Archive for December, 2012

Jack and the Beanstalk, Liverpool Playhouse

Pantomime season – welcome it with pleasure. Tickets go like… I was going to ‘water’, but I think we’ve had more than enough of that; so, tickets go like… Christmas.  We were lucky to get ours.

Friends Mark and Sarah write and direct; they have been doing it years. Liverpool is their venue, either the Everyman, or the Playhouse. This is must be their best show yet.

Come off it, they’ve all been good.

We got there on a freezing day; sea air from the Mersey made it even colder. Hardy folk, Liverpool folk. But it’s a great place, Liverpool; always seems so welcoming somehow. It doesn’t have to do anything, you just feel accepted, welcomed, taken into its generous embrace.

The programme calls it a Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto, which I suppose it is. But it makes it sound dated, a 1950s Panto. At best 1970s, before Prog Rock, Punk Rock; after that there were just so many different music styles, and hardly any wanted to be called Rock.

There were 3 or 4 school parties the day we went. The place was full, all two top tiers, and stalls. All very well behaved. Most were Juniors, some solely girls schools. They added so much to the atmosphere, joined in with the songs, the dances, the general fun. And when the time came to ‘clean the place’ ready for the next scene, and out came the water guns, the kids were laughing with delight. Life affirming.

The sets, the costumes, though – glorious! All the crew provide the music, as well as act and sing: back of the set is a small band area where those not in a scene, play guitars, drums, organ and probably lots of different instruments, but I was too busy watching the show. Over two hours of solid fun, songs, dancing; of glorious costumes and set: such an inventive set too. There was a travelling scene: above the background set was an inset where we saw the road behind being travelled. There were swings, and flying characters (Wonder Woman – and if you have to ask what she’s doing in it, then you’re definitely not Panto); there were villains and good ‘ens. And there was Gangnam style.

One of the joys of Panto is spotting the topical allusions… allusions? No, downright huge nudges. This is so Crackerjack (Crackerjack!); that was a real Friday tea-time treat, with Lesley Crowther and Peter Glaser: the top pop songs of the day given different words for the show (how did they get the rights?), the slapstick, the creaky storyline= sheer good fun. And so is Panto at its best: sheer entertainment – good dancers, great singers, spectacular sets and costumes, great music… and all for… sheer silly fun. I suppose you could say Panto pops the pomposity of Drama, of the revered ‘Stage’, something Shakespeare took to heart with his comic characters and scenes. But it is not too proscriptive about it, and that’s a huge plus.

I must admit my favourite character was the Cad: Griffin Stevens. Boo, hiss. He was great dancer, lovely rhythm, great fluidity; and he was an even better at being the Cad. His female cad, the good-bad Betsy-Esmeralda was also a great performer in her own right. Great charisma, great presence, great voice.

A good, tight show; and continually surprising, colourful, musical (Metallica! at one point) – a great afternoon out!

I was watching this, and I thought/felt: What a great way to earn your living! It’s like having permission to dance, to sing, to act, to act the fool, for a few hours every day.

That you have to do, say, three shows a day for only 2/3 months at most:  would you prefer to be stuck in an office?

And, in between, the rehearsals, the fraught times before first night, the nerves: yes but the sheer enjoyment of putting out a show.

The jockeying for position as egos flare and bubble: yes, but there’s the show, and everyone doing their part.

The only thing I don’t get about Panto is – this dame business. I have never found men dressing up as caricatured women particularly interesting or entertaining. Oh, they say, you must never mock women as a dame. Well, what are you doing, then? It’s easy to make fun of dresses and gestures and attitudes, caricature women – after all, we all know they are lower status. And what is funnier than making fun of lower status. This is why male-impersonators never have that impact.

Women as lower status.

That’s not funny; it’s shocking.

A cad is a cad, and a good ‘en a good ‘en – we know they are stock characters, like dames I suppose; the storylines are all stock too. It’s what you do with them, or around them, add to them, makes all the difference.

Mark and Sarah have made a Great show. It was worth all the damned hard work, the set-backs, horrors: the audiences just loved it to bits. In the show we went to, the end dance-around was extended because the actors spotted Vera at the front, an older woman, but she was having a great time dancing. So they played another number just to have/give more fun.

To go to a Panto is really to be ‘all in this together’.

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The venue: The Cornerhouse, Manchester. An exhibition of new works by David Shrigley. The MC was Harry Hill.

Two returned tickets! My son and I zoomed off hands hotly holding tickets turning almost gold in anticipation.

Writer Will Self once said: You can tell if you are to like a person by whether they get David Shrigley or not. I would have said then that he would not like me – I found Shrigley’s books too… whimsical? Thin?

And yet I was excited about the exhibition.

Ok, to continue, all ticket-holders met up on the first floor (of three) of the exhibition, amongst mute exhibits. There was an oddly shaped huge black gong; there was a huge scaled-up rucksack (big enough to carry all our ‘care and woes’?); there was also an animation of a cartoon artist drawing a cartoon life model.  I could go on but then all a sudden Harry Hill was there, in Harry Hill costume.  There was also a  wall chart to record messages on the theme How Are You Feeling?  One or two members ventured a response. In the slightly awkward ‘celebrity amongst us’ atmosphere with Harry Hill’s initial appearance he wrote, hidden, then revealed ‘Terribly exposed’. How can you not empathise! Curator Mike Chavez-Dawson brought in Jan. Jan was great too, a small, perfect and professionally made puppet. As my son noted: three levels of ambiguity – we do not know what David Shrigley looks like (was he there amongst us?), nor was Harry Hill real but an invented character, and then there was Jan cradled in Harry’s arms talking to us (‘Don’t look at me, look at him.’ we kept being told).

Harry had us interact with the objects, questioned us archly about ‘how we were feeling’ about the objects. Beside the animation of the cartoon life drawing Harry had two people act out the scene, one actually drawing the other (clothed). Once again we saw the’ take’ on the ‘take’ on life drawing. And by the way, the gong sounded great. Then we went upstairs.

The middle floor was densely covered on all walls by drawings, doodles, sketches, cartoons: Shrigley-isms. And it was this is that ‘turned’ me: en masse like this, undiluted, I could see the effect he has. Tending towards the dark, at times outright bleak – but here was Shrigley-world writ large. He has striven to remain anonymous (there have been lapses lately); his subject matter is predominantly about outsider male experience, a limited world but relayed with conviction.

There are many constructions in his work, that is, levels of perception in the make up of the pieces: he can parody and self-parody like the best of them – the thing is he lets us see that he is also keenly aware of the position he has to take in doing this. Who has the right to parody another? Shrigley is no holier-than-thou, the ‘David Shrigley’ we are given is also a construct, a parody of his own beliefs and prejudices. That he parodies himself is exactly the point. That we recognise some of ourselves in the parody, is also the point.

The top floor was huge, and in the centre a huge Shrigley sculpture of a naked pissing man. The sculpture’s expression was… baffled? Pensive?

We drew our copies, then paraded them like cat-walk cats. Whilst the real work of drawing was going on Harry Hill and an audience member enacted a Shrigley interview. Hats off to the man, he carried it off very well, with ne’er a fluffed line!

Another Shrigley I find myself enthusing over is WORRIED NOODLES (2007). It’s a CD of his lyrics/musings put to music by a wide variety of bands and musicians. A lot of them really made me sit up and listen. Franz Ferdinand’s in there, as well as David Byrne; but so are Liars. Deerhoof are great. 39 pieces by 30 artists.

I have taken to BBC Alba in a big way.

It is a BBC tv programme in Scottish Gaelic. Don’t panic, there ARE subtitles.

My big night is Tuesday:  Ceilidh@Blas!  I have heard here some outstanding music, and musicians.

The other week the previous programme had an article on the folk tales of the Western Isles. They had been collected in the 19th century by enthusiasts. We had been reading world folk literature for some time; the Scottish came out rather thin, to my horror.

The Tales of the Western Isles, though is all in the music of the language: grab what chance you can to hear them in the Gaelic. Wonderful concertos of sound. Just wonderful. How much do we miss in translation!!

And then there is Vamm.

They are three women: two fiddle players, and one on mandolin. They are instrumentalists of a very high order. The fiddles weave their melodies around each other: Vamm are all about textures. I have heard them produce some absolutely outstanding music, gentle, lyrical; hard and insistent, but always, always outstanding. They have been together as a working unit for just over twelve months.

Vamm are:

 Catriona MacDonald, a Shetlander, brought up in the great fiddle tradition. She cut her teeth with Blazin Fiddles, learning the touring and concert-trade. She runs a music course at Stirling University. Rich in repertoire and craft, she is a first-class player.

Patsy Reid, from Perthshire. A one-time student on Catriona’s course. A former Young Musician of the Year.  Her fiddle playing has a wide resource, bringing, as Catriona commented, a classical, string-quartet sound to the trio.  She has recently taken up teaching posts at a number of Scottish colleges and universities.

Marit Falt, a Swedish player, brought up in Norway. A recent graduate from Catriona’s course; her instrument is the Latmandola, an adapted mandolin-type instrument (‘an octave mandolin with a added bass string, and added extras’). She also plays the cittern. She brings a very strong and invigorating rhythmic dimension to the music.

All of them have great stage presence. All have worked music circuits before in former groupings and bands.

Their website is: http://vamm.co.uk/the-band/

There are clips of their music on the site. I would heartily recommend LURKAS. It is a slow but delicate piece that shows off all instruments wonderfully, opening with an intricate rhythm by Marit, that is picked up and woven between the fiddle players, and fiddle players and Marit. They played this on the tv programme and I was absolutely amazed. This takes traditional music to another level. Another fine one is THE DUCHESS.

We are used to predominantly male Scottish traditional fiddle players competing with each other on speed and verve. Vamm take it into greater territory: we move from ‘traditional fiddle playing’, to ‘classical fiddle music’.

Their current tour dates are:

Date Event Info
02   February 2013 – Celtic   Connections
02 May   2013 – Carnegie   Hall, Dunfermline
03 May   2013 – Eastgate   Arts Centre, Peebles
04 May   2013 –
05 May 2013
Fiddles   on Fire
08 May   2013 – The   Universal Hall, Findhorn
09 May   2013 – The   Catstrand, New Galloway
10 May   2013 – The   Met, Bury

I suppose you could say it started with Wallander

and the industry execs discovering the tv watching plebs DIDN’T MIND subtitles. Can you imagine their slightly uneasy surprise (after all, aren’t subtitled European things part of the cultural sphere of the demi monde?); as if the mid twentieth century avant-garde had taken over! What next? A complete Bergman season at accessible hours (yes please)? !

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Henning Mankell’s  Wallander has had two Swedish tv series to date. The first was with Rolf Lassgard as lynchpin Wallander; he comes across as a little sleazy, maybe at times unpleasant .

In the West we mostly began with the re-make, featuring the more appealing  Krister Henriksson. A little camp on occasion; but who cannot like Juce his dog, and their relationship! Tragedy hit early as the character playing his daughter committed suicide between screenings. She had a key role; her loss must have hit the crew badly.

Still worth watching the repeats.

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Then THE KILLING.

This is a Danish production. The Killing grew into a three-part event on a grand scale. International acclaim secured it pride of place in contemporary tv crime dramas. The creater and writer is Soren Sveistrup.  What? Even David Cameron watched it?! It’s a good comment on its strength and popularity that even that hasn’t harmed it.

The second series had lost some of its magic. And now the third and last is underway.

Lynchpin character is the inimitable Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) and her ‘bad luck’ with close work colleagues. Of course, (you didn’t think I wouldn’t mention them,  did you?): the Fair Isle jumpers. I admit I love them; yes, still.

What was it about the first series blew everyone away?

It was set in almost real-time: one day of the twenty-day investigation screened per episode (American series ‘24’, and its’ aftermath is apparent here). English tv ran two episodes together at a time; did they think we would not have the patience to wait? Or were too distracted to remember from week to week? Or our attention-spans too fractured and short?

What was outstanding about that first series was the time spent with the victim’s parents. That has been lost since. It is as though the makers of the series misread the signs, did they think it was all about being ‘unafraid to investigate politicians’ as the public prosecutor said when attempting to recruit Sarah Lund to the investigation in the second series? Admittedly the political theme was a tight and riveting theme. But no, it was time spent with the parents, as they attempted to deal with the tragedy of the loss of their daughter, and with the strain of the on-going investigation. We watched as their marriage unraveled. The last scene was superb: no words spoken, but just the expression on faces, in the eyes, of Pernille and Theis, as he is taken away. For those who have not seen the series, I am not giving anything away by saying this!

I do remember, in particular, the camera-work in that first series: this also has been relegated/lost. One episode has Lund interviewing pupils from Nanna Birk Larsen’s  (the victim) school: all was shown was a side shot of Lund’s face as she asked questions of a pupil; we saw her eye moving in the silences as she appraised the pupil, and his responses. This was so expressive; this was high-order camera work.

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Other Danish productions have been The Bridge (Broen). A different tv company, and different characters and actors. This was a joint Danish-Swedish venture, and centred on the Oresund Bridge connecting Denmark and southern Sweden.

However, there was, as in the first Swedish Wallander, another rather unlikable main character in Martin Rohde. The entertaining oddity of ‘semi-Aspergers’ Sarah Nolen (an elaboration on Sarah Lund’s character traits here), the Swedish officer in the investigation, does compensate for Rohde in many ways.

This, like many ‘bigged-up’ series tend to be let down by the unveiling of plot and motive: that a personal tragedy could unleash such vicious and wide-spread murders, leaves one a little dubious. And wary from then on.

I’m always reminded of a line from the end of ‘Falling Down’ with Michael Douglas on the rampage playing some neo-con type having tantrums cos he wasn’t getting his way. The just-retiring cop says to him something like: we all have crap lives, some are worse than this – but we don’t go around killing people because of it. It wasn’t just the ‘going round killing’, but the elaborate ways it was done, and ‘the game’ of baiting cops and public: this huge construction of killing built on something private, a personal tragedy.

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Borgen was a favourite of mine. This was a Danish political series, with high production values. It revolved around the election of a small-time Central Party, under elected leader Brigette Nyborg Christensen. She fought chicanery, sexism and its glass ceiling, and problems in her personal life.

We saw there characters from the first two series’ of The Killing: Lund’s nemesis  from Killing 2 playing Christensen’s economics lecturer husband etc.

Her Central Party got elected as the centre of a coalition. The machinations to keep all Parties in-line, whilst remaining true to pledges, and above all honest and transparent in office, were very well handled.

Brigette Nyborg Christensen becomes the first female Danish Prime Minister.

The main strengths in Borgen are as in Killing 1, the focus on the private and the personal. We see the cost of power on Christensen’s home life; on the life of tv reporter Hanne Huul. Huul has an affair with a married MP, becomes pregnant, has an abortion as well as gaining prized position as anchor-woman on the tv channel she works for. She is the type of the young independent woman Another outstanding character was Communications Chief Kaspar Juul. Complex, fascinating, and ultimately sympathetic.

There were two series; the second opened with Nyborg Christensen fully in power; it took us to Greenland for a brief jaunt.

The series started with Nyborg Christensen tearing up her prepared speech at the tv hustings, and speaking impromptu. Her hopeful naivety won out over the open machinations and ‘politicking’ of the other two contending parties.

The second series ended with her making another speech to re-secure her toppling hold on government. This time she could not get away with a naïve and hopeful speech again. But that is what the creators and writer gave us: it was, in all honesty, a rather awful speech for a politician. And I don’t think it was meant to be. A great pity, it was a good series, with great characters – and all likeable.

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And then British tv remade Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh. Series 1 was… not so good. There was no layering, or back-story equivalent, to explain the depressiveness of the Wallander character. It didn’t gel somehow. It was all too actorly.

The second series with Branagh (always liked his work) backed by a new crew, was much better; tuned-up, and on the ball. I believe there is to be new series?

There has also been an American tv series of The Killing 1. This I could not, for the life of me, get along with; and let it go. The Scandinavian setting gives small-town and provincial best; this is especially the appeal of the fictional Ystad of Wallander. America has sold us Big Country for too long; even small –town-in-big country is wrong for this type of setting. Also needed are the rain, at times drizzly, at times continual; long dark; cold; grey days; and dull skies. American tv doesn’t do those too well; it is perhaps still stuck in selling Sunny USA to the world.  In the Swedish tv series Wallander’s sea-side cottage with shingle-sand beach and grey-green sea was so parochial, provincial and so right.

But then, on the book/origin side I cannot read Mankell, no more than earlier writers Sjowall-Wahloo. Win some, lose some.

I seem to have completely missed Sebastian Bergman. Wha…? Who…? Who woke me up? That sound behind the whirring of the computer fan, is me gnashing my teeth.

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Sarah Lund is not presented as a sexual character; we know she has a son; in Killing 1 she is about to move to Sweden with her partner, but this becomes a theme of tension; he transgresses her strict regime, he even intrudes on her case: he does engineer her freedom from arrest at one point but by that time the relationship is irretrievable.

Throughout she shows no sexual characteristics, she does not flirt, has no innuendo. In the opening scenes of 1 she has to deal with a sex doll colleagues have left for her: she does it with good grace.

If we compare her with the central female character of The Bridge, Sarah Nolen: her sexualness is apparent to all when it occurs: she openly takes men for the night, but only when the desire takes her. She cannot relate – to anyone. One source described her character as ‘almost Asperger-like’.

Clearly, people have trouble with women in positions of power.

Lund’s non-sexuality becomes connected to her personality, her closed-off, single-minded pursuit of the case despite all regulations and procedural obstacles put in her way.

Nolen’s open but functional sexual nature is portrayed as part of a lop-sided personality.  Her sexuality is presented as a regular health and cleanliness act.

In Borgen Nyborg Christensen’s sexual nature is not so much an issue, it is more symptomatic; her relations with her husband, and her family are. All is far more sympathetically drawn. It is time and energy commitments are the obstacles to a sound and solid relationship here.

Of course, she is a middle-aged woman in power; and everyone knows such people are not sexual creatures – don’t we boys and girls? It doesn’t start off that way: series 1 shows her a fine woman with her interests and appetites normal and good. Series 2 with her fully in power – and such domestic details, as much as she tries to hold onto what she had before, become impossible to juggle. On the other hand, her husband may go off with a young female student, but woe betide if she was actually to ‘canoodle’ with a younger man! (And, yes, ‘canoodle’ was actually used in Swedish in a Wallander for a liaison!).

Middle-aged Martin Rohde’s infidelities are a part of the key to the crime in the Bridge. We see him, and it isn’t pretty. Was it shown purposely as not pretty? And Wallander, propositioned by a prostitute whilst away at a conference, although divorced, also comes a cropper. No, infidelity is frowned upon greatly. Sex is for the young and unattached.

Except if you are a young, ambitious and independent female, then sex is an aberration, threatening.

Why is a woman’s sexual nature still such an issue? In this day and age!