For the past week I've been in Auckland, and haven't heard a radio, haven't watched television, and have only touched a computer to print out the boarding passes for our flight back to Dunedin. Of course, we had an iPad with us, and my new Samsung Galaxy phone, so we had plenty of communication with the outside world, but in the house we were staying at they barely watch television any more (and who can blame them?) and the radio isn't turned on as a matter of course.
We did Sudukos and read books, and went out and so on, so we were hardly starved for entertainment. I finished one of Agatha Christie's least successful books, A Pocket Full of Rye, a book so contrived to fit to the silly nursery rhyme that characterization is virtually nil, and plot isn't much better. The murderer is a disappointment, because we actually want someone who provides a much more interesting solution to the plot. There were times when Christie could be quite witty, and could allow her characters to speak for themselves. Here, however, she's forever providing stereotypes, so that the characters are barely distinguishable from each other as people. She also introduces a new detective, Neele, but he's such a dullard (though she keeps telling us he's not) that she has to bring Miss Marple in about three-quarters of the way through to provide some light relief.
I also finished reading Justin Lee's Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. This is one of the most generous-hearted books on this usually contentious subject I've come across, that I would recommend it to anyone who wants to find a way through the current mire. Not that Lee has all the answers, or attempts to give them, but he does want people from both sides to acknowledge each other and be able to communicate. I'll probably write more about it at another time.
We went to see Speaking in Tongues, by Australian playwright, Andrew Bovell. This NZ production, at the Herald Theatre, was brilliantly put across by the four actors (all familiar faces from TV) and their director. The cast
played nine roles in all, each person in the story intersecting at some point
with at least one other character.
Structurally I'm not sure that it quite works, but the scenes within the
piece are often intense and there's a great deal of reflection on relationships
throughout. It's certainly a very actor-driven piece; they're required to
perform considerable feats not only of memory but of timing: the show opens
with two actors often speaking in unison, but not necessarily the same two actors; they often cut into each other's lines and finish them off and so on.
Other scenes are more conventional in approach but there's a terrific section in the second
half when a recording of one of the actresses is intermingled with the
live dialogue. The sound person is very
involved in this play, and has to be on his/her toes constantly.
When I say structurally I'm not sure that it works I mean that individual scenes work to a climax - for the most part - but the two acts don't particularly. In fact, the night we went, so unsure was the audience that the first act had ended that no one clapped. When it became evident that it had indeed ended I was so amazed at the silence, that I started to clap and was soon joined by some others. The second act ends in a similarly abrupt way with a number of loose ends left hanging. While I appreciate that Bovell is probably not intending to write a 'well-made' play in the older sense, I couldn't quite see why he worked against the elements he presented to such a degree that he left his audience a bit stranded. Anyway, what do I know? The play has been a huge success wherever it's been presented. I think this is mainly because it provides the actors with such rich characters to work on. Apparently the film version, (Lantana) is more cohesive (our hosts actually watched it the next night on DVD), so maybe that's a hint that Bovell felt he needed to bring some more order to things in the screen version.
We also attended the Joan Baez concert, on Thursday, at the wonderfully over-the-top Civic Theatre. It's like Dunedin's St James Theatre used to be before it was hacked around and turned into several smaller cinemas. Joan was preceded by Kate Fagin, an Australian folk singer (or 'independent roots' singer, as she's dubbed on her website), who suddenly appeared on stage, sang a song, introduced herself, sang another song (again accompanying herself on the guitar) and then sang two more songs with piano accompaniment. She was good, but the crowd really wanted to see Baez. Most curiously, after Fagin, there was a fifteen to twenty-minute interval, in spite of the fact that Fagin had taken only about ten to fifteen minutes herself. The stage was reset for Baez and her group, and you had to wonder why what Fagin had done was so remarkably different to what was then set up; surely it could all have been left as it was. Anyway, after a bit of an irritating interval, with a kind of amateurish feel to all the jostling about that went on onstage, Joan finally appeared - unannounced, something that the NZ Herald critic thought was poorly handled - and just began to sing. Her charisma made you forget the weak start to the programme (in different circumstances, I'm sure that Fagin is a very good performer), and she was soon joined by her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion, and the multi-instrumentalist, Dirk Powell, who during the evening played banjo, guitar, bass guitar, piano, fiddle, accordion, and probably something else. Baez's assistant, Grace Stomber, a short young lady, joined Joan in one or two of the songs, but mostly contented herself with swapping Baez's guitars between every song during the entire night. Presumably she was off tuning them and adding capos or maybe even giving them a bit of polish.
Anyway, Baez was wonderful when singing in her middle to low register; struggling a bit in her upper register. She is 72, so she has an excuse for no longer being able to sing as she once did, but for the most part her vocals floated with ease across the accompaniments, often sliding between the beats but never losing their rhythm. My wife was the one who'd been really keen to see her, since she's been a fan of Baez since the early sixties. But I was won over to her as well; I've heard her songs sung around the house as long as my wife and I have been married, but it was altogether different hearing them sung by a little old lady picking away at a guitar in front of a couple of thousand mostly grey or white-haired people.
For a full review of the evening read Liz Gunn on the 13th Floor.