Saturday, 28 February 2009

Hit and myth

Today, a semi-accidental visit to the ballet, a kulcha classification to which I've come late.

This afternoon's performance by the tip-top Birmingham Royal Ballet was Sylvia, a three-act confection of soft-boiled mythological mayhem, featuring nymphs, a goddess, a middle-aged cupid and a shipload of pirates (cue solo for one-legged pirate chief).

Deep, it isn't.

But dance theatre has grown on me in recent years. I find myself increasingly willing to surrender to the possibilities that open up when you leave those pesky words behind.

At one level, the conventions of classical dance are downright daft - prance, pose, pirouette.

But then along come those moments when the 'ballet thing' happens, when I can't tell if the dancers are expressing the music, or if the music is expressing the dance.

And I forget to breathe.

Victoria and Albert Toft

Splendid surprise this morning to see that Leamington's statue of Queen Victoria has been scrubbed to dazzling whiteness. Hurrah!

The monumental figure of the Queen Empress is the work of Albert Toft, a Midlands-born artist who seems to have specialised in memorials.

Just down the street is another Toft figure, a lone rifleman, atop the town's war memorial.

One of his biggest commissions was to create the four large bronze figures that circle Birmingham's principal war memorial, the Hall of Memory.

Very much of their time, the impressively idealised figures represent in turn the Army (above), Navy, Air Force and Women's Services.

I'm intrigued that so many of the memorials created in the aftermath of WW1 are deliberately, one mights say emphatically, secular in character.

Back to Leamington. A plaque reveals the Queen Victoria was stirred, but not shaken, by the air raid of 14 November 1940.

On the same night, the raid on nearby Coventry continued for ten hours, causing massive destruction and taking the lives of 568 civilians.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


To Birmingham's tiny Electric Cinema to see the excellent new film Milk.

This political bio-pic (teensy clue as to why it didn't get into the multiplexes?) tells the story of the final eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to a major US political office.

Milk, an unassuming San Francisco camera shop owner, finds himself entering local politics almost by accident. But his experience of three pluckily unsuccessful campaigns opens his eyes, ears and heart to fundamental inequalities affecting a whole variety of minority communities: blacks, seniors and, of course, gay people.

His dogged determination to mobilize a city to his equal-rights campaigning gives the film its dramatic momentum.

And much is at stake. Following Milk's election in 1977, 'pro family' campaigners sponsor the notorious Proposition 6 statewide referendum.

Were it to succeed, legislation would lead not only to the dismissal of all homosexual teachers in California, but also to the sacking of any school-system employee who supports a gay teacher facing dismissal. In the event the referendum is a close-run contest.

As often happens, extraordinary circumstances draw extraordinary courage from ordinary people.

Director Gus van Sant brilliantly charts Milk's growth into a leader of remarkable grace, charisma and dignity.

Sadly, the film is also a tragedy, ending with Milk's murder, in San Francisco's City Hall, by a political rival.

'My name is Harvey Milk - and I'm here to recruit you' is his signature opening to every campaign speech. Indifference, not oppostion, is his greatest enemy.

Consequently, as well as being funny, charming and moving, this is a very uncomfortable film.

Milk couldn't stand by and let ordinary fellow-citizens go without a voice, simply because of a perceived, yet utterly irrelevant, 'difference'.

Plenty to think about as another Lent begins....

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

I'll second that Motion

I'm a bit of a fan of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion - a fine writer, and a thoughtful, good man.

Stimulating comments from him in today's paper, where he claims that, regardless of one's beliefs, a basic knowledge of the great themes of the Bible is an essential tool for understanding history, philosophy, literature - the whole cultural shebang.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


'Understatement? Overrated!' Thus opines Mr Gnome when in a provocative mood.

Mr G's current enthusiasm is 'statement footwear', with special reference to the life-enhancing potential of the colour red.

So definite, so uncompromising, so 'out there'.

No one will be shocked, therefore, to learn that he's wildly enthusiastic about the fabulous foot furniture illustrated above.

Can you put name to shoe?

Of course you can.

But what about this pair?

Monday, 16 February 2009

African tempest

To Stratford to see The Tempest in a new collaborative production between the RSC and Cape Town's Baxter Theatre Company.

Shakespeare's strange, final, most original play is set on a magical island, re-imagined here by director Janice Honeyman as an arena where a troop of spirits conjure a series of vibrant visions 'out of thin air' (yes, Bill invented the phrase) with the help of masks, puppets, pulsating music and dance.

Controlling the action is the central figure of the magus Prospero (Anthony Sher), aided by his not-quite-under-control agent, the spirit Ariel, whose 'dark' counterpart is the slave-monster Caliban (John Kani).

The relationship between these three seems to be the special focus of this production. And with Prospero as the only white member of the trio, the master/servant dynamic has a troubling, spiky resonance.

Ariel and Caliban seem to embody profound aspects of Prospero's sense of himself.

Ariel is mobile, mercurial, lithe and untouchable, straining for his freedom.

Caliban, playing firmly against Prospero's descriptions of him, is montrous only in the eyes of his 'master'. Kani, grey-haired and walking with two sticks, has a gravitas and dignity of Mandela proprtions. It's a bold idea.

Much to relish in this vivid, exciting and clearly spoken production.

Top marks to Anthony Sher for sheer vocal power and authority. He doesn't just speak the verse, he breathes it. And that's what makes it live.

After completing this post, I read Charles Spencer's notice in the Telegraph - and found it helpful and enlightening.

Ditto regarding this interview with John Kani.

Saturday, 14 February 2009


To London to see a predictably sparkly, yet surprisingly thought-provoking production of the 1983 musical comedy La Cage aux Folles.

Based on the 1978 French film of the same title, the show is set in and around the eponymous St Tropez nightclub, which features a high-kicking chorus line of stunning beauties, all of whom just happen to be chaps - as is the diva Zsa Zsa (aka Albin), the wildly self-dramatising star of the show.

The proprietor of La Cage (and Albin's long-term partner) is Georges. Thanks to a youthful 'aberration', he's the father of Jean-Michel, whom Georges and Albin have raised together.

The show opens as Jean-Michel announces his engagement to the daughter of a right-wing politician, whose root-and-branch social clean-up agenda makes the Moral Majority's programme seem somewhat louche.

With his prospective in-laws poised to visit his family home, Jean-Michel demands that his father put on a very straight face.

But what about Albin, next to whom Julian Clary would look like Lawrence DeLaglio? What chance is there of him joining this particular performance?

His take on the situation triggers the deliciously farcical - and surprisingly moving - unravelling of the plot.

With music and lyrics by Jerry (Hello Dolly) Herrman and Harvey Fierstein, the show was one of the first mainstream musicals to feature a same-sex relationship. And despite the be-sequinned setting, there's real depth and dignity to the presentation of Albin and Georges.

Similarly, along with the laughs, we're gently invited to re-assess received definitions of parenthood and partnership.

And there are some fabulous songs as well, including the anthem 'I am what I am' - surprisingly un-cheesy when heard in context.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Special mention for Graham Norton as Albin. A bit of a revelation: funny, touching, a serviceable voice - and a terrific pair of legs.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Order of the boots

Recent winter weather has prompted the Human Being to venture forth protected from the cold and damp by the cosy carapace of his Uniroyal Super rubber boots.

Brown wellies, yes. But as they were purchased in the USA, the non-military transatlantic moniker seems more appropriate.

The HB remarks: 'These boots are Super indeed. I bought them while living in Juneau, Alaska - one of the wettest cities in the whole of the United States. In fact, this September will bring the thirtieth anniversary of that purchase. Good service, huh?'

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Snow fun for Mr G

Mr Gnome relishes the wintery delights of our current cold spell.

He's posing outside his new home beside the Grand Union Canal. Hurrah!

(Normal posting will be resumed as soon as the Human Being's internet connection is re-established following chnage of address.)