Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Nutcracker

Every since I was small I have loved The Nutcracker.   My mum had an old copy on video and I used to watch it at Christmas; it was one of the sure signs that Santa was on his way.
Everything about it screams of the yuletide festivities and the music by Tchaikovsky will instantly take me to a romantic winter dreamland where toys come to life and snowflakes dance.  The fact that I am writing about this in April must seem very odd then!

For Christmas this year, mum got me two tickets to see the Russian State Ballet and the Orchestra of Siberia's touring production of The Nutcracker at The Marlowe Theatre in March.  
Steve was certainly not interested (not really his thing) but I knew that Claire would be (she is a classical ballet buff) so invited her to join me one very cold Wednesday evening after work.  The show was part of two productions that the Company were touring with; The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and friends of mine in the area would be going to see both.  One of my colleagues commented the next day that they had been waving madly at me from the stalls but I was completely oblivious in the Circle!
Choreography in this production was by Vasily Vainonen and Sergei Bobrov with the full orchestra conducted by Alexander Yudasin.  From my position in the Circle I had a brilliant view down into the orchestra pit and some of the percussion instruments being used were like nothing I had ever seen before.

The entire ballet was just magical.  It opens at the Christmas Eve party where the children play games with the magician and Marie and Fritz receive their presents.  The touches here were lovely, with the children coming to and from the party wearing capes dusted with snow and throwing snowballs at each other.  The changing of the nutcracker into a lifesize doll was masterfully performed and the dancer remained as a life size doll for longer than normal, only changing into a full prince at the end of the act.
The Dance of the Snowflakes was one of the high points for me, and I loved their cone hats and snowballs dangling from their costumes; it was a different spin on a classical costume that I hadn't seen before and added some more personality to this production.
It has been a long time since I have seen a classical ballet production, having seen mainly modern dance interpretations in recent years.  You would think that I would have grown out of the childish desire to be a ballet dancer (despite the fact I hated my lessons) by now, but seeing the Waltz of the Sweets always rekindles it in me.  The Arabian Dance was particularly beautiful, using fabric reminiscent of a Dance of the Seven Veils to add movement and grace to an already beautiful performance.  The Tea Dance (Chinese) had all the fun, energy and vibrancy you expect from it. 
The one major criticism with this production?  There was no Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy!  This is such an iconic part of any Nutcracker production and I am utterly bemused as to why they left it out!  The music was played, but Clara danced to it instead.  No idea why they chose to do this.
It did feel very strange to be watching The Nutcracker when it wasn't Christmas, but the magic and wonder of the show is still enough to spellbind you, no matter the time of the year.
All images were sourced online (apart from the images of the Marlowe Theatre which are my own) but original photography credit could not be found.  If you know who should be credited for the ballet images, please let me know and I will add it.

If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Reading Nook: Their Eyes Were Watching God

"Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.  Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly".

One of the original purposes of establishing The Reading Nook was to get myself to read books that have been sat in my collection for year, including (ahem) a number of books I was supposed to have read for my degree and, well, didn't.  Mainly because at the time I was far too interested in all the other things going on around me that involved interacting with other people, such as my show on the radio station or playing hockey, or producing the pantomime, or working at my part time job in a student bar or running for election, or..ok fine I admit it...drinking.

So it has finally happened, 13 years after making the purchase and 13 years after I was supposed to have read it, I have finally read one of my course books.
I really wish I hadn't waited so long to be honest!  Their Eyes Were Watching God is an American classic.  Written in 1937 in colloquial folk language by Zora Neale Hurston, to say that the book bombed when it was first released would be an understatement.  It was slated by a number of prominent African-American authors involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement who accused Hurston of pandering to stereotypes of language, behaviour and culture.  It was not until the 1970's and 1980's that the book became valued as a work of literary art in its own right as Universities across America started to develop Black Studies programmes which included a focus on art and literature, whilst simultaneously women such as Alice Walker (author of another of my favourites, The Color Purple) and Mary Helen Washington were leading the Black Feminism movement in America, all of which created a culture which allowed for a rediscovery, and a new appreciation for Their Eyes Were Watching God and other forgotten novels of the era. 
Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of those rare stories, a book written in the 1930's that describes a woman who, after suffering two marriages that have stifled her, will not be subjugated any longer, who will not behave in a way expected of her station or gender, and who will follow her own heart, wherever it may lead her.

Warning:  Spoilers ahead - if you don't wish to know the plot, jump ahead to after the next picture!

Janie Crawford sits on her porch with her best friend, Phoeby Watson.  Now in her mid-late forties, Janie tells the story of her life through a series of flashbacks to Phoeby, who, in turn, relates the story to the rest of the nosey residents of the town of Eatonville in Florida.

Janie's story is framed by three distinct chapters and marriages to three very different men, only one of whom has allowed her to be herself. Her first marriage is arranged by her grandmother at the age of 16 to an older man and a farmer.  Janie finds this marriage suffocating as her husband requires a domestic help rather than an equal partner whilst Janie desires love and romance in her life after seeing a bee pollinating a flower in her back garden as a young girl.  One day, whilst working outside the house, she meets the smooth talking and confident Jody Starks who woos her with his dreams of being a 'big man'.  Janie elopes with Jody to Eatonville where the two gradually become prominent figures in the society there; Jody becomes mayor and owner of the village shop and Janie is expected to behave in a way expected of the wife of the mayor.  Throughout the novel Janie's exceptional beauty is emphasised, as is her hair, her crowning glory that attracts admiration and envy from all who see it.  Janie soon realises that Jody is after a trophy wife, he forces her to keep her hair bound and beats Janie when she tries to engage in the social activities and life that Jody enjoys.  Jody eventually sickens and passes away, but not before Janie tries to heal the growing rift between them.

Shortly later, Janie, now a wealthy widow in her mid-thirties with hordes of suitors, meets a young vagabond and gambler called Tea Cake.  Tea Cake is the complete antithesis of Jodie; young, vibrant, free from restraints and restrictions and he draws the initially reluctant Janie out of her shell and the two fall deeply in love.  They move to Jacksonville where they marry and work side by side in the Everglades with the other itinerant workers.  The life Janie has now is one of friendship and laughter; night after night the workers gather at Tea Cake and Janie's house where Janie cooks for them and Tea Cake plays the guitar or they gamble.  This period of bliss cannot last though, and the entire area is hit by the Okeechobee hurricane.  As the workers try to flee and gain higher ground, Tea Cake, unbeknownst to Janie, is bitten by a rabid dog whilst saving her.  Within a few days Tea Cake has contracted the disease and by the time he is able to see a doctor, it is too late.  He gradually starts raving, becoming increasingly jealous and eventually pulls a gun on Janie.  She grabs a rifle to defend herself and as both guns go off, hers kills Tea Cake.

Janie finds herself in front of the magistrate for the murder of her husband; the all-white court rule in her favour though, recognising the desperate nature of her situation and, as everyone comments, the fact that Janie's love for Tea Cake was legendary in the neighbourhood.  Despite the requests of the people of Jacksonville, Janie decides to return to Eatonville and live alone, content and at peace with herself, and the story finishes where it started.
The book covers themes of gender, religion, fate and free will, romance vs reality, society and class, race, jealously, appearance and, above all, the importance of dreams.  Modern day readers may well find some of the attitudes hard to stomach; wife beating is prevalent, women are seen, particularly by some of the more traditional individuals, as second class citizens who are unable to think for themselves (Jody, at one particularly memorable moment, comments that 'somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.") and the book was written at a time when class and race divides were still deeply entrenched in society.

There are two references to watching God in the book; the first is from Janie as she stares peacefully up at the sky.  Tea Cake approaches her and asks 'Watcha doin' Janie?'.  'I'm watching God' she replies.  The second comes where the refugees are huddled in shanties, waiting for the hurricane to subside.  "The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."  This final reference is commonly though to summarise the central conflict of the novel; humans against God, humans against nature, fate against free will.  The bonds of human interaction and intimacy provide refuge against the forces of nature. Tea Cake and Janie share an intimacy that allows them to struggle and survive these forces, and even when she is left alone, Janie continues to survive everything that is thrown against her.
I struggled with this book when I first sat down with it, and I have tried to read it on numerous occasions since.  I don't think that this should be a required curriculum reading; it is one that younger people are likely to struggle with as the language can be quite challenging, and the story line probably isn't all that exciting for people looking for adventure and drama.  It is only with age that I think I can appreciate the novel as a work of art in its own right, and as story of a women finding out about life, love and who she is though, it is beautiful.
If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Complete History of Comedy, Reduced Shakespeare Company

Excuse me while I blow the dust off my screen. 

I don't think I have ever gone so long without a blog post since I first started!  A combination of 2 of the busiest weeks at work in my annual work cycle directly followed by a temperature of 101.66F and a seriously nasty bout of suspected gastroenteritis, play week for Charley's Aunt, the in-laws visiting for the Easter weekend and a bit of bloggers block (I have had absolutely no creative inspiration at all recently, it seems to have all been diverted into areas which actually pay my bills, sorry) has meant a whole host of draft posts just sitting in my planner, filled with pictures and absolutely no end material.


I'm back now though so let's start to catch up!  The 3 week gap does mean that a few of these events happened a little while ago...sorry...this won't exactly be real time blogging for a bit, but we have to start somewhere!

As I mentioned, Charley's Aunt has now finished, so I get my evenings back.  Whoohoo!  At least for the time being.  We are actually doing The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Reduced) next, with RV in the directors chair, so, as part of his very serious 'research' (and not an excuse for a jolly to the theatre at all) he suggested we head up to the Gulbenkian to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company perform The Complete History of Comedy. 
For purely serious research purposes you understand.

So it was on the 1st March (I said there was a bit of a backlog), on a Sunday evening before the start of the working week, a large group of us dutifully filed into the Gulbenkian to take our seats and be entertained with a rip roaring stomp through comedy through the ages.
I have had the absolute pleasure of seeing The Reduced Shakespeare Company twice before, once when I was about 15 and watched them perform The Complete Works Of Shakespeare (Abridged) and once in my early twenties when I watched them perform the Bible (Abridged).

Both times I have been doubled over in my seat, completely helpless and crying with laughter, desperately clutching my stomach to try and alleviate the laughter cramps that are shooting across my abdomen.

For those of you who haven't heard of them (seriously, where have you been?!) they are the company that perform all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in 97 minutes, including Hamlet 3 times.  Once of which is backwards.  They are a three man troupe that dart in and out of roles with slick brevity, using a cap or a moustache to convey a change.  The stage was littered with roosters and scarves, caps and swords by the time they had finished in previous shows. 
Originally from California, the RSC have an impressive comedy pedigree, boasting the longest running comedy show in London, 7 stage shows, 2 television specials and numerous radio pieces that have been heard the world over.  Other tours include Western Civilisation (Abridged), Sports (Abridged), America (Abridged), Books (Abridged) get the idea.  If something has a long, complicated history with a huge amount of material to cover, The Reduced Shakespeare Company will roll their sleeves up and have at it with gusto.
The Complete History of Comedy took us on an irreverent ride through, well, the Complete History of Comedy.  They poked fun at the high brow and the low, from the Ancient Greeks (hello Aristophanes) to Shakespeare, chicken crossing the road jokes, Moliere, mimes and clowns, Vaudeville, Chaplin and Chekov (whom I have never thought of as funny!) as the three actors desperately search for the missing chapter on The Art of Comedy that has been lost to time.  In doing so, they take us through every chapter of the book, acting out the principles of comedy and how they have shaped the genre.  They interact with the audience, dragging audience members onto the stage and exchanging banter with people.
I think covering specific comics is one of the disadvantages of a show like this.  Comedy, and what people find funny is intensely personal.  For example, I have never found Moliere or Chekov, or even Chaplin to be funny, and unfortunately, having their plays and sketches acted out by a troop of comedians still doesn't make them funny for me.  There were parts that I did guffaw at, and the audience was definitely tickled by the show, but in comparison to their other productions, it just didn't engender the same continuously cackling reaction in me that I was expecting, and that was a shame.  The funniest joke for me involved Abraham Lincoln and the phrase 'too soon?'.
As we left, we did discuss whether they were now running out of ideas, and whether or not the same format just wasn't as fresh as it used to be.

What the Reduced Shakespeare Company are know and revered for is their impudent, breathless, quick fire routines that is choreographed to a frenetic pace that leaves you gasping for breath.  The very thing that makes us want to emulate them, and terrified about even trying to do so.  'Comedy', for me, was missing that edge, that fire and punch. 

Would I see the Reduced Shakespeare Company again?  Absolutely, in a heart beat and I would recommend that everyone tries to see them at least once.

Would I see 'Comedy' again?  I'm not sure.  I felt that, out of all the shows I have seen by the RSC, this was the weakest by far.  It was pleasant and perfectly nice, it just didn't leave tears of joy running down my cheeks like their other shows did.
If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!