drags Isabella (Charlotte Bradley) down to his level and makes her kneel in supplication, her heartfelt cry of ‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?’ is emphasised by shadowy light illuminating her anguish. They dance a tentative dos-a-dos like the sun and rain on a weather vane; they can never share the space because their ideals are poles apart.

Meanwhile, the Duke oversees all, frequently standing above or apart as he is granted the omniscience of an Oberon observing the necessarily messy and human foibles of his Viennese subjects. He manipulates the action and while his bed trick is a good plan and well explained, the head trick is crass and insensitive. Dialogue cuts and stage positioning make him unquestionably the pivotal figure, but his motives remain obscure.

The poetry and tragedy of this play (how often they go together) are simply beautiful. Charlotte Bradley’s calm and gentle yet firm Isabella contrasts perfectly with her brother Claudio (Eli Kent) who is all fluttery hands and jittery passions. One or the other is nearly always on stage and their scene together is the moving counterpoint of the performance. Claudio is imprisoned for fornication with Juliet (Clare Wilson) and his life will only be spared by Angelo if Isabella yields her virginity to him.

This scene contains some of the most moving language ever written, but they opt out for a cheap laugh instead answering ‘Were it but my life, I’d throw it down for your deliverance as frankly as a pin’ with a flippant ‘Thanks, dear Isabel’. The difficulty is that the comedy and the tragedy hang so finely in the balance, but they shouldn’t intrude on each other. Claudio still gets to conjure shivers with his ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where’ speech, but Isabella’s compassion is undermined.

When played straight, this is far more powerful, such as the beautiful final scene in which she kneels beside Mariana (Sophie Hambleton) to beg for the life of the man who has wronged her. This highlights the beatific soul of the women, all of whom are spurned and abused throughout, including the rapaciously sexy Mistress Overdone (Ally Garrett). It is unusual to see an actor wearing glasses on stage, but it works just fine here; if eyes are the windows of the soul, then Isabella’s is reflective.

The severe pruning leaves the comic characters with too heavy a burden. Whereas Lucio (Edward Watson) is expressive in a whisper, Pompey (Paul Harrop) speaks too fast. True, he is meant to be a jabberer, but many of his words are lost. Elbow (Thomas McGrath) makes excellent work of the physical comedy and muddled expressions, but he could temper his performance with less shouting, while Provost (Nick Zwart) bumbles and stumbles around the stage like a simpleton.

Alexandra Lodge has chosen to mock the theatrical conventions such as the eavesdropping, the mistaken identity, the false reporting, and the reveal scenes common to most Shakespearean comedies. This introduces distance from the audience resulting in a lack of engagement in the dignified demand for justice.

Many of the scenes instantly recall other works rather than creating their own integrity, and the play doesn’t stand alone so much as become a composite of Shakespeare’s greats. This is possibly because the editing simply went for the highlights and ignored the structure. The unresolved ending reflects the directorial dichotomy. It hangs together as a collection of (admittedly very good) vignettes but lacks cohesion.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Weekend sports round-up

Normal service has resumed with our cricket team. We were battered by Australia who simply outplayed us in every area. I guess it was nice while it lasted, but with Flintoff and Pietersen injured, and the rest of the team not up to the necessary standard, the humiliation was complete and it was all over just after lunch on Day 3. There can be no excuses (although the fire alarm being set off at the hotel can’t have helped) – let’s hope we get better and put on a good show in the final test.

From the stranger than strange files; I have been competing in a Fantasy Rugby team with some colleagues from work and an assortment of their relatives. We are playing in the Tri Nations and each week we pick a ‘team’ of seven players to compete against each other – points are awarded for tries, kicks, tackles, assists and turnovers (incidentally, is rugby the only sport where you get more points for trying than for scoring a goal?), and deducted for penalties and missed tackles.

My team is called ‘What do I know?’ Not a lot, evidently, as I am placed eighth (out of 11, and one of those is my friend’s mum who joined after the fourth game. Yes, I am ahead of her before you ask… but only just). I think my lack winning streak may be due to a couple of factors:

1) I keep picking players because I like the sound of their names – a bit like horses
2) I refuse to pick Richie McCaw because when the (real – i.e. football) World Cup was on, he was asked who he wanted to win and he said, ‘I don’t care, as long as it’s not England’. So I thought, ‘Well, don’t expect me to support you in anything, ever.’ And I won’t. Ha, that’ll show him. I bet he’s hurting now…

It’s actually quite interesting as your team can be made up of any combination of players from each competing side, and you start to watch the individuals’ progress rather than a team as a whole. This can lead to a renewed appeal in a game which would otherwise have no significance to you – i.e. if you are an England supporter and watch football.

Speaking of which, it was really weird to see Robbie Scouser playing for the Queensland Fury, not least because they may well have the vilest strip in the history of football. He scored on his (and the team’s) debut with a fairly soft penalty, it must be admitted. But although he is slow, unfit, and lacking in power, his precision passing is still freakishly good. He is still a Messiah in my eyes.

So now, with the Community Shield done and dusted and the Fergie the red-nosed %^$#er already trying to intimidate referees (didn’t take long, did it?), the count down is on until the beautiful game is back in all it’s glory.

The only problem will be having to watch Little Michael in the wrong red. It’s just wrong. Other than that, the one true game will be back as of next weekend and coming to a television near me.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Drowning in swimsuit controversy

What’s with all the fuss about the new swimming costumes? From ‘technical doping’ to suggestions of denying the swimmers their records, the media has been full of spluttering comment about a sport they usually largely ignore.

At these most recent world championships, a fantastic 43 new records have been set. This seems similar to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal 1976 when the scandal was about the East Germans and doping. But it was also the first year that goggles were introduced. Swimmers could actually see where they were going – shock horror – and they wore Lycra for the first time. Twenty-six old world records tumbled.

Was there a scandal about their new developments? No, because the thing is – they still have to swim. And fast. Technology may help improve your techniques, but you still have to do the work yourself. You still have to get in a pool, and train for six hours a day. That’s not exactly easy, suit or no suit.

I simply don’t understand the anguish. So there’s this material that gives the wearers an unfair advantage. How is that different from those compression tops that footballers wear to help with circulation, or the shorts with extra stitching that rugby players use for ease of lifting in line-outs? How is it different from wearing an aero-dynamic cycling helmet in a time-trial?

We used to row in wooden boats, hit balls with wooden tennis racquets and cycle on bikes made from… actually, what did we ride before carbon fibre was invented? Innovation and advancement happens in sport as much as any other field, perhaps even more so because there are marketing opportunities which lead to revenue.

Ay, there’s the rub; some folk would like to think that sport is still amateur; we all play nicely and for honour and glory rather than filthy lucre. Training is cheating, and natural talent wins out every time. Nice thought, but it probably hasn’t happened since the Greeks competed naked (if then) at a variety of curiosities. Or is that the idea?

Do these people who protest (and probably only ever swim in the kidney-shaped pool on their holidays in Fiji – that always struck me as an odd design for a pool while we’re at it as it makes me think of surgical procedures) think we should still be paddling about in knitted bathers that come below the knee? Where should a line be drawn in the sand when it comes to progress?

Now FINA has bowed to the pressure and the suits will be banned in the future. Sure, we all like an excuse to vent some righteous indignation but I can’t help feeling that swimming is the new cycling – considered boring unless there is a scandal. Is it any coincidence that that Tour de France was hardly covered in the mainstream press this year? One doping scandal does not a news story make.

Hopefully this flood of crocodile tears will soon be water under the bridge and we can get back to concentrating on the beauty of the sport – for those that ever actually cared about it in the first place.

Besides, it has been ever thus; the man (or woman) in the best suit gets the best results.