Saturday, 5 June 2010

Written worlds

The Letter Writer
Circa Theatre, Wellington, 7 – 21 March 2010

Courtesy is a dying art. During the production, four phones went off (one twice) and there were two latecomers who shuffled noisily in after the play (one hour and forty minutes with no interval) had started. Apparently the art of letter-writing is also moribund. Mr Rouvesquen (Peter Hambleton) is a professional who helps people become more erudite although, with world-weary cynicism, he also tries to dissuade them from using his services.

From the beginning the tone is unsettled – comedy sits alongside something infinitely more sinister. The sliding doors and panels form a cosy and well-appointed office but they also create hiding places and darkened corners for fraught departures; the mood heightened by dramatic music (Stephen Gallagher) and tight lighting (Jennifer Lal). The scenes flow seamlessly into one another and techincal cues are often taken from musical notes rather than lines of dialogue, negating the importance of the spoken word.

Rouvesquen has a number of customers to whom he explains that words can both clarify and obfuscate. Asked to write speeches and letters for all occasions he has a price list in which ‘weddings are situated between baptisms and funerals, just above love letters – those are obsolete’.

With wonderful indecision Tim Gordon plays Mr Ralph who wants a father-of-the-bride speech, afraid that he will shame his daughter because he hasn’t mastered the words. Rouvesquen asks Ralph to speak naturally so that he can see the sort of man he is. “I need to assess your oratory abilities so that I don’t render you a Socrates in gumboots.” He is instructed to stop rambling, to eliminate gestures, and cut to the witty stuff without waffling. Clearly this is great advice for playwrights too, and Juliet O’Brien has taken it to heart with dialogue that is both precise and loaded with meaning.

Another client, Mrs Balia (a delightfully uptight Helen Moulder) requests an erudite codicil to her will, setting out the ‘whys and wherefores’ of who gets what. She is concerned that ‘unexplained wills create misunderstanding’, which she is anxious to avoid. It seems that ritual is very important and words are part of procedure. However, Rouvesquen abhors the absurdities of polite language – phatic communication – and speech patterns, pronunciation and grammar.

He likes poetry, wine and music; hedonistic pleasures. When he is asked, “Are you alcoholic?” he replies complacently, “It’s possible.” He listens to music, which “enthuses your thoughts”, but it is always the same piece performed by different artists as he searches for perfection as the author imagined it. When he later descends into an alcohol-induced insanity, it is both chilling and seductive.

Into this slightly ridiculous and aesthetic world intrudes the refreshingly earnest Lansko, (Benoit Blanc), a refugee from a totalitarian state who wants to express his love for Leila (Anne Bardot), the girl he left behind and apply for political asylum and citizenship. To help with his powers of description, Rouvesquen gives Lansko a wine appreciation lesson; he explains that if you describe something with your imagination and your words, it gives you a new appreciation of the thing. While trying to explain the appeal to the senses, the dialogue revels caustically in humorous humbug.

Words may be what we use to explain, but they are poor substitutes for emotion. The clearest indication of Rouvesquen’s feelings is when he guides Lansko’s hand, tenderly holding a pen to shape his signature. The scene between Lansko and Leila is touching and wordless as they huddle and snuggle beneath a tarpaulin. Fear is evoked through glances and movement that have nothing to do with words. Gordon also plays Enrix, a postman with cipplingly crude Tourette's. He cannot speak to others without swearing, but he can deliver their words in silence.

But words can also lie, pretend and hide things you would rather not see. When Rouvesquen learns something that he attempts to conceal from Lansko, you wonder at his motives, which can only have disastrous consequences. There is much that these characters would rather not face squarely and the denouement comes sideways from out of the shadows; harsh and unexpected. Some things will simply not remain hidden.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Who's Your Doctor?

I’m a Tom Baker girl myself. He was the one I grew up with. I felt reassured by his avuncular charm, and I hid behind the sofa and was terrified of the monsters who attacked him (even if they were made out of egg-boxes with  plungers and whisks for appendages). Before he made me laugh as the pompous voice (over) of Little Britain, he was saving the galaxy one planet at a time and haunting my dreams with K-9, his scruffy perm and his ridiculously long scarf.

Like James Bond, there are the ones you fancy (Daniel Craig/Paul McGann); the ones that make you laugh (Roger Moore/Peter Davidson); the ones that are just plain wrong (Timothy Dalton/Colin Baker) and the ones who define the character (Sean Connery/Patrick Troughton).

Him Outdoors is a fan of Jon Pertwee – personally, I can’t see past Worzel Gummidge. Of course, this is a problem and the reason why some who you think brilliantly embody the role, leave before they become typecast.

Christopher Eccleston was great with his gritty Salford accent but he wanted to do other things; mainly stage, which makes me yearn for England. He will always be DCI Bilborough from Cracker to me – murdered by the stunningly charismatic Albie; the first time I ever saw Robert Carlyle, but that’s another story…

I went off Dr Who – it was a kid’s series, right? – and although I kept an eye on the latest incarnation, it wasn’t until David Tennant assumed the mantel (with aplomb – is it possible to assume one without?) that I fell back in love with the franchise.

Of course, it’s Christianity 101 (a being that looks like us, but isn’t one of us, spans time and saves our souls over and over again – sound familiar?) but I love the simple storylines where nothing gets too complicated and it will work out alright in the end. And I love David Tennant; the man can act!

The baddies are excellent as well – along with the sexy sidekicks, that’s another James Bond parallel – and the other brightest star before he fell (classmates and equals in everything except the path they chose; again, I'm sure I've heard of that before somewhere...) is The Master. I must admit I would willingly go over to the dark side if John Simm were his embodiment.

Him Outdoors doesn’t like Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) – I’m not quite sure why (maybe he’s still pining for Billie) but he says she fancies herself far too much; she’s young.

So, what do we think of Matt Smith? On the evidence so far, I like him. His first episode in which he goes through a range of foods before finding that he likes fish fingers and custard reminds me of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh and his penchant for malt extract.

He wears a tweed jacket and a bow tie. He is arrogant and dismissive while still being compassionate and slightly na├»ve – he’s young, in other words. His scripts are good and he delivers the lines confidently. He has a floppy fringe and an edge, and no, I wouldn’t invite him home to mum; she’d fancy him too (she likes Johnny Depp. I told her to stick to her own… Paul Newman for example – she can have him – oh, and dad).

So far; so Gallifrey – but is he just what the doctor ordered? Only time will tell…