Passion – "Unhappiness can be seductive"

In October last year, we went to see Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 musical Passion (based on Tarchett’s epistolary novel Fosca, written in 1869) at the Donmar Warehouse (as part of the Sondheim at 80 season).1

I am surprised how this production still lingers on my mind. The story, back then, struck me as unconvincing: a dashing Italian army officer (Giorgio – played by David Thaxton) falls in love with a diminutive, sickly and unattractive woman who dies at the end of the play (Fosca – played by Elena Roger), despite the fact that he has a very beautiful and voluptuous, albeit already married, lover (Clara – played by Sarlett Strallen).

At first, Giorgio is disgusted with Fosca; he sings:

Is this what you call love?
This endless and insatiable
Smothering pursuit of me.
You think that this is love?

I’m sorry that you’re lonely,
I’m sorry that you want me as you do.
I’m sorry that I fail to feel
The way you want me to feel.

I’m sorry that you’re ill,
I’m sorry you’re in pain.
I’m sorry that you aren’t beautiful.

But yes, I wish you’d go away
And leave me alone!

Everywhere I turn, there you are
This is not love
Just some kind of obsession.

Will you never learn when too far is too far,
Have you no concern
For what I want, what I feel?
(pointing at Clara’s letter)
Love is what you earn and return
When you care for another
So much that the other’s set free.
Don’t you see?
Can’t you understand?

Love’s not a constant demand,
It’s a gift you bestow
Love isn’t sudden surrender
It’s tender and slow, it must grow.

Yet everywhere I go,
You appear or I know you are near
This is not love just a need for possession.

Call it what you will
This is not love, this is a reverse
Like a curse, something out of control
I’ve begun to fear
For my soul…

But Giorgio’s feelings towards Fosca eventually change. The following exchange between the two of them on the train (Giorgio is on his way to Milan to meet Clara) seems vital:
How could you? How dare you follow me?
You needn’t speak to me. You could pretend that I’m not even here.
 I am sick, don’t you understand?

I understand all too well. I could attend to you.
I could help you get better.
I don’t want you to help. You’re the reason I’m sick.
I apologize. Nothing could be further from what I
wanted for you. That is why I want to follow you to Milan.
To see that you are well.
Fosca, you can’t do this.
I heard what you said, Giorgio. I’ve come to tell you that
I will keep my distance. I will stay out of your path. But
I can be nearby, I can be quietly watching.
And you think that this will make me love you?
No, no. I am doing this because I love you.
My heart feels nothing for you.
How many times do you have to hear this?
This has nothing to do with your heart. This has
to do with your eyes. What you see. If I were
beautiful. If I were warm and soft to your touch –
you would feel otherwise.
No. Your appearance is no excuse for the way you behave.
My feelings towards you are because of your relentlessness,
your constant selfishness and insensitivity.
I’m sorry. No one has ever told me how to love. I know I
feel too much, Giorgio. I often don’t know what to do
with my feelings. You understand that, don’t you?

It turns out that Giorgio does understand Fosca. The theme for “You think this is love”, formerly associated with Fosca, is now used in Giorgio’s response to Clara’s decision not to leave her family for him:

It seems to me the answer rests with you.
Yes, I have obligations at home, Giorgio,
but my heart is yours. When my son is older,
when he goes off to school, there is the
chance for us to be together. I will make
the sacrifice you ask of me then. Please
understand why I can’t now. Will you wait
for me, Giorgio? I have to know. We both
have to know.

You think that this is love?
Love isn’t so convenient.
Love isn’t something scheduled in advance,
Not something guaranteed you need
For fear it may pass you by.
You have to take a chance,
You can’t just try it out.
What’s love unless it’s unconditional?

Love doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow
And neither do I!

‘What’s love unless it’s unconditional // Love doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow’ — wow. Fosca’s foolish and headlong love for Giorgio has changed the man. In comparison, Clara now seems inferior and dull. Giorgio proclaims his love for Fosca in the following:

No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now:

Not pretty or safe or easy
But more than I ever knew.
Love within reason –
That isn’t love.
And I’ve learned that from you…
Are you cold?
No, I’m afraid.
Of what?
All this happiness,
Coming when there’s so little time.
Too much happiness
More than I can bear.
I pray for the strength to enjoy it.
You’ll leave tomorrow.
This is the only time we have.
You do love me, don’t you?
Yes, I love you.
Say it again.
I love you.

When I was watching the musical, I thought Giorgio’s change of heart — from hating the ugly Fosca to loving her — was too quick. But after mulling the musical over for three months, I see that the first scene between Clara and Giorgio (I must add that they make the most exquisite and suggestive love on stage and better still, the act is accomplished without any vulgarity) already foreshadows what will happen between Giorgio and Fosca:

Then inevitable, yes,
But I confess it was the look
The look?
The sadness in your eyes
That day when we glanced at each other
In the park.
We were both unhappy.
Unhappiness can be seductive.
You pitied me…
How quickly pity leads to love.


Of the entire musical, I like the following lines best, sung by the adulterous Clara to Giorgio: ‘I can visit you at night, / We’ll be lighted by the moon, / Not a shuttered afternoon.’

“How quickly pity leads to love”

1Listen to this wonderful Fresh Air interview “‘On Sondheim:’ The Musical-Theater Legend At 80” and then explore the full archive

Why are poor and homeless people in London important?

In the final paragraph of his London: The Biography (2001), Peter Ackroyd answers: 

[W]hen it is asked how London can be a triumphant city when it has so many poor, and so many homeless, it can only be suggested that they, too, have always been a part of its history. Perhaps they are a part of its triumph. If this is a hard saying, then it is only as hard as London itself. London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London. (pp. 778-779)


Boswell and ‘sexual favours’

In a chapter about London’s sexy life (Chapter 41 “You sexy thing”), Peter Ackroyd relates some of Boswell’s sexual encounters. 

Boswell’s diary of street life in 1762 provides an account of sexual favours currently on offer. On the evening of Thursday 25 November, he picked up a girl in the Strand, and ‘went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [i.e. wearing a condom]. But she had none… she wondered at my size, and said if ever I took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.’ On the night of 31 March, in the following year, ‘I strolled into the Park and took the first whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheathed. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelled of spirits. I never asked her name. When it was done, she slunk off.’ On 13 April, ‘I took a little girl into a court; but wanted vigour’. Boswell, often a moralist after the event, does not regard the fact that it was a ‘little girl’ as of any significance; this suggests that there were many such thrown upon the streets of London. (pp. 374-375)

Is Ackroyd’s reading of ‘little girl’ too literal or anachronistic? Could there be other interpretations?

From Hogarth’s “Morning” (the first in the Four Times of the Day series,  1736)


What is London’s colour?

Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography (2001) answers (see below). What is Hong Kong’s colour, I wonder?

Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, ‘bespattered with the blood of little children’ as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.

The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe ‘the Mair, Recourdour, and Alderman off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett’, while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts ‘The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette’. The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniform. 

Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the ‘well-to-do’ or wealthy. ‘Red’ was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.

Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: ‘I was wondering weather any of you had any red about you’ and then stabs his left palm so that ‘The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping’. This is a prelude to the success of ‘the red Notting Hillers’ in that novel. 

Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered ‘always smouldering’ like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or ‘Crimson Livery Cloth’. Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act — ‘pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck’. The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. (pp. 217-218)


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In his latest book 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know, John Sutherland says this about Hamlet: “Every age interprets the play’s enigmas differently, sometimes wildly so (is Hamlet mad, enquired Oscar Wilde; or merely the critics of Hamlet?). The nineteenth century saw the Prince of Denmark as a noble philosopher. Coleridge hazarded, proudly, that he had a ‘smack of Hamlet’ in himself. In the twentieth century, it’s not unusual for Hamlet to be seen by feminist critics as a homicidal, sexually predatory brute, spouting stale truisms and obnoxious self-pity. Has anyone, over the centuries, got Hamlet (or Hamlet) right, or has everyone? Can anyone?” (pp. 8-9)

While writing about other plays, I often spend time recounting the story. This is, I think, unnecessary for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as everybody seems or claims to know it. Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot, it is possible that you can recognise some of the lines from it: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (Act 1, Scene 2), “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, Scene 2), “To be or not to be: That is the question.” (Act 3, Scene 1), “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” (Act 3, Scene 1), “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” (Act 3, Scene 2), “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” (Act 4, Scene 5), “The rest is silence.” (Act 5, Scene 2), etc. etc. etc.

To be honest, this is the first time I have seen a live performance of Hamlet so I have no precedents to compare it with. However, I did read raving reviews of Rory Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet and was very curious to find out first-hand if he is really that good playing one of the most challenging roles in theatre. As Hamlet, Kinnear has to recite long soliloquies and show a basketful of conflicting emotions: fear, anger, sadness, dismay, guilt…. Kinnear turns out to be absolutely brilliant and convincing (despite the fact that he looks perhaps slightly older than the bard intended the Danish Prince to be) and I can understand why he has been so lauded by critics and theatre-goers (he got the loudest cheers I have ever heard at a curtain call). Kinnear’s delivery engages you with his emotions and better still, makes you empathise with them. At times, his quick fiery dialogue with other characters almost seems Sorkinesque.
In Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre, we see a modern-day Denmark, which is run like a surveillance state. CCTV cameras hang on the top of the stage visibly and security guards with earpieces are never too far away from Hamlet, observing his moves. (The play even features a bugged Bible.) One wonders if the guards are really ‘away’ when Hamlet is soliloquising. And the paranoia infuses new meaning into Hamlet’s speeches. Paranoia certainly got into this audience member. I thought the presentation of Denmark as a police state was a nice touch, as it draws out the scheming of Claudius and adds a modern twist to Polonius’s constant spying and eavesdropping within the play. Here, he is as much the head of state security as he is Claudius’s councillor.
Within this state of heightened paranoia, Hytner introduces an interesting interpretation of Ophelia’s death, which is ambiguously described in the original text:
There is a willow grows askant the brook…
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress… (Act 4, Scene 7)
‘[A]n envious silver broke’ – that suggests that Ophelia did not initiate her own drowning. (Perhaps we are too influenced by Millais’s painting?) In Hytner’s rendition, the maiden is taken away by two secret agents and shortly afterwards, her death is recounted by Gertrude, therefore associating her death with deliberate scheming rather than natural cause or suicide.
Talking about Ophelia, I do not feel that there is much passion between her and Hamlet, partly because even though their relationship is alluded to frequently enough, the two characters are only present together on stage for two scenes. In one of these occasions, Hamlet shows profound disgust with her, thinking that she is sent by her father, Polonius. Hemlet memorably says to Ophelia: ‘God / has given you one face, and you make yourselves / another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and / nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness / your ignorance […] To a / nunnery, go’ (Act 3, Scene 1).1 Poor Ophelia – I should feel for her but I don’t, for although I can feel Hamlet’s (Kinnear’s) vehemence, the actress who plays Ophelia (Ruth Negga) is sadly inferior.
Negga is not the only disappointment, however. Clare Higgins’s portrayal of Gertrude is even less convincing. Annoying instead of beguiling, her exchange with Hamlet is particularly unpersuasive to watch, ruining a highly emotionally-charged (and possibly sexually-charged) scene, although Kinnear’s performance remains strong here. Still, Hytner’s decision to portray Gertrude as an alcoholic throughout the play gives her drinking out of the poisoned cup a new angle. Patrick Malahide’s Claudius is not much better. His projection was not good enough to reach us at the top of the circle and his acting too effortful.
But these weaknesses do not mar the production much. I particularly love James Laurenson’s superb portrayal of both the Ghost and the Player King. In the opening scenes, his apparition blends with the greyish background, making him really ghostly. His comportment, despite his slightly hunched posture, announces that This was the King. The Gravedigger (combing two clowns in the original play), played by David Calder (who also plays Polonius), is also my favourite. Although the Gravedigger only appears briefly, he delivers some very funny lines. I thought Giles Terera as Horatio is also great; his final exchange with Hamlet is very affecting: ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’. 
Earlier this week, we went to Stratford to see the house in which Shakespeare was born and the church in which he was laid to rest. Although it was nice, I felt a little lost among all the tourist tack and it was perhaps easy to overlook why we were there. Seeing such a magnificent Hamlet reminded me exactly why we remember Shakespeare.

1‘Nunnery’ was also a street slang meaning brothel.

This is a review of the performance on New Year’s Eve.

Wish You Were Here? Postcards from the Future

“Wish You Were Here? Postcards from the Future” is an exhibition of fourteen digitally-transformed photomontages of recognisable London landmarks by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones showing at the Museum of London. These images depict the possible impact of climate change on the city. 
The most captivating postcard, for me, is “The Gherkin” (although the building is commonly known by this name, it is officially called “30 St Mary Axe”), pictured below. The image reminded me of public housing estates in Hong Kong (I am familiar with them) and one of the photographs in Alvin Pang’s series “We Belong Together” (published in Issue #12 of Cha). 
Click image to enlarge 
© Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones.
The descriptions says:

The iconic City office tower is now high-rise housing. Originally converted into luxury flats, the block soon slid down the social scale to become a high-density, multi-occupation tower block. The Gherkin now worries the authorities as a potential slum.

Refugees from equatorial lands have moved north in search of food. They make their homes in the buildings that once drove world finance – before the collapse of the global economy.

The exhibition is on until 6 March 2011. Alternately, you can view all the postcards and learn more about the project, first conceived in 2008, at the “London Futures” website. 

The Habit of Art

Last December, we went to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, which is about an imaginary meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (this is in a way similar to Adam Fould’s novel The Quickening Maze, which centres on an imagery meeting between John Clare and the young Tennyson). We bought the tickets primarily to see Michael Gambon. Unfortunately he was not well enough to perform and was replaced by the excellent Richard Griffiths (whom we liked from The History Boys). Was the show good? Suffice it to say that at the interval I went to buy a signed copy of the play. And I got to see Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape, which I wrote about here

The Habit of Art has many memorable quotes; I’ll try to include only those related to writing.
  • So let’s talk about the vanity. This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world … so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.
  • Why poets should be interviewed I can’t think. A writer is not a man of action. His private life is or should be of no concern to anyone except himself, his family and his friends. The rest is impertinence.
  • Poetry to me is as much a craft as an art and I have always prided myself on being able to turn my hand to anything — a wedding hymn, a requiem, a loyal toast … No job too small. I would have been happy to have hunt up a shingle in the street: “W. H. Auden. Poet.”
  • Writers in particular perceive biography as a threat, something I had still to learn. Poets are particularly vulnerable to biography because readers naturally assume they are sincere, that their verses are dispatches from the heart, the self at its most honest. When the biographer reveals the self is sometimes quite different, the poet is thought a hypocrite. I’m thinking of Robert Frost.
  • When I was young my poems were often reports from the top of my head. I wrote the first thing that occurred to me and it was poetry. Now when I take more care, and it truly is a dispatch from the heart … it is not poetry at all.
  • Do you mind not doing that? You should not quote a poet’s words back at him. It is a betrayal of trust. A poem is a confidence. Besides which many of my poems embarrass me. they don’t seem — Dr Leavis’s word — authentic. People tell me off for censoring my poems, rewriting them, or cutting some well-loved lines. I tell them it’s because I can no longer endorse those particular sentiments, but it’s also because I’m fed up with hearing them quoted. (Ironically.) ‘We must love one another or we die.’ (Shudders.)
  • This is England all over. Hasn’t even mastered fellatio.
  • The play is not about cocksucking.
  • The genitals are fascinating too, because they’re shape-shifting. Subject to desire obviously, but to fear and cold and the innate propensity of all flesh to creep. The penis has a personal character every bit as much as its owner and very often the two are quite different. Have you found that? Men are incongruously equipped in their very essence ….
  • I have the habit of art. I write poems of a cosy domesticity trying to catch the few charred emotions that scuttle across my lunefied landscape. Still, writing is apparently therapeutic. That’s what they say these days, isn’t it? It is therapeutic. When I was young I envied Hardy’s hawk-like vision… his way of looking at life from a great height. I tried to do that, only now I suppose I have come down to earth. He has taken the words out of my mouth.
  • What I fear is that on Judgement Day one’s punishment will be to hear God reciting by heart the poems I would have written had my life been good.
  • Readers are so literal-minded. If you say you’re fond of somewhere, the question that arises in the ordinary reader’s mind is why, if you like it so much, don’t you go and live there. ‘You talk about Westmoreland but you live in New York. You’re a hypocrite.’
  • We do not contain life. It contains us, holds us sometimes in its jaws. The senile, the demented, life has them in its teeth … in the cracks and holes of its teeth, maybe, but still in its teeth. They cannot let go of it until it lets go of them.
  • There are some writers who set their sights on the Nobel Prize before they even pick up the pen. Elias Canetti is like that. And I’m afraid Thomas Mann. Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life. Some writers are all will. Talent you can dispense with, but not will. Will is paramount. Not joy, not delight, but grim application.
  • When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance. If it sounded right I left the meaning take care of itself. It’s why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing. […] Except that now I’m more scrupulous and make an effort to tell the truth, people say it’s dull and my early stuff was better.
  • This is the nature of style. It imposes itself. […] Style is the sum of one’s imperfections… what one can’t do, as much as what one can…
  • Death isn’t the payment. Death is just the checkout.
  • Dirt is everywhere.
  • Or whatever age it is nowadays that beauty can be legally admired. The boy Thomas Mann actually saw and took a fancy to was eleven. Mann wrote him up as being fourteen. Now you’re suggesting sixteen. At this rate he’ll soon be drawing a pension.
  • Our passport is what we have written.
  • There’s no malice in it. It’s just an entirely human desire for completion… the mild satisfaction of drawing a line under you. Death shapes a life. Dead, you see, you belong to your admirers in your entirety. They own you. They can even quote you to your face — only it will be a dead face — at your memorial service perhaps, or when they unveil the stone in Westminster Abbey. Over and done with: W. H. Auden. Benjamin Britten. Next.
  • I would find it intolerable myself if only because of the degree of self-relegation involved. A biographer is invariably second-rank even when he or she is first-rate.
  • (This is the ‘rent-boy’ speaking) No, not Caliban, whoever he was. And not in the language of Henry James, or any other tosser. No. Me. Us. Here. Now. When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.’A boy came around. Picked up on the hill. Didn’t stay.”Your grandfather was sucked off by W. H. Auden.”Benjamin Britten sat naked on the side of my bath.’Because if nothing else, we at least contributed. We were in attendance, we boys of art. And though there’s the odd photograph, nobody remembers who they’re of: uncaptioned or ‘with an unidentified friend’, unnamed girls, unnameable boys, the flings, the tricks. The fodder of art.
  • It cannot be said too often: what matters is the work. That night in Vienna I read from my poem on the death of Yeats.
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre

On Tuesday, we went to see Alan Ayckbourn‘s Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre. Jeff lined up early in the morning to take advantage of the NT’s day ticket policy.1 They hold back a number of tickets to sell on the day, even for sold-out shows, which Season’s Greetings was. The best part, however, is that day tickets are only £10 and if you are close enough to the start of the line, you can get seats in the front row. Fortunately, Jeff was third so our seats were front row centre. Considering the fact that tickets on the West End can be £80 or £90, £10 for front-row seats is a pretty good deal. 

Season’s Greetings is a Christmas farce which originally premier in 1980. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it centres on the antics of a dysfunctional family. By now, the story of family tensions on holidays has certainly moved into cliché territory but Ayckbourn’s play is an example of the genre at its best and is at times tremendously funny. For the first half an hour, we are introduced to the characters who have gathered for the holiday at the house of Neville (Neil Stuke), an electronic store owner and his wife, Belinda (Catherine Tate). Neville is oblivious to the needs of his wife and is constantly fiddling with electronic children toys. Belinda, for her part, is frustrated with her husband’s inattention and jumps at the chance for an affair when one literally presents itself at her door. Apart from the couple, there is Uncle Harvey (David Troughton), a grumpy and macho retired security guard who gives the children guns for Christmas. Harvey lives in a constant state of discontent and cynicism, finding fault with much, especially with Bernard (Mark Gatiss), an ineffectual doctor. Bernard, who puts on an annual long-winded and unwelcomed puppet show for the children, is married to the alcoholic Phyllis (Jenna Russell), who keeps having accidents and nosebleeds while preparing the dinner on Christmas Eve. I should note that the children never actually appear on stage, although their presence is very well signalled. They are perhaps not needed, considering that the adults are much like children themselves. Eddie (Marc Wootton), a lazy and overweight man is a failed businessman, and his wife Patti (Katherine Parkinson) is expecting another child. Rounding out the cast is lonely and frigid Rachel (Nicola Walker), Belinda’s sister and Clive (Oliver Chris), a young novelist (who has written one book) she has invited for Christmas.
The play takes a while to get going and there are no big laughs for the first half of the first act. However, once the situation has been firmly set and all the characters introduced, Ayckbourn”s farce really takes off. The last scene of the first act is particularly funny and I am not sure if I have ever laughed so loud and long at a play. A couple of moments stand out. One is the pregnant Pattie trying to wake her husband from a drunken slumber and being forced to carry her heavyset husband to bed. The other particularly notable piece of comedy comes from Clive and Belinda, whose sexual tension has been building from the moment of his arrival. Their attempts to consummate their affair result in a hilarious series of mishaps including the interruptions of a drumming monkey and a singing Christmas tree which wake almost the entire family.
The less successful second act, although still funny, takes a darker turn. Suffice to say that one character is shot in the climax. Although this conclusion perhaps does not entirely fulfil the promise of the first act, the play as a whole is excellent and great entertainment. Much of this of course comes from Ayckbourn’s script, which is often sharp and does not feel dated after three decades. It should also be mentioned that the cast are universally strong. Marianne Elliott’s direction keeps the action moving and the play does not drag even in the early moments of exposition. Also, the set and the costumes seem to brilliantly capture the era.
For me, it was very interesting to see how the family members regard Clive, the writer. Although Clive’s success is subtly undermined when characters admit they haven’t read his book, these confessions are always done with a certain level of admiration. In today’s age in which self-publishing is so common and easy, it is hard to imagine there was a time in which people could inspire so much awe by having a book published, even if the characters’ reactions have been exaggerated for comic effect.
Season’s Greetings was a great way to greet the season.

1Interestingly, we have already bought tickets to the much-hyped Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle); our tickets are for April 2011.

Merry Christmas to friends and family

“Champaign and cinnamon candle”. Photo courtesy of E & S
On Christmas Eve, two friends visited us and we spent a joyous afternoon and evening together, eating, drinking, chatting and playing games. Happy times. The picture above was taken by them.

May all our friends and family have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.

This year, my Christmas song choices are this and this.

The Book of the Dead

“Truth is in my heart, and in my breast there is neither craft nor guile.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Today we went to the British Museum to see the Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition. It was a truly worthwhile visit. 

According to John Taylor, the curator of the exhibition:

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way. [Read more here.] [Want to read all the spells? Try here.]

I was fascinated by many of the things we saw (and listened to – the audio guide is highly recommended). Below are some of the things I found interesting:

  • The ancient Egyptians strongly believed in the power of the word, both spoken and written. Carved or painted images also had power. Their faith in words and images led them to believe that magical power could be activated when certain words were uttered or images created.
  • There are altogether about 200 spells in The Book of the Dead but usually a manuscript would contain only a selection of these spells. 
  • There is at least one thing that the Egyptians and the Chinese have in common: simplified characters. In many papyri made between about 1550 and 1100 BC, a special simplified script was used, now known as Book of the Dead cursive hieroglyphs.
  • Sometimes, texts were written on the surface of the coffin, used by the living to resurrect the dead. And inside the coffin were the spells needed by the coffin lodger. This makes sense. But what if the two sets of texts were accidentally reversed, I wonder?
The exterior and interior texts of this coffin were catered for different readership
  • Not everyone could read the traditional hieroglyphic script. Sometimes the Book of the Dead was written in hieratic, the script for daily life. The Book of Dead of Padiamenet, chief baker of the temple of Amun, for example, has only six spells and they were written in hieratic, probably the script he was more familiar with.
  • There were also pictorial funerary papyrus rolls available. The illustrations delivered the full power of the spells. Below are two examples demonstrating the results of correctly-cast spells:
spell 59. The Goddess Nut in a tree feeding Tameni and her ba spirit
spell 81A. Spell to transform into a lotus flower.
spell 87. Spell to transform into a serpent.
  • Surprise! Surprise! Between about 1500 and 1100BC most funerary papyri were made for men. Sometimes, wives were portrayed alongside their husbands but only the men were named. From about 1100 BC women also began to have their own papyri.
  • I think the woman below is smoking. Her name is Anhai and she was a Chantress of Amun and the Chief of the Musicians of two cults. Her high social status is reflected in the large size of her papyrus and the use of gold leaf to embellish some of the vignettes. 
Click image to enlarge
  • I like the image below. These are women portrayed on one papyrus; they are mourning the death of a family member. Must they all show their nipples? Are those red things nipples or parts of the garment? I am no costume historian. 
Click image to enlarge
  • Have you seen a mummy? Did you know how a mummified body is reanimated? Answer: “The Opening of the Mouth ritual reanimated the mummifed body. Originally a ritual to enable a new born child to breathe and feed, it was performed on mummies to restore their bodily faculties. By touching part of the face with special implements a priest made it possible for the dead to see with their eyes, breathe through their nose and speak with their mouth.” Interestingly, the tools used in the ritual were also those used by midwives. 
  • Do not judge a person by his/her mask. Often, the mask did not reflect the real face of the deceased but how he/she would like to appear in afterlife. That’s why these masks all seem to depict young countenances with smooth skin. Also, because the gods had gold flesh and blue hair, the masks were often covered with gold leaf and blue paint was used for hair.
  • After all the ordeal that the deceased went through, he/she faced the final judgement, during which his or her heart was weighed against a feather of truth. The heart would be fed to the Devourer (a female monster with a body that was part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile) if it was heavier than the feather; and if the heart was light, the dead person would be granted permission to fly with the Sun god to the Field of Reeds, which was an idealised version of Egypt.

    The interesting thing about the weighing of the heart is that during the process, the heart could speak and reveal unflattering secrets about the owner’s life, which could affect his/her chances to advance to paradise. For this reason, there were spells to mute your heart. For example: “May nought stand up to oppose me at [my] judgment, may there be no opposition to me in the presence of the Chiefs (Tchatchau); may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him that keepeth the Balance!”

    Since one of the sins the Egyptians were judged for was lying, this seems like cheating. Still, it’s better than having your heart eaten. 

Weighing of the heart

The exhibition is on until 6 March 2011.

Written in Snow

Picture courtesy of JP.

                                         –by t

We extinguished two glasses of port,
drained the lamp,
transfigured from dressed to undressed.

Both times were revelatory.
The way you spoke then did not speak:
everything was newly sparse–
more new than sparse.

I do not remember it all, now,
what we said afterwards:
The virtues of simplified over traditional,

But we kept the blinds two-thirds drawn
and from your warm bed
we caught slivers of tree branches
in soft toques.

The snow had stopped and the road was icy
when we left. What took place already seemed hazy;
even your steadying arm around my shoulder
felt different.

Friendly people, we commented
on irrelevant things: the barber shop over there,
the dog park. Then I saw phrases fingered on cars,
unconvincingly hidden in snow. The calligrapher,
in haste, had chosen simplified.

It doesn’t matter, I guess.
New snow may fall, cover the slate.
And given time, all words melt.

This poem is now published in the March 2011 issue of Subliminal Interiors

Nowhere Boy

Aaron Johnson is handsome (and young!). We watched Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, a film about the young John Lennon, played rather convincingly, I must say, by Aaron Johnson. However, he is certainly not as good as Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Lennon’s aunt, Mimi Smith. She is so good she is better than the rest of the cast combined.
Apart from Kristin Scott Thomas, the film also benefits from a great soundtrack. One of the songs that I liked was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You”. I instantly fell in love with it but I also wanted to listen to a female cover. I found Nina Simone’s version rather good too.
Another song that captured my attention was John Lennon’s “Mother” (listen to it here), which made me cry when it’s being played at the end of the film. The song is autobiographical: Lennon is talking to his mother, Julia Lennon, who was killed on the street by a drunk driver when he was 17 (‘Mother, you had me but I never had you, / I wanted you but you didn’t want me’) and his father, Alf Lennon, who walked out of his life when he was just a kid (‘Farther, you left me but I never left you, / I needed you but you didn’t need me’). While in the first part of the song, the persona says ‘Goodbye’ to his father and mother, the second part of the song is a desperate and heart-wrenching plea to both parents: ‘Mama don’t go’ and ‘Daddy come home’ are repeated again and again. You can feel the sense of hysteric helplessness in Lennon’s singing and the simple lyrics (no doubt appropriating a sad child’s vocabulary) but there is no harsh resentment. A plea to a parent not to go (emotionally, physically, mortally, whatever), obviously, also reminds one of Dylan Thomas’s poem.

Love & Other Drugs

Love & Other Drugs

Last night we went to watch Love & Other Drugs in Covent Garden. Thank you, E, for the generosity!

On the film:

  • Anne, you are no Kate Winslet or Penelope Cruz (with reference to her own comment on screen nudity in this Fresh Air interview.)1 Was she thinking of Little Children or Open Your Eyes, for example? And your Kym-mode (Rachel Getting Married) does not impress this time. Oh wait, you were unconvincing even then. (But bravo on being a good White Queen.)
  • Jake, you are no George Clooney (think Up in the Air). Where’s the Jake in Donnie Darko, Bubble BoyBrokeback Mountain, Proof and Zodiac? (Let’s forget he’s in The Day After Tomorrow.)
  • ‎”I cut probably a total of about 5 seconds out of the nude scenes,” Anne says in the interview. At least 100 more should have been cut. Right, it’s worse than Killing Me Softly.
  • Both Jake and Anne are nominated for Golden Globe awards. Anne, you are absolutely no match for either Julianne or Annette (The Kids Are All Right).
  • (And I hope Jeremy will win the Best Supporting Actor award — he’s marvellous in The Town (and in The Hurt Locker last year).)
1It would be good to first listen to Anne’s segment and then Natalie Portman’s on her role in Black Swan; the intelligent Portman is even more eloquent and sophisticated in comparison.
Next, I’m looking forward to Blue Valentine. Listen to an interview with Ryan Gosling’s here. What is Cindy’s secret? Don’t tell me.
Blue Valentine

When the Rain Stops Falling at Almeida

This post was originally written on 5th July, 2009.

Yesterday we spent an evening in Islington. It was a beautiful day and we sat by Regent’s Canal and had a drink from the Narrow Boat Pub (Beer in a shoe, anyone?). Like many local pubs, people take plastic cups of beer and sit outside on benches or on the ground.
After the drink, we walked over to the Almeida Theatre to see the critically-acclaimed When the Rain Stops Falling. The play, which was written by the Australian playwright and screen writer Andrew Bovell, is having its European premier at Almedia.
When the Rain Stops Falling tells an epic, multi-generational story set in the UK and Australia. It is not told in a linear fashion, but is instead related through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. The action takes place at a number of different times, ranging from the 1950s until 2039, a point which may be the end of the world. The play opens at this point and we are presented with a view of an enviromentally apocalyptic future in which it does not stop raining even in the Australian outback and in which a fish falls from the sky onto the foot of Gabriel. Gabriel has just received a phone call from his grown-up son, Andrew, whom he had not seen since the boy was seven. Gabriel dreads and at the same time welcomes this unexpected visit. However, he is uncertain what he can tell his boy about their family history. From here, the play advances, or rather, retreats backward to recount the complicated story of the family which includes a pedophile, a frustrated mother, and two lovers also named Gabriel.
Bovell’s history contains a great deal of repetition and variation — certain passages are spoken by different characters at different points in the story. Although the words are identical, they take on very different meaning within the context of the scene. This suggests how history repeats itself, but with a difference. For example, in the opening scene, when old Gabriel is preparing for his son’s visit, he describes how he cleans and paints his filthy house. Later, the same passage is spoken by a female character who has just discovered that her husband is a pedophile and the speech reflects her attempt to clean her husband’s sin. While the old Gabriel’s speech is comical and inspires laughter from the audience, the later version of the speech brings empathy.
True to the title, it rains throughout the play and this along with other themes such as the fish link the generations together. In the staging of the play, the different generations blend and are sometimes shown sitting together at the same table while extensively living separate lives. The rain in the title is effectively presented on stage as a constant mist which seems to exist outside of the imaginary walls of the characters’ houses.
The story of When the Rain Stops Falling would not seem overly original if told in a straightforward fashion. However, Bovell’s clever structure and neat thematic repetition makes the play engaging and very mesmerising throughout.

Philippe Parreno at the Serpentine Gallery

Last Saturday after a day in the city, we went to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park to see an exhibition by the Paris-based French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno (b. 1964). The exhibition has been getting a lot of attention for its originality and skill and we were interested to see if it could live up to the hype.
The exhibit is made up of four video installations. While most video works presented in a gallery are continuously played on a loop, these four videos are projected in order and the viewers are led from room to room by lights turning on and off and blinds coming up and down. In this way, Parreno creates a unique gallery experience and forces viewers to follow a particular pattern and to watch the videos to their end and in sequence. This is in stark contrast to our normal experience of video art in which we may spend a moment or two in a darkened room before moving on to the rest of the exhibit. Fortunately, Parreno’s works are much more skilful than most video installations (which often amount to little more than terrible movies) so you don’t mind watching them through.

A still from “The Boy from Mars”
The artist may have wished that viewers begin with a particular video but the practicalities of running a permanent exhibit means that the cycle of four videos is being continuously run and therefore for the viewers the first film will be whichever one is playing when they enter the gallery. As it turned out, we first caught the end of “No More Reality” before moving onto “The Boy from Mars” (2003) and therefore for us, this was the first complete work in the sequence. “The Boy From Mars” is a film based on an eco-installation that Parreno created in Thailand. It involves a machine in a tent operated by water buffalos and in the video, this eco-installation becomes part of a mysterious landscape. The film records a day in the life of the area: it starts as night is falling and slowly each section of the tent and then streetlamps are illuminated. Then some mysterious lights also appear in the sky, accompanied by rumbling sounds reminiscent of airplanes or perhaps UFOs (later, the video reveals these to be candles). The rest of the work shows often disturbing and poetic images of the same region moving from morning until the next evening. At the heart of the region seems to be a glowing light on the side of a building which we can only assume is related to the boy from Mars. What we are exactly supposed to take away from all of this is uncertain, although the ambiguity in this case is not frustrating but contributes to the overall sense of mystery.
A still from “June 8, 1968”

The best of the four videos for me came next – “June 8, 1968” (2009). It opens with a jolting image of a train in mid-motion. Throughout the film, we see things from the perspective of someone on this moving train starting on the tracks but widening to show the surrounding landscape. Soon, silent and motionless people, dressed in 1960s style clothing, begin to appear along the tracks. They are all watching the train mournfully as it passes, yet we never know what they are watching. However, there is a clue in the title, as on this date a train carried Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington and almost a million people gathered on the route to pay their respects. Parreno’s video is based on images from Paul Fusco, who was one of the people on that train. The effect is that we are in essence watching a funeral without knowing who the funeral is for. I am glad I did not know the significance of this date while watching the video and was free to form my own interpretation. For me, the train seems to symbolise the arrival of something imminent, perhaps bad news that could alter people’s lives. The elegiac faces, I thought, were mourning the end of their current lifestyle. The fact that the gathering people were largely motionless also gave me the feeling that they were bound to where they were and therefore were sad to see the train pass them by, not bringing any one of them on board. Some of the images (they are all very beautiful): a girl on a floating boat on an empty lake, a boy holding the bars of his bicycle, African-American workers sitting on top of another static train, four people occupying different levels of a slope, etc., also encouraged me to construct stories about them. A thought-provoking seven minutes.

A still from “Invisibleboy”
The next video is also the artist’s latest, “Invisibleboy” (2010). The boy in the title is an illegal Chinese immigrant hiding in what appears to Manhattan’s Chinatown. When he awakes from his sleep in his junk-filled flat, there are no guardians around. They are presumably among the people we see working or playing mahjong in a restaurant. The boy is invisible in two ways, both to the authorities and to his elders. What makes the video interesting is the appearance of a number of creatures scratched onto the film stock—they are wandering on the streets, hiding in various domestic places and looking bored at a restaurant. These creatures add a kind of ghostly aura and a sense of doom to the film. The tension is further heightened by an instrumental score that grows more insistent as the film progresses. Although Parreno builds the tension as if moving towards a climax, the ending is deliberately unresolved. It is perhaps suggested that the invisible boy identifies with the scratched creatures, or perhaps they are authorities coming to take him away.
“No More Reality”

The final film “No More Reality” continues the themes of invisibility and uncertain reality that we encountered with the unseen Martian boy, the unknown cargo on the train and the Chinese boy. The work begins with children’s chanting which you can hear in all the rooms in the gallery, creating a disorienting effect for viewers who are uncertain where the next video will be shown. When the video does appear, we see French children chanting and holding placards saying “No more reality”. What does this protest signify about the reality of the images we have just experienced and their implications for the viewers and the work? Do these children, too, long to escape reality and become invisible?

The exhibition is on until 13 February, 2010. A shorter version of this review can be found here.


Scene 1

A restaurant. Leeds.

J: Can we see the wine list, please?
Waitress: Yes, you may.

Scene 2

A second-hand bookstore. Central London.

Shopkeeper (to me): How may I help you, honey?
J: She’s with me.
Shopkeeper: Oh I do apologize!

See more “How to be British” postcards here.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

When it comes to collecting, I have nothing on Robert Opie. Opie is an avid collector of consumer products and packaging which are on display at The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. The museum features products from the Victorian era through to today. Displayed in jam-packed glass cases almost as if they are shrines to materialism, Opie’s collection features a wide variety of products including early postcards, cigarettes, cosmetic pieces, household cleaning items, confectioneries, wartime posters, boardgames, early household appliances and more.
For me, the case devoted to the Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the highlights. The Great Exhibition showcased the ‘art and industry of all nations’. Over six million people came to see the thousands of exhibits. In a Victorian magazine, it was claimed that “In no other country of the world could such an exhibition of the industrial arts have taken place.” Interestingly, I heard something similar from Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, who was responsible for putting together the new BBC radio programme, “A History of the World“, which discussed human development through 100 objects from the museum itself. MacGregor claimed that only the British Museum could put on a programme of this scale. Undoubtedly true, but this is also a reminder that Britain is still dining out on the legacy of its empire.
The Brand museum was also full of other curiosities. For example, the early typewriter shown below from the Nineteenth Century. You may not be able to see it, but the keys are not in the QWERTY format, common today. 
I was also struck by the old candies and chocolates. Some of them still in their original wrappers. For example, the collection has some liquorice all sorts and chocolate bars from the 1930s, which are still intact. The effect was somewhat eerie, as the products were never consumed as intended but are still being consumed in another way.
There was also a lot devoted to the two world wars including propaganda posters, patriotic advertising by corporations and a wide variety of other consumer products related to the conflicts. Two of our favourites were a satirical reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Adolf in Blunderland (by James Dyrenforth and Max Kester in 1940). The other was a stuffed Winston Churchill who looks more like Chairman Mao or a gangster rapper (he is giving the V for Victory sign sideways as if he is coming from the hood) than a Prime Minister.
Adolf in Blunderland
Winston Churchill and his famous “V”
I found the materials from the Nineteenth and the early Twentieth Centuries much more interesting than that from after the Second World War. This is perhaps because the older items are much more alien, while still being strangely familiar. When we arrived at the more modern sections, we felt a sort of collapse in interest, probably because we were then surrounded by things which were easily recognizable. It is as if the mystery was gone and we were back to the supermarket.
I also wished that the museum had been a little more curated. There wasn’t much information and the importance of objects was sometimes lost when included with dozens of others in the same case. However, much of the charm of the museum comes from ‘the old curiosity shop‘ feel that it provides. We were constantly reminded of the owner’s passion for collecting, and one could still see his areas of interest clearly. When we were leaving the museum, we saw the man himself, walking into his kingdom.