Friday, 22 January 2010

My newest favourite thing: cherries

Cherries are the heralds of summer. They are the rubies in the centre of the golden stone fruit bowl.

When children, and some adults, swing the ripe red pendulums from their ears and pretend to be wearing sumptuous earrings, you know the season has arrived.

Obviously, when they arrive depends on where you live. Here they arrive just in time for Christmas, but in the Northern Hemisphere I associate them with my sister’s birthday. The Weevil was born in July and we were often abroad in European orienteering countries for the event.

I have a childhood memory (of course, they are notoriously unreliable) of the Weevil skipping joyously along carrying a Black Forest gateaux (I suspect we may even have been in the Black Forest itself) and tripping; sending cream, cherries and chocolate shavings in all directions. The tears had nothing to do with the skimmed knees.

A stall in Arrowtown tempts you with luscious delights; the sellers have come from That Dam Fruit Stall in Cromwell. You can try varieties and pick a favourite punnet, if you are decisive.

Otherwise you struggle with your choice; red, white, pink or purple? Sweet or tart; ‘subacid’ or ‘bland’ – those last descriptions are not mine but come from the Horticultural Society. They probably provided the more prosaic number and letter naming system, while someone with a little more imagination came up with ‘Liberty Bell’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Columbia’ and ‘Staccato’.

Not only do they taste delicious, but apparently they are good for you. Cherries contain high quantities of the antioxidant anthocyanin, (also found in grapes and berries) so you can claim you are being healthy as you puff out your cheeks with the pips.

We would count them as children to see who we were going to marry; tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich-man, poor-man, beggar-man, thief. There was never any mention of electrical engineers so I can only assume their powers of prediction are equally as good as any other form of divination.

If you’re not counting the pips, you can always spit them out. My mother will be pleased to know that I haven’t entered (or even witnessed) the cherry pip spitting championships, but there is a hotly contested regional round of the competition in Cromwell at the start of the season. They make their own entertainment in this area, you know.

And when the cherries have all gone, it's not too long to wait for the blushing blossoms to appear. Symbolising the ephemeral nature of life, they are bashed and buffeted by the winds but some survive.

They are revered in Japan and in 1912 the Japanese gave a gift of some 3000 trees to America to symbolise their blossoming friendship between nations. Is it even more symbolic that these ornamental trees bear no fruit? Whatever, they look simply beautiful.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Books read in August

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in August. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Border Songs – Jim Lynch (4.5)
The anti-hero of Border Songs is tall, autistic, dyslexic Brandon who thinks in pictures, compiles mental lists of all the birds he has seen daily, and makes temporary art that is obviously influenced by “the great Andy Goldsworthy”. He joins the Border Patrol to catch drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, and discovers an uncanny talent for turning up in the right place at the right time.

His father, Norm has a failing dairy herd, a half-built yacht in his barn, and a wife (Jeanette) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He fantasises about Sophie the masseuse, who may or may not be writing a book about the inhabitants of the small town, and turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants in return for bundles of cash. His neighbour, Wayne taunts him from the Canadian side of the border where the drug laws are different, and Brandon falls in love with Wayne’s daughter Madeline who puts her gardening skills to good use.

No one actually knows where the boundary is, and a lot of money and effort seems to be poured into a ditch. The novel is whimsical and lyric with gentle prose which leaves a lasting impression. Full of a cast of picaresque characters and universal themes of exploration and defence, this book is simply beautiful.

Two Caravans – Marina Lewycka (4.4)
Marina Lewycka’s second novel covers some of the same ground as her first, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, but in this she focuses more on the experiences of immigrants, legal or otherwise, in England. Obviously there are good and bad people of all nationalities – Ukrainian, African, Polish and even English. Told from a variety of perspectives, the story is also an expose of the demise of socialism in favour of the exploitation of the labour force.

This is not a novel about the unemployed underclass. Everyone in this book wants to work, even if it is low-paid, often demeaning in appalling conditions (the chicken farm is a narrative highlight), and usually illegal – no union members are employed. This is a capitalist society where self-preservation is everything and the human cost in employment rights is the first casualty.

Bizarrely, where there is exploitation, there is also integration as people are treated similarly despite class, gender, religion or race. Many of the immigrants came to England with hopes of a bright future, escaping “that old derelict Soviet world that we are trying to leave behind”, only to have their dreams of the Promised Land shattered by the reality with its hints of the violent underworld; human trafficking, guns, stolen passports and underage prostitutes.

There are constant shifts of point of view as we follow the different characters and this makes it difficult to get to know any of them well. It develops into a Mills and Boon/chick-lit type romance but there are acres of slapstick shenanigans and economic politics to travel though en route. Much of the plot is implausible but that’s not really the point, as it is more a novel of ideas and principles. It is far from dry and sterile, however, and the humour and language is as sparkling as in her first.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home – Dan Rhodes (4.5)
The title obviously brings to mind Lassie Come Home, and the fact that it features a mongrel, Timoleon Vieta, encourages the comparison. Cockcroft is a faded English composer and socialite who lives in a dilapidated farmhouse in the Italian countryside. He dreams of his previous lovers and lives only with his dog, with whom she shares a deep friendship. When a mysterious stranger arrives, known only as The Bosnian, the relationship is tested, and we have to question who is indeed man’s best friend?

The Bosnian and Timoleon Vieta don’t see eye to eye and the Bosnian persuades Cockcroft to drive the dog to Rome and abandon him there. Timoleon Vieta immediately sets out to walk back to the farmhouse. Along the way he encounters various people who are living out their own tales of love and pain, offering a kind of solace to those around him who take him in and feed him for a couple of days, giving him various names, before he resumes his own incredible journey.

It’s a hard-to-categorize book, written in a deceptively simple style. There are disturbing moments and there are heartrending passages, but it is a fantastic little read – like a twisted parable that has no moral. Life just is. This could be a Canterbury Tale based in Umbria – the dog’s tale, as it were.

The Sonnets – Warwick Collins (2.3)
I don’t understand the point of this book. Warwick Collins has taken Shakespeare’s sonnets and woven a very loose and not particularly entertaining story around them. Half of the novel is actually comprised of the sonnets themselves, which anyone with interest will have read already, and he even makes up a couple, passing them off as the ones that got away.

He writes his story in Shakespeare’s voice as he stays with the Earl of Southampton, his patron, when the theatres are closed. Southampton is fatherless and placed under the guardianship of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister. Lord Burghley sees his ward as a rival and despises Shakespeare’s verses. Southampton, on the other hand, is flattered and impressed with the sonnets although he advises caution, telling Shakespeare to couch his sentiments in ambiguity; a handy explanation of the obscurity of the sonnets which allows Collins to interpret according to his will.

There are rumours of homosexuality to be countered. Through the questioning of Shakespeare by Southampton’s mother, who demands the household needs an heir, it is made clear that the love expressed towards the young lord in the sonnets is purely platonic and an example of artifice. Meanwhile, the dark lady is a married courtesan who becomes the mistress of both Southampton and Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe gets a cameo role as he competes for Southampton’s attention, and is frequently compared with Shakespeare.

Collins has chosen to write in the first person but he doesn’t want to relinquish the omniscience of the third, which results in a dissatisfying effect. Collins also attempts to circumnavigate the restrictions of the first person narrator by having Shakespeare imagine a scene at which he is not present, which is awkward and jarring in its construction. He does capture the Warwickshire scenery of parks and woodland, but he also has a repetitious turn of phrase. Generally, this is a shameful exploitation of one great man’s art by a much lesser writer.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Many thanks to the fabulous cast

We were worried about the weather for Shakespeare on Location. We feared it would rain as it had done all week. If there are such things as weather gods, they were smiling on us as we had excellent weather - if anything it was too hot, (especially for Sarah Bogle in her cape as Chorus from Henry V) but we are not going to complain.

We were also concerned that people might stay away - the combination of the bard and the rain might prove to be too challenging. And yet they came in their droves. The Otago Daily Times was there, taking pictures. Here's Samuel Farr being Hamlet crossed with Bono for the 'I'm-so-much-cooler-than-thou' look.

I heard a comment that the excerpt from King Lear was good because it was basically a stand-alone piece and you could understand the story from that segment. David Cantwell, Jane Robertson, Patricia McInerney and Victoria Keating should be pleased with their Days of Our Lives interpretation.

Understanding might have been more limited for the scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream but the language is so beautiful that you can just let it wash over you, while the fairies (Jo Blick and Samuel Farr) threaten to wilt in the heat.

At least the scene from Antony and Cleopatra was conducted under the shade of the arbour. Jill Derbie's Cleopatra and Jason Medina's Messenger kept their cool.

The sunshine suited the day at the races theme we had chosen for the scene from Hamlet where Getrude (Jane Robertson) attempts to placate an increasingly distraught Ophelia (Caroline Early).

David Cantwell led us delightfully between scenes beside the pond as he sang the Page's song from As You Like It; 'There was a lover and his lass'. Hey Nonny No, indeed!

There were some incredibly quick changes from people; some of whom had to scurry from one spot to another in record time. It wasn't break-neck, but apparently it was strain-calf speed. Samuel Farr and Jason Medina coped admirably for a scene from As You Like It performed on the bridge.

We then crossed over the water where Jill Derbie and Jo Blick proved that Shakespeare is truly universal by performing a scene from Henry V in French.

Juliet (Patricia McInerney) was anxious for night to fall so that she could meet up with Romeo, but probably also because it had been a very long day (eight hours of solid acting on Saturday).

The giggling girls in Much Ado About Nothing (Caroline Early, Victoria Keating and Tanya Surrey) were just gorgeous as they set their trap for Beatrice (Jo Blick) who fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

We had two guides so they took turns leading the tours. Here is Victoria Mills as Prospero, releasing the delighted Ariel (Jane Robertson) in The Tempest.

So perhaps I was tempting fate by gatting Jill Derbie to sing Feste's 'The Rain It Raineth Every Day' from Twelfth Night as the closing song, but thankfully fate stayed resolutely steadfast.

Besides the sun and the cast I also want to mention the fantastic job done by Mary Todd who was an excellent wardrobe mistress and stage manager, keeping the production on track and adhering to its punishing schedule.

And a huge thank you to all the audience who came to see the show - I'd love to hear your feedback. You can also check out the latest from Remarkable Theatre on their website.