Saturday, 10 July 2010

My newest favourite thing: Provisions in Arrowtown

My friend the Green Goddess will be gutted for missing the opening of Provisions Cafe in Arrowtown today. They were giving their ‘obscenely good’ sticky buns free to all punters. The Green Goddess loves these sticky buns and used to make trips through the gorge to Cromwell to sample them. When she returns from her sojourn in France (so she probably isn’t that gutted, as she will have been revelling in flaky French pastry for the last couple of months) she will no longer have to drive 60-odd kilometres to indulge her sticky bun passion. They will be baked right here (almost) on her doorstep.

It’s wonderful to see the old historic cottage being used for a practical purpose – these are immensely picturesque buildings but unless they are used they can easily fall into disrepair, and it’s quite a treat for the public to enter the cosy, low-ceilinged rooms. This was the opening day and the wee place was bustling. There is a courtyard where you can sit out on a sunny day – although maybe not in the middle of winter. A friendly black Labrador was greeting all-comers; did he get his complimentary sticky bun, I wonder?

There are all manner of sumptuous supplies for sale and for tasting. You are encouraged to try the fruit-bread and sample the range of mustards, jams and chutneys. Shelves display brightly coloured tins, tea-towels and cake-stands; organic muesli, lavender and thyme shortbread, and an array of fresh bread, buns and bagels. The flowers are a nice touch whether in pots, (hyacinths and cyclamens), fresh cut (orchids and lilies) or the big bunch on the counter bursting with vitality.

Today’s menu is written on a sheet of paper that will be torn from the roll and a new one written tomorrow. I like this concept – it gives you confidence that the specials really are, and when it says fresh, it means it.

The cheery staff were pleasant and efficient, allowing me to take photos and delivering our food and drink promptly to our table. I heard many people call out to Jane to praise her for an excellent launch, so I guess that was Jane Shaw wreathed in smiles behind the counter. And rightly so. The cabinet was packed with tempting baking including potato, leek and blue cheese quiche; bacon and egg pie; Cornish pasties and chocolate roulade. Even the lamingtons looked good (and I dislike this sickly confectionary – I’m sure it’s one of the foods you’ve got to be a natural-born-Kiwi to appreciate – along with feijoas, tamarillos and chocolate fish).

I was pleased to see that they offer the exquisitely refreshing Lake Sylvan rhubarb and gooseberry drinks, but I chose one of Michele Casson’s Stir Teas. The Blood Orange fruit blend was delivered to the table with a miniature hour-glass timer so that I knew exactly how long to let it steep. The blend of rooibos and citrus was intensely refreshing and later, when I looked up the ingredients on the website, I found they come from South Africa (rooibos), the USA (orange peel; apple pieces), Chile (rosehips), China (safflower petals) and Burkina Faso (hibiscus), so I feel as though I had a truly global cuppa.

The sticky buns were indeed a treat. Plates on the walls are emblazoned with commendations about the cleanliness of the kitchen and the merits of the sticky buns. Endorsements come from foodies such as Rosemary McLeod, Kerre Woodham, Paul Mercurio, Fleur Sullivan, Peta Mathias, Annabel Langbein, and Matt Preston. I believe these come from the Cromwell location, but they are equally at home here.

We walked home with Him Outdoors clutching a focaccia bread in a brown paper bag, studded with sea-salt and still warm from the oven. I think I may have found my newest favourite cafe in Arrowtown. There are so many things to sample – I’ll have to make frequent return visits to taste them all!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Worth the Wait

Waiting for Godot
(Theatre Royal Haymarket Productions)

St James Theatre, Wellington
30 June – 2 July

“The acting was fantastic, the set was great, but I don’t think I really like the play.”

“I didn’t really like it at the time, but I’ve thought about it so much since and seen many more layers the more I think about it.”

“There are many ways to interpret the play, and this production really accentuated the comedy.”

“I think this is perfection – I’m not sure that I ever need to see that play again.”

The above comments are from my friends who saw the recent production of Waiting for Godot in Wellington. I can agree with all of them. It’s a ‘difficult’ play. Ostensibly nothing happens – a couple of old blokes wait around for a man who never comes. A messenger tells them that Godot is sorry that he won’t be able to come today, but can they come back again tomorrow. They do so. We get the impression that they may have been doing this for some time now and may continue to wait forever.

People admire Beckett’s formidable reputation: they respect Waiting for Godot; they study it; they wrestle with it; they fear it; and they appreciate it. But do they really like it? After all; what’s to like (see synopsis above)? There is no real character development, no explanations, and no glib back-story: the characters merely are what they do and say, and that really isn’t very much. I have heard this described as “an actor’s play” but it could equally be “a directors’ play” because the interpretation is everything – and director Sean Mathias has worked with his actors to produce a sumptuous production.

Estragon (Gogo) – Ian McKellen – and Vladimir (Didi) – Roger Rees – are perfectly balanced like children on a see-saw that have rocked to a stand-still. Didi seems to be the practical, protecting one, while Gogo is the entertainer or whiner, depending on his mood. Didi tries not to laugh, due to a weak bladder and unspoken prostate complaint, but Gogo frequently has him in stitches. To pass the time as they wait, they try conversing, arguing and contradicting each other. Their verbiage is delightful and it is refreshing to hear Ian McKellen talk in his natural Lancashire (not Yorkshire as I have seen reported – he was born in the same hospital as Him Outdoors) accent.
The two old men are totally in-synch, and we believe theirs is a relationship that has blossomed over the years with equal parts affection and irritation. They are clearly afraid of being alone but even the talk of hanging themselves from the emaciated tree is done in a quirky and flippant manner. The humour masks the sinister, nightmare quality that can seep through this play. As Didi tries to explain to Gogo that they were here yesterday and what they did, Gogo’s inability to remember is not as dark as it could be – nor is the fact that he is beaten every night – by what or whom we don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much as it could.

Across their radar stumble Pozzo and Lucky. Matthew Kelly (yes, the one from Stars in their Eyes) is sensational as Pozzo. He uses his imposing height and commanding voice to tower over the cowering old tramps. But although he is the one literally cracking the whip and pulling the strings, he is helpless and lonely, demanding companionship from the macabre Lucky (Brendan O’Hea) who is anything but. He can command Lucky to sing, dance or think, which he does with energetic aplomb. These two are defined by this chilling master/servant relationship with an unidentified tipping point.

The raw emotion is paramount as the characters behave like vaudevillian clowns – Lucky even appears with white-face and big blackened eyes. The physical theatre is excellent from the business with the bowler hats and boots (as explicitly specified in the stage directions), to the shuffle dance and mocking imitations. This isn’t a long play on paper, but it lasts for over two and a half hours and the repetitions begin to feel increasingly surreal.

The silences are substantial as the men inhabit their feelings: anxiety; hope; fear; anger; frustration; sadness; envy; need; hunger. They cross the boundary between mental sensation and physical state. We have animal sensibilities but we are human in our need to relate. We are only who we are in relationship to each other, and how that relationship develops depends on the part we choose – yes, choose – to play. The theory that we can choose to determine our own development is the definition of existentialism, of which this play is regarded to be one of the greatest proponents. As ever, the great man was right: we are all merely players; and one man in his time plays many parts.

The set (designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis) deserves an individual mention as the ruined theatre confronts us. Is the rubble the aftermath of some violent event; should we be worried about the absence of Godot? Is it an indication of the deconstruction of the theatrical experience – no longer content to follow a traditional plot that troops through its chronological stages and sends us away satisfied with a happy ending? The spindly tree, frigid moon (lighting designer – Paul Pyant) and discordant sounds (sound designer – Paul Groothus) leave us aching with longing for something, but what? There really are more questions than answers in this play.

In essence, this raises the question of how we validate our existence. If I have been for walk, read a book, shopped for groceries, done the washing, paid the bills and written a couple of letters, I will still answer ‘nothing much’ when someone asks, ‘what have you done today?’ We spend a lot of time waiting for something exciting and diverting to happen to us – when it doesn’t, can we really say we have lived, or just existed? I think we can consider this production of Waiting for Godot to be one of the most exciting and diverting to happen in a long time.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Semi-Final speculation

Reports of the demise of European football have been somewhat previous. We heard so much about the dominance of South American football, and yet there are three European teams in the quarter-finals. Sure; the superstars have fallen by the wayside – Anelka; Cannavaro; Rooney; Ronaldo etc. – but the team-play rather than silky skills are rising to the top, and that is exactly what I like to see.
First up – Brazil v The Netherlands; the one everyone expected the world champions to win, including the world champions themselves. Expectation is a terrible thing – ask England – and the Netherlands quietly went about the business of puncturing Brazil’s illusions. Having scored a goal from an error (Felipe Melo was credited with the own goal), the Netherlands defended well and even managed to score again.

I heard the expression ‘Kuyt to the rescue’ and mention of his impressive work rate on several occasions. Just as Ferdinand might as well be christened ‘Given-away-by’, I seriously began to think that Kuyt’s sobriquet is ‘Unselfish-play-by’. Is there a prize for the most assists? If so, he should definitely be awarded it – perhaps it could be called the golden sock.

Melo’s game went from bad to worse when he was sent off for a dirty foul, stamping on the hamstring of Arjen Robben that could have ended his career. Actually, everyone in a blue shirt had a pop at Robben who spent most of the match flying through the air or rolling on the ground. The match became increasingly ill-tempered towards the end as Brazil were no longer the impressive exponents of the beautiful game and cards flew for deliberate hand-balls and simulation – forty fouls were given in all and Brazil showed more Gallic than Latin temperament problems; I can’t see Germany doing that.

The commentator quipped, “If Brazil are going out of the World Cup they are going out with a fight – quite literally.” He also referred to the Dutch defence as resembling “an orange jelly, just wobbling there – no wonder they’re nervous.” He must have so much fun thinking these things up...

I watched the Ghana v Uruguay game propped up in bed with a couple of female friends in a hotel room; there was honestly nothing dodgy about this (although the discussion about how nice the Ghanaians looked in their red and yellow strip against the bright green turf was a little iffy).

There was everything dodgy about Luis Suarez hand-balling Dominic Adiyiah’s definitely goal-bound extra-time shot off the line. He was given a red card and sent off. Ghana were awarded a penalty as the last action of the game – Asamoah Gyan should have scored and Ghana should have been in the semi-finals. He hit the cross-bar and they’re not.

The match went to penalties, the first of which Gyan took and scored with commendable coolness. Mensah and Adiyiah couldn’t convert their penalties – only one Uruguayan missed, and it’s all over for Africa. Penalty shoot-outs are a lottery: exciting when your team isn’t involved; sickening when they are. One of my friends was demanding, “Why can’t the ref just give a goal?” It’s a fair enough question, and I’m sure she’s not the only one asking, but them’s the rules and although there will a call for them to be changed in future, for now Uruguay are justifiably into the final four.

Asamoah Gyan was understandably distraught. So, slightly less understandably, were my tender-hearted maternal friends. “He’s not your son” I pointed out. “Yes, but he’s some poor mother’s son” one of them snuffled, somewhat illogically. I have seen this happen to England before and wasn’t going to waste my tears on other countries’ sons.

Speaking of cheating hand-of-God South American nations, I thought I might have split loyalties when it came to Argentina v Germany; who do I dislike least? After all; we’ve fought wars against both these countries (okay, so it might be hard to find a country that Britain hasn’t found itself in conflict with over the centuries). As it happened, all it took was one look at the puffed-up pigeon-chested Maradona to make up my mind and have me screaming at the TV, “Come on Germany!”

And they are a good young side with decisive passes and innovative play – of course, the word ‘clinical’ is never far from any description of the Fatherland, and it was a definitive demonstration of what to do with that unpredictable beach ball – split the defence and put it in the back of the net – but it was sublime to watch.

I like Lionel Messi and I like Javier Mascherano; in them I think Argentina has the best striker and defensive midfielder in the world, but as we have seen; this isn’t a tournament for individuals; it is a exhibition of cooperation and the Germans worked together as a tight unit, yes, alright, even an efficient one. There was added satisfaction in the fact that we put two goals past them and Argentina couldn’t even manage one. England don’t look quite so woeful in that light.

And then there’s Spain... People have been calling them under-performers, but they are through to the semi-final after grinding out a 1- 0 victory against Paraguay. The game had end-to-end missed penalties, disallowed goals, retaken penalties, unawarded penalties, squandered free kicks and one of the tightest mid-field contests seen so far in this tournament. Spain may not have set the footballing world alight, but you don’t have to play pretty football to win.

The only bet I have that is still vaguely alive is for Torres to pick up the golden boot. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, but he could always prove me wrong by bagging a swag of goals against Germany and progressing through to trounce the Dutch (assuming, as I do, that they beat Uruguay) with yet more bulging of the old onion bag. Like I said, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.