azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 12:05pm on 27/10/2010
My baby sister got married this weekend, so Tashi and I went over to England for the first time in about four years (Bexy couldn't come because she had to have her appendix out, and Wolfgang stayed with her because it's miserable enough being in hospital without knowing the rest of your family is gallivanting about dancing at weddings). It was a lovely wedding, and it was lovely to see everyone again. They tied the knot in the church where my father had been a priest when he died, and after the ceremony one of my sisters and I went off into the graveyard to visit him, only to find that most of the family had had the same idea, so we took photos of all the visitors clustered round the headstone. The junior members of the party were practising their literacy skills on the gravestones nearby, so instead of saying "Cheese!" we all said "Gone but not forgotten!"

The next day we went back to London to see War Horse (I'd booked the tickets following [personal profile] grondfic's glowing recommendation) and I'm happy to report that it's everything it's cracked up to be. The play itself isn't all that good (okay, it's for kids, but it's still a bit cliched and superficial, and the storyline is stretched out so thin it's almost invisible), and the acting wasn't particularly impressive, but the production itself is absolutely magical. It's distilled essence of theatre, where the whole point is not that you put reality on stage, or even things that look like reality, but the actors assert "This thing here is actually something else" and produce the feeling of reality. It's all summed up in the horses. The horses are amazing. They don't look very like real horses - they deliberately look like puppets, with a sort of wooden frame/skeleton lined with netting that does nothing to disguise the presence of three operators, one of whom isn't even underneath the horse (I should say here that we were right in the front row, with our noses up against the stage - you probably couldn't see the mechanics quite so clearly from further back, so the illusion would have been stronger, but we had the advantage of seeing every tiny detail of how things worked).




The equine hero, Joey, in a fight with his rival Topthorne, who becomes a friend. The humans are the operators, not characters in the play.

You'd never mistake them for real horses, until they start to move. When they moved, it was impossible not to imagine that they were real. The way their chests heaved when they were frightened, the order their legs moved in, the head, the tail, the ears (there are one or two moments when everything on stage is utterly still, and then one horse moves one ear and the auditorium erupts with laughter).

The whole production is built around these two levels of artifice and truth. The set is all black, the stage itself a thick lumpy black, like mud, that disappears into darkness, from which the characters emerge, like the bird in Plato's cave, before disappearing into blackness again. Overhead is a strip of white, like a piece of paper torn from a book, or a patch of sky, and this was used to project sketches of the countryside, English and French, and scribbled dates and place names. Very occasionally, a prop appeared - a door to signify the entrance to a farm house, a cannon for the horses to pull, and in one memorable scene, a tank, made of thick strips of metal. It didn't look any more like a real tank than the horses looked like real horses, but it was terrifying. The lighting was very pure, mostly just shades of white, with the occasional use of orange for warmth, especially on Joey. In the scene where Joey gets caught on barbed wire, the light spilled out from behind him onto the audience in front, and since I was sitting over to the side I could see them clearly. One little girl, aged about seven, had her hands pressed against her mouth in an agony of empathy. You could see the barbed wire wasn't real - it was being pulled about the stage by actors in order to entangle the horse - but that didn't matter, because she could imagine it so clearly.

And that, really, is the essence of theatre. Chorus says in Henry V, "Think when we speak of horses that you see them." And we did. Every one of us saw them, through the medium of those bits of wood and netting. And we also saw the Great War, emerging for a brief moment out of the darkness of almost a hundred years of history. There are some really magnificent set pieces, including a cavalry charge in which a Captain is blown off his horse in slow motion, lifted through the air by two actors, his arms and legs stuck out like a starfish against the back-lighting. But the real vision of hell comes when a cannon is pulled onto the stage by two starving and exhausted horses. I don't think I've ever seen a theatrical moment to equal the power of that sequence. It was utterly stunning, and yet it was made by nothing but a few actors and two puppets against a white light.


Joey and Topthorne are set to work pulling the cannon after one of the draught horses has died.

I know a lot about the First World War. I don't suppose most of the children in the audience knew anything about it at all. But what we saw on stage was the feeling of the war. Not the gore and the yucky realism of cinema, but what it felt like to be there, with the wire and the mud and the machine guns, the gas and the shells and the corpses, the horror, the cruelty, the waste, but also the bravery, the camaraderie and the love. It was absolutely amazing.

Steven Spielberg is apparently going to film War Horse. I don't know how he'll do with it, but I do know one thing. It will be nothing like this production. It can't be. This is theatre, through and through. You couldn't begin to do it this way with film.
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 09:19am on 14/10/2010
I got stuck for a while on a particular scene in the current writing project. I needed the characters to sit at a table, then move to a couch and then have sex. Sounds reasonable enough, but I simply couldn't get it to work. They would sit at the table, talk and then have sex or they would sit on the couch, talk and then have sex, but they refused to interrupt the process of having a conversation that led to sex at the table in order to go and sit on the couch for a bit.

This struck me as exactly the kind of problem I used to face directing plays. Which makes it Reason 1649 why writing is like acting/directing.

It's something of a cliché that actors are constantly asking, "What's my motivation?" One of my acting teachers used to tell a story about a famous theatre actress who was told by her director to move five paces to the left in order to say a particular line. When she asked what her motivation was for moving, he replied, "Your costume clashes with the scenery."

This particular source of conflict between actors and directors – the clash between the limited, subjective view of one particular character versus the bird's eye view of the needs of the production as a whole - is fundamental to theatre, so of course Michael Frayn couldn't leave it out of his classic Noises Off.. It's funny and it's spot on, and a shortened version is under the cut.
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azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 08:39pm on 25/09/2010
I've been watching David Tennant's Hamlet on youtube. It's the kind of production that the word "sumptuous" was coined for, and has some wonderful performances (I was just thinking how a few years ago it would have been John Woodvine playing Claudius, when up he popped as the Player King, and I shed a little fannish tear). But try as I might, I just don't like Tennant's brand of acting. It really is "emo", as his critics say - it's not badly done, it's not even unconvincing, but it assumes that unfettered emotion is the most interesting thing about a character and that the best way to explore that emotion is to wallow in it. Of course, it makes for a great contrast with Patrick Stewart's Claudius (though I must admit that I had huge difficulty imagining this Claudius gambling and fighting and getting pissed), but in some ways it's like a throwback to Victorian melodrama. Or perhaps it's a rediscovery of melodrama, a reinvention. Perhaps Tennant is the future of British acting, the equivalent of the public outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. Fashions in performance come and go, as they do in all art. Perhaps it's time for more wallowing.

But I really don't like it. I had to fast forward through the soliloquies.
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 12:19pm on 23/09/2010 under
Gen, 456 words, pure fluff, mostly harmless.

For [personal profile] sarlania.

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azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 09:33am on 31/08/2010
Over on [profile] network_command I am co-running the first ever Man from UNCLE art challenge. Personally, I have all the artistic skills of a dead (not to say decomposing) hamster, but my co-mod [personal profile] togsos is the opposite, and has produced some banners for the occasion that are so beautiful I simply have to share my two favourites with the wider world.








Are they awesome, or what?
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 01:33pm on 30/08/2010
I was reading an article over at [personal profile] petzipellepingo's lj about reincarnation seminars that help you to remember your previous lives. The article was less sceptical than it should have been (woo-woo is still woo-woo, even when its practitioners have an Ivy League degree), but one thing that caught my eye was the claim by someone who runs these seminars that in a previous life he had been a "good" German who had hidden a Jewish family from the Nazis. That very evening I was reading a book by a German comedian about his pilgrimage to Santiago, and by one of those odd coincidences, the chapter was about the time he had taken part in a reincarnation seminar and had remembered one of his previous lives. Lo and behold, he too had been a "good" German who had hidden a Jewish family from the Nazis. What are the odds that out of all the gazillions of trillions of lives that have preceded ours, two people on a course should coincidentally both have led lives that placed them in the same place at the same time performing the same brave, not to say heroic actions?

It seems to me that there are two plausible explanations for this (more plausible than reincarnation, anyway). One is that the holocaust is so deeply implanted in Western consciousness that given the instruction to "pick a historical period, any historical period", most of our brains will head straight to Nazi Germany (and given the normal human tendency to believe in one's own goodness, naturally we do not "remember" ourselves as running concentration camps or grassing up our neighbours to the Gestapo, even though, statistically speaking, we are far more likely to have done that). The other explanation - and, Derren Brown fan that I am, I think this is much the more likely - is that the seminar instructors are taught to plant suggestions in the participants' minds during the course of the seminar (whether they do this deliberately or just as an unexamined part of the "technique" I leave as an exercise for the reader), and that the "Good German who hid a Jewish family" suggestion has spread, meme-like, through the pool of instructors. Anyone who forks over cold hard cash in order to try to recall a previous life is, after all, part of a self-selecting group of highly suggestible individuals, and Hape Kerkeling's description of the seminar he attended reveals an embarrassment of opportunities for the planting of suggestions (he also said that four out of the five other people on the course remembered having been "victims of the Nazis", which is obviously grist to my theoretical mill).

Does anyone know of anyone/has read about anyone who has attended one of these seminars? If so, did that person also remember being victim/heroic resistor of the Nazis?
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 01:57pm on 15/08/2010
We picked Flan up yesterday and brought him home, to the great delight of the rest of the menagerie, not to mention Lucky and Mowgli. Almost half of his neck has been shaved, which looks rather peculiar - who would have thought black labradors have white skin? - and he has a small wound in it, with stitches. He also has, amazingly, a small wound in his heart (where the probe went in) so he has to take painkillers and antibiotics, to make quite sure no enterprising bacteria set up shop there. He has an ultrasound in six weeks, and the stitches come out next Monday. Other than that, it's all over. Easy peasy!

I can't honestly say, looking at him, that he gives the impression of having had major heart surgery (it took them over an hour and a half to reach the spot and inflate the balloon), but he is a bit slower than usual. He's allowed to go for gentle walks, but other than that, he's supposed to rest. No running, said the vet sternly, looking at Tashi. No jumping (also looking at Tashi), no playing ball (Tashi again the prime suspect), and absolutely no swimming, because of the risk of infection via the neck wound. Other than that, it's life as normal. Which seems quite bizarre after all the anxiety and tension. You mean it's over? Just like that? Wow.
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 04:24pm on 13/08/2010
Just had a phone call from the surgeon. Flan's operation went well, they managed to get into the heart through the artery, so they didn't have to cut him open, and they've widened the narrow bit enough to reduce the pressure there by half, which the surgeon said is a very good outcome. He hasn't come round yet, and they want to keep him under observation till tomorrow, because it was such a long operation, but basically he can now expect to live a normal doggy life.

I am SOOOOOO relieved. As are Wolfgang and the children. Lucky will be relieved, too. She has been very unhappy all day, ever since the others came back without him, and has been hanging around with us downstairs instead of lying on her bed upstairs, as she usually does.

*wipes brow and goes to cuddle family*
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 02:48pm on 12/08/2010
Flan is having his operation tomorrow. He started collapsing again when it got hot, which made the decision much easier. "Friday the thirteenth?!" I said to the receptionist at the hospital, when I booked him in. "Yes!" she chirped, "a LUCKY date!" I hope she's right, but I have been taking him for extra long and exciting walks all week, just in case.

Rather ungraciously, I've closed the comments, because I'm trying not to think about it too much.
azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 04:30pm on 10/08/2010
[personal profile] fallingtowers has provided a link to this wonderful review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which says everything I have thought about the book, but ten times better. And it manages to be really funny while doing so.

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