Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Learning lines, and memorizing

I've mentioned recently that I was playing a part in the play Hamp, put on by Stageworks in Dunedin at the Playhouse.

With this play, and the one I did last year - The Sunshine Boys - I found something curious had happened to my learning of lines. In previous plays I've had to work endlessly hard to retain the lines, and even then not felt very secure. But with these two plays, once the lines have been learned, they're secure, and only a distraction (such as happened one night during Hamp) puts me off saying the right thing in the right place.

This is curious, because by rights, you'd think, being now at an exalted age, it ought to be harder for me to learn lines. And I'm not aware that I've changed my approach to learning them, except in one respect: I work through them one at a time until I can do a page or so of them from memory. Then I read the cue from the other actor, (either out loud or in my head) and (with my line covered up) recite my own line.

I learned the lines for Sunshine Boys very quickly with this 'method' last year, and the lines for Hamp came pretty quickly too, although, as always, there were one or two that remained sticky until late in the proceedings. But I didn't feel perturbed about that. I knew they'd come.

So maybe it's just a gain in confidence. Seems unlikely; I've been reasonably confident on stage these last ten years or so.

I do insist on one thing: that the lines are learned as they're written. If this isn't done, it's too easy to veer off course. You'd think that all actors (amateur actors, I'm talking about here) would learn the lines that the author gives them, but some don't. They have a tendency to partly learn them, and then, of course, they find themselves in trouble on stage, and have to paraphrase. The mind has the extraordinary ability to paraphrase, to substitute words with similar meanings, if we get into any trouble. But I prefer not to rely on that, and it's not ideal. It can be off-putting for other actors waiting on a particular cue.

Anyway, that's one aspect of memorisation. The other is that the only other thing I've really memorised over the last year or so is Psalm 119, that great hulk of a work with 176 verses, and a huge amount of similar lines. With this Psalm I had to use all the techniques I could think of to hold it together in my head. I got it to the point where I could recite it through, last year, left it alone for a while, and have been revising it this year, reinforcing things, and checking that I'm actually saying the right words in the right places.

The interesting thing is that even though I'd left it alone for a few months, the basic structural approach I'd taken to learning it survived, and kept the piece mostly in my head. Some details had wandered, and had to be pulled back into line, but having done that, the thing is once again on a secure footing. Furthermore, I'm now able to get past the techniques and listen to the words themselves, something that was quite hard to do when I was learning it.

A few days ago I wrote myself a note: now is not the time to give up memorising. I've memorised Scripture and poetry for years, mostly during the half hour walk I took to work in the mornings. But I haven't revised a lot of that material for some time, and the other day I felt it was time to put the revision work in and get some of those things back into my system.

I started with Hebrews chapter 12, something I learned many years ago. To my surprise, it was basically still intact, once I'd run through it a few times; the lines that had seemed hard to get under my belt all those years ago came back without too much effort, and already I'm feeling as though it's well within my grasp again.

The joy of memorising things is that you really get to know them. We can read something over and over and still find that we skim bits, or ignore some things. Once you start to memorise, you have to learn every word, and learn it right. This does something very good for the soul...

The Lavender Hill Mob

I don't remember ever seeing The Lavender Hill Mob before, though it's a film I've heard about since I was a kid (it came out when I was six) and have wanted to catch up with for a long time.

I finally caught up on it on DVD yesterday, and what a joy it is. It has a wonderful cast, led by Alec Guinness (with a wonderful lisp on the letter R) and Stanley Holloway (seemingly full of his own importance, but a softie at heart), along with Syd James and Alfie Bass (as two small-time crooks brought in to help the completely inexperienced gold thieves, Guinness and Holloway). Charles Crichton takes T E B Clarke's daft script and gives it all he's got. What a team they were.

The premise is that the extremely mild-manned Guinness, who accompanies gold bullion from the factory to the Bank on a regular basis, has hatched a plan to snaffle the latest shipment. He just needs an accomplice who fits with his plan. Holloway, whom he meets by accident, runs a small factory making gewgaws (the Factory's name, in fact) for the tourist trade. Amongst these are metal Eiffel Towers which are painted gold and sold to tourists...in Paris. If the towers are actually gold, and not just gold-painted, they can be easily shipped to Paris and stored there for future sale to those who are in the market for illegal gold. The two work together and everything goes well, until...

Well, you have to watch it to see how complicated it gets, but the result is a delight. There are so many wonderful details: Alfie Bass is the tiny little crook, but his shadow as he climbs through a window is enormous; Guinness wearing a knotted handkerchief on his head as they pour the gold, an angelic smile on his face; the crazy attempt to get through French customs where they're constantly sent back for yet another check by the annoying French officials; the totally daft car chase at the end with police cars chasing each other rather than the 'villains', an American driver's car aerial getting entangled with the police aerial so that Old MacDonald has a farm goes out to all the police cars, and a policeman, hitching a lift with Guinness and Holloway rousingly joins in the song.

Or the old lady who lives in the same boarding house as Guinness and Holloway and who asks, in crime detection language, if the police have sorted things out. And the woman who owns the boarding house, a harridan of sorts who's only four foot something high. Or the way Guinness is supposed to be roughed up by his co-villains, and isn't, and has to do the job himself while tied up with rope and blindfolded. It's endlessly inventive, and much of the humour is hard to describe because of its particularly cinematic nature.

The wonderful Britishness of it all is another marvellous aspect. Was Britain ever really like this, with comic faces and eccentric attitudes on every street corner? It's hard to know, but those who made the Ealing Comedies certainly thought so, and they've left a picture of Britain for us that is heartwarming and hilarious.

Oh, and watch out for the tiniest of appearances from Audrey Hepburn, near the beginning of the movie.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Listening - making a start

I was sent a review copy of Lynne Baab's latest book - The Power of Listening - about a month or two ago. With one thing and another, I haven't had time to get into it properly, but I've dipped into it over the last few days, just to get the feel of it, in particular chapter 8 The Listening Toolbox, and chapter 9, Anxiety and Listening. Because I do a little pastoral supervision work, these chapters have both proved useful in terms of reminding me about the skills required for listening in a particular situation (supervision) and listening to people in general, in conversation, whether it's a conversation that's skimming the surface, plumbing the depths, or just being enjoyable.

It's very easy to put yourself at the centre of a conversation, and after having lunch yesterday with a group of people I know reasonably well, and travelling an hour to the venue and another hour back again, I had some opportunities to consider how I was doing in the listening area. Not 100% marks, maybe, but reasonably high. I enjoy talking with people about what they're doing, finding out more about them, hearing their views. Like so many conversationalists, however, I have to watch that I'm listening to what they're saying, and not preparing to put my oar in while they're still talking. Getting the balance right can be tricky.

Of course, it's not enjoyable to 'converse' with someone who spends the entire time talking about themselves (unless that's what the conversation is intended to be about) but equally it's not enjoyable for the other person in a conversation to feel that as soon as they've told you something you come in and 'top' their story with something you think is better. It's so easy to dredge up some old story
you think is relevant to the topic, give it some frills and make it the focus.

Anyway, thanks, Lynne, for a book that's helping in this department. Even though I've read it out of order, I'll get back to the rest as soon as I can!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hamp over and done

The Stageworks production of the play, Hamp, is now over and done with, and I've wound up with a cold. Not the only actor, apparently; a combination of tiredness and a cold theatre (or at least cold on the stage itself) didn't help.
It's an odd play, as I noted in my last post, and I don't know that any of the actors felt they completely got to grips with it. Perhaps more rehearsal time and discussion about the characters might have helped, but we were constrained by a short rehearsal period, and so had to do our best with the time we had.
The audiences 'enjoyed' it. I put enjoyed in quotes because it's not a play you enjoy; you kind of endure it, because it's pretty obvious from early on that things aren't going to go well for the main character. It's a bit like how you feel about Hamlet. No matter how many times you see it, he's never going to come out alive.
I mentioned the following incident on Facebook, I think: one lady couldn't bear to watch it to the end and left her husband in the audience while she went out and sat in the car. 'That poor young man!' she told one of front of house people. There were tears from other audience members, and gasps each night when Hamp basically opens his mouth at one crucial point in the court martial, and lands himself in the poo.
One man, however, only got to the end of the first act: 'Not my sort of thing. Boring.' He'd already muttered all the way through the act, and would have been in line to be throttled by the cast if he'd carried on any longer. The first act is a long conversation between Hamp and his defending counsel - there are only occasional interruptions from other minor characters. It's the sort of scene that requires top notch intensity, because there's no real conflict between the two characters, not much for them to get their teeth into. But that's the way the author's written it...
The cast consisted of young actors, in their early twenties, and a bunch of older actors - apart from two guys who came in somewhere in the middle. As a group we got on well; there was no sense that the youngsters avoided the oldies. It's strange to think that in thirty or forty years time, if these young actors remember acting in the play, the older actors will have long been forgotten. It's unlikely any of us will live to be a hundred or more!

Members of the cast in the court martial scene:
Rob Hart as Prescott, Lindsay Smith as the Midgely, the prosecutor, Elliot Phillips as Hamp, Craig Storey as the Guard, Rob Monzari (at back) as the Corporal, and Brian Kilkelly as Hargreaves, the defending counsel.
Photo courtesy of Ian Thomson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Different viewpoints

We had the opening night of Hamp at the Playhouse in Dunedin last night. There was a very appreciative audience who were obviously deeply engrossed in the play: we hardly heard a sound out of them all night, except for the occasional chuckle at one or two of the lines. I was interested in particular to see that no one laughed at the part of the play where Hamp collapses (too much rum) during the communion service. Plainly my concerns that people might find this funny were unfounded.

In fact, my perceptions, from the inside of the play, are obviously quite different to the way in which people see the play, as a whole, from the outside. My character, the Padre, opens the second act, under cross-examination from the prosecutor at Hamp's court martial, and then vanishes for the rest of the act, only to turn up as an important character in the third act. A number of the actors, in fact, only appear in the second act.

This has given me, as an actor, a slightly dislocated feeling in terms of the rest of the play. Of course I've seen the first act in rehearsal, and last night listened to it again on the Tannoy system that lets those backstage hear what's going on onstage, but because I have no connection with this part, I have to come onstage cold at the beginning of the second act, when several of the other actors have already been well warmed-up for an hour.

It's rather like being a bit-player in a movie: you turn up for your couple of day's shooting without having experience anything of what the other actors have been involved in. Not that I'm complaining: I'm quite content with the role because it's actually an interesting part - and I don't have anywhere near as many lines to learn as I did in Sunshine Boys!

I just have to understand that what the audience sees isn't what I see, and that the author of the play, John Wilson, knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Bekas is a Kurdish word that's variously translated as orphans, complete loneliness, parentless. It's all of those things. It's also the title of a slightly odd but quite engaging movie about two brothers who, after seeing part of the film Superman in their home village, decide to go to America and meet Superman. Perhaps even ask him to come back to their home country and kill Saddam Hussein (who at the time of the movie's story, was causing havoc in Kurdistan).

The orphaned brothers are not very old. Ten-year-old Dana (Sarwar Fazil) has a bit of a romance going on with a girl who is somewhat ambivalent towards him (it's never going to work, but he doesn't know that), and is the ideas man. The younger one, Zana (Zamand Taha), is six or seven, strident, energetic, optimistic, seldom put down for more than a moment - a considerable feat in Kurdistan, where any adult male (in fact, any older male, including your brother) is likely to beat you at the drop of a hat, often with the least provocation. It's not a place for wimps.

The boys shine shoes for a living, and naturally struggle to make ends meet. In their attempts to walk or ride to America (which in their minds is only a few inches across the map and therefore can't be far away) they run into various troubles, are separated, joined up again and nearly killed. It's a grim life made bearable only by keeping your own spirits up. No one else will do it for you.

The film has some humour, but in general there's little understatement of the stark poverty the boys live in. They wear the same clothes day in and out, don't appear to eat very often, and even have to berate customers to get them to pay the proper price for their shoeshining. A few older people help them at times, but for the most part they're on their own. And at journey's end, things don't seem to have made a lot of progress, though at least they're out of Saddam's clutches, for the time being.

The cast is mostly amateur, which means that people turn up here who would never appear on screen otherwise, their faces marked in many cases with the sheer difficulties of life. The two boys are good-looking, and convey all the emotion needed in their roles. Taha has a voice that would kill a goat a twenty paces - some viewers have felt he has only one vocal mode: full-bore shouting. He may be excused in this because of the sheer need his character has to be heard when so many ears around him are deaf to his cries.

The film was written and directed by Karzan Kader, and is based on his own story of escape from Kurdistan. He had previously made a short film version of it; this full-length one has no feeling of being expanded for the sake of it.

Playing the Padre

I've been rehearsing the play, Hamp, over the last few weeks. It's a Stageworks production, and performances begin next Wednesday (the 13th, August).
I'm playing the otherwise unnamed 'Padre'. He doesn't appear until the beginning of the second act, when the court martial of the title character takes place. He has three pages of dialogue at that point with the prosecuting counsel, and then vanishes again until the third act, when he comes into his own.
He's a no-nonsense character, has a true Christian faith, but is deeply troubled by the events taking place around him: not just the War itself, but the particular problems relating to Hamp's trial. His anger rises to the surface quickly, and often, because he's forever having to face men who treat other men too casually, and who regard Army rules as of more value than human life. It's a difficult part to play, but rewarding.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Worth Dying For

Worth Dying For is the first Jack Reacher novel I've read. I've heard a good deal about the series of books featuring this character, so, when I was in need of something fictional to get into, I thought I'd give one of them a go.
This book is well on in the series (the 15th) and Lee Child, the author, writes with enormous confidence about his renegade, retributionist righter-of-wrongs. Reacher hardly ever puts a foot wrong - he's that sort of character - except on one occasion when he gets his nose well and truly busted, something that several other characters in the story also suffer. In fact, if you want to remember in future which Lee Child story this is, think broken noses. They're as common as daisies here.
Reacher is dropped off at a remote crossroads in Nebraska (we later learn there may have been more to this than mere coincidence) and walks into a situation. The local doctor is in the only bar for sixty miles, in a motel (the only one for sixty miles) and is pretty drunk. He gets a call to help one of his patients who's been beaten in what appears to be a domestic violence issue, refuses to attend, and then has to change his mind when Reacher's righteousness plugs in. Which conveniently unwinds all the rest of the intricate plot.
I found the violence almost too much at times (it often gets described in detail), and the revenge/retribution elements at the end of the book seemed to have an amoral aspect to them, however satisfying it may be seeing all the baddies gradually get their just desserts. Reacher is a vigilante kind of character - at least in this book. He seems to be able to act above the law without qualm because he knows he's right. And yes, the police in this story haven't done a very good job of sorting out the disappearance of a young girl many years before, nor do they have any great part to play in dealing with the present day situation. On top of this, Reacher aims to drag the local people up out of their victim status (they've been bullied for at least a couple of decades by a trio of brothers), and does, though it takes a good deal of doing.
In other hands this story might have been a piece of nonsense, but Child has absolute control over his material, whether it's describing a weapon or car in detail, or what a fight does to a human body, or detailing the bleakness of the winter Nebraska landscape and its isolated inhabitants. The dialogue is consistently good, and trying to stop at the end of any of the chapters is quite some task. Furthermore, there are some wonderful twists in the plot, mostly concerning who is driving whose car or vehicle at a particular time, and the consequences of doing so. The baddies dispose of minor baddies, and Reacher often gives them a helping hand surreptitiously. The finale is perhaps just a little contrived, but it certainly cleans things up for good.
I wasn't going to get another book in the series out of the library. But I have.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Letters to Father Jacob

Postia pappi Jaakobille, or, Letters to Father Jacob, is a movie by Finnish director, Klaus Härö. 
It has two main characters, a female ex-con, and an elderly and blind priest. A postman plays a smaller role, and there is a man at the beginning who asks where Leila, the pardoned prisoner, is going to go. That's the cast. The setting is a remote rectory with a leaky roof, and bundles of letters stored everywhere. The nearby church has been unused for some long time, it appears. 

Leila reluctantly accepts the offer of a live-in job not as the priest's housekeeper but as the reader of the letters he receives every day from people far and wide asking for prayer and help. She is also expected to write the replies he dictates. Leila is not much impressed with the job; she's obviously long since given up on God, and believes what she did that caused her to be put in prison is probably unforgivable. The priest has more faith than this, though he too has a struggle at one point in the story. 

The film takes its slow way forward, allowing for plenty of subtlety and reflection, and relies heavily on the skills of the two leading actors, Kaarina Hazard and Heikki Nousiainen. Though Nousiainen was only sixty-four when the movie was his face appears much older, full of lines and crags. He has been an actor since the late sixties, but because we don't know him, we can come to him fresh in this movie, without the baggage of having seen him in dozens of other roles, and can believe in the sanctity that surrounds his character. 

Finland is a country in which Protestantism is the registered faith of around 75% of the population, though few of those actually go to church most of the year. Christmas and Easter are the main times when people attend. So it would be easy to expect that the film would take a somewhat negative approach to Christian belief; in fact it presents a Christian faith as a perfectly reasonable thing, and doesn't undermine it at any point. 


I've been using Clippings Converter for two or three years. It began as a way of uploading clippings from my Kindle into a format like Word or Evernote (I prefer the latter) and being able to access them more readily while using my PC. They've now shortened their name from Clippings Converter to clippings.io, and are heading for another step up in their online journey, with added features that will enhance their site considerably. The main addition is the Google Chrome extension, which you can use to speed up the shift from the Kindle itself to your PC or Mac. There is a small charge per month for this extension (previously Clippings Converter was free), and no doubt there will be many people who take advantage of it. At $2.49NZ it's a good deal. With this extension you no longer have to plug in your Kindle to your PC; the extension will read clippings from your phone or iPad or other Windows devices. It'll be interesting to see how that works. 

If you're already a follower of this site, you can encourage others to use it through Twitter, FB or Google+. Just click on any of the links below. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

No sales tax

As an Auckland resident (which I'm not) I'm told that if I make any purchases from premiertablelinens.com I won't have to pay sales tax. Although that apparently excludes any shipments to Florida that I may make. I'm not sure if Florida has recently transplanted itself to Auckland, New Zealand, but I guess it's kind of possible. They have similar climates at certain times of the year, and lately Auckland has been getting more and more tropical weather of the typhoon/tornado kind. Aucklanders, who continually tell those who live in the rest of the country how badly off they are, have been losing their roofs, windows, trampolines and more in a series of hectic winds. We've never lost our trampoline, though it did shift place a little once. Nor have we ever had the roof blown away. Thankfully. However, glass from the glasshouse is prone to fly off and smash in a high wind, and that has happened to us. We can't be protected from all things down here in the South. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Promise

Over the last few days we've watched the four episodes of Peter Kosminsky's TV film: The Promise. Like much of Kosminsky's TV work, it's quite provocative, and your sympathies change as the story unfolds.

Two stories interweave: one is set in Palestine just after the Second World War. A young sergeant is caught up in the historic events of the time, when the British were keeping the peace - as far as possible - between the new Jewish settlers who'd returned to their homeland after the horrors of the concentration camps, and the Palestinians who had lived in the area for centuries and were suddenly finding themselves kicked out of their country by a people who apparently forgot, very quickly, what it was like to be treated badly because of who you were.

The second story is set in the present day: the Sergeant is now an old man dying in a hospital. His unsympathetic daughter and his granddaughter (who's barely known the supposedly grumpy old man) set about clearing out his house. The daughter, Erin, finds the old man's diary, with photos and newspaper clippings. Against her mother's orders, she keeps the diary, and takes it with her to Israel where she's going with a friend whose Israeli background means she has to go into the Army for two years. Erin is a typical know-all teenager who begins to find out a great deal more about the Israel-Palestine conflict than she would ever have learned in her native country, and also matures quickly as a result of trying to repair something that had gone wrong back when her grandfather was a young man.

The two stories gradually cohere. There are perhaps too many coincidences in the plotting, and the filmmakers slide over some questions about motivations that probably should have been asked, but for all that the film carries you along as you increasingly struggle - like Erin - to make sense of a country where a people who were hated almost universally for centuries (the Jews) and then were slaughtered in their millions, show almost no care or concern for a people who by accident live in the country the Jews claim as their homeland.

Kosminsky doesn't offer us easy answers: we begin by thinking that the Israelis are a pretty reasonable bunch of people, but gradually discover - as both the grandfather and the granddaughter do - that they have almost no sympathy for the Palestinians, and show little concern about killing them or destroying their property if the need, or mood, arises. Try as you might, by the end of the movie, it's likely your opinion of the Israeli people may be much less sympathetic than at first. Whether this is a more one-sided view on Kosminsky's part than is fair is left to our judgement.

Claire Foy plays the initially sulky teenager with ease - there are times when you want to wipe that sulky look off her face, even late in the film. Nevertheless, she makes the journey from sulkiness to a degree of wisdom effectively. Christian Cooke, as the Sergeant, has a face that often makes it look as though he's going to burst into tears, yet he convinces us that he's a man who can make wise decisions, is loyal, is strong in a crisis, and much more. He's particularly strong in his last scenes when everything he's tried to do for a Palestinian family goes wrong, and he's treated as a deserter and thrown into prison.

The rest of the enormous cast are superb, and with the film shot entirely in Israel (with places standing in for Hebron, Gaza, and the West Bank. Even the Ben Gurion airport stands in for Heathrow. The series in general received high praise when first shown, though there were a number of voices claiming that it was anti-semitic in tone, something which can be justified, if that's what you're looking for.

Since writing this review I've become more aware of the concerns that were raised over Kosminsky's series. This article goes into detail about these and provides some balance to the way in which Kosminsky nudges his viewers more and more into an anti-Israeli bias.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Other Son

The Other Son is an intense, emotional film set in Israel and Palestine (there's a great deal of coming and going across the border between the two areas, and many views of the wall), and it's quite a tear-jerker, though in best sense.

It has a slightly improbable story, perhaps (although the starting point of the story is as old as the hills): two babies are literally swapped at birth because of fears of a Scud attack.One baby is Jewish but is given back to the Palestinian mother, and the other baby, of course, is Palestinian, and given back to the Jewish mother.This only comes to light when the 'Jewish' boy is about to turn eighteen and a blood test reveals that he couldn't possibly be the son of his parents. The other parents are informed, and there's a great deal of struggling to come to grips with the issue, both on the part of the two young men, but even more so on the part of the fathers. The mothers manage to begin to work through the problem much quicker than their husbands, of course, but even for them it's a major upheaval.

There are four languages spoken in the film: Hebrew, Arabic, English and French - the Jewish father is French by birth, and it appears that the family has spent some time there, but the 'Arab' boy has also been studying there.

The director is Lorraine Lévy, who also co-wrote the screenplay. She makes a fine job of bringing out the emotional aspects of the story (there's little 'action' in it), and is supported by a wonderful cast, all of whom are unknown to me, though plainly very experienced. When you see foreign movies you realise again and again what a vast world of actors, directors, writers there is out there whom we barely know about. We're so inundated with Hollywood and British movies and TV that we remain quite insular. 

This is a great story, and well worth catching up with. There's an interesting interview with the director here.

Writing and reading

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Anne Lamott