Not that we haven’t been doing just that for the last few months, but there’s so much to say. America fascinates and repulses me. I couldn’t live there – not just because I would eat all the food – but it is a fascinating place to observe, and we are fortunate to generally be able to enjoy its cultural output, both high and lowbrow. So naturally I was intrigued when I spied Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody in a bookshop in Auckland. I immediately went to the nearest library, hopped on the wifi and requested a copy (btw – aren’t libraries great?).
It’s a funny book, endeavouring to “present the the kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture.” Lofty intentions indeed! However, it is more of a collection of biographical and critical essays about a range of major players in American culture. The first two-thirds of the essays – which include Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hepburn and Gershwin are perfectly okay, but it’s the final third where, for me, the book truly comes alive. Orson Welles‘ and Laurence Olivier‘s (not from the US but that’s not the point) approaches to acting and Shakespeare are compared and contrasted. What is naturalism, how – and should – America tackle Shakespeare? These themes of naturalism and an American theatrical tradition are continued in an essay on Marlon Brando.
We are reminded that Brando was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and the last two essays cover novelist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone who – to my shame – I didn’t know much about at all. Reading about these two African-Americans and learning more about the the nuances and iterations of the wider Civil Rights movement is inspiring me – to read their words and listen to their music and make an effort to further understand America’s painful history.
So, I’ve come away from this book thinking about acting and how we express our country through our cultural creations, and also with some new inspirational figures to look to. We need them.
In the hunt for Iolanthe Green, Anna Treadway takes you through a simpler time in many ways, with a notable absence of all the technology and urgency that dominates our existence today. This is what I found quite charming about the book – stepping into a time where you seemed to survive on tea and toast, your entire wardrobe could fit in one bag, you walked to get from A to B and you felt wicked if you stayed on the bus beyond the stop that you had paid up to.
I definitely had preconceptions before reading Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars – as we all do when we read the blurb on a book. I was expecting a really gripping mystery that would take me behind the scenes of the theatre district – so that I could literally peek behind the curtain of a world that I’ve never seen. This didn’t quite transpire, but I wasn’t disappointed because instead I was taken on a tour of 1960s Soho. But even this was secondary to witnessing some of the less pleasant aspects of life and relationships in this time.
Miranda Emmerson does a great job of highlighting the multitude of social issues that reigned during the mid 1960s. The story winds its way through racism, social hierarchy, police brutality, unplanned pregnancies – a time with some very big restrictions on personal freedom as abortions and gay relationships would both still be illegal for a couple of years. My overactive sense of fairness left me continuing to hope that the characters Anna and Aloysius would stand up and rebel against their treatment and segregation – and in small ways they did – but ultimately they were somewhat resigned to their place in the world. Ahh the frustration!!
Now this kind of book isn’t normally my cup of tea as I prefer to escape from the ugliness of our world when I read – or at least know the characters will have a win somewhere in the mix; but I still found it quietly entertaining and feeling very grateful for the rights that I was born in to!
Last night I sat in a beautiful room and listened to a fabulously sung tale about serial killers.
It was a brilliant night out and Sweeney Todd: demon barber of Fleet Street was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped it would be. My companion, The Opera Newbie, was also very impressed, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We laughed in all the right places, jumped (embarrassingly) at unexpected loud noises, and clapped enthusiastically whenever terrible things happened (he’s in the chair! he’s just had his throat cut! he’s sliding from the chair through a trapdoor and into the basement!)
I was a bit nervous that the live opera performance wouldn’t measure up against the recent Tim Burton movie, which was visually stunning and starred the always-brilliant Helena B-C, as well as badly-behaved Johnny Depp.
Sometimes when you’re watching a live show and there’s lots of singing, it can be hard for people who don’t know the story (or the songs), but Opera Newbie reported that he pretty much followed the lot. And the set was gorgeous. Deceptively simple, but with lots of different clever bits that moved in mysterious ways. The lighting was almost a star in its own right, too, with atmospheric fog and really effective spotlights making things look darn scary quite often.
My favourite character in any of the different versions I’ve seen is always Mrs Lovett, and last night was no exception – Antoinette Halloran’s voice, acting, costume were all fabulous, and I totally have a fangirl crush on her. I’m also finding myself humming bits of her songs, and vaguely thinking that this weekend I might try making some pies.
If you’re thinking about going along, maybe don’t take the kids – it’s sweary, and bloody, and has some naughty bits too. But if you have the opportunity to grab some last-minute tickets for the show for yourself and your grown-up friends you absolutely should do that (it’s on til Saturday, and there’s even a matinee performance, so there’s really no excuse!)
He looked a little concerned when I told him where we were going (the oh-so-beautiful Isaac Theatre Royal), and for what purpose.
Things got worse when I tried to give a brief plot outline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with a line about hairdressers.
How though, does one cover all the important bits, without spoiling the plot twists? Do I talk about wives and daughters, justice and revenge, haircuts and close shaves, meat pies and unrequited love?
Do I mention that Mr Todd first made his appearance over 150 years ago, in the pages of a “penny-dreadful” publication? That there have been more than a dozen different stage and screen adaptations, including the most well-known current movie version starring the now infamous Johnny? Or that Christchurch is the third of the major centres to have the privilege of showing us what a close shave really means?
Twenty years ago, Hone Kouka wrote a play for the New Zealand International Arts Festival, set in the 1960s called Waiora. It toured nationally and internationally for several years afterwards and has been staged in places as diverse as the UK, Japan and Hawaii. It is studied in universities and high schools.
Waiora is being restaged in Christchurch at the Court Theatre and I spoke to playwright Hone Kouka about the play. He describes it as “an immigrant story”, specifically that of his own family who moved from north of Gisborne to the Catlins, later settling in Rangiora.
One of the key phrases for me, was my mum said a few times that it felt like we moved to another country. So it was a really interesting story of being like immigrants in our own country. And yes there were other Māori there… but even so for her going from a community that was predominantly Māori to a community that wasn’t was a major shift.
And my family eventually settled in Rangiora and have pretty much been there for the last 30-odd years. So that’s pretty much the basis of my family, and that’s where the story came from. My dad was a saw miller, and I just wanted to pay a homage, to a degree, to them.
It’s really interesting being here in Christchurch. There are a lot of new immigrants here…
For this reason and others, Kouka feels that Waiora is as relevant now as it’s ever been.
There are a lot of reasons why I said yes to it happening down here, just engaging with the Māori community down here. There are a lot of great artists and yeah, just wanting more art in regards to all the changes that have happened to the city. And it’s great to be partnered with the Court Theatre and they are working really hard to try and engage with Māori here which is just fantastic.
One of the reasons it’s being done here at the Court was that 20 years ago it was done here as well, at the old Court Theatre…
He’s hopeful the play will encourage people, Māori particularly, to discover theatre.
Lots of Māori I know would never have been to the theatre before. This (play) is a really great example of something that’s travelled around the world and is lauded over there and bringing it back for our people… It’s been a great experience to be back here.
It’s just an art form that Māori don’t usually associate with and that’s really what it comes down to, and what I’ve found is lots of the shows that I’ve put on around the world, and around New Zealand, once Māori turn up they go, oh yep, this is ours… and it (Waiora) covers a whole lot of things in regards to us as Māori – there’s haka, waiata, reo all through it as well – and that’s one of the things that theatre, because it’s live, can do that books can’t. That you’re actually living and breathing it.
We’ve got kapa haka exponents in the play as well and I wanted to wrap those art forms up. So it’s really bringing together, the strength of Māori all over the place to tell a Māori story.
He goes on to explain that theatre offers something that other media can’t.
I spend a lot of my working world between the film and the theatre industry, and at the moment people want a live experience because they’re constantly in front of screens, and they want, actually, communication with other human beings.
…it’s not like a movie. You can’t talk through it. You can’t turn it over or anything like that – it’s right in front of you. You can hear them breathing. You can see them sweating and people really like that.
Kouka has worked on recent features such as Mahana (based on Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha) so I asked him if there is much of a difference working in film and working in theatre.
Yeah there is. I was the original screenwriter for it (Mahana) and then I was one of the producers. I prefer theatre to the film industry. And the biggest difference is money, to be honest, as it therefore goes through more people’s hands, and as an artist it’s more diluted – what you create. And that’s why I prefer theatre because you can say exactly what you want to say, how you want to say it, where you don’t have to abide by the finances and things like that. So it’s just more difficult that way.
I feel really lucky that I can move between the two. Mahana and Born to dance are two projects that came out recently that I worked on and I’ve got others coming up as well. So I’m just really lucky that that’s what I do – that I’m an artist who moves between both art forms.
Oh the horizon are another film project, travel, and more indigenous theatre.
Our company’s got a new feature that’s basically, you know the French film Amelie? – it’s a Māori Amelie. I wanted to write something that was light and really colourful, bursting with energy… so that’s where that came from. So I just had a Skype meeting with a financier in Denmark so that’s one of the most recent.
I leave on Saturday to do a theatre project to travel to Vancouver – our company’s got a co-production with 2 Canadian First Nation companies over there, It’s super active at the moment and it’s really on a big upswing, and that’s another reason why I wanted to engage with Christchurch and get the Court Theatre involved because globally there’s a lot of work happening – in Wellington it’s really on a big upswing and upsurge there so it seems to be a good time to be involved in Māori work and travelling around the globe because they’re very open to it, which is great.
When it comes to libraries he is unequivocally in favour.
I didn’t start reading until I was about 7… and then I went crazy. I love them. For me, it gives me time to think because it’s quiet, most of the time, if that makes sense?
Libraries, they’re essential. They’re great meeting places. They are places of space and thought – that’s really what I associate with libraries. They should be one of the absolutely protected things that we have. It’s important for us to have knowledge and share it and at times the Internet – there’s not always a lot of depth to what you can gain from there – but you can from books. And also I really love the tactile nature of books. I really love them.
Last night I had my first ever opera experience. Although I generally enjoy live music and performance I wasn’t 100% if I would like opera, even with the excellent introduction to the operatic world I got from a bonafide opera singer. I mean, all that warbling and melodrama. Maybe it would be a bit OTT for me?
But then I remembered that I love stuff that’s OTT. And opera, or at least this one, has it all. Gorgeous ladies in gorgeous costumes, an impressive set bedecked with chandeliers, protestations of love, sacrifice, longing, mortality, familial squabbles… there’s even a guy dressed as a matador at one point. And amazing voices joined together in song. Wow.
And even with the “please don’t leave me!” and “oh, I’m dying of consumption!” histrionics, it was still very moving. I was surprised by that, but shouldn’t have been, because in addition to the singing there is actual acting that goes on too, and I got rather pleasantly swept up in it all.
La Traviata means “The fallen woman” and the plot revolves around Violetta, a French courtesan, a party girl who after resisting for a time, realises that actually the party can’t go on forever. She moves with her lover, Alfredo, to the country and everything’s rosy (literally, the set was covered in roses at this point)…until it’s not. There is heartbreak and anger, shame, and remorse – basically every terrible break-up you’ve ever had.
Verdi’s opera is based on the play The Lady of the Camellias which was itself adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers). Also known as Camille in the English speaking world, it has been adapted numerous times on stage and film, including a 1984 movie starring Greta Scacchi, Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth. It’s certainly a story that has legs (and some rather annoying gender politics but sometimes you just have to note these things, wish they were otherwise, and move on).
My takeaways from the evening were –
I’m a sucker for love stories
I didn’t fully appreciate just what a properly trained human voice was capable of. Crikey!
On 23 April 2016 it will be 400 years since William Shakespeare died. He is believed to have been born on 23 April 1564. Certainly in the English language, few writers will have left such a legacy as this most celebrated of playwrights.
As an actor as well as a playwright he performed his own material, and in the four centuries following his death this material has continued to be performed, reinterpreted and reimagined in a huge variety of ways. His language can seem impenetrable, at least at first, but its richness, uncanny relevance, profundity and humour make it all worthwhile.
Some of his plays are performed with great regularity – who hasn’t seen a fluffy version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in some lovely gardens on a pleasant summer evening? (No, MSND is not one of my favourites) Others are far more obscure – King John, anyone?
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.
Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2.
As for my favourite Shakespeare? Hard to say – I find Troilus and Cressida fascinating and wish I could have seen the Te Reo Māori version at the 2012 International Shakespeare Festival in London. I love Richard III – a masterful and still influential piece of Tudor propaganda that works just as well played for comedy as deadly serious. Who cannot love Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing – a star truly did dance when she was created.
It’s so hard to choose – Macbeth is so fast paced and profound, and as for Hamlet. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 4 might just be my favorite piece of his writing – but what about Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2:
Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? Was ever woman in this humour won?
Crime writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh’s actual birth date is 23 April, and she shared a birthday with Shakespeare. It’s doubly appropriate – as her production of Shakespeare’s plays were widely acclaimed. This is Ngaio as Hamlet …
If you want to find out more about Ngaio and Shakespeare, I recommend the splendid Inaugural Ngaio Marsh lecture – it was given on 22 April 2012 by Elric J. Hooper, MBE who appeared in several of Dame Ngaio Marsh’s acclaimed Shakespeare shows. He explains how they met (pages 10 and 11):
Three years later, in 1956, I was appearing in a student revue in the Civic Theatre and Gerald Lascelles told me that Ngaio Marsh and Charles Brash wanted to meet me. I went up to the empty stage after the performance. Two figures were standing there. The man was reticent. The woman was flamboyant. She was dressed in a handsome, three-quarter length seal skincoat. She was wearing a grey woollen skirt – not trousers. Her hair was wildly dressed. She smoked a cigarette. She asked me what I had been doing. Said Macbeth.
“Not the thane!” she said in alarm.
“No, A lord. Lennox.” I said putting her at her ease.
She mentioned that she was about to direct Lear.
A few weeks later, I auditioned for Ngaio. I was chosen to play the Fool in King Lear.
It was a memorable production with Mervyn Glue as the King, salivating so copiously that looking up into the lights one did not have to imagine the rain and storm. The costumes and set were blue grey. The set was a curved podium which a descending ramp on one side and steps down the other. In the centre was a kind of shelter for hovel. It worked extremely well.
His summary of Ngaio as Shakespearean director is a good one (page 10):
One of the great features of Ngaio’s Shakespeare were the moments that can only be described as “Theatrical.” Hamlet, at the end of the speech which concluded the first part, “The play’s the thing whereby I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” threw the loose sheets of the play in the air and stood there while the leaves descended around him. In Julius Caesar, hands were bathed in blood. In Lear, the eyes were ripped out.