Friday, 17 June 2011

72 Hours in Christchurch


2pm - Today was going to be the first time I had flown with Jetstar. Problems with checking in our bags proved to be problems with checking in at all – the flight was cancelled because ‘your plane is broken; it can’t fly’. Not terribly reassuring, but the staff at the desk (and at the Air New Zealand desk, where we booked a flight later in the day) were very helpful and pleasant. That can’t be easy when everyone is moaning at you.

3pm – After checking our bags onto the Air New Zealand flight, we went to a café over the road and had coffee and cake – carbo-loading for the race tomorrow. Or maybe just an excuse to pass the time with coffee and cake.

5pm – We arrived in the new bit of Christchurch Airport to be met by Wide Boy Steve. We had less than an hour to find the Horticultural Society (‘somewhere on Riccarton Ave’ according to Him Outdoors) and collect our race packs. WBS drove us in laps round Hagley Park – his attempts to ‘dive down this side road’ being thwarted by the fact that said side road was closed due to piles of earthquake rubble and unsound buildings. We got there with seconds to spare and collected our race packs containing our number and packets of goo.

7pm – Back at Lyttleton for dinner with our friends. Witch 3 had previously sent me a text asking, ‘Apart from beer, do you need anything special for dinner?’ She must be under the mistaken impression that we are athletes and take these race things seriously. We said no and so we had a delicious roast followed by pear halves and ice cream. And lots of beer. The scarlet reptile (their teenage daughter) is very vocal about her dislikes – pumpkin; pears; carrots; etc – but not so forthcoming about what she does like. When (if ever) does this change?


7am – This is not a normal time on a Sunday for me. Him Outdoors woke me up with a cup of tea and two slices of toast; then bundled me into the car and drove me to Lincoln. I tried to navigate but it wasn’t easy with half of the roads blocked off. Christchurch hasn’t got many landmarks, but the few there were and now destroyed. In the daylight you can see the scale of destruction and it’s really quite depressing.

The Christchurch Marathon, Half Marathon and 10km used to follow a pretty pleasant route along the Avon. It can’t now, of course, and has been re-routed to Lincoln. The roads are long and straight and (most crucially) unimpeded by rippling concrete, liquefaction, and other earthquake consequences that the rest of the city displays. It has been a massive task getting this event up and running, as it were, and the organizers are to be commended for continuing. Traffic management is a bit of a problem as there is limited access to the university campus where the race begins, so the start is delayed by half an hour to let everyone arrive. Damn, foiled in that plan, then!

10am – Lincoln University has some impressive buildings – we scuttled around them looking for the start. Pre-race the talk was tough (‘Christchurch is back on its feet’; ‘We are up and running’ etc.) but the queue for the toilets was tougher!

11.30am – due to the staggered start times and the fact that he ran twice as far and almost twice as fast as I, Him Outdoors and I finished at about the same time. I was really just interested in making sure my knee held up to the distance (it’s the first race I’ve done since I damaged my knee about a year ago), and was going to run without a watch because the time wasn’t important and I knew it would only depress me. I couldn’t do it, though – I had to know my time (a very slow 1:02:57 if you’re interested) – what’s that about? At least I now know that if I carry on with all this boring gym and intensive physio stuff, I can run 10km again.

12pm – While waiting for prize-giving we went off to Hillyer’s Café to read the Sunday papers. It’s a pleasant wee spot which appears to be cycle-friendly (judging by the jerseys hanging outside and the pictures on the walls) and does great pies. Moving on for a change of scenery, The Bridge in Prebbleton had a warm fire, a comfy sofa and Speight’s Distinction.

4pm – Prize-giving was full of emotional speeches (Brian Taylor, a former race director and the chairman of the Christchurch Marathon Trust Board, was killed in the February earthquake) and seriously good holidays as spot prizes. We didn’t win any, although Him Outdoors picked up a rucksack for being second old git and 24th overall.

6pm – Once more back to Lyttleton where Witch 3 fed us pumpkin soup. After that and a bath I felt warm on the inside and the outside, so we headed out into what’s left of the town to celebrate. Keeping the local economy afloat we spent money in the Loons (drinking up their selection of good bottled beers) and the only recently re-opened Wunderbar. Apparently tonight is cross-dressing Sunday. The bloke behind the bar had gone to some effort (well, he’d put lipstick on, although he hadn’t shaved his beard) and informed us, ‘I’m a lady’. But of course you are.


10am – Witch 3 and Wide Boy Steve took us for a walk with their dopey dog. They can’t walk in the hills on their usual route because boulders and liable to come tumbling down. The buildings are all skewiff with leaning porches, broken brickwork, toppled chimneys and shattered windows. It felt wrong to catalogue this misery so instead WBS pointed out the yachts on the water, loosely tethered and free to escape. My knee began to hurt a little (clambering over the rocks probably isn’t the best exercise for it) so we walked back along the road through abandoned subdivisions full of previously desirable residences where no one wants to live anymore.

2pm – Met some friends in Becks Southern Alehouse. We had been going to somewhere else but it was closed; this is how you arrange to meet people in Christchurch now. Over a couple of beers and a bowl of wedges we discussed the damage to people’s homes, their access to fresh water, and the council’s job of keeping everyone informed with the most recent information while various departments bicker over supremacy and protocol. There is no other topic of conversation up here. My friend told me she was almost as fed up with talking about it as she is with the constant aftershocks.

6pm – The boys went out to get Chinese takeaways and fish and chips while we stayed in to talk more nonsense, of which there seems to be an endless supply. We ate dinner while watching the final episode of Sherlock, which we taped last night. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliantly self-interested as Holmes and Martin Freeman (somewhat of a favourite of mine) is a powerfully under-stated Dr Watson. I wasn’t sure about dragging this classic drama into the present with all the technical gizmos and flash filming techniques, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this miniseries – and am more than slightly disappointed that it’s over.

We had an early start in the morning (when we finally flew Jetstar after all) so we took ourselves off to bed for another shaky night. Yep, the earth moved for us, but I’m sure that ‘joke’ has worn very thin in Christchurch. We were only there for three days and although I was happy to catch up with friends, I was also glad to leave it all behind.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Our Man in London: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice
RSC, Stratford upon Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Company has recently spent over £100m on redeveloping its site in Stratford. That’s probably more money than Liverpool FC’s current crop of players is worth. The redevelopment has seen the main theatre extended and stage layout remodelled. It now has a stage which thrusts out into the audience even more so than at the Globe. The tiered seating also feels much like the Globe albeit with a permanent roof, but remember this is the Midlands and the sun has not been sighted in Stratford this century. I have no idea how the new theatre compares to the old one but by all accounts it is a vast improvement in every way.

The Merchant of Venice is another of Shakespeare’s problem plays (I am starting to think that they are all referred to as problem plays!). The main difficulty with this one is the overt anti-Semitism and racism. When I studied (I use that term lightly) this play as a student I felt uncomfortable about some of the language and feel just as unsettled by it now. Trying to tell myself that I needed to place the play in the context of the when it was written did not help. But setting this production in modern day Las Vegas somehow made it more palatable. Having spent a New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas undertaking some ‘field research’ one I can verify that unpleasant behaviour and language is rife there.

Shylock was presented as a property magnate, Antonio as a David Cameron lookalike with mobster friends and Portia as a dippy southern belle. The clown, Launcelot Gobbo, was reinvented as an Elvis impersonator. How on earth did Rupert Goold pitch this to the powers that be at the RSC? Before the performance I could not imagine how they were going to make this work, but in practice it was genius.

Once I had got used to the corny faux American accents and the occasional Elvis song (and at one point even Journey!) the dialogue increasingly seemed to fit the extreme characters and audacious stage set designs. For example, the competition to marry Portia whereby suitors choose between one of three caskets hoping to find her portrait inside was brilliantly turned into a game show called Destiny. The masque scene where Jessica escapes her father’s (Shylock) house is a New Orleans style mardi gras carnival which involves one of the characters delivering some of the dialogue with a Yoda impersonation. Batman and Robin are also present, of course.

Cast performances were strong all round, particularly Patrick Stewart’s Shylock and Susannah Fielding’s Portia. Patrick Stewart struck the right balance between being a Las Vegas character but also definitely separate from all the others. Remove the odd prop and his accent, clothes and dignified behaviour could have been used in many a Merchant of Venice production. Whereas Susannah Fielding’s extreme Portia perfectly suited this production but could not have fitted any other. Somehow this polarisation worked, probably because it clearly conveyed how Shylock is behaves and is treated as an outsider.

A clear sign to me that this daring production worked is that now I cannot imagine the play being delivered any other way. I come away from most Shakespeare plays with ideas about how I would do it differently but I really can’t imagine a better way of doing this one. Then again I might have replaced the Journey song with something a bit less ridiculous.

I never knew the Midlands could be such fun!

Next month I am off back to The Globe to see Much Ado About Nothing. Watch this space…

Adieu... from Our Man in London