Cultural Firsts: The Peking Opera

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Zhang Zhifang as The Leopard Antagonist in ‘The Monkey King’ 

It’s a day of firsts. 14 years in London (and most a lifetime spent as a theatre lover) and today is the first time that have crossed the threshold of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, quite possibly the premiere dance theater in London. You’d think I would have made the time by now.

And it is the first time I have seen Peking Opera live. I guess there’s nothing like starting with the best, so I am here to see Peking National Opera’s production of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King. Dance as an expressive art form is something I’m not sure I’ve ever engaged with or completely understood (owing partly to being born with little or no sense of rhythm), I am apprehensive and have no idea what to expect.

I need not have worried.

The show was nothing short of breathtaking.

Taking from ancient myth and adapting to modern parlance (with words like ‘dude’ and phrases like ‘how the hell’) The Crossroad Inn is a story of an exiled General Jiao Zan, played with a commanding stage presence by Liu Kuikui, who, in the changing tides of his country’s fortunes and regimes, goes very quickly from being war hero to banished prisoner on Shamen Island, escorted around by two Rozencrantz and Guildenstern-like-buffoonish guards, played with perfect comic absurdity by Wang Jue and Chen Guosen, whose comic interplay and fawning deference works to hilarious effect against the gruff general.

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Wang Haoqiang and Liu Bo in The Crossroads Inn

When Jiao Zan, intolerant of exile, and his guards, stumble upon the eponymous establishment run by a couple loyal to the seasoned military veteran, and agree to let all three guests stay for the night, acrobatic farce ensues. The piece culminates with a magnificently spellbinding display of deft, gravity-defying slapstick in which the proprietor, Liu Lihua (played by Liu Bo), and Ren Tanghui (Wang Haoqiang), The General’s personal protector who has followed him to the island to keep him from harm, soar through the stage, which serves as a darkened guest room under the premise that half he time there is not light and they are groping around to find the other combatant. The result, despite what is essentially a domestic comedy, is acrobatic spectacle on an epic scale.

The company outdo themselves in the second piece, The Monkey King, a tale much more firmly rooted in magic, myth and parable, when the Leopard (played with effortless aplomb by Zhang Zhifang), ruler of the Hongmei Mountains descends to choose a mere mortal bride amongs the village folk and marry her against her will. Fortunately for the bride and her family, the Monkey King (performed  with a mischievous wink and a lithe springy quality by Ma Yanchao) just happens to be passing through with his merry band of monks on their journey west to find ancient Buddhist texts. The royal Simeon agrees to help and like so many folkloric trickster heroes, devises a plan devises a plan full of intrigue, deception and disguise that is both funny and gripping.

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Ma Yanchao as The Monkey King

Never is this piece more riveting than when the two principal players are leaping, flipping and twisting through the air in joyful combat that seemed to defy all of physics. But this is predominantly due to the pure feast for the senses that the Peking National presents to us on stage. The multicolored and striped leopard looks vibrant, warm and very much the human manifestation of a wild, forest cat. The bright banana yellow and the cheeky humour imbued by the makeup and costuming of The Monkey King is ingeniously comic from his first appearance onstage and only grows funnier each time he flips or bounds back onto the boards. And Wang Luyu’s percussion is simply incredible in his ability to discomfit the ear and build tension to a crescendo in the showdown between the two, rounding off this most compelling evening in my first taste of this fast-paced, vibrant and kinetically charged art form.

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Defying gravity in The Monkey King

I have high hopes that we will see the Peking National Group again in London very soon.

The Peking National Opera presented their productions of The Emperor and The Concubine and the double bill of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King on 19-20 October 2018 in Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

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Al Ja-what? Watching Trump’s Minions Getting Grilled

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‘I mean how does one really define racist, narcissistic man-child?’ JD Gordon tries unsuccessfully to gain footing in defending Trump going head to head with Mehdi Hasan. Taken from aljazeera.com 

‘Al-Ja- what?’ I can picture my very conservative parents saying.

My Dad is from very, very pre-hipster Brooklyn. He knew it waaaay before it was cool, when it was a nice, white place to grow up and you hitched a lift on the back of the tram-o-matic to spend a few pennies at Coney Island on rickety wooden roller coasters of a weekend. Or something like that. My mother is from somewhere deep in the 1940s and has just kept traveling, like some curious Kurt Vonnegut character, backwards in time throughout her life ever since. Last I checked she was somewhere deep in pre-universal suffrage and laughing and shaking her head at ‘all those silly dreamers demanding equality.’ I’d have to check but I think she’s also been deferring her vote to my father’s opinion for the same amount of time, single-handedly handing Trump Pennsylvania back in 2016.

I digress. A little.

I haven’t actually told my parents I’m at an Al-Jazeera event, just in case they think Al-Jazeera is Arabic for ‘Come with me, my brothers and sisters, let us go and conspire against suburban and rural, pretzel eating, sedentary, apostate America that worship at the altar of Starbucks and Kanye mwahahahahahaha.’ (Of course it doesn’t. Not even close. It means ‘the island’ symbolically linking to the network’s justifiable claim to be the only independent news source in the Middle East). Of course my conservative friend from high school (you know the one you never knew was conservative because he was funny and arty and a lot of fun to hang out with) always called it Al-Gore-zeera so I don’t know what to expect.

But my Mom and Pop and their entrenched conservatism are ever present in my mind as I sit down in the front row of Oxford Union as AJ’s guest and make myself ready for an evening in the presence of someone as close to the Trump administration as I’m willing to get, JD Gordon, former security adviser to the Trump Presidential Campaign. I am at a recording of Al Jazeera’s version of Hardball, ‘Head to Head’ hosted by Mehdi Hasan, a bruiser of an interviewer capable of landing the inquisitorial equivalent of right hooks with Russian probes and Upper cuts of Trump’s casual racism to devastating effect.

It is clearly an audience of mostly comfortably liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumpers (I say that as a belligerently liberal, self-congratulatory anti-Trumper). We have come to watch Trump get grilled via proxy. If we can’t have the orange-a-tan-in-chief himself, we’ll take someone guilty by association, as I’m going to assume JD Gordon is, being one of the interviewees rounded up and questioned by the Mueller force in connection to  well let’s face it probable and nefarious possible links to Russia and collusion charges.

But I can see why the excremental, ruthless but not un-shrewd Bannonite Team Trump would have hired Gordon back in 2016. He’s a nice guy. He is the nice face of the Ugly American that Trump embodies not accidentally crashing around the China cabinet but intentionally, childishly kicking over everything in the cabinet and kicking the glass in for good measure. If Trump is to the second decade of this century what Nixon was in the 70s (and just so we remember, Hunter S Thompson wrote after Nixon died that the world was a better place without him) except worse, JD Gordon is its less offensive charm offensive. A former Navy Commander, he is brisk but not brash, bordering on soft spoken, while maintaining a sense of precise, military assertiveness.

As an AJ event rookie, I was told that this episode was fairly tame; I didn’t think so but then I do marvel in admiration at the gusto of British journalists compared to their powder puff American counterparts tossing each other into the fanged mouth of the sabre-toothed Huckabee Sanders over and over again, and at American audiences who tend to inhale sharply at what British audiences might simply describe as a ‘spirited exchange’. Apparently Hasan later told one of his colleagues that he would have loved to have driven at Gordon harder, but he was ‘just too nice.’

And there is a corn-fed innocence about his ability to stick to the party line and defend Trump or at least refuse to criticise him in any way shape or form even when he clearly did not agree with things he had done or said. JD Gordon and I both grew up in New Jersey, the shoreline of which Trump bled dry in the 80s. Gordon does have that same suburban 7-11 highways and strip malls sort of of charm about him, like he would mow your lawn because, well heck it was just another half an acre next to his anyway.

Make no mistake. I did not admire this innocent appearance and charm. It is dangerous in the kind of conservatism that seems to be the Right’s currency of exchange in today’s political discourse. If we’re charmed by people like this, then maybe Trump’s vile, destructive, cynical ‘straight talkin’ rhetorical doggerel isn’t so bad, right?

It is that bad.

And so much worse.

And I must confess also, JD Gordon did not make Trump look any better in his responses. When confronted by Hasan’s masterfully woven portrait and narrative — and Hasan really is master interviewer — on anything from Trump’s treason, to his dishonesty to his racism, Gordon stuck to a solid stock answer with little variation: this is what the American people voted for. His defence was fairly clumsy. On the racism charge, Gordon’s main defence seemed to be that Trump’s wives were all foreigners and he had praised foreign dictators, so he can’t be racist. Check out me facepalming at 0:15 on this clip.

If he was the smiling, pragmatic, excusing, apologising face of the Trumpernaut to an audience hoping for a pantomime villain spitting lies, incoherent nonsense and uncritical dogma, Marc Porter, president of Republicans Overseas and balancing Al Jazeera’s panel for the night, did not disappoint. Like a braying jackal, howling as though he’d been viscerally wounded, he cried and shrieked at the inconvenience of facts and the way in which dozens of damning quotes said by the king of Twit had been taken out of context, but when called upon, produced nothing of substance to offer as a defence except the unfairness of using the president’s own words against him, which felt as insubstantial as so much cypsela carried away on a late summer breeze. At one point, Porter persistently claimed that Trump’s campaign did collude but that, singing the most popular tune of Fox and Friends, it didn’t matter because collusion was not a crime (I mean treason is but why split hairs?). At another, he hit back against claims that Trump was a sexual predator by firing back ‘Clinton! Clinton! Clinton!’ or something to that effect, neglecting the pesky difference between the words ‘affair’ and ‘assault’.

When it comes round to my opportunity to ask a question, I think again of my parents and rightly or wrongly, note first to JD Gordon and the audience that dear old Mom and Dad voted for Trump and they do care how many lies he tells (not verifiably true, I’m not sure my Dad gives a toss).

But I ask anyway, ‘Why should the world believe in America anymore?’

His answer ranks among the greatest of logic denials I have ever heard from an avowed conservative. Ever. And that’s saying something. That’s a list that includes the following:

— Look, if a human were raised amongst wolves he would not become a socialist.

— You want to save the whales, yet you don’t mind killing babies?!

— ‘But Dad, statistically, Trump tells a lie every five minutes…’

’Yeah? Well Hillary tells a lie every two minutes!’

I don’t know how or why right wingers seem to have this ability to veer so far off topic so quickly and to commit so great a logical fallacy with such wanton abandon, but loath to buck the trend, in response to why the world should still believe in America, Trump’s former security advisor began by thanking my parents for their support (I knew it was a mistake flagging that. Damn!) and then said:

‘Well Pete, all I can say is this is what the American people asked for and this is what they wanted. Get used to more reality TV stars holding high office because it’s going to happen more and more.’

And… that was it.

I stared, dumbfounded, unable to pick my metaphorical jaw up off the floor, knocked by the swift left hook of irrelevance as Hasan moved on to the next question. How can a response be so wrong and so ominous at the same time? Who does JD Gordon have waiting to take office after Trump, the Kardashians? So, what you’re saying is that the world shouldn’t believe in ‘Merica anymore?

It was a riveting evening. I enjoyed seeing Hasan deftly trap Gordon over and over again, but it did feel a little unequal after a while. It’s easy enough for Al Jazeera to hold the first estate to account and assemble a cathedral full of anti-Trump expats and left leaning guardianistas.

It is infinitely more challenging to dethrone the post-truth narrative that looms large over America right now. It won’t be done by carping about the popular vote, but I still think it can be done by people like Bernia Sanders and his ideological successors like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who provide solid hope, instead of a bleak picture full of fear and vitriol. But it won’t be done until we successfully challenge stupid, in all its levels, including the weird dark, Grimm’s fairytale in which Trump rules as buffoonish Goblin King. Until then, we continue to be stunned by incoherence, into incoherence. You have to laugh, really.

To check out the whole episode (and I suggest you do) click here.

Dontcha wish your country was royal like me?

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Well? Dontcha? Taken from nypost.com

It is 11 am. I am at work, up to my eyes in marking and up against the looming apocalyptic shadow of dozen deadlines closing in like ringwraiths.

My phone — which I probably shouldn’t have had so close to me or on which I should have had set self-obsessed book notifications turned off — lights up.

S_____  has tagged you in a post!

‘Dude, do people get really excited over there about a royal having a baby?’

Well.

I don’t.

What’s my reaction to a royal having a baby?

Sigh.

Thbbbt!

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I’ve been abroad through a royal wedding, a jubilee celebration (Yaa-aaa-aaay. She’s still alive. And we’re still supporting her. Whooooo) and two royal births and haven’t been bothered enough to send two congratulatory shits as a wedding/Christening gift.

And if that sounds excessive, it is borne of the incredulity of a family, generation upon generation born and born again to abundance and plenty and disconnected from reality, continually supported by tax money and (and) by the tears, sighs and mental and emotional investment of thousands of supposedly thinking and rational individuals worldwide.

It puts me in mind of Woody Harrelson’s journalist character in the decent if a little worthy 1997 cinematic tendenzroman, Welcome to Sarajevo, who jadedly asks his British counterpart, played by Clive Owen, if the top British news stories of the day were indeed about ‘the duke and duchess of Pork, or something?… by the way, your queen… she’s the richest woman in the world, but what does she do?’

The comparison is apt. Sarajevo was getting the bejeezus bombed out of it. Hundreds of innocent Bosnians were dying and the British journalist’s network’s (I’m looking at you BEEB, hmmm?) main story was a royal divorce.

Not even the royal divorce.

Let’s compare for a second.

Right now — at. this. second — a self-obsessed egomaniacal billionaire with the temperament of a trapped wasp, the likeability of a route canal and the vindictiveness of the kid who realises they all only liked him for his expensive toys (because really who has that many GI Joes?) has the power to blow up the planet.

And probably several others.

And a moon.

Or two.

And just last week, he got bomb happy. Our military dropped $50 million worth of missiles and explosives near to Damascus, killing dozens, but appearing to have resulted in a very expensive, but not bigly effective operation if the goal were to damage Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons.

I’m not even saying that there is a better solution to Assad or the moral problem about doing nothing while bad things happen to innocent people.

But isn’t a better solution what we should be talking about?

The Republicans have throttled the life out of the country while we’ve been distracted by our own garishly iridescent neon display of pomp and circumstance in an oversized suit. Isn’t it worse to add in someone else’s powerless head of state whose family has also been conferred wealth and power through no legitimate means?

Not so according to statistics and surveys stating that 23 million Americans tuned in to William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011 (okay okay I saw some of it. WTF was that weird gesture she had to make every time he waved to the crowd. Weird). 33 million watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. And 3 million US viewers currently salivate over the Netflix period drama, The Crown. One in four Americans has a favorable impression of Prince Charles and that number doubles when asked about Kate and Wills.

We were supposed to reject the monarchy back in 1776, but here we are, two and half centuries later obsessed and distracted by inherited privilege and aristocratic pageantry, both at home and abroad.

But to answer your question, dear compatriots, eh, a little, but only in an uncritical resigned acceptance that someone else has a lot of money and a lot of land at the expense of the rest of society. Then again many of my British friends are republicans (they vote for Trump? Those heartless bastards… hey waaait, obviously republicans here means supporters of a representative republic and an end to the inherited privilege of the monarchy).

And it’s not as though the royals are evil or unlikeable. Is that what we’re jealous of? We don’t mind inherited privilege as long as those with privilege are likeable and marry American movie stars? Prince Charles is a well informed environmentalist and Harry does immense charity work and referees basketball games. In New Jersey. (#Jerseystrong #Jerseyreprezent)

And I know everyone loves a real live fairy tale!

But must we lose our dignity to slavish, peasanty period drama envy? Can’t we acknowledge the validity of an archaic and outdated historical institution without getting our Downton Abbeys in a twist over it? Unless they’re giving us a day off to get squiffy drinking Pimms in the street with our neighbours toasting the royal baby or Harry and Meghan — which they’re not — can we just move on?

Well done to this BBC reporter for doing so, or at least being unfazed.

Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era

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Jamael Westman as Hamilton. Photo by Matthew Murphy. Taken from theamerican.co.uk

There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.

I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.

I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.

I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.

And I was never a Cornflake Girl.

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I never was. Taken from eil.com

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.

So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.

Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.

Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.

Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)

And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.

I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.

I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.

‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’

I mean it was articulate gushing praise.

My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.

And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.

But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).

But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.

And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).

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I’d prefer Hamilton to Trump. I think. Taken from macleans.ca

What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.

So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.

 

Travel Dispatches: Keep Calm and Drink Guinness?

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Taken from deviantart.com

Flying back from Dublin. Self-satisfied and smug, having sourced a helluva deal on a return to Newark with Aer Lingus for the upcoming annual summer sojourn to the Homeland. I haven’t flown Ireland’s national airline across the pond in years. But they’re cheap this year and if the movie listings for international flights in Cara, the inflight magazine are anything to go by (I mean The Shape of Water? Blade Runner 2049? I don’t get out to the movies very often) as well as the generally pleasant, friendly and efficient service so far, the experience promises to be pretty sweet.

I must have missed a thousand pithy punchlines in the process of being starburst/chewy sweet peeler for the missus, I muse (the fecking things are wrapped so fecking tightly!). It’s my special job in the first and last half an hour of any flight while ‘er next to me winces in pain and looks — and probably feels — like that false explosive head in Total Recall that keeps glitching on ‘Two. Weeks.‘ as Schwarzenegger’s character is passing through Martian customs. I take a moment to mourn the lost inspiration as my beloved grits her teeth and grunts ‘for fuck’s sake keep the ’em coming! This is bloody painful!’

Just keep peeling…

In the last twenty minutes as we can feel the rumblings of the landing gear underneath, I excuse myself and my geriatric bladder in a 39 year old body to pee. I make my way shakily to the back of the plane.

Left restroom: vacant. Open door, squeeze in, side strut. Jump back promptly. Immediate horror. I don’t want to know who has used the bathroom sink in an airplane to wash their hair but they’ve left it clogged to shit and they’ve got the sense of accountability and the personal hygiene of a university freshman.

Leave. Unacceptable. I’m too old to accept standards like this in my toilet experiences.

Across the aisle. Slide latch. Open door. Side strut squeeze in. Latch lock. Sink? Not clogged. Good. But oh fuck.

Is that?

No.

Great.

Either I’m traveling with Bleeding Gums Murphy, Meyer Wolfsheim, or there is a molar shaped sweetcorn kernel in the sink that refuses to tumble down the drain.

But I grin. I bear it. I relieve myself, wash my hands, molar kernel incrementally moving back and forth like a stubborn pebble resisting the undertow.

Shudder. Open the door. Slide out and return to seat. Smile composedly and imitate normality to wife.

Resolve self to re-check British Airways flight prices when we get back within wifi range.

Underexposed Theatre — New Writing At The Old Red Lion

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Theo Hristov and Eve Carson in ‘Coming To America’ (Photo by Mark Duffield)

Relationships and love. These, not satellites or legislative chambers or oilfields, will be the battlegrounds of the 21st century. Everything else is detail.
Clearly.
All our worries about gender fluidity, violent impulses, a lack of understanding and a world constantly mediated through technology and an ever growing number of interfaces will come down to our ability to relate to each other and connect as people.
And that feels like the common and vital thread in the presentation of new writing by Islington based Underexposed Theatre in their current run at The Old Red Lion in Islington, in which they, as they state in their mission statement, ‘explore and challenge the overlooked stereotypes that exist in our society.’
There are a number of plays that poke gentle fun at post (and pre?) truth America, Gun Jr, affably taking aim (that one was intended) at the Gun Culture. It is fun and presents us with the not unheard of scenario of a boy who feels out of place in a gun-toting red blooded American family and yearns to be free to leave home and exercise his creativity being a chef in Paris. It is enjoyable, with Stephen Riddle’s energy driving the comic value and the hyperbolically fun nonsense of Trump-voting America to its highest level and most ridiculous as the broken hearted Mr Gun trying to convince his son to follow in the family tradition.
And although brighter minds than mine continue to ask if we have reached an age that is the end of satire, I don’t think the problem is the jokes we’re writing. I think it’s the fact that we feel out of targets. So we turn to the few that are left and presenting themselves as the easiest left to ridicule, the left. Although Joe Starzyk tries with ‘For The Love of Noodles’ to capture the craven ludicrous efforts of one hippy dippy couple to appear accepting of their daughter’s choice of partner, it already begins to feel stiff and a little done by the time the punchline (aforesaid choice of partner) walks on stage.

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Sadie Pepperell and Tej Obano in ‘Wholefoods’ (Photo by Mark Duffield)

The piece that does manage to incisively present us with a poised and beautifully balanced portrait of the smug middle class is ‘Wholefoods’ by Charles Liepart. Set in the very gentrified location of a brownstone in Brooklyn, it is a subtly written dialogue between a young twentysomething coming from the gym via the titular organic hipster fave retailer and her young black neighbour. Although it begins in those very cliched parameters, both Sadie Pepperell, playing the Nora Helmer-like wife with a cagey sense of frustration and an utterly convincing sense of yearning, and her philosophical neighbour Malcolm present through a deftly constructed chemistry between them, a tension and a pathos for a woman who is as trapped as she appears to be privileged.

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Rina Mahoney and Gabrielle Curtis in ‘The Petal and The Orchid’ (Photo by Mark Duffield)

The second half really pulls us right into the moral heart of the stage though, with Gaby Curtis’ and Clare Langford’s ‘The Petal and The Orchid’ confronting us uncomfortably with a value judgement between the sexual victimhood and white privilege, boxing us into an impossibly uncomfortable choice from which, as in today’s so easily simplified headlines, there are no easy answers. Curtis and Rina Mahoney as the manager of a charity that works to improve the lot of vulnerable women in third world countries give utterly enthralling performances that draw us in for a rivetingly bitter exchange.

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Rachel Scurlock and Nick Pearse in ‘The Pit and The Pretender’ (Photo by Mark Duffield)

One of the cleverest gems of the night though was a gentle comedy written by Charlotte Stanton called ‘The Pit and The Pretender’, in which an apparently bitter and burnt out, whiskey swigging writer comes onto a radio show to promote his new book, agreeing to an interview by someone with whom he has history. Nick Pearse, and his commanding and energetic presence on stage make a welcome return to Underexposed and again, the chemistry between him and the charismatic Texan actor Rachel Scurlock (playing radio host Daphne) is pure magic. There is an intelligent and refreshingly heartwarming twist at the end that wraps itself into the audience’s hearts.
Oddly enough for a world so culturally focused on the Trump’s bombastic America these days, this night of theatre hits its highest points when it’s not aiming at perhaps the most bigly target in the world right now. Theo Hristov’s Coming To America is gut wrenching and full of conviction and the sledgehammer like blows it lands against the robotically bureaucratic Immigration officer denying the protagonist a visa to bury his mother with Kafkaesque abstraction.

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Cameron Bell, Edwin Flay and Chris Pybus in ‘A La Carte’ (Photo by Mark Duffield)

But it lacks the humanity and subtlety of Richard Woulfe’s delicately gentle piece A La Carte, a meeting between a grieving man played with an intriguing and pathos inducing angst by Chris Pybus, and the man with whom his recently deceased husband had been having a longstanding affair. The waves of grief and the chemistry between Pybus and Edwin Flay make this piece a haunting contemplation of loss, desire and the attempt to fill the emptiness of the heart.
Underexposed’s night of relationship-themed pieces and the explorations at the margins and the in-between spaces of life is truly a compelling celebration that feels very now, is wonderfully smart and brimming with a well judged sense of humour, albeit sometimes a dark one.
See it at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington and later on in the year on 8 July at the Southwark Playhouse.

To Book: http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/underexposed.html

Now, We Fight Back

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Photo by @pollyjohughes (dissembledesign.com)

7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.

They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.

Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.

Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:

“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.

“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)

Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.

Surviving a Trumpish Presidency, at Home or Abroad

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Batten down the hatches, you say. Take cover, you say.

Repent, for the Trump is nigh, you say.

And well you might. The storm is no longer approaching. The storm is here. It’s raining down acidically on workers’ rights, the environment, third world countries, reproductive rights, our esteem in the world and the ideals Americans of every class, creed and culture hold dear. And those dark clouds in the distance are just about threatening functioning healthcare as we know it.

Ride it out for four years in the shelter in the backyard, you say.

Ride it out in Canada, the great paradise of the north, America’s own Scandi style Yukon Utopia, some say.

It won’t last, others say.

Not my problem, say the remaining few, the ones who didn’t bother to vote, refused to talk about it, and prefer to not get political because it ‘doesn’t affect them’.

But here it is, folks, the end of days. America’s last president.

You want to survive the next four years, the Trumpian apocalypse? Here’s a few tips how from someone who lived abroad during the dark, dark Bush years.

1. Stop complaining about the electoral college. Do you know how often we have a serious discussion about the electoral college and how unfair and undemocratic it is? About every four years. Because that’s the only time it comes up and we only really find it at fault when it throws up an anamolous result, like one that is the exact opposite of the popular vote. The truth is if Hillary had told a compelling enough story and convinced enough people that she was human and that she cared, we wouldn’t be worrying about the popular vs the electoral college vote. I’m not saying that sacred invention of the founding fathers is just or right. I am just saying that when the dust settles, we have bigger problems to worry about, like having a psychotic billionairre in The White House.

2. Own your country! Back in the Bush years, I was held responsible for every invasion, misadventure and stupid thing that my country inflicted on the world at dinner parties. Now it’s up to us expats and you mainlanders, to convince and keep convincing the rest of the world we’re not brash, loud, obnoxious, literal-minded morons. The decision our red-voting brothers and sisters have made has not helped in this matter in any way, shape or form. You’re at a dinner party and someone asks you what’s wrong with your countrymen, putting a bigot in The White House, you say uh… hello? Brexit? Le Pen? Actually, no, we’re being ambassadors not abusers. You say we also elected the first Latina senator, the first Indian-American senator, the first Vietnamese American congressional rep and the first LGBT governor in US history, all women. Our president may be a vile, hypocritical, crude, sexist, but most of us are not. More of us voted against him than for him. And we’re also responsible for the best TV (House of Cards, Mr Robot) and the best films that you watch. We are not necessarily a melting pot, but look for the extremes and you won’t be hard put to find people who are as unlike Trump as a bad toupee is from real hair. Emphasise that to our fellow citizens of the globe, and be conscious of that when you are sharing your life on a global social medium.

3. Do something! Did you? Did you really? I didn’t start volunteering with the Democrats Abroad until this election cycle, even though I always said, ‘I really should’. If you really want things to be different in the midterms and in another four years, volunteer for your local party, whether it be Green, Independent, Communist or Democrat. Unless of course you want eight years of radioactive orange masquerading as a statesman. The hottest places in hell…

4. Banish these words from your vocabulary. ‘Actually, I don’t like to talk about politics. I’m not really that political,’ or any variant therein. From now on, you might as well stop pretending. Sticking your head in the sand is how we got into this mess in the first place. You care about schools, the price of gasoline, how high your taxes are? That’s political. You care about air quality, the amount your township clears your driveway and how much they charge you for it? That’s political. You care about whether your government provides you with any opportunity for advancement, incentivizes you retraining, how much you have to pay for basic necessities? Also political. I’m not saying it’s the only thing you can talk about, but avoiding it is delusional and dangerous. Duh.

5. Get angry and make noise.Make no mistake. Nothing in history worth changing — not slavery, not universal suffrage, not homophobia — has ever changed without a significant amount of anger and noise. No injustice was ever fought by going placidly ‘amidst the noise and haste.’ Injustice, inequality, all the wrongs that will issue out of the executive branch of the government over the next four years, must be fought hard and noisily. No inch must be given, no quarter conceded. This doesn’t just mean being politically active. It means challenging ignorance, whenever and wherever you see it. Workplace, public transport, social media? You let it pass and you are contributing to it.

Now you can batten down the hatches. It’s going to be an exciting — and angry — four years.

Should you want to get involved as an expat, www.democratsabroad.org is a great place to start. And in the spirit of equal time and because I assume most Republicans are secretly pretty embarrassed, http://www.republicansoverseas-uk.com.

Election Night 2016: The Nightmare

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‘History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to  awake.’

So says Stephan Daedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in a moment in which he refuses to be politicized by the history of 800 years of British oppression of Ireland.

It puts things in perspective.

Election night. My fellow registered Democrats and I stand in a bar in Central London watching the results roll in. We have been working for weeks, and in fact most of my fellow Democrats for several months leading up to the election. We have regularly sat around a table littered at various points with laptops, bowls of potato chips, takeout coffees and sugary snacks, high up in a building let to the Democrats Abroad near Covent Garden, phonebanking our fellow Americans in order to get out the vote. Some of us — not me personally — have made thousands of calls. This is a massive global juggernaut of a campaign in which we have taken part. It has reached out to millions of compatriots worldwide.

Perched atop our liberal London eyrie, we steadfastly believe that our candidate is about to spread her flawed but moderately progressive wings and fly into history, heroically heralding in great swooping strides four to eight more years of Democratic residency in the White House.

Even as results roll in and we stand holding our collective breath, fingers crossed double behind backs, sugar plu, Joe Bidens dancing in our heads, even when we see the blue states crash blood red, even then we believe all is not lost, though our hearts are not as buoyant as they were when the evening started. Even as I leave my second party of the evening, the one I have got to after 2 am, the one where all the guests have already left in despair and the host ruefully sips wine and says ‘hath no man here a dagger for me?’ with his eyes, even then I think that the unions of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in my home state of Pennsylvania, which has not gone red for a generation, I feel even now most in our hour of need, the treacherous rednecks of Bucks, Monroe, Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties won’t betray us. Surely not now.

Only bleary eyed, in the cold, harsh political hangover of the next day after several precious but fitful hours of sleep the Ipad unusually laying beside me open to the BBC’s all night coverage, only then do I find that history is indeed a nightmare from which I am trying to awake all day long, and the corrosive politics of my country will once again away at itself and the world at large for a sustained and unpredictable amount of time.

Our eagle has flapped and fallen and we’ve all come tumbling down. Like the destruction of some intergalactic world, defenseless and full of reasonably progressive politics, it is as though a thousand leftist voices cry out in pain and then stop, disturbing the galactic balance of the force.

Well… the voices don’t stop for a good few weeks. They still haven’t.

Much to the displeasure of Trump voters and gloaters including my own Republican parents.

And well those voices shouldn’t stop.

The easiest path in the universe would be to throw in the towel, lie down and characterize your fellow citizens inbred piles of chewed up tobacco for brains as I did just six paragraphs ago, like the smug liberal piss ant than I am.

But we know what we have to do.

No. It’s not to rally together and bond, ‘healing wounds’ in some saccharine crusted patchwork quilt. Cauterize maybe. but not heal. Some wounds are worth keeping. Some pain is worth remembering.

We need to do what we did not do during the entire campaign. We must tell a compelling story about the terrible risk and the horrible threat that our own commander-in-chief poses to us as Americans. We need to keep raising our voices as loudly and clamorously as possible.

We need to keep on waking each other up from this nightmare of history, keep waking each other up every day and stay as woke as we can.

 

Crazy Sh*& My Republican Parents Say or Trying to Find Traction in Nonsense

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ibtimes.com

 

“But Dad, I read an article from Alternet that meticulously compiled Trump’s interviews and public statements. You want to know how often he lies? Statistically, he lies every five minutes.”

“Yeah?! Well She lies every two minutes.”

“Um… uh… um… well. That’s pretty bad.”

My father. Just a few weeks ago. Making a sound case that a vote for Hillary is just as bad as a vote for Trump.

I mean, come onAmerica! What do you do? And I’m not talking to just my small, closed-with-an-insularity-and-fascism-that-stinks-of-npr-the-guardian-the-new-york-times-and-radio-4, left wing, like-minded card carrying traitors commies liberals. I mean the almost sensible compassionless, selfishly driven amiable and good tempered conservatives and libertarians that I haven’t unfriended and or stopped talking to.

How do you find traction in a post-fact, post-truth world of unreality and ignorance. Like the young Republican — with whom I had a bizarre exchange back in my college days in front of the Willard building in Penn State — who told me in front of my Green Party Stall that he’s an environmentalist and has a great bumper sticker that says ‘pave the rainforests’ right before hearty guffaws of laughter, sudden change to seriousness and then, “but seriously, what about the family planning clinics that are responsible for the fall of Western Civilisation?” with no irony whatsoever, the right wing modus operandi is science fiction.And aside from my old pal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, how is a thinking person to respond?

It’s the bistro ship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. It defies all laws of history, memory, logic and thought to drag its notions of fancy and imagination from the ununiverse of black space dust and anti-matter into existence and real form, looking odd, misshapen, lumpy and… well… not of this world.

How else do you explain Trump? He’s finally used enough of his underpaid workers from his various restaurants and hotels (whose nationalities he loves) to bring himself from the void of nothingness in between dimensions into reality like some hideously deformed, monstrous product of hate fostered over say… oh… I don’t know… the last eight years or so (that’s right, Republicans, it’s true. This is of your own making. What Republicans read my blog?).

I thought that if I was honest with my father for the first time about my political views (I’m in my… ahem… late thirties), that we’d have a productive exchange of views, that we’d air our differences, that we’d get to know each other better. I mean, did my Dad really not know all these years that I was as far to the left as the hard shoulder of an American passing lane. Well as far to the left as a European Conservative. Well, as far to the left as an American socialist?

But my father, like so many Republicans so happy to trample all over Godwin, likes to pull arguments out of all sorts of places and as long as he emphasises them with enough conviction, brandish them as truth or fact or legitimate even. It’s difficult when truth gets in the way, so it’s easy to brush aside. Like when my mother also said over the summer:

“I’m hopeful. George W. Bush didn’t seem too smart at first but he did pretty good,” to which of course my reaction was absolute horror, or in the parlance of the post-truth millennial world, shocked face, shocked face, shocked face, pile of poop. How could my mother not know to say pretty well instead of pretty good? So embarrassing.

And how could bad, Northeastern Pennsylvanian grammar erase the truth from one’s mind of one of the most divisive presidents in history?

In the same way that the constant drip of Hannity, Dennis Miller and the strange, circuitous, other-worldly logic of Trump can make you think that he’s “not that bad”, that he’s going to “make America great” again and that he’s going to somehow “sort out the jobs for everyone” by closing us off to the world and tacitly encouraging a violent dystopian society in which dissenting voices are dragged out and silenced.

And I suppose this is why the best argument we have lies with the post-millenials, like my nine year old son, who, on our first morning of our annual trip to America, said to my father, “Grandpa, do you actually like Trump?”

My father cautiously replied with, “Well, I like some of his ideas,” to which my son, with great conviction responded with, “don’t! I think he’s a big fat idiot and farthead!” and continued making fart and poop jokes about Trump for another ten minutes.

Out of the mouths of babes comes the most effective rebuttals to the childish arguments of the right.

Laughter, the most potent weapon.

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