Waiting for Gandalf

I’m lucky enough to have already seen the production of Samuel Beckett‘s famous play Waiting For Godot which is showing here in Christchurch next week at the Isaac Theatre Royal. This excellent production has received a lot of attention, mostly due to the presence of Sir Ian McKellen in the role of Estragon (or Go-Go as I now call him). McKellen is a renowned British stage and screen actor, most famous for his role as Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy and as Magneto in the X-Men movies. McKellen has been adopted by New Zealand after spending a year here filming the LOTR movies and saying all sorts of nice things about us ever since. It is his fondness for New Zealand that we have to thank for the presence of this production on our fair shores, as I’m sure it wouldn’t be here otherwise.

Waiting for Godot is famously inaccessible and is known as the play in which nothing happens. It’s punchline, the non-arrival of Godot, is widely known (so I’m not spoiling it for you). Despite the perceived lack of action, it is constantly hilarious and becomes more so as it goes on and becomes increasingly self-aware and self-referential (at one point McKellen’s character Estragon even bemoans – “nothing happens!”). Never has existential angst been so funny. It fits its billing as a ‘tragicomedy’ and is truly a masterwork by famous Irish playwright Beckett. Due to its ‘difficult’ reputation the play is not performed very often, though I suspect this is because it is considerably demanding from an acting point of view, more so than it is difficult for audiences. In this production the acting is first class, McKellen is brilliantly foiled by Roger Rees, while Matthew Kelly (host of tv show ‘Stars in their Eyes’) is unrecognisable as Pozzo. Particularly brilliant is Brendan O’Hea in the absurdly challenging role of Lucky. Waiting for Godot is certainly a play that demands astonishing performances to succeed, but if ever you are going to see a production of it then this is the one to see as both the acting and direction are of the highest order.

  • Christchurch performances are on Tuesday 13th and Wednesday 14th July 2010

Before you drive off into the sunset

Heading away for Easter? Good for you. If you are driving somewhere, now is a good time to do a vehicular fitness test. There is nothing worse than being away on holiday and having car troubles.

Actually, that’s false. Far worse would be to never get to leave on your holiday because said car packs up at the sight of the first ‘100’ sign  on the edge of town. In this instance you have no excuse to keep you from going back to work! So if you want your car to make it through your holiday, or at least make it far enough out of town to forget about work, there are some basic checks you can do.

Warrant of fitness checks cover all the major safety components, but if you are coming to the end of your warrant period it might be a good idea to get in early and make sure everything is still as it should be before you take on that switchbacked hill in the middle of nowhere.

There are also plenty of things you can check yourself. Tyres, coolant levels and oil are all no-brainers, but it’s worth checking a few other things also. Windscreen washer reservoirs are worth checking, as are wiper blades.

While you are under the bonnet, it is worth checking other fluid levels too, power steering and brake fluid are things you don’t want to run out of and leaks can generate quite quickly (watch skin contact, this stuff is nasty).  These are both usually stored in semi-transparent reservoirs similar though smaller than that of the engine coolant, so they can be checking with a quick glance. Also check transmission fluid levels if your car is an automatic, this is usually via a dipstick like engine oil (don’t be alarmed if the fluid appears red, this fluid is different to standard engine oil).

Don’t know your dipstick from your dipswitch? Do not fear! The library has miles of titles on auto maintenance ranging from advice for the complete beginner through to full workshop manuals and modification guides. If you don’t know where to start, try some of these:

Tag-Team Fantasy Writing

I just received my reserved copy of The Gathering Storm. For those of you who don’t know the saga behind this publication, I refer you to my previous post here. For those link averse I will quickly summarise; author Robert Jordan wrote eleven of a planned twelve book epic series entitled The Wheel of Time, but then sadly passed away before he could complete the final book (if only he hadn’t stopped mid-series and written that prequel). Author Brandon Sanderson was given the task of completing the series by Jordan’s wife and provided with extensive notes, plot plans and indeed entire scenes already completed. Now that book has arrived and I can finally complete the series I started reading when I was 13. Or can I? Continue reading

Back of the bus

BodyFestivalLast night I went and saw the Back of the bus show presented by Java Dance Company as part of the Body Festival currently under way in Christchurch. This dance work is highly innovative in the way that it dissolves the boundary between performers and the audience found in the conventional theatre setting. It does this by taking the audience along for the ride, on the bus and beyond, always intimately close to the lives of the characters being portrayed.

The show consists of a number of scene specific pieces danced solo or as a group by several very different characters. The dancing is performed with astonishing physicality and intensity by the Java dancers Rosanne Christie, Sacha Copland and Natalie Hona. There is also a humorous cameo by local dancer Jessica Kennedy.

The choreography is principally by Sacha Copland but with pieces contributed from the rest of Java also and is wonderfully varied but always intense and physical. It makes clever use of the bus and other props.

This show contains some wonderful moments but I don’t want to give away the special surprises involved. Let’s just say its a unique experience and a rare opportunity for Christchurch audiences to see such innovative and high quality contemporary dance. The show is emotive and moving but also a lot of fun and is well worth the ticket. Don’t miss it! There are two performances per night for the rest of this week with the final show at 8pm on Friday 9th. You can make bookings at the Body Festival site.

More dance related links:

The Power Of Art

Simon Schama's Power Of ArtI thought Simon Schama’s Power Of Art series was about the best television I’d ever seen when it screened a few years ago. This series was one of those rare successes in that it managed to be intellectual AND entertaining at the same time. I know, I was suprised too. I missed a few episodes and was appalled to find it unavailable on DVD when I looked a while back. The library has had the companion book for a while now, which is great, but certainly a lot more dry. I’m thrilled to report the library now holds copies of the full series on DVD, which has finally been made available.

For those that caught the series and know how good it was, here’s a chance to see it again. For those of you who missed it when it aired amidst the cathode-ray mediocrity, prepare to be delighted. Simon Schama first appeared on our screens presenting the almost-as-enthralling A History of Britain series and seems to be the BBC’s smarty-pants of the moment. The key to his success is the genuine passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter overflowing through his narration. This interest is infectious and enables Schama to present ‘boring’ topics in an accessible and entertaining manner. Schama is an historian, and is drawn to drama so he has carefully chosen works that represent powerful ideas and were produced by artists in the grip of some sort of historical or psychological crisis. This, of course, makes for compelling story telling. Purists may object that the biography and history overshadow the art at times, but to Schama they are one and the same.

The impassioned narration is broken up by re-enactments of historical episodes from the artist’s lives, which vary in effectiveness (Andy Serkis of Gollum fame is just as scary as a deranged Vincent van Gogh). Overall, the series is enthralling and highly recommended for appreciators of painting, history or drama. For those that don’t ‘get’ modern or abstract painting, I particularly recommend the Rothko installment, you’ll never look at a red square the same again!

Stringophilia At New Brighton Library

StringophiliaAs the rain kept coming down and the chill wind crept under even the thickest garments on Sunday, those seeking shelter in New Brighton Library were treated to a sublime performance of singing strings. Cathy Irons (violin) and Tomas Hurnik (cello), both Christchurch Symphony Orchestra musicians, performed a number of pieces together and solo, including compositions  from Stamitz, Prokofiev, Telemann and Bach.

While many people arrived especially for the performance, others who were just happening by couldn’t help but stop and listen on in wonder. It quickly became apparent that there were nowhere near enough seats for all in attendance and the popularity of the event brought a warmth to the library which was sorely needed on such a chill day. The performance ended with a generous amount of applause and people went on their way with lifted spirits and the knowledge that they had heard something a little bit special.

From a personal point of view it was so nice to be at work and to have the opportunity to listen to some wonderful music being performed by such accomplished musicians. Thanks again to Cathy and Tomas for providing those present with a marvellous experience.

Tarkovsky

I am completely in awe of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. The Russian director, who died in 1986, created an ouevre of films that are singularly profound, powerful and beautiful.

There is no doubt that his films are long, slow, and difficult (kind of like a good book) and in no way do they belong within the same classification as most modern cinematic fare. Many are in Russian of course, though after his funding was cut off by the Communist Party he defected to the West and his last two films were made in Italian and Swedish. His masterpiece Andrei Rublev is three hours long, in black and white with Russian subtitles and tells the story of the 14th Century Russian Orthodox monk and religious icon painter in seven chronologically disparate episodes. What I can’t describe in this facetious plot summary is the use of sound and music, the beautiful cinematography and the sense of profound wisdom emanating through the film straight from the auteur himself. It is also a cutting allegory about the plight of the artist in Russia under it’s varying political regimes (in this example feudal Russian lords and Mongol hordes, but clearly meant to include Tarkovsky’s own repressive Communist Party funders).

If these details fail to put you off, I highly recommend his breathtaking films which reward in ways more profound than any other films I’ve seen. Unfortunately, not all of his films are currently held by the library (you can borrow most from Alice’s), though you could watch the Steven Soderbergh remake of Solaris (both are based on the novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem) which isn’t a bad film but is nothing like the Tarkovsky. The titles the Library does hold are Ivan’s Childhood which is his first film, it is an interesting watch though not as full-developed stylistically as his later works.  There is also The Mirror, which is a stunning autobiographical work. This is a difficult first Tarkovsky to watch as it uses images amd techniques from his other films to tell an elliptical and non-linear autobiographical story. It is still very beautiful though and rewards after a few viewings. At 108 minutes it’s also mercifully short compared to his other films.

What the library has recently acquired, and this is very exciting, is a new volume edited by Nathan Dunne on the work of Tarkovsky. It contains a series of chapters which collect together critical essays written by various authorities on aspects of Tarkovsky’s work. The written pieces are quite academic and are not all adulatory, which is refreshing. Contributors include critical heavyweight Jean Paul Sartre and contemporary directors who say things like; “I have a picture of Tarkovsky on the wall of my office, when I’m making an aesthetic decision I look at it and think ‘What would he do?'” The book is also generously filled with beautiful still images from the films, and it is marvellous just to open it and browse through without reading a word. Also featured are a chronology and translations of some of Arseni Tarkovksy’s (the director’s famous poet father) poems which are used in the films.

This book is highly recommended, though if anybody wants to read it I suppose I’ll have to return my copy, which I really, really don’t want to do.

The Book of Dead Philosophers

Philosophy is, in  my opinion, a fascinating and essential subject. However, it is often presented in a stuffy and far from lucid form.  This puts people off, and philosophy as an academic subject is perceived by many as a pretentious exercise in over-complication, while at the same time relegating centuries of lives and thoughts into some kind of -ism. Philosophy deals with issues relevant to every living person, and should then, it seems, be accessible to all. Luckily there have been plenty of irreverent philosophers, from the ‘first’ –  Socrates, with his ‘I’d rather drink hemlock and kill myself than pay respect to your idiocy’ to the more recent, such as the ‘randy and handsome’ Camus and his brilliant essays on ‘philosophical suicide’. Such characters have rejected the stodginess and pedantry of the philosophical norm, and often brought about considerable change in Western ideas as part of the process.

Given that irreverence is ‘in’ (or so you would assume at least from reading this blog), it seems timely to revisit the history of philosophy with this in mind.

This is exactly what Simon Critchley has done, with a twinkle in his eye, with his latest  The Book of Dead Philosophers. Critchley runs through 190 or so famous and infamous philosophers, discussing their deaths and what philosophical relevance that may have.  For each philosopher he discusses briefly how they died and how that might relate to the philosophy that they extolled. Some entries are just a line, some a paragraph, some a small essay. This format is very readable and allows you to dip in and dip out, something that is normally impossible when reading philosophy.

While this could be a morbid exercise, the writing is very witty, and there are some brilliantly ironic entries and plenty of pythagorean bean humour.  Pythagoras and his followers famously denounced beans, and while being pursued by malicious soldiers, Pythagoras was caught and killed because he refused to run across a field of growing beans. A noble death indeed. Other such ridiculous examples are the death of Francis Bacon in London in the winter of 1626, from a cold reportedly contracted while out in the street trying to stuff a live chicken with snow to investigate the possibilities of refrigeration.

This work is very readable, but it is also informative. Its genius being that while ostensibly poking fun at the lives of very serious philosophers, it also uncovers the very unserious lives of others, all the while illuminating their humanity and never shying away from the ‘big’ questions these thinkers were prepared to offer answers to. By studying the deaths of these philosophers Critchley hopes to uncover some answers about life, how we might live it well and learn to accept the shadow of death that always hangs above us. A worthy read for the philosophically inclined, and in a non-academic and very approachable format.

Literary Duty

Oh duty, why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?  David Hume

While I was at University I set myself upon the literary quest of reading all the classics. This must have been quite early in my tertiary education because, looking back on it now, it is such a naive task that i can’t imagine starting out on it now without at least wearing some kind of ironic hat or something. Nevertheless, it is an interesting undertaking and my own little attempt at lifelong education. 

Little did I know it would be so lifelong! The term ‘literary classic’ has become completely uninformative, with, by my calculations, about four all-time classics of literature being published each week this year. To counteract the insidious marketing tactics of modern publishers I’ve stuck to the more aged classics which have had a little more time to cement their place in history. If I ever make it to modernity I’ll tackle the list of Booker and Pulitzer winners perhaps.

The most consistent initial experience I’ve had when delving into any classic is the feeling that it was hard work and that maybe I’d rather be watching television. Books these days are written to grab you from the first sentence and not let go, which has resulted in the phenomenon of all-nighter book binges and cover-to-cover vanishing acts by readers. The classics demand slow digestion and often seem to be written in a way that seems like an attempt to destroy your brain’s very structure. They take a long time to read. Invariably though, after a hundred pages or so, I get into them. This impenetrability is no doubt a combination of antiquated writing styles and vocabulary, and the fact that many of these are classics because of the writing style, and a unique style often takes some time to adjust to.

Don Quixote was like this for me. I read it while travelling around Europe and found the first third infuriating. Luckily, long travel times and periodic episodes of being stranded in the French Alps forced me to persist. By the end I could barely read a paragraph without bursting out laughing, the accumulation of ridicule over the length of what is a very long book, combined with the ornate language and stylised expression made it the funniest reading experience I’ve had. I’m very glad I read it, but then again, my experience of Catch 22 was identical and yet far more concentrated and less time consuming. I’ve never been so close to throwing away a book as I was after twenty pages of Joseph Heller’s classic, but then my brain’s defences surrendered to his stylistic attack and I laughed my head off… ha ha bonk.

Perhaps reading more recent works allows you to piggy-back off the modern authors who have put in the hard work of reading the classics and integrated them into their own. Reading classic after classic definitely seems like a masochistic act (or one of pure snobbery), interspersing some lighter reading is essential I think.

Not all classics are like this though. The Count of Monte Cristo is much more plot-centric and provided me with hours of entertainment ( I read it in Europe also, in far less time). However, it is probably conspicuous for this reason, and if written now would perhaps fail to stand out from the Cussler/Ludlumesque brigade?

As a general rule, the classics are classic because they make a good attempt at tackling lasting issues of humanity. I think this makes many of them well worth reading. As a philosophy student I loved reading Anna Karenina, as much for the sub-plot as anything, as Tolstoy’s own philosophical dilemmas were acted out on the page by the character of Levin. Some of this book was a trial, some of it wonderful, but the end result was that I was very glad that I read it.

Moby Dick I found hard work for large passages of the book, but other passages were enthralling. Despite being bewildered at times, the blurb on the back said it was ‘the greatest book written by an American’ so I had to persist. Upon finishing it I felt a sense of achievement but perhaps a little like I had too puny an intellect to really grasp the greatness of the text. Then I read the introduction, written by a literary scholar, and everything fell into place. The very scope of the work really hit me (with the help of the wizened scholar) and I was able to look again at the blurb on the back and think that maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish claim after all. War and Peace was as much of a trial (though slightly longer with several hung juries and annulments perhaps), and to be honest it is a hugely impressive achievement, but I wasn’t convinced that Tolstoy’s agenda was as profound as I’d hoped. Crime and Punishment was both profound and impressive from a literary point of view. I’ve heard it said that the Dostoyevsky vs Tolstoy dichotomy is one of those ‘you’re either one or the other’ categorizations, but I must say I loved Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment equally but for very different reasons.

I could go on about other experiences of reading classics but I’d risk this post becoming as much of a trial as the subject matter. The classics are hard work but I think that it is usually worth the effort. But maybe I have to say that; once you’ve put a lot of effort into something it is quite hard to admit that it was all a waste of time. I realise this undertaking of mine is far from unique and I’d love to hear some of the experiences others have had reading the classics. Do people think they are worth the effort, or just the domain of scholars and literary snobs? Which ones have you triead and failed at? My nemesis remains Ulysses, one day…

On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover

Those with an eye for satire will note the careful seriousness of the title above. The title is from a theatrical powerpoint lecture visiting our fair city as part of the Writers Festival. The show returns after a successful visit during the Cabaret Festival earlier in the winter and if you missed it then, be sure to see it this time around. If, like me, you grow weary of the childish and petty behaviour of politicians (which only seems to get worse as the election looms larger), then you will enjoy this show’s refreshing and hilarious take on politics in New Zealand. You will also be introduced to the strong argument towards our only hope for a glorious future – Helen Clark taking Richard Meros as her young lover. This unique performance is truly hilarious and very highly recommended.

It runs this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 6pm in the Philip Carter Family Auditorium at the Art Gallery, adults $25.

“… exactly the sort of social and political satire we need to alleviate the inevitable earnestness and nastiness of the looming election campaign”
JOHN SMYTHE, THEATREVIEW