Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Fashion Matters

While I was in England, in between cultural expeditions and riverside walks to village pubs, I read the papers as I lounged around my parents’ house drinking cups of tea. They were full of reports about the impending election for the leader of the Labour Party, which is fair enough as this is of national (and potentially international) importance.

More surprising to me was the number of articles about fashion even in the ‘heavyweight’ papers. I would have thought the re-emergence of animal prints or this season’s techniques of belt-wearing were somewhat frivolous, but it appears not. London Fashion week, apparently, makes £20million a year for the capital and has wider implications for tourists attracted by the shopping in the UK.

I was always surprised by American surveys that listed ‘shopping’ as a preferred holiday activity, yet I have friends who visit Melbourne on shopping trips and when in Wellington would rather admire Lambton Quay retail outlets, than Te Papa cultural exhibitions. A friend who works in recruiting tells me that ‘fashion’ has firmly replaced ‘reading’ on young girls’ lists of interests on their CVs.

Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council is unsurprised by a recent report that claims ‘the UK fashion industry is the largest employer of all the creative industries, directly employing 816,000 people. The industry is similar in size to food and drink services and generates more than twice as many jobs as real estate, and considerably more than telecommunications, car manufacturing and publishing put together.’

Indeed, the report finds that British fashion contributes almost £21billion to the UK economy, and in times of financial crisis, that is not to be sniffed at. Perhaps clothes really do maketh the man – or at least, the woman.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas values

For the past couple of weeks I have been sick with worry for a good friend of mine who has just been diagnosed with cancer. He is generally as solid and dependable as an oak and now he needs all his strength to counter this vicious disease, which is wrapping itself around his internal organs like poison ivy. When terrible things like this happen to people we love, naturally we question our faith and our values.

This time of year is full of added pressure. We are bombarded with messages of a million things we ‘must’ do: buy the presents; tidy the house; deck the halls; prepare the dinner; ice the cake; wrap the presents; dress the tree; write the cards; finish all the jobs at work; send out the emails; clean the windows; sort out the cupboards; dust off the deckchairs… the list is endless.

Looking at one of my dearest friends lying in his hospital bed I realised that none of that matters at all. I know that the doctors, nurses and surgeons are all doing the best they can for him so in many ways it is the best place for him to be. But it’s full of sick people. And he needs to feel invigorated. His many visitors bring him love and support, but they can’t bring him fresh sea-air and pounding waves; it’s that which makes me feel alive.

So I walked on the beach and I thought of all the people I love and care about, and prayed that he’ll be back out soon. I haven’t done half of the things we are 'meant' to do at Christmas, but I shall sing some carols and think of my loved ones and try to spread whatever happiness I can. At the risk of sounding like some ghastly old hippy; Merry Christmas, and love and peace to all.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Out of Context

For Remarkable Theatre's summer show, I have put together a collection of comic scenes, songs and sketches to come under the umbrella title of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gardens. It's a promenade performance whereby a guide escorts the audience around the Botanic Gardens with a performance of 3 - 10 minutes duration in each selected location.

The hardest thing was to take comedy out of context. Many things are funny in the second act of a play becaue the first is exposition - without the initial set-up, the gag would fall flat and you can't just deliver the punchline without first laying the foundation. It's given me a whole new appreciation of farce. Noises Off is one of my favourite plays but you can't perform a short extract that makes any sense by itself.

Stand-up comedians often complain that their jokes are taken out-of-context and lead to them being labelled as racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ anti-semitic or whatever we are feeling particularly sensitive about that week. It may have come from a very funny line-up with a mitigating explanation, but if you remove all that, it's just another 'retarded gay nigger' joke.

Repetition is another factor in comedy. Something that is not funny at first utterance becomes increasingly so as we come to recognise, acknowledge, and then predict the inevitable. This is how catch-phrase or sketch humour works (Angry Frank being a classic example). And we can't claim this is sophisticated.

If you ever watch children watching theatre, they are bemused at the first appearance of the comedy elf. By the third or fourth appearance he becomes familiar, and by the time you, as an otherwise perfectly rational adult, are willing to bludgeon him to death with the nearest blunt instrument, the mini-critics are anticipating and so delighting in his entrance because they 'get it'.

'Getting it' is the pay-off for all the spade work and anticipation (no smutty innuendo please - let's leave that to The Two Ronnies. In all comedy there is an underlying theme which compounds throughout the 'drama'. If you only have five minutes to establish this drama, you have to choose the familiar and subvert it. And this becomes an exercise in defying stereotypes.

Comedy - it's not a science; it's an art.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Harry's Quest

I miss Hogwarts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One) has moved on with director, David Yates', latest vision. The three friends (Harry, Ron and Hermione) now spend most of their time running around the hills, forests and lakes of Britain (shot with breathtaking beauty by cinematographer Eduardo Serra) with a purpose (to destroy the Horcruxes – containers of the disparate pieces of Voldemort’s soul) but not much of a clue.

The school for wizards added a structure and timetable which is largely missing from this rambling marathon. There are no cosy divination lessons or starring roles from the new professor of dark arts. Instead we are given rampant hormones and rampaging death. The opening sequences employ both, with a chilling sequence at the Death Eaters’ camp followed by a fatal broomstick chase and some extreme snogging.

We do get to visit the Ministry of Magic, taken over by the Death Eaters in their black leather coats and Hitler moustaches (okay, so the facial hair reference is false but the Third Reich implications are solid) and the streets of London. The wand shoot/spell-out in a West End café is particularly dramatic as the supernatural and super-normal worlds collide over cappuccinos (surely this should have been mugs of tea?).

For the most part, however, we are in a tent (albeit with tardis-like dimensions) with the trio and there’s not a lot to do: Hermione (Emma Watson) reads; Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) broods and Ron (Rupert Grint) escapes. They may be glamping, but canvas claustrophobia soon sets in, both for them and the viewers as they indulge in desultory dialogue and hunt the Horcruxes.

And this is where the problems emerge. From an exciting magical romp, the story turns into a pedestrian quest with serious JRR Tolkein/ CS Lewis/ Thomas Malory overtones – right down to the sword in the lake. Not even the majesty of Malham Cove can lift the tale from the slough of despond.

The supporting characters are fabulous but underwhelming with the possible exceptions of the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, played by Bill Nighy (the only actor on the planet who could take on Alan Rickman in a lip curling competition with any credibility) and Helen Bonham Carter who gets more disturbingly insane with each installment. As the first instalment of the seventh part of the story, this was inevitably going to suffer from over-exposition.

There are hints and flashbacks aplenty (with extra cameos for departed characters) but the story itself is stilted and reined in; waiting for the final episode to unleash the great battle between the force and the dark side. You’ll probably need to watch it again just before you watch the finale, but that’s probably something dedicated Gryffindorains do anyway.

Monday, 6 December 2010


I've recently been looking up some old work by Ernie Wise. He was a very entertaining and talented performer.

Unlike this clown...

...who also bears an uncanny resemblence to Elmer Fudd.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Artistic Licence

At the National Gallery I take a detour to the Sixteenth-Century paintings to indulge my soft spot for Titian, now I feel I have an Italian connection with him. En route I am impressed by El Greco’s The Adoration of the Name of Jesus (1578) – a small canvas packed with detail and symbolism.

Joachim Beuckelaer also seems to know a thing or two about symbolism, with his Four Elements series (1569) which represents said elements with seductive images of market produce. A small scene from the life and teachings of Christ lurks in the background of each picture – he is considered one of the earliest and most accomplished masters of the fusion of the New Testament narrative with everyday life (Beuckelaer that is, not Jesus - although he could probably stake a claim too). These pictures were made quickly with bold and broad brushstrokes. Beuckelaer reveals himself as a skilled colourist – repeating and echoing colours and patterns in order to guide the viewer’s eye across his compositions.

Water features the stallholders with seafood, while Christ in the background appears to the disciples and fills their empty nets with fish. In Earth vegetables tumble from a basket and cascade towards the viewer – the holy family cross a bridge in the background.

Poultry and other skinned haunches of meat are the foreground focus of Fire – a still life with a dramatic construction. Christ is seated with Mary and Martha in the background. The background image in Air is of the prodigal son parable, while the market scene is one of fowl and rabbits (both dead and alive) framed by piles of eggs and stacks of cheeses.

Titian’s An Allegory of Prudence (1565-70) has three faces which represent the past, present and future. Apparently the triple-headed wolf lion and dog stood for prudence in sixteenth-century art and literature – ‘learning from yesterday, today acts prudently, lest by his action he spoil tomorrow’. In his Portrait of a Man (1510-20) the man in question appears to have just turned to face the viewer. His elaborate blue sleeve dominates the picture, protruding over the parapet to enhance the 3D quality of the image. Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3) is a celebrated work of classical mythology, but I can’t get over the fact that Bacchus looks like he’s bowling down the wicket.

My brain is now full of images, light, perspective and composition. Placement and framing is of utmost importance in these paintings but also, I realise in my photography and, even as I am sated with culture, I am refreshed with themes and ideas.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Artistic Impression

Moving on to ‘Painting Out of Doors’ at The National Gallery, the room is lined with panels by Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot depicting changing light through the trees and sky over the space of a day, with small figures for emphasis and perspective. The next room is ‘Manet, Monet and Impressionism’, and now we are into more familiar territory. We have Renoirs and Berthe Morisot’s Summer’s Day (1879) where two women relax in a boat on a river. Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867-8) is a reconstructed canvas. It’s pretty big and shows the firing squad preparing for their mission – all we see of the victim himself is his hand.

Claude-Oscar Monet’s The Beach at Trouville (1870) proves his open-air style. In the sketch of his wife and a friend, grains of sand and shell are embedded in the paint surface. There is also one of his Gare St-Lazare (1877) paintings – of which there are twelve painted from the same spot, capturing the light at different times of the day.

A woman delivers beer to men watching a dancer on stage in Edouard Manet’s Corner of a Café-Concert (1877-80). Her attention is diverted by something off to the side of the canvas and she is looking in completely the opposite direction from everyone else – we wonder what has caught her eye.

Gustave Caillebotte’s A Man at His Bath (1884) is a fascinating study, as I realise there aren’t so many paintings of the male figure – it was considered not as acceptable as images of naked women. Interestingly, when I try to buy a postcard of this painting, there are none for sale. Plus ça change... The catalogue notes explain, ‘The male nude is a relatively infrequent subject in late nineteenth-century painting. The matter-of-fact presentation of the figure here, drying himself after emerging from the bath and leaving wet footprints on the floor of his Parisian apartment is particularly rare. Also unexpected is the painting’s larger-than-life scale.’

Monet’s work is still brilliant, whether his irises, poplars, Venice or Le Havre. The Snow Scene at Argenteuil (1875) evokes a cold winter atmosphere through a steely palette of blues, greys and occasional sharp accents of colour which give the painting depth. His water lilies and Japanese bridge are represented by paintings from 1924 and 1926 shortly before his death – his loss of eyesight led to thick foliage and strikingly bold greens where the ‘paint handling is particularly free’.

I like Alfred Sisley’s View of the Thames: Charring Cross Bridge (1874), with the boats on the water framed by the city sky-line, all rendered with his short stroke technique and ‘nervy brushwork’. Camille Pissarro’s Portrait of Felix Pissarro (1881) is a portrait of his third son when he was seven years old (the son, not the artist) wearing a red beret against a green background – it’s a great colour contrast.

We have now move on to ‘Beyond Impressionism’ apparently, with Pissarro, Seurat and others who adopted the pointillist style – notably Alfred William Finch who paints an austere scene in The Channel at Nieuport (1889) in which the water and sky meld almost imperceptibly into one to exude an atmosphere of emptiness and silence. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele (1905) is a more naturalistic painting of a lake just north of Helsinki.

Theo van Rysselberghe uses simple colours to big effect in his pointillist homage, A Coastal Scene (1898). George Seurat’s Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (1885) is a study of a promontory with birds and boats in the background. Even the borders are done in his dotty discipline.

I am reunited with Pierre Auguste Renoir’s At the Theatre (1876-7). I love this painting – the isolation of the young girl and her chaperone in the theatre box are the focus rather than the action on stage. Camille Pissarro’s shimmering brushwork and eclectic use of colour are evident in The Little Country Maid (1882) and The Pork Butcher (1883).

Paul Cezanne is also a master of colour and he broke away from the Impressionists with his use of colour rather than light to convey form. Examples include An Old Woman with a Rosary (1895-6); The Painter’s Father, Louis Auguste Cezanne (1862); The Store in the Studio (late 1860s) and Self Portrait (1880) in which he experiments with geometric structure and blocks of colour. Bathers (1888-1905) is outlined in blue to accentuate the serenity of the scene.

This room also contains work by Edouard Vuillard – The Earthenware Pot (1895) contains dots and dashes and such deep reds and bright flowers that the image of women sewing is like a lacquered vase itself.

Naturally Van Gogh is represented here, by Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) and Sunflowers (1888), but also by the less familiar Long Grass with Butterflies (1890), A Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) and – a new favourite of mine – Two Crabs (1889).

I hear people with their banal comments on art appreciation: ‘I just love pointillism; it’s so aggravating’; ‘She must have sat still for hours’; ‘Fantastico!’; ‘That’s amazing, but where would you put it in your house?’; Parent to child – ‘His paintings are worth millions.’ Child – ‘Really?’ Another parent to another child – ‘Can you see the sunflowers?’

In the ‘Degas and Art around 1900’ room there are (obviously) pastels by Degas of dancers, ballerinas and peasants. I particularly like Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879) as she spins from her teeth, high in the air, unsupported by anything but a rope. We also have Klimt, more from Edouard Vuillard, and Surprised! (1891) by Henri Rousseau. By placing the trees along a diagonal axis he has conveyed a sense of wind in spite of the painting’s static and naive style. (‘See the tiger?’)

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Artistic Merit

I have a morning in London to play with but I also have bags that I don’t want to carry around with me all day, so I decide to go to the National Gallery, check them into the cloakroom and admire some art. The building itself with its high cupola ceilings exudes calm and a sense of peace in one of the busiest cities in the world. I head for the 18th to early 20th Century paintings, as I know I’m not interested in fat Italian cherubs or dark Dutch masters.

Straight away I am impressed by Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751) by Pietro Longhi. It really is a spectacle as the masked ladies stand out against the bare background. The keeper holds the rhino’s severed horn drawing attention to the degradation and suffering inflicted in the name of beauty and exoticism.

I’ve never admired Canaletto particularly so this is something of a conversion for me as I gaze at his massive canvases. Venice: A Regatta on the Grand Canal (circa 1740) is busy with gondolas and spectators – many wearing masks for the carnival. His handling of perspective is masterful, as it is in Venice: The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal with Saint Simeone Piccolo (circa 1738) with its incredible use of light, reflections and ripples on the water. It is full of detail, right to the corners of the canvas. So too, Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day (1740) in which Canaletto captures all the glittering excess of the festival to commemorate the marriage of Venice to the sea. I am now a fan. It’s a sort of awakening – no reproductions can do these justice.

Moving through to British portraits and Hogarth and British painting we get a more austere approach. Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series (1743) introduces a novel mode in painting as it depicts a state of debauchery and poverty arising from a loveless marriage – is it satire or simple moralising? Thomas Gainsborough painted fashionable members of society in landscape settings, hence Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748-9) who look perfectly smug and self-satisfied seated outdoors with bonnet and gundog.

Joseph Mallord William Turner paints large skies and scenes full of drama. I prefer his train to his ships, but The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up (1838) was voted the greatest painting in Britain (despite its un-snappy title) in a Radio 4 Today/ National Gallery poll. Among the atmospheric studies of mist and cloud is Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway (1844) supposedly painted of a train crossing a bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead. A small hare (which I’ve never noticed before) runs for cover in front of the train. Earlier works, such as Calais Pier (1803) and Dutch Boats in a Gale (The Bridgewater Sea Piece) (1801) also focus on dramatic seas but with far more definition.

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ studies the effects of light and shade heightened by candlelight in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). As a cockatoo is killed in the name of science, the tender-hearted children are upset. The moon breaks from behind the clouds and the scientist’s gaze is directed squarely at us – no one else’s is.

The commanding life-sized painting Whistlejacket (1762) was painted by George Stubbs for the racehorse’s owner – the second Marquess of Rockingham. His interest in classical sculpture may have inspired the unusual presentation of the Arabian stallion with its superb proportions and beautiful appearance against a blank background.

Back to Hogarth with his moral interpretations: The Graham Children (1742) features a cluster of infants including a baby, being pulled in a cart, who was dead before the painting was finished. The inclusion of a cat watching a bird and a statue of Father Time with a scythe draws attention to the fact that life is fleeting.

Constable is represented by several paintings – Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831); The Haywain (1821); The Cornfield (1826) amongst others. He revels in landscape and clouds, capturing the immediacy of effects produced by light and weather. I’m not a great admirer, but my favourite would have to be The Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-6) where a stag stands in the foreground of an autumn scene before a monument to Sir Joshua Reynolds, flanked by busts of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Another section focuses on 'The Academy' and the pictures they presented along their rules. I like the light and shadows in Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (circa 1855), also in Theodore Gericault’s A Shipwreck (1817-18) in which the light and shade plays on the muscles of a man as he emerges naked, exhausted and dripping wet from the sea, clinging to a rock. Gustave Courbet’s Beach Scene (1874) is a study of clouds and atmospheric light, while Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens (1867) shows off Adolph Menzel’s famous attention to detail in the depiction of a lively crowd.

Monsieur de Norrins (1811-12) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres stands out with his inscrutable expression. The subject was the chief of police in Napoleonic Rome; he is censorious with a hint of amusement – is this disapproval with slight admirations? Max Liebermann’s Memorial Service for Kaiser Friedrich at Kosen (1888-9) is striking for its sombre mood of mourners in a forest among the beech trees, all clad in black which highlights the blond-haired children.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Refer to Sender

The other day someone asked me if I knew a good builder I could recommend. Builders, car mechanics, hairdressers and dentists belong to a specific set of people: you put trust in them although you may know nothing about them personally, and it doesn't matter if you like them socially or not.

They are not chosen to be your friend; but they are your confidant. They know that beauty is only skin deep and what things really look like under your bonnet. If you get a good one you trust their judgement implicitly: can I tear down that wall; can you fix my handbrake; will I suit red hair; should I get my teeth pulled out?

If you have a bad experience your faith is shaken so badly it may take years to repair. I have a friend who has a pathological fear of hairdressers (apparently there is an official term for this - weaslaphobia) after what she shudderingly refers to only as 'the perm incident'. I think it happened about 20 years ago, but she still doesn't like to talk about it.

So if you can get a friend to recommend one of these contemporary shamen it gives you an added confidence in their services. But what happens if you don't like them? Does that then reflect badly on the referee? Does this mean you no longer trust their judgment? How much responsibility should be attached to a recommendation?

The same is true of books, films and theatre. If someone whose opinion I value recommends something that I think is awful, do I think less of them? Do they do the same regarding me? My dad used to say film recommendations from my aunt were uniformly reliable because he was guaranteed to dislike anything she championed and vice-versa.

I used to work in a book shop and I still regularly review books, film and theatre for national media. I know that a critical review is just one person's opinion, but if it has influence then it has importance. I have a friend (Our Gracious Hostess) whose recommendations have never been wrong. My mum's are pretty solid too - with the glaring exception of Jane Austen. It's a lot to live up to, but they take their responsibilty as seriously as I do. Maybe we're reading too much into it, but these are referrals on which I know I can rely, which is comforting in these uncertain times.

And incidentally, I know a pretty fine lift engineer/ electrician, but I'm not sharing!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Freedom at what price?

Earlier this week we received the good news that Nobel Peace Laureat Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the house arrest under which she has spent 15 of the past 21 years. This is not the end, however. The country in which she lives is ruled by a military junta which flagrantly breaks the Geneva Convention and routinely lists killings, torture, rape, destruction and appropriation of property, and taking of hostages among its violation of human rights and crimes against humanity.

Aung San Suu Kyi has much Western backing, and support for her has become symbolic with the struggle to protect democracy and freedom of the individual. She has been released before. In 1995 she was released only to be attacked and there are fears that a similar thing could happen again. She may be out of 'custody' but as long as she speaks out against the abuse of human rights she is not safe. She also argues that she is not free.

"If my people are not free, how can you say I am free? We are none of us free."

Immediately Aung San Suu Kyi wants to work to free the more than 2,100 political prisoners still being held by the Burmese regime. Her intention is to gain global support and bring their plight to interantional attention. "This is a time for Burma when we need help. We need everybody to help in this venture. Western nations, eastern nations, all nations."

She displays an exemplary love of her country despite the treatment she has received and says of her captors, "I think we will have to sort out our differences across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement." We can only wish that others around the world were more rational and less bent on revenge.

In a speech of which a trade unionist would be proud, she said, "There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal." Crucially this assumes that we all have the same goal. Unfortunately while some seek personal advancement at all costs, and inevitably the expenxse of others, this can never be the case.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Dry Stone Walls

When people ask me (as they invariably do) what I miss about England, I respond; family, friends and football - in no particular order. I also miss English drama, comedy, theatre, sense of humour, beer and pubs. There are also certain things that have the capacity to make me homesick, but I never knew that the Public Footpath Network and dry stone walls were among them. It seems I am not alone in this.

When I posted photos of my trip home on My Week in Pictures, the Weevil told me it was those very walls that made her want to go home. So this is for her:

Geological Geometry

Grey lines dissect the green hills,
Marking out history with geological geometry.
Where the softer South grows hedges,
The stony North builds walls
To separate the sheep from the goats;
The cows from the arable crops;
The personal profits from the fallow fields.

There are stories in stones;
Placed by hands imparting human shape to the landscape
Following the contours of ancient shifts and rifts;
Settling the wrangles of nosy neighbours
And stopping the stock from wandering;
Retaining plain sailing on rolling pastures
Layering parallel lines with through stones.

Boundaries of boulders to guide and direct;
Selecting the right path and bypassing the pitfalls,
With occasional bolt holes to squeeze through
And narrate a particular past
Without words to cement sentences:
Two stones above a stone
And one above two.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Big Foot Strikes Again!

Recently the New Zealand media has been awash with hysteria over The Hobbit. Because some actors who were part of the union dared to ask for comparable wages with their American counterparts for doing the same job in the same conditions on the same film, the executives at Warner Brothers threatened to take the film off-shore. Suggestions were Poland or Czechoslovakia, because it’s cheaper. There was outcry.

This did lead to some interesting asides as an article in The Guardian speculated where certain scenes might be located if set in Britain (let’s not forget; where the book was originally written). The Shire is described thus; ‘Tranquil and pastoral, the Shire is home to the Hobbits, a bizarre race of tiny, shoeless, greedy, pipe-smoking, badly dressed little men and matronly wives.’ The suggested location was therefore Luton town centre. The forum was opened up to the public to propose where they would shoot The Hobbit – the first answer was, ‘I would shoot the hobbit in the face’. My, how I laughed.

According to some sections of the population The Hobbit can be set nowhere but New Zealand, never mind the fact that JRR Tolkien never even visited here. For a nation that has been proudly churning out ‘New Zealand-made’ garments from sweat-shops in China for years because it’s cheaper, the righteous indignation feels a little hollow. These are probably the same people who illegally download films and music, thereby killing the performance industry to save themselves a few dollars.

Many extras and people who don’t actually make a living through acting are claiming, ‘I’d do it free’. How helpful is that really? For some reason many sections of society seem to think that because actors love their job, they should be paid a starvation existence, if at all. I’m not sure I follow this argument – are we saying that lawyers and surgeons hate their work? After all, no one expects them to work for free.

It seems that the nation has finally woke up to the fact that people don’t adore them the way they think – they just use them because their labour is often cheaper than in other (generally unionised – i.e. fairly paid) countries. So I woke up one morning last week to find that John ‘I made fifty million pounds out of screwing people like you’ Key has changed the labour laws overnight, and denied one of the workers’ primary rights – that of collective bargaining. Yes, you read that right: 300 years of workers’ rights sold to Warner Brothers. It may not be Mickey Mouse, but it’s certainly goofy.

Corporate greed triumphs once again, as you would expect from the despicable I’m Alright Jack politics that epitomised the Thatcher era (during which this particular Jack made his millions), but the fact that a Prime Minister can directly intervene in a commercial venture and bribe a company to come to his country (Warner Brothers will receive $25 million in tax breaks) so it receives worldwide exposure is disgraceful. New Zealand scenery will once again be on the big screen and it will do wonders for the tourism industry (the same Guardian article points out that, ‘prior to those films it was just bungee jumping and binge drinking, but now the spectacular scenery is its own selling point’), but the actors will leave. He has made sure of that.

When all that is left are right-wing propaganda mainstream X-box American remakes in ten years time, people who voted for this slippery snake will have only themselves to blame. I will be boycotting the film of The Hobbit when it finally comes out, even if it does star Richard Armitage. Admittedly, I am only one person and will not make much of an impact on the American/oops, I mean New Zealand (there appears to be little difference) dollar, but like the actors who fought for their rights I am prepared to stand by my beliefs. (Plus The Hobbit is one of only two books I have ever started and not finished out of sheer boredom.)

Meanwhile in France, such things would not pass without a ripple. President Sarkozy’s attempt to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 drew mass protests and strike action from the workers. It was said to cost the national economy €400 million a day and yet 70% of people supported the unions who called for these strikes. Jean-Luc Hacquart, a representative of the CGT union in Paris (Confédération générale du travail) – the strongest union in France – said (albeit doubtless in French),

"Democracy is not a carte blanche given to people to do what they want between elections. It doesn’t work like that."

George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” If only people were less apathetic and more socially minded in this country, the hard-fought rights of the workers would be safeguarded rather than tossed aside for the benefit of a group of hairy-footed cellar dwellers. I mean the fictional hobbits – what were you thinking?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

It's only Rock and Roll...

Rock and Roll Suicide stars (from left) Shaun Vining, as Idol, Max Gunn (17), as Joe Rockstar, and Pearly McGrath, as Susie Diva, Joe's girlfriend, pose during the company's first dress rehearsal with the band, in the Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall, on Wednesday night. The rock opera debuts in the hall on Wednesday and plays until Friday. Photo by James Beech.
Rock and Roll Suicide
Athenaeum Hall, Arrowtown
October 27-29, 2010

When I was 13 I wrote a story for my cousin comprised entirely from the lyrics of David Bowie songs – she lived in the US and I in the UK, and he was the single artist we both admired who translated across the Atlantic. It would be fair to say that even before I was finally defeated by Cat People (there’s only so many times you can attempt to put out fire with gasoline after all) it was a woeful effort.

Fortunately for us all, UnderGround Productions have done an infinitely better job with Rock and Roll Suicide; a rock opera featuring the music of David Bowie. Margaret O’Hanlon directs a vibrant and enthusiastic cast through some novel interpretations of familiar and lesser-known songs. The band on stage are excellent if occasionally the music mix on opening night meant they drowned some of the singers, but the sound fills the hall with depth and rhythm, almost as if at a real gig.

The story isn’t too original or hard to follow which is good because you can concentrate on the music (and that is great!) although a few spoken words might enhance the clarity, especially for those who don’t know Bowie’s lyrics already, as these are sometimes hard to decipher. Joe Rockstar (Max Gunn) wants to be a rock star so he heads to London with his trusty guitar where he is fatally impressed by the star of the moment, Idol (Shaun Vining). He also meets groupie Suzy Diva (Pearly McGrath) and promises her a whirlwind romance which becomes more of a torrid maelstrom of drugs and destruction.

Pulling the strings like malevolent puppet masters are the manipulative record producers, Jupiter (Martin D Grounds) and Vex (Margaret O’Hanlon). Like a pair of scary clowns they command and wheedle; bully and badger until they get what they want – money – at any cost. In garish costume, pancake make-up, dreadlocks (him) and fishnets (her) they wheel on a magician’s cage with plush red curtains and iron bars; fame may look alluring but it is also an illusion; a trap from which there is no escape.

The chorus work and expert choreography (Anna Stuart) makes the ensemble numbers a delight. From the spine-chilling vocal harmonies of Life on Mars – played out against flickering images from the silver screen – to a dozen human cameras flashing their shutters in synchronicity in Fame, the company numbers are a highlight. Golden Years, with arm twirling and finger clicking, is a classic rock song which the lighting emphasises perfectly, and when things get dark in the second half, the choreography for Tonight has a touch of Jai Ho to bring us out of the gloom.

A propos of which, there are some very dark themes indeed as Joe Rockstar succumbs to heroin, hallucinations and attempted suicide. The young Max Gunn handles these excellently and though he may not have the vocal experience to carry the angrier punchy numbers (Changes; Suffragette City) he really hits his stride with the soulful duet When I Live My Dream and the drugged-up Always Crashing in the Same Car.

As he sits vacantly on the sofa during Lady Grinning Soul (another vocally superb cameo for Margaret as Medusa), Anna Ashton performs acrobatics on the pole that has dominated the set since the beginning. It is a fantastic display of strength and flexibility that also (I suspect due to the skimpy 'outfit') drew appreciative whistles from half of the audience. If this is one for the boys, then Pearly McGrath’s fantastic rendition of Heroes as a disappointed and neglected lover struck a chord with the girls and brought the house down. The reprise of Heroes/ When I Live My Dream/ Starman is touchingly tender, although the preceding scene needs polishing in terms of acting and mechanics to deliver the full impact

Shaun Vining puts in a stellar performance as the fallen hero who is discarded for a younger model. His pained demise in Bewley Brothers elicits skin-crawling sympathy as he descends into madness with the assistance of projected images of his distorted face. Tom Lynch and Tom-Tom Productions do a fabulous job with the technical aspects and visual backdrop which enhances the poignancy of the piece with quotes and images of those who died too young through abuse of substances and their mental health.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t have included Michael Jackson (who seemed to be the odd one out), but I would have added Ian Curtis to the likes of Joey Ramone, Sid Vicious, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Hutchence, Phil Lynott, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Johnny Thunders, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain... you can discuss this later at home. The programme includes the phone number for Wakatipu Victim Support for anyone who wishes to speak to a health professional about any issues raised by this production and there are some powerful moments as it treads a fine line between the highs and lows of adulation – never pulling any punches.

Just as Idol was thrown on the scrap heap, so Joe Rockstar follows suit when Jupiter sees he is no longer fresh and brings in a new pin-up, the effervescent Sam Hillman as DJ. He introduces a modern note (although his song, DJ, is from 1979 proving the versatility of the great man) and a hip-hop style with which the cast seem more familiar. It is indeed a credit to Margaret and Marty to get such sterling performances out of people who weren’t even alive when Bowie was at his best. The selection of songs is clearly a personal one, but perhaps more emphasis on the ‘good time’ era might explain why one would pursue such giddy heights in the first place.
There are some technical issues which need improvement and may shape up further into the run – the skylight needs to be blacked out or it ruins the lighting effects in the first half; the transition of microphones for the final number, Ziggy Stardust, is a bit shambolic; there are several occasions between numbers where the cast don’t know where to put themselves – it is a very small stage and can look crowded and messy – and it was entirely obvious that the encore was unplanned, although Fame was a good choice. On the whole, however, this is a thoroughly entertaining show.

Rock and Roll Suicide demonstrates how good a musical can be when you actually let the music do the talking. In the words of my favourite Bowie song, ‘Hot tramp; I love you so!’

Friday, 22 October 2010

Henry IV, Part Two: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Henry IV, Part Two
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
July 3 – October 3, 2010

‘Does anyone ever do Henry IV, Part Two by itself?’ asks my dad after we emerge from Dominic Dromgoole’s most excellent sequel at The Globe. Probably not, because although it is a superlative historical drama, it follows on from Part One too comfortably to stand alone.

Prince Hal (Jamie Parker) is still unsure where he fits in life; like Prince Charles, his job is to wait for his monarch-parent to die. The moment when Hal thinks this has happened is shockingly powerful and moving as he has the temerity to touch the crown, only to then stand silent and chastised as his father (Oliver Cotton) remonstrates with him.

Falstaff (Roger Allam) is still a powerful coward full of bombast and bravado. Age and the law are catching up with him, however, and he is slightly more contemplative as he realises he has no true friends and may have only a lonely dotage ahead of him. He tries to shrug off such reflections with cheap tricks and ale but the merry-making seems forced. We understand why actors relish the role of Falstaff and why he is the only one of Shakespeare’s characters to get his own spin-off play, but also when Hal and his ‘shadow’ Poins (Danny Lee Wynter) tire of him, it is easier to share their disillusionment than in Part One.

The tavern scenes are exquisitely executed, from the distressed Mistress Quickly (Barbara Marten) who is simply trying to make a profit and avoid ‘swaggerers’ while her husband nonchalantly smokes his pipe on the balcony, to the vigorous slapstick humour of Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams). She proves adept at physical comedy as she hurls herself (in more ways than one) across the stage –let’s just say the groundlings at the front get slightly more than they bargained for.

There are yet more politics and manoeuvres in this second part of the trilogy and they continue to be expressed with intelligence and clarity. A particularly Machiavellian piece of skulduggery reveals Hal’s younger brother John of Lancaster (Joseph Timms) in a not-entirely-honourable light. He is steadfast and practical, however, and more like a stereotypical older brother who gets the job done without any of Hal’s shenanigans, of which he clearly disaproves.

William Gaunt is quite brilliant as the doddering old Shallow bringing humour to what could otherwise be quite tedious scenes of choosing soldiers, and providing such much-needed lightness as the tone darkens. He is delightfully shambolic and his double act with Silence played by Christopher Godwin is the best I’ve seen since Morecambe and Wise.

With the death of his father, Prince Hal becomes King Henry V and his return to the stage (he is absent for three-quarters of the play) makes it shine anew. Although he claims, ‘This new and gorgeous garment, majesty/ Sits not so easy on me as you think’, he does in fact assume the mantle with aplomb. And when he rejects Falstaff at the conclusion, we are not as sad as we might be because we know it would be disastrous if, as the dissolute knight has boasted, ‘the laws of England are at my commandement’.

The new king reveals a glimpse of the old playboy when he promises he will reward Falstaff and his companions with advancement, but assures them it will only be ‘as we hear you do reform yourselves’ and not purely through nepotism. Already he is proving to be an adherent to fairness and justice – the audience can once again leave on a high knowing the (past) future of England is in good hands.