Monday, March 1, 2021

Playing Beatie Bow

Photo by Daniel Boud

Sydney Theatre Company presents, PLAYING BEATIE BOW, by Ruth Park, in a stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany, at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 28th February - 1 May.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a Young adult novel published by Ruth Park in 1980. Ruth Park died in 2010 at the age of 93. The book has had a staunch readership in its brief history and is a favourite for a few generations of young Australian readers. Both Kate Mulvany, the adapter of the novel for the theatre and the Director Kip Williams are two of those long affected readers, they declare in the program notes. I have never read the book even though I have had a long connection to most of Ruth Park's work and so am discovering this work here on the STC stage. Both the aforementioned artists were responsible for the stage adaption of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) and POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago - the old gang reunite: "When you are on a good thing stick to it."

Ms Mulvany has opened, expanded the novel to some contemporary familiarities (an Indigenous story: Johnny Whites for example is introduced that is NOT in the novel) and has set the prologue of Abigail's rebellion against her warring parents in 2021, not 1980, which is really of not much harm and adds the opportunity of many a wry joke reference to our COVID and Woke culture before our heroine is tripped into The Rocks World of 1873 where most of this story unfurls. 

A mere 9 actors take on the many roles required to tell the story and they are all relatively outstanding, every actor has their moment to shine: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan (Beatie Bow), Rory O'Keefe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van Davies (Abigail) and Ryan Yeates.

The story is told on a huge black stage with a few pieces of theatre furniture that are mostly symbolic of location employing some old fashioned theatrical gestures such as a window frame, ropes suspended with white sheets, a huge canvas covering the whole dynamics of the stage, to suggest laundry or the sails of ships - nothing too imaginatively arresting for theatre goers in 2021 which mean they have a minimum of surprise or magic - it is all a trifle theatrically pedestrian.  Kip Williams has eschewed his usual use of video and film to help tell his tale: examples being in his complicated ambition/aspiration urging (overweighted, I declare) in the recent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY (though he must be saving on the the budget for the technical gear, let alone the cost of the electricity of each performance for the STC) or either of his versions of two of the great plays CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (unnecessary, really).  

PLAYING BEATIE BOW follows the imaging of his work in the other Ruth Park theatre adaptations THE HARP IN THE SOUTH  and POOR MAN'S ORANGE - simple open black box with minimal elements of Design, the usual choice of David Fleischer, accompanied by the reliable input of Renee Mulder (Costume), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and Clemence Williams (Composer - the Director's sister, I believe) and David Bergman (Sound Designer). The Sound design may be a little too ambitious and or loud to be an unnoticed influencer to the story shaping and telling - in the theatre it was distracting and over dominant.

All of the performances, however, are creditable, but I will note my favourite offers from old-comer Heather Mithchell and a newbie Ryan Yeates, as particularly pleasing.

The biggest obstacles to the popularity of this play may be its wordy length: On opening night running at 3 hours or more and stuffed with so many words, with so much exposition about fairy magic weaving through history and the spaewife myths from the Orkney isles with an aural overload of sometimes impenetrable dialect work from the actors that obfuscates some of what is going on.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW seems to me the ideal program for the Christmas holidays when the young audience is available to catch it in the theatre following on from the highly successful example/policy of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The month of March/April just as school has begun seems an odd Marketing choice - except for the Easter break holiday.

This production has had the honour of opening the renovation of the Wharf theatres and the STC precinct - and impressive in its corporate chic it is. Comfortable new seating facing a wide and deep black hole with no permanent wings or fly tower. One has no ability to ascertain the acoustics of the space as all these actors are microphoned or pre-recorded. 

Since the STC is the most important surveyor of Storytelling in our city it is curious that the play or adaptation the Company chooses for this occasion is a white colonial-centred story set in 1873 in the Rocks - the place of so much history in the interaction between the British and the Indigenous tribe(s) - it featured momentarily in THE SECRET RIVER. One wonders whether the honouring of our First Nation's History of Storytelling in this new theatre space should have been in finding a way to present the story of this island's history and peoples with their unique creation myths, or even more politically dangerously, an adaptation of the Bruce Pascoe DARK EMU book would have been a better and more appropriate choice? One ponders. 60,000 years of Storytelling - now that could have signified a real celebration of this new sacred space, don't you think?

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a pleasant entertainment that needs editing down from its 3 hour length - it is a kind of tough ask for young adults without the whiz bang of contemporary theatre production tricks. Adults, not as engaged in the story as kids, might find it all a bit passé.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Symphonie Fantastique

Little Eggs present SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, a self-devised work led by Matthew Lee and Oliver Schemacher, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) at the Kings Cross Hotel. 17th  FEBRUARY - 27TH February.

Remembers Oliver Schermacher: Matthew Lee travelling in a car from Canberra with musician Oliver Shermacher,  when he hears for the first time Hector Berlioz's SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, at 

full blast - bopping in my seat and enthusiastically head-banging to Berlioz' erratic and colorful music. Mat became intrigued when I described its deranged story and the eye-brow raising background of the piece as a love letter to a woman he had never met.

Though Berlioz did stalk and woo her for seven years threatening to over dose on heroin, before she, actress Harriet Smithson, capitulated and married him. (Ultimately, of course, the marriage failed!)

The music piece, "SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE is a passion-filled quasi-autobiographical love note by the (then 26 year old) Berlioz to his unsuspecting muse, who had repeatedly rejected his advances. Likewise, his composition pens a protagonist driven to a hallucinogenic suicide by the indifference of his female beloved who haunts him. In 1830's Romantic France, it was revolutionary and even today is revered as a masterpiece of unrequited love."

So, during the 13 month Covid-19 time of contemplation Matthew Lee (Director) and Oliver Schermacher (Musical Director/Sound Designer) gathered artists Benjamin Brockman (Set and Lighting Designer), Grace Stamnas (Movement Coach), Aleisa Jelbart (Costume Designer) and a team of  seven performers : Lloyd Allison-Young, Cassie Hamilton, Clare Hennessy, Nicole Pingon, Annie Stafford, Chemon Theys and LJ Wilson to construct a contemporary performance piece that explores the creative angsts of the composer's struggle to produce his work. The language that this co-operative Little Eggs has chosen is mostly an a cappella sound/noise scape accompanied by a disciplined physical choreography where the collective toss centre stage and dress in a grey tailcoat and trousers, LJ Wilson, as our protagonist (perhaps the artist, Hector Berlioz), whilst they become a kind of supportive Greek-chorus in action.

The Set Design, by Benjamin Brockman, of a mirrored raised floor with a low hanging roof is dramatically lit by the same Mr Brockman to create illusory visual reflective effects that could be interpreted as part of the hallucinogenic experience of this artist - (perhaps, the representative of Berlioz). In the Costume Design by Aleisa Jelbart we are given skimpy underwear and draping blouses and other accessories all black with silver trimmings - a supposedly suggestive S&M (that is mostly quasi) I guess is the effect desired -- that culminates in the principal performer being placed in a leather harness attached to a long, silver choking chain yanked by some of the cast in the climaxing moments of the 50 minute work.

Composer, Oliver Schermacher, has created a score that may use some of the famous musical thematics of the Berlioz Symphonie (I am not musically educated to guarantee that), but in his own composition/sound design seems to dwell in a European pastiche of seventies and eighties disco dance venue sounds - it begins in the pre-show sound scape and is, for us oldies, a relaxing entrance to the night. 

However, one gets what the piece is doing within five minutes of the performance and the Design elements and Sound choices merely become cliches of repeated boredom, and while one can admire the vocal and physical disciplines achieved by Matthew Lee and Grace Stamnas with this company, one is quickly intellectually bored. This 50 minutes is a very long night in the theatre. 

One desired some original heft, some  provocation, since in their program note they suggest: 

But we dig deep. Within our psychedelic narrative, we explore the fragility of our artist's ego, how their rejection descends into an obsession and visions of violence, and ultimately, steers their own path to their own destruction. ... We are eager to explore the mind of a person who does not get what they want and what they feel they deserve.

They go on to say : 

In a contemporary world of artists in positions of power behaving badly, our queer team - aged around the same age as Berlioz at the time - aim to question if his masterpiece can be harnessed to probe whether he deserves celebration for a work that champions a persistent sex pest.

Wow, their objectives are many and complicated to discuss, and possibly could be exciting to engage with, so it is sad, then, that none of that is really explored with any clarification in its kinetic offerings on the KXT stage. They have not dug deeply enough,  and they haven't found the method or language to argue their case. 

Covid-19 should have provided a long time to wrestle with this work to find the  contemporary way to arrest an audience to its concerns, but LIttle Eggs misfires spectacularly in its many visual cliches in this present work called SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE. 

P.S. It is amusing that the company wanted to provoke us to consider whether we should celebrate this work of "a persistent sex pest" and yet still to be encouraged by Mr Schermacher in his Musical Director's notes to celebraate it: "(I) warmly encourage you at home to find a recording, have a few glasses of wine, lay back with some headphones and let this piece wash over you." Clearly, Mr Schermacher has made up his mind in this endeavour. Listen to the Berlioz - it's a masterpiece no matter the present political concerns, he thinks. I do agree with him, by the way, no matter the time spent with Little Eggs.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Video Tape

MONTAGUE BASEMENT presents VIDEOTAPE, at the Kings Cross Theatre, in the Kings Cross Hotel. 29th January - 13th February.

MONTAGUE BASEMENT is a theatre company led by Saro Lusty-Cavallari and in the case of this new Australian play, he is the writer, director and is the Video and Sound Designer - quite a brief of responsibility.

A couple Daniel (Jake Fryer) and Juliette (Lucinda Howes)  are stuck in their apartment during a COVID19  lockdown. The apartment has a comfortable look, resonating wealth and security, a warm wooden designed platform with two couches and practical room lighting, Designed by Grace Deacon, and has a colour support in the Lighting from Sophie Pekbilimli.

The play is made up of many short scenes sketching the journey of the couple. The play is 80 minutes long. In the very first scene we meet the pair, each involved deeply with the tools of their communication. One in a book. One with a laptop computer. They don't talk. They both seem to be completely comfortable with their inaction with each other. The outer world holds gripping fascination for each - the book and the laptop is enough! With an irritating sizzle and a spat of noise we move to the next scene. The play introduces a VHS tape arriving from the unknown outer space and it seems, when the old machinery of the VHS is organised, to be a capture of the action of the couple - we recognise it when we view it  with them. It is a disturbing mystery for where is the recording camera and who is recording and delivering the material - the angle of vision is not possible and yet there it is. The logic and feasibility of the possibility is thrown over by the effect of the material displayed - its rustling of the emotional connections 'feathers' of the relationship becomes the subjective wheels of the action of the piece.

Anxiety creeps into the cumulative scene 'weight' and when the Videotape on a short loop reveals the physical abuse of one of the partners with the other - we witnessed it live, it escalates to the beginning of a fever that reaches towards a peak when on a later videotape a strange woman begins appearing - who is she? what is she doing? Why? WHY? WHY! It appears not only as a recorded past but is becoming a live force on the screen to the direction of the relationship - it is live! How is that possible?!

Some of the audience in attempting to solve the intention of this play have made reference to the David Lynch film LOST HIGHWAY (1997) - it has a place in the Director's program notes, so take it on as a clue (or is it a deliberate diversionary tactic by the Director?); THE RING, a Japanese horror film by Hideo Nakata (1998), remade in America by Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts (2002) also bubbles into the memory recall. But for me I kept 'hearing' the French film CACHÉ (HIDDEN) by Michael Haneke made in 1997.

CACHÉ has a bourgeois French family, comfortable and secure, that begins to receive Videotapes that progressively breaks this family into pieces. In the long (blabby!) program notes from Mr Lusty-Cavalllari he writes (online) that he feels we are ready to participate in story-telling that does not require an explanation of  what has happened. And so here we are with VIDEOTAPE that concludes playing but not explaining - it is a provocative offer, it can strike an audience that has been totally engaged, viscerally - deep in the stomach. (CACHÉ did that to me - although I stayed through the credits to the film and maybe got a clue that led to an explanation.)

VIDEOTAPE, does not hold one with the closing grip of anxiety significantly enough, so the provocation of no explanation fails - instead one feels cheated, cheaply cheated, cheated of our valuable time.

I find my inability to cooperate with the actor, Lucinda Howes, in her playing of Juliette. I believe that her acting chops are fairly in tact but her attention to her vocal work seems to be out of whack - her characterisation is pitched at a high piercing range and has over the long duologue of the play's requirement the ability to have an audience to become distracted, looking for a rest from the aural attack - an objective activity that begins to negate the subjective identity that the play requires from its audience.. Mr Fryer delivers a fine dramatic performance that has a vocal pitch (whether, conscious artistry or not) that demands attention and empathy.

So, VIDEOTAPE, at the KXT is an interesting and curious experience, although it appears in a very comfortable, familiar structure - and so, a  bit boring. However it is another offer from Saro Lusty-Cavallari that signifies here as some growing talent. Watch his progress.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Wicked Sisters (Theatre Review)

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre presents WICKED SISTERS, by Alma de Groen, at the Reginald Theatre, in the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney University. 6th November - 12 December. 

 The Griffin Theatre premiered WICKED SISTERS sometime in the early 2000's and this is a revival of the work for the same company. This play was written in 2002. Alma de Groen is one of those great writers of plays. 

Alma de Groen was born in New Zealand but pursued a life as a playwright in Australia. Her work, contextually, came forth in the so-called era of the Second Wave Feminism. This play, unusually, has a cast of four women, who being over the age of fifty are the surviving elders of a niche university clique who were, supposedly, friends and activists of different commitment motivations at a vital time in their life development. 

When the play begins, Meridee Hobbes (Vanessa Downing), has been a widow for 15 years to a 'brilliant' scientist of Darwinian origin/persuasion. He had been developing a computer algorithm as an Artificial Intelligence Researcher - Alec Hobbes - at a university who believed and still believes passionately in his work so that his computer program has been kept active all this time. Alec Hobbes is dead but his Artificial Intelligence propositions stiil pulse with life. Four women who were influenced by this man come together to celebrate his birthday and reacquaint themselves, and ostensibly, for two of them, to bring 'back to life' the grieving widow. 

One can presume that the choice of Hobbes as the surname of this relatively contemporary scientist/researcher, from Ms de Groen, is a meaningful clue as to what the core of the play might be about. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who in his major book LEVIATHAN (1651), proffered a discussion and philosophy investigating the relationship between natural and legal rights - and to the possibility that on surrendering some of our freedoms we can submit to the authority of a ruler (or rulers) to create security for a civil community/society. 

It is indeed a provocative premise as we allow today, in 2020, our own elected government, under the panic of the COVID pandemic, to take some of our freedoms, having us believe it is for the greater good for now and the future. That Alec is also a Darwinist believing in the survival of the fittest, we watch his active algorithm on the screens surrounding the Set Design of Alec's study/studio (Tobhiyah Stone Feller) destroy many 'lives'/screen blips in his visually multiplying algorithmic community! 

 If only there was a more possible glimmer of the subject debate in the foreground of this production of WICKED SISTERS we might have had a more valuable time spent in the Reginald Theatre. Instead we have in the foreground of this time spent, a reunion of four female once best friends, who bitch about their consequent lives that has led them to make choices that resulted in a huge diminishment of their youthful ideals. Cheating, lying, deceiving, coveting, wallowing and devaluing the mores of the world they live in, their venal crimes, with and on each other, are painfully, and in this production, painstakingly, revealed. 

Bemused by the performances in this production I felt that I was watching a ninety minute special of the American television sitcom from the late nineteen eighties, early nineteen nineties of, THE GOLDEN GIRLS : a text of wise cracking put downs and systemic cruelty that passed as humour and that may have a social enlightenment. Instead of the cast of Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty espousing and solving the wit and social dilemmas re-created in comic formulas by Susan Harris, which, all inevitably in the Darwinian sense of the survival of the fittest, had the ambition of positive social change but instead devolved over an eight year, one hundred and eighty episodes 'run', to 'crash and burn' like the metaphoric inventions in Alec Hobbes' algorithm, In WICKED SISTERS we have a cliche grouping of archetypes rubbing injuriously up against each other at an uncatered party with not enough table or chairs for the guests to eat and drink off : the unrequited wife, Meridee, played by Vanessa Downing, ineptly hosting a reunion for some friends from University days; the sexually charged, ebullient golden-hearted real estate agent, Lydia, in the grips of Deborah Galanos; and the sexually frustrated but successful personal business manager, Judith, haunted by Hannah Waterman. But there is a surprise, there arrives a gate-crasher : the long ago betrayed science student, Hester, who shocked and destroyed because of stolen intellectual property, has travelled down a road of personal abuse, who now seeks a future by grafting a revenge that will benefit the down and out among her new 'community' - her like-sufferers - inhabited creatively with a dry-as-a-bone cynicism by Di Adams. 

 This play's performance is not all disaster; it just doesn't fulfil its ambitions. But that is not just because of the writing of the intellectual arguments of the concept with such cliche characters, from Ms de Groen, it is also because the Director, Nadia Tass, a film director, has not been able to assist her actors to develop a backstory to bring these women together as competitive but emotionally and intellectually bonded friends, companions. 

Most of these performances are acted AT each other rather than WITH each other. The beings we are observing in this production seem to be meeting each other for the first time - they talk to each other but do not seem to hear one another so that there can be a feasible or acceptable human progress going on. We can read the cause of these characters but not the affect on these characters. No-one seems to be in the same play. 

It is, mostly, a disappointing night in the theatre. I wrote early in this response to the Griffin production of this play that Alma de Groen is a great playwright. Personally, I believe her plays THE RIVERS OF CHINA (1987) and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1999) are two outstanding concepts and resolutions of philosophical science fiction existing in the Australian cannon. Find them and read them. They are well worth the effort,

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Book Review: Grand Hotel

This is a book by Vicki Baum. It is Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel in Berlin. In Berlin in the early 1920's. The culture, the city finding its way to continue survival post the Treaty of Versailles through the weighted demands made on the German nation in reparation for its provocation of World War I and before the Weimar Government was buried in the Hitler led National Socialist agenda - the rise of the Nazi party.

The events that happen to people in a big hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, complete and rounded off. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind the doors may signify much or little. They may be rising or falling in the scale of life. Prosperity and disaster may be parted by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door twirls around, and what passes between arrival and departure is nothing complete in itself. Perhaps there is no such thing as a completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings. Much that looks like Chance is really Fate. And much that goes on behind Life's doors is not fixed like the pillars of a building nor pre-conceived like the structure of a symphony, nor calculable like the orbit of a star. It is human, fleeting and more difficult to trace than cloud shadows that  pass over a meadow. And anyone who attempts an account of what he sees behind those doors runs the risk of balancing himself precariously on a tightrope between falsehood and truth ...
In the Lounge, Doctor Otternschlag sat and talked to himself. "It's dismal", he said. "Always the same. Nothing happens. One's always alone, dismally, alone. The earth is an extinct planet - no warmth left in it.... Maybe I am dead and don't know it. If only something worth while would happen in this great big pub. But no, not a thing. 'Left'. And so it goes on. In-out, in-out-" ... 
"Little Georgi, however, behind the mahogany table was revolving a few simple and extremely banal thoughts. Marvelous. Always something going on. One man goes to prison, another gets killed. One leaves, another comes. They carry one man on a stretcher by the back stairs, and at the same moment another man has a baby. Interesting if you like! But so is Life!
The revolving door turns and turns-and swings ... and swings ... and swings ...

In the GRAND HOTEL, we watch the doomed and the desperate, the predators and the prey who pass through the revolving doors of the most expensive hotel in Berlin ... and whose lives will never be the same again: The fading ballerina, Grushinskaya, who finds a new reason for living in a single night of ecstasy. The titled thief, Baron Gaigern, in search of rich pickings who chooses love instead of pearls. The middle-aged book-keeper, Otto Kringelein, determined to see life before his incurable illness takes its final toll. The stiff-necked businessman, General Director Preysing on the verge of a disaster and a girl, his secretary, Flammschen, with a body to stir a man's senses and destroy his reason.

This is to us readers and viewers of contemporary film and television a familiar genre of activity and character. But GRAND HOTEL written in 1929 created anew the genre of the whirly-gig of the environs of the temporary meeting place of many varieties of humanity. What surprised me was the quality of the writing with its intimate detail of human activity and the richness of observation that is beautifully restrained and yet wealthily triggering of what may be a memory of a personal fancy or a recall of passionate returning dreams.

The sexual encounter between the ballet dancer and the burglar Baron, in the hands of Vicki Baum, is marvellously salacious in its telling and still beautifully embedded in a poetic metaphysical point of view. This book is "classy" in its writing. No blatancy of the bodice-tearers of say a pop culture writer such as Harold Robbins (THE CARPET BAGGERS) or Jacqueline Susann (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). GRAND HOTEL has a depth of the tragic-comic. In its many story trails it connects to a metaphysical touchstone to the primal energies, emotions, of the human experience. A connection as old as the worlds of the Greeks that we have inherited in their surviving plays and books. 

For instance what today is a story cliche of the downtrodden worker finding a path to a fling that will be a final gesture, before an incurable disease conquers him with death, of an adventure that will reveal and reward him with a sense of what LIFE could be - where he discovers that life is a mixture of fear and pleasure where the risk of choice is the best part of the thrill of being alive. In Ms Baum's hands this is simply not a kitch episode but one with the possibility of giving the reader a gently rewarding profundity.

Otto Kringelein, a book-keeper trapped in the machinations of a provincial city, Frederesdorf, both personal and professionally, has escaped with his hard worn savings to the Grand Hotel, Berlin, where he encounters a playboy derring-do survivor of the trenches of the World War, the handsome adventurer, Baron Gaigern. The Baron takes Otto under his wing - not without some plan of using him for aggrandisement, to have access to his new friend's money - and introduces Otto to some adventures out of the provincial ordinary.

One of them is a car ride with Gaigern: 
Now we can let it rip," he said, and, before Kringelein understood what he meant, he had done so. 
At first the wind grew colder and colder, and blew harder and harder, until at last it beat like a fist against his face. The engine sang on a rising note and at the same time something ghastly occurred to Kringelein's legs. They were filled with air. Bubbles rose in his joints as if they would burst. For several seconds, that seemed to last an incredible time, he could not breathe, and moment after moment he thought, Now I am dying. His chest caved in and he gasped for breath. The car swallowed up one object after another before it could be recognised, streaks of red, green and blue. A patch of red just became a car before it vanished into nothingness behind, and all the while Kringelein could not breathe. He now felt an unimagined sensation in his diaphragm. He tried to turn his head towards Gaigern. Strange to say he succeeded without finding it torn from his shoulders. Gaigern sat a little forward over the wheel and he was wearing his wash-leather gloves though they were not buttoned up.This for some reason was reassuring. Just what was left of Kringelein's stomach strove to escape at his throat, Gaigern's closed lips began to smile. Without taking his eyes off the Avus road whirling past like an unwinding spool, he pointed somewhere with his chin, and Kringelein obediently followed the direction with his eyes. Having some intelligence he realized after a guess or two that the speedometer was before his eyes. The little pointer trembled slightly as it pointed in 110. Good Lord, thought Kringelein, and swallowing down his fears he bent forward and gave himself up to the rush of speed. Suddenly the new and appalling joy of danger overcame him. Faster! cried a frenzied Kringelein within him whom he had never known before. The car complied with 115. For a few moments it kept  to 118, and Kringelien finally gave up all thoughts of breathing. He would have liked now to whirl on and on into darkness, on and on in the shock of explosion, and to get right beyond and out of time. No hospital bed, he thought, better a broken skull. Hoardings still whirled past the car, but the spaces between began to alter. Then the grey ragged streaks beside the road became pine woods. Kringelein saw trees eddying more slowly to meet the car and stepping back into the wood like people as the car went by. It was just as it was on the read roundabout as Mickenau when it slowed down. Now he could read the names of oils, tyres and makes of cars on the placards. The rush of air relaxed and streamed in his throat. The speedometer sank to 60, trembled a little, then 50-45-and then they left the Avus by the south gate and drove along soberly between the villas of the Wannsee.

'There-now I feel better'. said Gaigern and laughed all over his face. Kringelein  took his hands from the leather cushion in which till now he had dug his fingers and carefully relaxed his jaws and shoulders and knees. He felt completely tired and comp;etely happy. 
So do I," he answered truthfully.

To follow is a simple but elegant meal; a flight; a gambling den; a beautiful woman. Life and its adventures were laid out for Kringelein.

I guess I am an incurable romantic. In my long ago youth I was captured by a screening on our television of GRAND HOTEL (1932). It won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1932, Directed by Edmund Goulding and Produced by Irving Thalberg featuring some of MGM"S stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Later I began to realise that Garbo was also one of the great screen actors. I have always regarded Garbo's performance in CAMILLE (1936), as Marguerite Gautier ,as one of the greatest screen performances ever captured (She is amazing in QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) as well. In my estimate it was Meryl Streep's performance in SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982) that challenged it, or topped it. Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) is quite astonishing as well.

The screenplay by William Drake uses his adaptation of the enormously successful Broadway play, Directed by Max Reinhardt, of Vicki Baum's - an Austrian novelist - book: GRAND HOTEL (Menschen im Hotel - 1929). 

Years later I found a dilapidated copy of the novel in a translation by Basil Creighton in a second hand store and bought it and left it on my shelf to one day read. Coronavirus has given me the time. 

GRAND HOTEL is a wonderful read. It is a novel of some greatness and ought to be more appreciated than it is. 

Read it. 

Another novel THE GOOD EARTH, by Pearl Buck, was made into a great film. I, too, bought the book in a secondhand store eons ago and have kept it on my library shelf until now. I shall let you know if I can encourage you to pick it up to have a good time.

Monday, July 13, 2020

It Must Be Heaven (film review)

Cinema going is always a risk. At the moment with the re-opening of the cinemas there seems to be a dearth of product - new product. The BIG films are being held back from launching I guess to ensure a proper audience take-up to ensure a monetary return, as investment due for the risk taken. Fair enough.

So, besides the reprise of many films that have had a proper screen time before the Coronavirus interruption we have been given, in new film, a lot of art film investigations.

IT MUST BE HEAVEN, Directed by Elia Suleiman, in 2019, is one of these. It has had a positive critical response, and I heard Jason Di Rosso rapturing about it on The Screen Show on Radio National.

My addiction urged me to attend.

Elia Suleiman wrote, directed and starred in this project that begins in Palestine, moves to Paris and then New York. It is supposedly a satiric, comic observation that one place is much like the other. The commonality of being human dominates the observations. Suleiman places his character as an observer of the world around him. There is little dialogue and much of the work is made up of animated facial responses to indicate us to places of personal contemplation.

I am not sure of the persona that Suleiman projects: for instance I thought the Paris section spent an inordinate time with the camera directed at the bodies of the young women of Paris passing him by in the streets. I found it cumulatively an uncomfortable experience. a kind of soft-pornography.

Some have mentioned Suleiman's mentors have been Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Tati is an earned appreciation and is a difficult one, for me, to view in the full length feature mode. If I could see the Keaton influence I might be more amenable. One wishes he had indulged in the Chaplin politics and entertainment fashion.

My experience of IT MUST BE HEAVEN, was that of an art house dirge with a less than charming 'host'. I wondered if I needed to be Palestinian to appreciate this work. I was so glad when it finished.

One responds with the swings and round-abouts of the cinematic art form and you too may enjoy it as Jason Di Rosso did.

Que sera sera.

The Personal History of David Copperfeild (film review)

The cinema is back. I have an addiction for the cinema experience. So, a friend of mine booked the first morning session: 11am! I just love sitting in my seat as the lights go down, watching the previews and then the feature close to the front, to be enveloped by the width of the screen and surrounded by the sound. I have diagnosed the need to have the stimulation of the flicker of the large image otherwise I can become a little depressed, literally. No matter the quality of the film or its genre I feel so much better when I come out of the darkened 'cave'.

I went to see the new Dickens adaptation of his novel, whose title has been edited down to: THE PERSONAL LIFE STORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Armando Iannucci co-wrote with Simon Blackwell and Directed the screenplay himself. His other work includes the satiric comic television series THE THICK OF IT and VEEP.  In 2017 he Directed THE DEATH OF STALIN - a wondrously dizzy excursion into political satire with a stellar cast of actors, a must see.

The film is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATION OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE YOUNGER, which was published first in serial form but arrived as a complete novel in 1840. This was Dickens' favourite work and has an autobiographical aura about it. The novel was special for Dickens - his favourite achievement.

The novel takes us on the maturing journey of David Copperfield who is shaped by the family and friends of his acquaintance who we get to know precipitously through the robust comic caricatures we meet on his life journey. There are liberties taken with the source material but not to any lessening of the adventures we encounter. Iannucci seems to be as in love with the material as Dickens himself was and has a tremendous respectful attitude to the source - as in any novel adaptation there are instances of character and event that have been excised that will, possibly, distress you - but in a 2 hour storytelling,  something has to give in the huge epic that is the book.

The film is boisterous fun set in the many social stratas of the early Victorian era celebrating it with a sense of joy but with an acute and accurate (and subtle) eye for the difficulties of the huge adjustment that the British nation was having shifting into the economic and social challenges of the Industrial Revolution in the city of London and the country, both rural and seaside. It is the Victorian Era writ large with the social, political, satiric energy that made Dickens such an important artist of his time in indicating where the social reforms by government ought to be made.

Iannucci begins the film with David Copperfield arriving on a Victorian theatre stage to read and impersonate the novel much as, famously, Dickens did: acting out his books, creating his characters, performing - he was a famous amateur actor (ham!). The Director then shifts us into natural locations, bantering back and forth from the 'theatrical' locations to naturalistic renderings. It begins much like the Joe Wright adaptation of the 2012 ANNA KARENINA, with Keira Kneightly, but does not pursue the same risky consistent bravura shifts that the Wright film has (I love it, some others were disconcerted by the Wright 'method' - it does take adjustment but it is worth making an effort to do.)

The other offer that Iannucci makes with the film is to practice colour blind casting right across the board. David Copperfield is played by Indian actor Dev Patel. Mr Whitfield is played by British Asian actor Benedict Wong, whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalin Eleazar. Niki Ameka-Bird plays Mrs Streerforth whose patrician son, James, is played by Aneurin Barnard. There is no question of visual racial contradictions that could intrude on the film as an obstacle to our involvement as the sheer confidence of the company and that each actor is absolutely the best actor for that role sweeps us imaginatively into utter belief - the speed of the film allows no time for quarrel or questioning  the choices. It is a refreshing exercise and ought to be a standard for imaginative casting to come; both in the cinematic world and in the theatre (where it has been in practice for some many years in Europe and the United States.)

This film is also boasting and bursting with actors who, if you are a fan of the work of Iannucci, are a familiar team: Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Uriah Heep) are some of them. (I especially loved Dev Patel, who seems to be able to do anything. Ben Wishaw is astonishing and was at first not recognisable.)

The DAVID COPPERFRIELD story was famously told in film  for MGM, directed by George Cukor (one of the Great Directors of the era), in 1935. It was the quality standard bearer of this story and is still a film that is worth watching and loving. The acting company is sublime and the story, for its contextual period, is moving, funny and enhancing. Compare the achievements.

I thoroughly recommend Armando Iannucci"s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction, Biographical: By Women Possessed (Eugene O'Neill) and The Letters of Cole Porter

I always try to keep my knowledge of the Performing Arts and the creators expanding to augment my vision and knowledge to teach my students with insights that only Knowledge can give me.
So, here are some of my recent excursions and a brief response.


by Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

The Gelb's, husband and wife, spent a great deal of their creative energies researching and writing investigations into the genius and life of American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.They have written several books on O'Neill and some of the other people of the era. BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016) is the last of their collaborations and is a dense and gruelling read using O'Neill's relationship with women in his life: His Mother and then his three wives: Cathleen Jenkins, Agnes Boulton and Carlotta Monterey to, perhaps, explain, his driving creative energies - his furious response to what he viewed as the carnivorous woman. Both he and the women seemingly POSSESSED.

The book is wonderfully prepared with a life time of discoveries by these two writers (they have written another biography - 1962). The psychology of cause and affect is woven with an enlightening sensibility by the Gelb's. The writing career, play by play, is examined and parallels with his personal struggle with the demons of his psyche - burying him in fierce states of depression augmented by an addiction to alcohol, from which his fierce plays emerged. The ancient Greeek myths, bible stories and historical context of his world are used to lubricate his visions.e.g. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. Later, his auto-biographical penchant is evident. AH, WILDERNESS, A TOUCH OF THE POET, THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, besides the one act sea plays. He was a winner of many Pulitzer Prizes and became a Nobel Laureate for literature.

An American son, his father an actor, a matinee idol (THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO), his mother a convent girl who becomes addicted to morphine, he of a dark Irish temperament determined not to have his writing distracted by women and children. His personal demands were outrageous and facilitated by the context of the times and the macho embrace of his genius. He mesmerised his women to subservience to allow him to write without distractions of the ordinary life.

The book is astoundingly illustrative into the origins of the plays and the explorations - experiments - of form that O'Neill produced. It is a tremendous resource that I recommend as a must if you are working in the O'Neill ouvre. It also reveals the theatre experience in New York and the Americas that helps one to enter and begin to understand the reason why this man wrote those plays and why the audience embraced his work with such interest both savage and felicitous.

Literally the book weighs a ton - difficult to read in bed - but is also a disturbing and turbulent exposure of an unpleasant man that has produced some of the most important plays/visions of life for the theatre.

I recommend but be warned: it is not for the feint hearted reader. It is grinding.  An indispensable background.


by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (2019)

I picked up this book as a result of an article in THE NEW YORKER. I know, really, only a cursory amount about the great musical composers of the early 20th century American era.

This book is a collection of letters (624 pages of them) and are dated from the first decade of the twentieth century to the early 1960's and features correspondence with many of the movers and shakers of the musical world - Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Orson Welles as well as many of his friends and lovers. Coming from money, marrying money, he had other money most of his life raining down with the musical genius of tune and lyric. Married, suffering a shattering horse accident, his homosexuality is part of the information we read through. His interaction with the wheels of Broadway and the Hollywood film studios are amusingly, cynically, revealed. The suffering of an artist in the naked reveal of his work and struggling with success as well as failure is recorded first hand.

I found the book a boorish insight and sometimes just plain tiresome. I pushed through it. It is a dip-in, dip-out book and is probably of most interest to the musical theatre tragic. I'm not one of those.


by Martin Gottfried (1984)

This is a biography of one of the great and legendary Directors of the American Theatre. He was the son of Esther and Meyer Wolf Horowitz who arrived in Newark with their son, Jacob Hirsch Horowitz. He was one of several children but was the bookish one - finding the realm of literature a sanctuary in the harsh life of the Jewish American immigrant. He was a wilful determined person, fractious with his family and locals, who blighted his study at Yale, and gradually bullied his way into the theatre where he produced a series of triumphs one after the other. BROADWAY, THE ROYAL FAMILY, THE FRONT PAGE, OUR TOWN and THE HEIRESS are some of his landmark successes. He worked with playwrights such as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Edward Chodorov.

He died in 1979. At his memorial few people turned up. Most people thought he had long been dead and were surprised he had survived so long. The absence of the collaborators, celebrants of his career life was really his greatest achievement, which the writer Martin Gottfried intimates was his principal objective: to make enemies and to destroy his own legend. He, apparently, succeeded.

Being of Jewish inheritance was a burden and the cruel relationships with the women in his life are presented as some of the combustible fuel of his pernicious artistic drive. Most people worked with him only once. His rages, his quarrels, his feuds, his cruel witticisms, were wanton and shocking - disturbingly vicious. He was a genius of the theatre, with a great sense of finding the play, 'fixing' the play, casting and directing the play, he had the ability to diagnose the problems of the playwrighting and the gifts of his actors. He always cast his plays and rarely changed his mind - his instincts were an exceptional talent but were the undoing of his self - he was a genius in pursuit of perfection and had liitle patience with the less talented or the less motivated. Was it worth enduring him to have success? Time told him: NO. He vanished from sight (It could be seen as a result of a deliberate strategy of his own!)

This book is sometimes a little shallow in its insights but is stuffed with anecdotal references that is enough of a bait to keep one engaged. The background to how the Broadway Theatre 'worked', its history through the century is a great knowledge to have to store in the resources of my own practice. I gained a lot from reading it. I recommend it very much.


by Desley Deacon (2019)

I read of this book in the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course I was curious. For Judith Anderson is a world famous actor, stage and screen who was born in Adelaide - in ADELAIDE (As was Robert Helpmann) and found an illustrious future, particularly on the stages of Broadway. How does she achieve such success is what one reads the book for. She died in 1992. Most famously she created Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film REBECCA. That performance is an iconic one for cinephiles. But it was her theatre work that is thrilling to discover: her MEDEA is legendary. That career spanned decades. (She toured 'down under').

I am grateful for this book by Desley Deacon but would not recommend it as a satisfactory read. It is rather a documented review of her career and personal life that is not to 'juicy' in its details. Important, undoubtedly, but not riveting. (It was interesting to read that she was one of many women that had a long, off-and-on relationship with the notorious Jedd Harris - as did Ruth Gordon - who, in fact, had an illegitimate child with him, a scandal he ried to hide - James Harris).

If you're an Australian artist then this book is a must. As she is a successful woman in the world theatre it should be part of your knowledge of history. HERSTORY no just history. She, apparently, was a formidable artist. Her film and television career is worth finding: Tony Awards and Emmy.

TONY CURTIS, the autobiography 

By Tony Curtis and edited, supplemented contextually, by Barry Paris. (1993).

Given to me by a friend it was an insightful read into the life and , especially, times of Mr Curtis' career - especially the 40's-60's America.

Things I learnt: Tony Curtis was the son of a Hungarian Jewish family: Bernard Schwartz (I always thought of him as being of Italian origin). His youthful adventures in the inner city of Manhattan, especially in the 30's during the parallel rise of the Nazi's in the Weimar Republic, there were in the 'ghettos' of the refugee immigrant, German conclaves in New York, gangs of Brown shirts full of the anti-semitic propaganda and violence of the home country. Surviving in that environment was a war in itself. Fascinating insight into history - now there is a Scorsese film to sit beside THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Enduring that was one of the formative experiences of this young actor's life, as was his relationship with his brutal mother and vagrant father. Formative traits that influenced so much of his direction of career.

It was his incredible good looks that facilitated the career of Tony Curtis, who along with a precocious sex life developed his own approach to acting - personalisation - eschewing the Method as indulgent crap that was the great influence of the period. Brando was a 'genius' and really didn't need the Strasburg influence. Neither did Curtis.

I am not especially excited by autobiographies of artists and read them with a cynical eye. The Biographies are more reliable and the further the book is away from the death of the artist the more interesting and illustrative they are/can be. Read the late biographies of Olivier, for instance, for a most honest assessment of the actor. After all the subject is long dead and not likely to resurrect to sue the biographer.

What this book did was to remind me of some of the great performances and films of Tony Curtis besides the 'popcorn' commercial ones that entranced us momentarily in the cinema as kids: IVANHOE!


Curtis does not skirt his drug and alcohol period of the 70's and 80's and is prepared to talk of his many fractious relationships with women and his children. Reading this book contextualised the Hollywood experience of his era and gave some anecdotal insights to some of the great artists he worked with. Recommended.

You may want to find these books..

Thursday, July 2, 2020

More book reviews Pt 2: "The Offing" and "Smoke and Ashes"

CORONAVIRUS reading time.

Two books that are very different from each other but both easy and good reads.

THE OFFING, by a young writer, Benjamin Myers, was published in 2019. It has had some ecstatic reviews.

Set in England just after the end of World War II, Robert Appleyard decides to take a year off after finishing school, and explore the world outside of the Durham Colliery, in which his family have been miners from generation to generation. Is he destined to mine the mines? His family expect so. He is not so sure. This is the vague fuel to the quest he engages in.

He wanders by foot into the countryside, following nature and its flora and fauna, taking on light tasks and camping on properties that he is passing through. It is a journey that connects him to the wonder of the natural world - a world he had not ever before regarded.

Robert finds himself, stumbling onto a bushy hillside with a ramshackle cottage and sheds overgrown by nature, not far from the seaside. There he meets Dulcie Piper, an older bohemian eccentric with her German Shepherd, Butler. She without inhibition invites him to food and alcohol and literature, to poetry. To an ideal of Europe. His world is broken open to a scale, a potential, he had never known before. Breaking into the sunshine of forces of nature and escaping from the shadows of an industrial nightmare populated by his family's history.

The local fishing village have adopted Dulcies' eccentricities and take a care for her surviving, and Robert taking himself away to continue his journey is guided back to Dulcie's with a seafood gift from one of the local fishermen. Robert, then, finds himself further drawn into her influence by taking on small jobs to organise the garden and to restore a shed that reveals itself as a once studio for a foreign artist - a poet, Romy Landau - a companion of Dulcie's who has died. A German refugee hiding in the countryside of England during that terrible war. A poet not of this world.

This is a coming-of-age story for Robert and a resurrection of hope and faith for Dulcie as both participate in the reveal of a lost and unpublished collection of poems by Romy, called The Offing, that had been abandoned in the studio/shed.

Offing is defined as "the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge". In that space there is possibility and growth.

This short novel is written in descriptive language that sparkles with the reflective light of sparkling jewellery. The language is strangely old fashioned in its vividness and charm but has a disarming energy that wraps about you with a warmth of familiarity and comfort. I found myself propelled into the reading of the book with a sense of delightful ease. The descriptives are overrich yet completely entrancing. Given to me by my friend, a bookseller, it was a present for which I am so grateful.

The grief of a nation flowing out of the destruction of a World War, a land in scattered decay, and a woman devastated by a broken heart are healed by the grafting of a miner's son to become, in time, a blossoming into a poet - a novelist - of joyous simplicity of experiential depths. 

Robert Appleyard, now an older man, is the voice of this narrative as he recalls the year that changed his life - this is his novel of memory, when his life was changed. THE OFFING may change your life, too. And, if not, you will, at least, have had a very pleasant read.

Highly recommended.

Okay. Let me continue my fandom for the Abir Mukherjee crime detective series which I have written about in an earlier blog post.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the third book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-Not' saga. All three books are set in Calcutta in the 1920's. These two men are members of the British Police Force and are investigators of crime. The books have followed these two men and a collection of other characters in their natural growth, personally and politically, during this highly volatile time in India during the rise of the Gandhi driven Independence movement enveloped in the spectacular corrupt collapse of the British Raj.

Wyndham, a cynical survivor of the trenches of World War I, and the death of his young wife, after a short stint with Scotland Yard, is seconded to Calcutta under the aegis of Lord Taggart. He has been commissioned there for some two and a half years. Opium is readily available in this city and he has become addicted intensely - taking risks that could ruin his career.

SMOKE AND ASHES, is set in December, 1921. Wyndham's addiction to opium has become quite intense and this book opens in an opium den where he is woken mid-way through an indulgence as there is a vice squad police raid going on. To be found there will be the end of his career. He takes flight and finishes on a roof where he stumbles over a corpse with its eyes gouged and a ritual stabbing to the chest.

He is not able to report the crime for fear of exposure but when another body is found with similar wounds he becomes alert and is sent with his native detective companion, 'Surrender-not', to investigate and solve.

These crimes spiral and a pattern of murder becomes revealed in a gradual exposure of a secret British research biological experiment illegally using Indian troops as their human 'guinea-pigs' to develop contemporary chemical weaponry. These ritual crimes may be revenge actions.

What is thrilling is that as this investigation climaxes, it is set against the non-violent, non-cooperation protests held in Calcutta at this time led by Gandhi deputies: Chitta Rajari Das, Subhash Bose, and Das' wife Basanti Devi, both climaxing on the day of the Royal Tour of Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, and his arrival in Calcutta as a tool of British propaganda to rally India to the British cause.

As usual, Mukherjee handles the storytelling with a deft speed and a comfortably sensed and researched dramatic integration, if not with complete historic accuracy. It gallops along in its twists and turns. Add the development of the individual characters' dilemmas, especially that of Wyndham and his opium habit, and the native sergeant 'Surrender-not' who has a duty to the Raj as a member of its police force but is also a member of a family highly engaged in the Gandhi confrontation with the white culture. He is torn in his ambitions and loyalties to his nation and his immediate family.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the best of the three books, so far, in its drafting and exciting juxtaposed content. The book does stand on its own but is more interesting because the chronological order created  so far in the series is especially arresting.

Recommended, highly.

Monday, June 15, 2020

More book reveiws

More light reads.

I found an Australian crime writer that has a series of books - 11 books - written about the character of Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Sydney artist. Sulari Gentill is the writer. Each book is centred in a different background. The one I read: ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, is set in Shanghai in 1935.

Sinclair's brother, Wilfred, runs the family business - a wool business and is unable to attend an important international negotiation meeting in Shanghai and seconds his younger brother, Rowland, to stand in for him despite his relative ignorance of how the machinations of business in the period context all works.Quickly instructed in the facts of the business and ordered not to agree to any offer from any of the participants - to stall every offer of negotiation - he travels to Shanghai with his three Sydney companions: Clyde, an artist; Middleton, a poet; Edna, a sculptress - it seems they are inseparable, a bit like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five or the Talley Ho gang, quaint, but nostalgic, inventions of dear Enid Blyton.

In the exotic realm of China's international port filled with refugees from the revolution in Russia, the shady movers and shakers in the underground gangster 'industries' of this glamorous city with its taipans and tycoons and suspect police force, with the subtle but lethal pressure of the presence of Japanese invaders and their pursuit of economic and political power in China, in an unstable world of German, Italian and Spanish agitation for war, our Australian companions indulge in the sexual and drug hedonism of this exciting Eastern environment. On their first night Rowland and his friends brush up against the taxi girls in their luxurious hotel's ballroom only to be plunged into a murder investigation which Rowland Sinclair becomes the principal suspect. 

To unravel the crime to find the actual culprit, Gentill takes us through many landscapes of the city - rich, poor, desperate, celebratory - meeting a complex set of international characters that enliven the storytelling with well researched detail. Some 374 pages, it is a lively read although I found the principal characters superficial and cumulatively rather boring, maybe even objectionable asses of entitled wealth and preposterous derring-do. The catalyst character  provoking the big 'turning point' moment - a love besotted newspaper 'madman' - was for my taste too obvious a novelistic ploy - and was a very shallow psychological projection - to shift the storytelling into its final action. Hugely disappointing, and fairly banal.

But, then, there are 11 books and so the characters are a source of pleasure for many other readers. The Age is quoted as saying: "A sparkling crime series ...Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie ..." . This is what, ultimately, persuaded me to pick it up, buy it. 

Waugh and Christie - if only!!!!!

A TESTAMENT OF CHARACTER is the latest in the series. Perhaps I need to read another to confirm or reverse my reaction.

At the same time I picked up a new novel from the creator of DOWNTON ABBEY. I thought it would be an untaxing diversion to fill the Coronavirus vacuum of time. The book is BELGRAVIA, published in 2016. It is fruity in its world which is early Victorian - 1830's - and is stuffed with the clambering rivalry between the dwindling power of the gentry and the new upwardly mobile trade successes of the period, with all of their different prejudices and well worn strivings. 

Class, as usual, is under the scrutiny of this writer. But it is not the Upstairs Downstairs politics in a family house this time but a rubbing of the Ancestral shoulders of the old collapsing money peoples with the rising of the new money of the industrial tradies. If you want standing: marry into the gentry, if you want money to survive, accept and marry the rising status of the power of well earned money, even if it is blatantly of dirty 'trade' origin.

For me, there are too many caricatures written to spin the wheels of the plot into 'violent' activity. Too many of them are, in the writing, just thumb nail sketches of recognisable melodramatic types. 

It begins in  Brussels on the evening of Duchess of Richmond's ball - which 25 years later has become a legendary occasion - is interrupted by the news that Napoleon was gathering his forces on the fields of Waterloo. The young soldiers leave their dancing to prepare for battle. Some of them will never return. One of them, the young son of the Duchess, is one of those who never returns. But he has left behind a young woman who was fooled to give her virginity without marriage to him. The resultant child of this 'fallen' woman becomes the centre of the story. He is a secret that draws the Duchess and the Trade family, the Trenchards, into necessary interaction.

In the writing the characterisations are rather cloak and dagger caricatures serving the turn of the wheel of an obvious plot that sits in the shadow of say, Thackery's VANITY FAIR, without any of its wit, sophisticated machinations, or relish of satire or irony. 

At page 271 of the 411 pages of this book I discovered that a new television series of 6 episodes had been made to bring this book to a wider audience - I think it is now available on one of the many streaming platforms. Checking through the casting and watching a Trailer or two on Google, I deducted that the acting by a very competent cast of actors would more than likely provide ALL the characters with a complex internal life as well as the external actions of the storytelling of these intrigues. That the embodying of these characters by very good actors would do the work that Mr Fellowes does not do in this book, which may have been, now I think of it, been written as a very long winded 'pitch' for the filmmakers of our era. (Certainly, that is what I observed while watching the previews.) So, I gave up reading any further and decided to wait for the series to be screened.

I cannot imagine it necessary to read the book. And the script and acting of the series may be a more satisfactory experience of BELGRAVIA. 

(I should report that I was right. The Series is much more palatable than the book.)

Crime novels, Katherine V. Forest's 'Kate Delafield Mystery' series

One of my favourite series of Crime novels are those by Canadian/American Katherine V. Forest, with her Kate Delafield Mystery series.

Kate Delafield is an ex-marine employed as a Detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

I came across this series of books last year and was fortunate to read them in chronological order, or at least six of them: AMBER CITY (1984), MURDER AT THE NIGHTWOOD BAR (1987), THE BEVERLY MALIBU (1989), MURDER BY TRADITION (1991), LIBERTY SQUARE (1996) and APPARTITION ALLEY (1997).

What is fascinating is that not only is each book deeply involved in the solving of a particular crime investigation written with a great sense of detail and intense research of period and geography (we get to know the LA roads and the 'personalities' of each suburb) incorporating a canny conviction of deep knowledge of police procedural practice, so gives the reader a comfort of truth. It is cool, particular and non-emotional. We get to know her superior officers and her partners. We watch Kate become one of the highly respected detectives in her division over the passing years, driven by a great sense of mission and honour, loyalty to her hard learnt values originating from her torrid experiences as a marine in the Vietnam War.

The books are involving because we become engaged with the personal life of this woman and we follow her emotional journey over the years and are privy to her relationships and her struggles with her homosexuality. Katherine Forrest writes with restrained but non-inhibited ease in the sexual interludes with Kate's casual sex partners and finally in her significant relationship with Annie. We develop a caring relationship with Kate Delafield. 

As a lesbian police officer in the LAPD we are brought to the dilemma and politics and the changing attitudes to the LGBT community in this notorious LA department, for this is the misogynistic department that was a part of the O.J. Simpson saga, the Rodney King riots - remember the police officers that were exposed during those very public trials. Being gay is a quality of life that needs to be 'buried' if one wishes to have a career. At least that is how the books begin. But as we follow the developing personal life of Kate Delafield we also become witness to her growing political conscience over the passing of the years and the slow changes occurring in the LA Police Department.

There is not only the Kate Delafield character that is in every book but also a rolling collection of men and women who appear in changed and growing circumstances from book to book. We can identify particular individuals and the burgeoning community, it is not not fiercely realistic - it has a ring of truth rather than a fanciful fictionalisation. Over the chronological reading of the novels we not only have a brilliantly researched set of crimes being centred in each novel but also a sense of the passing of historical events that are shaping the growth of the American attitude to the LGBT community through the tough prism of LAPD.

I recommend these novels without hesitation and believe them to be setting a contemporary standard in Crime Fiction. Search them out. You will not be disappointed whatever your sexuality. Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlow detective, Dashiell Hamnett and Sam Spade, and James M. Cain with his crime figures are matched indeed by Katherine V. Forrest.

P.S. The next three books that await my appetite are SLEEPING BONES (1999), HANCOCK PARK (2004) and HIGH DESERT (2013).

Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Book Reviews

Hello. Besides the literary books of 'weight' - fiction and non-fiction - I have distracted myself with some relatively lightweight reads.

Recommended by a bookshop owner friend I embarked into the detective genre. Abir Mukherjee is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in West Scotland and now lives in London. His debut novel A RISING MAN appeared in 2016. We meet Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran and Scotland Yard refugee, who takes on a job offer in Calcutta in 1919. A rising man belonging to the British Raj ruled by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford is found murdered in a disreputable part of Black Town with a message stuffed in his mouth warning of the coming independence movement that is taking a path to revolution.

Sam Wyndham is placed in charge of the investigation by his superior, Lord Taggart, and is partnered by an arrogant British officer Inspector Digby and a British educated but Indian born Sargent Banerjee. He reveals himself as an invaluable local for interpreting and understanding the 'methods' and values of this great city, to lucidly assist his officer superior in the solving of the crime. In the novel he is called 'Surrender-not' as his British superiors can not - will not - pronounce his name Surendranath. This is the first of the racist tensions, unconscious and systemic, that colour the world of this book where the British population of all classes regard that they belong to a superior civilisation and despise the local peoples.

No-one in this novel, except, perhaps, Banerjee are without flaws. Our leading man Sam Wyndham is 'lost' in a PTSD depression, having survived the trenches of World War I and the loss of his young wife and has a naked cynicism to the values of the world. He balances his sanity with an addiction to opium (as does Sherlock Holmes) and has little trust for his British commanders and is dogged in the pursuit of unravelling the murder. We meet a very interesting range of characters, especially, an attractive anglo-indian secretary, Annie Grant, that provides a tantalizing possibility of a romantic interlude. The climax of the investigation comes with the background issue of the troubles/massacre of Amritsar. stirring with menace of things to come in the country's political future 

We find out truths but you must not expect justice. The novel is permeated with a cynicism that is very 'modern' and gives the work a contemporary resonance although it is set in a period of history a century ago. The writing rattles along at a galloping speed and leaves one breathless and keen to turn the page - it was an absorbing day long read. It was mostly fascinating, although, there are some too obvious clues to the suspicions of whodunnit that undercuts a fully committed surrender to the chase. However, A RISING MAN won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, and a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Eastern Eye ACTA Award for literature, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

I followed up a few weeks later with his second book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-not' Banerjee series, A NECESSARY EVIL, published in 2017, and is set in 1920. The book is a continuation of Wyndham's career set in Calcutta as part of the Bengal Imperial Police and we meet characters we already know from the first book and observe the deepening relationships as well as a whole intriguing set of new principals in the solving of the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore's eldest son - the heir apparent, Adir.

In the royal family, there are three wives and forty odd concubines with hundreds of children, living in the zenana. The Maharaja, Rajan Kumar Sai, the wives: the first elderly Maharani Shubhadrra, the third Maharini Devita,(the second Maharini has died); the heir apparent Adir, his younger brother Punit, and the very young Prince Alok, the third in-line for the kingdom. The novel of 370 pages begins on Friday 18 June and is over by Thursday 24 June - a mere six days. The story rockets along and is full of political twists and turns intriguingly bound in religious entanglements and beliefs. The suspects are numerous.

The guiding deity is Lord Jagganath (the origin of the English word juggernaut) and is the centre of the Maharini Subhadra's worship, supported by the mystic priest Dewan. The English representatives are Mr and Mrs Carmichael - professional diplomats bored to mundanity soaking in alcohol; Golding the practical, realist, efficient bookkeeper/accountant of the affairs of the Kingdom; Fitzmaurice, the corporate leader of the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company attempting to claim the kingdom's new money resources: coal, as the diamond mines dwindle as the money maker; Colonel Aroa, in charge of the Maharaja's police, he seems to have a foot in the present and the future - which side is he on?; a powerful eunuch of the harem, Sayed Ali; Miss Pemberley, a white British woman sought by the playboy Prince Punit; and the outspoken radical critic of the political structures, schoolteacher Shreya Bidika. All have motive. Even the British Government who wish to enforce the Kingdom of Sambalpore to become a member of the Chamber of Princes - an instrument that will maintain - ensure - British control: Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and police controller, Lord Taggart have much at stake with their career on government view, for whom Wyndham/Banerjee are the accidental tools of enforcement.

The corruption of the Kingdom is surrounded by the corruption of The British Raj and Mukherjee in his handling of the description of the places of the book, signalling the degradation of the British Empire, saturated in centuries of ambitious deceits. The genre is crime fiction but it is also a political critic of the affairs of history. Fortunately it is delivered without overbearing didacticism and seeps insidiously into the spine of the tale. for those of us who are 'awake'. 

There are now two new books in the series: SMOKE AND ASHES and DEATH IN THE EAST, and I am curious to see the developments of character. Of Wyndham's addiction - the dangers that its revelation will put his career in peril; of the growing relationship with his Indian partner, "Surrender-not' Banerjee, who one hopes becomes even more central to the unravelling history of Bengal, Pakistan and India.

A NECESSARY EVIL was a one day read. It was a page turner much like its predecessor. Recommended