Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell

Couple of spoilers here...
This isn't a blockbuster movie, although it has some exciting go-kart racing early on. It's a small-scale, New Zealand film focused on a family to whom a tragedy (almost) happens.

Gazza Snell (blustering Australian actor William McInnes) is your self-made man with a cleaning business, but his big interest in life is getting his sons into professional car racing. The boys are both talented, but the hobby is eating up funds and Gazza's drawer is full of unpaid bills. There's also a small and undeveloped sub-plot about him running for the local council. He certainly has dreams, but he doesn't have much of a practical outlook.

His wife, Gail, (Robyn Malcolm, in a uncharacteristically subdued mode) is long-suffering, but when the major crisis hits the family - the younger boy is put into a coma after a track accident - she explodes.

Their older boy (Josh McKenzie) has his life run by his father. It's not that he doesn't enjoy racing, nor that he's no good at it, it's just that it's really his father's dream he's living, not his own.

The direction and particularly the pacing of the movie is excellent: the opening sequence establishes the characters quickly, the background of the family, and a good deal more...before the accident. From then on the movie takes a darker tone, with Gazza heavy-handedly crashing his way through all the situations, until he's finally brought to the realisation that there are some things he just can't change. And some that he can: his deceit, his false ambitions and his relationships with his family.

There are a couple of missteps in the movie: Joel Tobeck plays the next-door neighbour Ron (apparently his wife has gone, but we never hear much about this). He's there as a support for both Gazza and Gail, but in one scene he winds up supporting Gail in a rather more intimate way. Nothing more comes of this - Ron would like more, but Gail realises she's made a mistake. However, it undercuts Gail's integrity as a character, especially as she never admits to it having happened.

And in an early scene the younger boy, who only looks about 13 or 14, makes some sexual comment to a young woman who works for the cleaning company. She tells him to get lost, but after the movie is finished, and the credits start, she turns up again in the hospital and exposes her breasts the boy. It seems a bit tasteless, and undermines the well-tuned ending of the story.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading All's Well That Ends Well, again.

I read Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well a number of years ago. At the time I was so impressed with one of the King's speeches that I memorised it.

I've just read the play again, along with the long introduction by Susan Snyder, in the Oxford World's Classics edition. A very good introduction, with lots of helpful insights into the play, the problems (it depends whether you think the play is a problem play or not) and the characters. Excellent notes as well, helpfully on the same page as the script.

But what an odd piece it is. It debunks romantic love almost entirely.Though the heroine, Helen, is madly in love with Count Bertram (he doesn't have any idea of this) she doesn't in any sense woo him (if that were possible in that age). Instead she wins him by earning the right to take the hand of one of the King's men in exchange for healing the King of something none of his physicians have managed to deal with.

Bertram is an adolescent emotionally and attitudinally, but he's quite right to feel offended about being given a wife without having any say in the matter. And to show his disapproval he doesn't even consummate the marriage but skips off to war with his sidekick, Paroles. Paroles is an odd character he's constantly shown to be disliked by other characters, and distrusted by them, yet it's only late in the play that he actually does anything that's really offensive. Perhaps on stage it works better, with an actor being able to fill out what's not in the script's words.

But most curious of all, to me, in the opening scene he and Helen (who's shown to be virtuous and honourable throughout the play) have a very strange and bawdy conversation about virginity - for a hundred lines! It's as if Shakespeare sets out from the beginning to get rid of the notion that sex in (or out of ) marriage is anything but a very earthy thing, and that for all our attempts to make it something more exalted, it's nothing more than a human physical need.

There's a great deal about sex in this play: the later part of the plot revolves around getting Bertram into a trap that's sexual in nature (the 'old bed trick' which Shakespeare used more than once). He winds up bedding his own wife and making her pregnant, even though by that time he thinks she's dead. There's a good deal of discussion of the sexual relationships between men and women, discussion that would prove much too frank for some later generations. Besides Paroles and his bawdiness there's another character (known only as the Clown) who adds to the bawdiness in an even more gross way, and does this in discussion with Bertram's mother, the Countess, a lady who would also be above this sort of discussion, you'd think.

The trick against poor old Bertram is revealed in front of the King and the Countess, and Bertram once again is trapped. After all the sorting out he winds up saying a couple of slightly ambiguous lines in which he says he'll go through with the marriage. But you wonder what sort of a marriage it would ever be.

Shakespeare turns the world on its head, in a sense, in this play. A woman pursues a man in order to marry him, and gets her way. Love barely comes into it, but sex certainly does. None of the grand wedding scene here. The original marriage takes place offstage, and is ordered by the King to take place with barely any preparation, on the same day that Bertram is 'won.'  When Bertram's behaviour towards another woman is revealed he's the one who gets castigated, not her. And at the end of the play, it's still the women who have the upper hand, although the King's authority counts for a good deal.

You wonder what the original audience thought of it. Even today audiences struggle with it. It's not produced as often as it might be, though there are a couple of clips from a Royal Shakespeare production on You Tube.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Using Google Translate

Google Translate has a go at the opening paragraph of my book, Grimhilda!

Two grizzly bears clambered up the walls of Toby’s fort. Above them, a pitiful troop of soldiers tried holding them off by pulling away bits of the fort and dropping them on their heads. Just when it looked as if the bears would climb over the top and eat the men for dinner, one of the desperate soldiers had an idea: ‘Let’s pour honey over the side and distract them!’ It worked admirably. The bears licked the sticky walls and forgot all about being conquerors.

Due orsi grizzly arrampicavano su per le mura di fortificazione di Toby. Sopra di loro, una truppa di soldati pietosa cercò in possesso di loro fuori tirando via bit della fortezza e li cadere sulle loro teste. Proprio quando sembrava che gli orsi sarebbero salite sopra le righe e mangiare gli uomini per la cena, uno dei soldati disperati hanno avuto un'idea: 'Andiamo a versare il miele sul lato e li distraggono!' Ha funzionato egregiamente. Gli orsi leccare le pareti appiccicose e dimenticato tutto di essere conquistatori.

And then translates back into English again...pretty good job! A few grammatical issues that lean more towards Italian than English,,,

Two grizzly bears climbing up the walls of the fortification of Toby. Above them, a troop of soldiers pitiful tried holding them off pulling off bits of the fortress and drop them on their heads. Just when it seemed that the bears would climb over the top and eat people for dinner, one of the soldiers desperate had an idea: 'We're going to pour the honey on the side and distract them!' It worked very well. The bears lick the walls sticky and forgot all about being conquerors.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What Facebook Reveals About Us

One of my sons wrote this piece, and suggested I might like to include it on my blog...
Social media reveals the condition of the human heart. If you didn’t think there was a problem with someone before, now they prove it - on Facebook. But it’s not like there is suddenly a problem with someone. There was always a problem with people.  It’s not as if somehow, before they used social media, they were more righteous or worthy. We just didn’t know them as well.

Sometimes I will read something neutral, sweet or even benign like, “Cat gets caught on tape jumping.” And there’ll be a cute video. These days nothing is benign. A series of comments below a video make the seemingly neutral video completely sordid.

Comment 1. Cuuuuuute!

Comment 2. Cats are the dummest animals.

Comment 3. Dummest is spelt with a “b” m$%#%^ f$%^^&!!!

Comment 4. People need to be shot in the head because they’re dumber than cats.

And all of a sudden, you have this nasty string of angry comments, chiding and slandering each other, biting and devouring each other. And for what? The cat must be thinking, “Soooo, do you like my video?”

So, why does Facebook make people so angry at each other? It doesn’t. It reveals the human condition of sinfulness that has always been there. “From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

People think we are moving society towards greater and greater good, with every new country’s GDP rising, with the discovery of new vaccines, with every “good deed.” But really, we are continuing a long tradition, since the Fall of Man, which shows us, with every new generation, our own personal need for salvation in Jesus Christ.

Every time I see a discussion about an Ebola nurse coming back from Africa and someone blatantly states, “We just need to level the whole continent,” it’s reveals the condition of the human heart - wretched.

Where were these thoughts and opinions before? Does social media make us nastier people? No, those thoughts were already there. They were in the private conversations we had with friends who felt the same way, when no one else heard us, or when we thought no one else heard us. They were in the private thoughts and desires we held and told no one about. How do I know? Because I have had the filthiest conversations and thoughts. Am I unique? No. I am a product of Adam, a descendent of sin, who needs salvation as much as the next guy for every thought, every feeling. And for me, I need not feel any shame for my past sins, now that I am crucified with Christ.

Every time I see a nasty comment I recognize the need for God’s redemptive power in that life. Every time I see a person trying to find a solution to a problem, I recognize the need for God’s redemptive power in that life. Every time I see a good deed I recognize the need for God’s redemptive power in that life. Why? Because without the foundation of God’s truth, His Spirit, and Jesus working in our life, we are all lost, trying to figure out this world, and proving it with the things we say, on social media.

Have mercy on me, Oh God,
According to your unfailing love.
According to your great compassion
Blot out my transgression,
Wipe away all my iniquity,
Cleanse me from all my sin.

God’s response to the psalmist?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A nifty line

Every so often, when you're writing, a line appears that comes so wonderfully formed, you think someone cleverer than you wrote it. In the first chapter of my next book, due to be published in November, there's this line:

He put a stopper in the top, and popped it in his upper pocket. 

It's a bit like a line from a poem, except that this is an ordinary prose story. I love the way the letter p appears all over the sentence, along with the letter t, and the rhythm of the words in the sentence.

Did I say what the name of the book is? Nope? It's The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret - a sequel of sorts. It's a sequel in the sense that it happens about a week after the first book in this series, Grimhilda!, but there are only two characters from the first book who make an appearance in the second. A couple of others are mentioned, but that's it. Almost an entirely new cast...!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What my second ebook (Prostate Wimp) is about

I haven't mentioned my second ebook, Diary of a Prostate Wimp, on this blog as much as I should have. Other things have kept getting in the way - like the writing of the sequel to Grimhilda! which thankfully, is in its last draft (of what feels like the last of several hundred).

Anyway, Prostate Wimp came out at the end of April this year, and I've been considering some of the things that I should point out about it to readers, to give it a better opportunity in the world.

Here are some of the things the book addresses:

If you have any concerns about matters to do with your prostate (here's a list of symptoms from the New Zealand Prostate Cancer Society) talk to your doctor and don't let them put you off. Some doctors can be a bit off-hand about men's issues, and others aren't good at answering questions in sufficient detail. Thankfully I had a very good doctor.

The book focuses on what happened after I'd had a prostate biopsy. The biopsy is done initially to check whether you have any sign of cancer. The current method of biopsy is the transrectal method: through the anus, through the protective skin between the bowel and the prostate, and then chipping off tiny bits of the prostate for inspection. There is increasing concern that this is not a healthy method. Regrettably, in New Zealand at present, this is the main method. There are two articles noted in my book by an Australian journalist, Jason Gale. These are worth reading, even though they're now one and three years old respectively.
Prostate exam [biopsy] deaths from 'superbugs' spur inquiry into cancer tests
Prostate cancer test causing sepsis [infections] spurs biopsy concerns.
Gale is not alone in writing about this issue. I have a number of other similar articles on file, which I'll detail in future blog posts.

In the book, a medical friend of mine expresses considerable concern about the use of a blood test, generally known by the name, PSA. This gives an indication of the degree of enlargement of the prostate - something that is normal in men as they grow older. What it doesn't do is tell the medical people whether you have cancer. When my prostate was shown to be enlarged according to the test (and it was accurate on that point) I was informed by a urologist at the hospital that I could well have cancer, and I needed to have a biopsy. In fact I didn't have cancer, and the biopsy caused problems I could have done without. I detail in the book the case of another friend of mine who had considerably worse experiences than me, as a result of the biopsy and subsequent investigations.

An enlarged prostate is not necessarily a cancerous prostate. An enlarged prostate is a nuisance, and will probably require an operation (the TURP) to remove some of the enlargement. An enlarged prostate causes problems with peeing: it can make it hard to pee, on one hand, and on the other, cause you to go far more often than normal. This still doesn't indicate cancer.

However, it is still necessary to take prostate issues seriously. I'll talk more about this in a later post.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

This Other Eden

The following isn't a review as such; rather some general thoughts about the piece. 

I went to This Other Eden on Tuesday night at the Mayfair Theatre in Dunedin, (same place that Grimhilda! was presented at in 2012). This is Anthony Ritchie's new opera, and what a marvellous piece it is. The music is complex and rich and full of detail, and yet is accessible at first hearing, accessible enough to make you feel you're getting to grips with it without straining your brain too much. It has wonderful emotion, and a frequent use of motifs, echoings, and all sorts of other musical mechanisms that make it available to your ear.

The libretto is by Michelanne Forster, and is derived from a play of the same name that she wrote eighteen years ago. The story focuses on Thomas Kendall, an early missionary to New Zealand (he was a contemporary of Samuel Marsden, who also appears in the opera). Kendall was the man who produced the first Maori/English dictionary. The story is in part told by his wife Jane, an unfortunate woman who had to take second place not only to the making of the dictionary and the machinations of the tough Maori chief, Hongi Hika, but later to the Maori common-law wife Kendall took. Jane is the emotional heart of the opera, and was played by Elizabeth Mandeno, who sang with such beauty and purity of tone that her mere singing moved you, quite apart from what was happening to the character.

Kendall was played by James Rodgers, who has a notable list of achievements as a singer, performing both in his native country of New Zealand and abroad. His strong tenor brought great strength to the part - a long and difficult one - though early in the performance he seemed to be momentarily struggling a little with his upper register. Thankfully this didn't cause any issues and for the rest of the evening he was in fine form. Kendall is presented as an ambiguous character, torn between his work and the missionary society's aims, his desire to understand the Maori people and his reluctance to provide them with muskets in order to learn more about them, and finally between the two women in his life.

Joel Amosa played Hongi Hika with great force of personality and a considerable physical presence. His singing was rich and strong; a formidable character altogether.

A number of years ago I was the musical director for a group called Opera Alive. This consisted of talented young singers from around the town; the group had originally been formed to give these singers experience in the theatre and in performance. It had already been running for three or four years when I took over at short notice because their musical director had to leave Dunedin (her husband had got a job in the North Island), and I was with them for five or six years after that, I think. The group changed from year to year: some stalwarts remained throughout most of the entire time I was involved, but others might only stay a year.

James Adams was one of those involved with Opera Alive; in Ritchie's opera he played Samuel Marsden, the strong-minded missionary who made a considerable impact on early NZ society. He doubled this role with that of King George IV. The King only appeared in one scene, the funniest in the opera both in terms of libretto and music. It was great to see James singing so powerfully and performing so well. He always had plenty of talent, of course, but it's still good to see his progress in his career. James has apparently moved back to Dunedin with his family. Hopefully he'll have the opportunity to carry on singing from his home base.

Matt Landreth played the smaller role of Richard Stockwell, a man who falls in love with Jane Kendall, and gets her pregnant while her husband is away. Stockwell was the Kendall family's servant, and his actions in the story are relatively true to history. Landreth brought considerable presence to the character, who could have been treated unsympathetically. Stockwell's relationship with Jane had truth about it, and though it brought them both grief, was perhaps more true in some ways that Kendall's own relationship with his wife. Certainly Kendall, in the story, treats her badly, and leaves her behind in New Zealand to fend for herself while he goes back to London for a year, much to her anger and sorrow.

The rest of the relatively young cast did well; vocally there were no weak areas, and the small chorus in particular contributed strongly to the piece.

The director, Jacqueline Coats, chose to use a raked stage, which to me always has potential for accidents. I remember years ago that when the NZ Opera Company toured the opera Il Trovatore, they performed it on a raked stage (from memory it was more raked than this one) and one of the chorus told me that they were afraid every night when they came racing onto it that one of them would fall and break something. Though there are advantages in this production with having a raked stage - people can stand above others, and there is the neat way in which people climb up onto it at the back - but it seems to me that it's hard on the performers, who spend a good deal of time climbing up and descending. Hard on the leg muscles, I'd think, and requiring that much extra caution in terms of keeping your balance. James Adams does a spectacular fall from the top to the bottom at one point, so it has advantages in that dramatic sense too!

Tecwyn Evans, the very well-known NZ conductor (he was raised in Dunedin) was in charge of the orchestra of ten players, and how wonderfully they played! As far as I know they're mostly local musicians, but the level of playing was excellent. I noted that Ralph Miller played the trumpet part (a considerable one with some degree of virtuosity, and requiring a great deal of clarity). I've known Ralph on and off for a number of years because he's been involved with various brass bands around town as a cornet player. I've played for him in the past, and last year he did a couple of beautiful solos at a concert where I was the accompanist.

And while I'm dropping names, Linda Brewster, a friend from a very long way back, was doing her first job for Dunedin Opera, as Stage Manager. Plainly she did a very good job, because everything worked like tickety boo. And finally Ryan Walker is listed as 'Audio Visual Technician.' He happened to be doing a similar job (though with a less fancy title) on Hamp

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Digital pianos

Back in 2012 we bought a Casio digital piano.  It was worth getting not just for the production of Grimhilda! during which it was used as the rehearsal piano, and later the piano in the pit, but also because I've kept it set up next to my computer, and use it in the winter time for singers and instrumentalists who come here for practices. It's warmer in the winter in this room than in the lounge where the grand piano lives.

I suppose the digital piano we bought is already out of date by several editions, though it's hard to know when these various instruments were produced (without doing a great deal of searching online). I think the Casio PX-130 is probably a later model, but who would know just by going by the numbering system. It's not easy to tell. This model looks more solid in terms of its structure - our one is basically a keyboard that sits on top of a trestle, and surprisingly isn't attached to the trestle in any way except by gravity. (Once it slipped when I was putting it on the trestle because the screw holding the trestle wasn't secure, and there was a moment when it looked as though the whole keyboard was going to dash itself in pieces on the floor. As it was one of the top notes caught on my hand and came loose, to my horror. However it turned out it was a matter of moments to fit it comfortably back where it belonged.)

The PX-130 also has a stand, but the the base and the keyboard fit together all of a piece. You can detach the keyboard part from the base, and apparently it's light enough to shift around. It weighs 25 lbs, being an American keyboard. My keyboard, even though it came in two parts, was quite heavy. I know this for a fact because I had to hump it out of the car and into the rehearsal rooms on innumerable occasions: there were about thirty steps involved in the process. (By steps I mean ones in a stairway, not steps you take.)

Reading about the PX-130 makes me think it's probably a better digital piano than the one I've got; certainly the advertising gives that impression. However I don't think there'll be any new pianos in this house in the near future. We have other things (not necessarily more important things) to spend our money on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I do quite a bit of transcribing of music using the computer programme, Sibelius. Transcriptions from printed copies or manuscripts are usually made so they can be transposed into another key. Sibelius, overall, makes the job very easy. I wish I'd had the programme when I was young and was first writing music, but of course at that stage there were no computers, let alone programmes like Sibelius. I often dreamed then of having a typewriter which you could use to print music, but the idea remained a pipe dream.

Anyway, the job of transcribing is generally pretty straightforward, except when you come across a piece of music that is so heavily marked by the composer with instructions as to how to sing or play the piece that you wonder whether he was having a bit of a fit on the day he wrote it.

A case in point is the piece I'm doing at the moment, Nocturne, by Michael Head, from a series of four songs under the general title of The Rim of the Moon. I really enjoy Head's music: it's a delight to play and the vocal lines are usually top notch, lying well for the singers.

Nocturne is a bit different. It's more dramatic in style than most of Head's work (though he settles down into his usual mode late in the piece). Consequently he's marked it very heavily, even with some contradictory markings. In one place the pianist is supposed to increase in volume when there's not actually anything to play. In another the tempo is marked both a tempo (go back to the original tempo) as well as Poco piu mosso (go a little faster). It's not actually possible to do that, as I'm sure Mr Head knew. Perhaps an editor got hold of the music and overwhelmed it with markings according to some reasoning we're no longer party to.

Half the notes in the vocal line and in the piano part are given stress marks. If you obeyed every one you'd never get to the end of the piece. And if there aren't stress marks there are accents, the sort that indicate you should give the note more weight than usual. There's a molto rit when the piece has barely started, and a poco rit only two bars after the a tempo. The singer, at one point, is expected to both return to a tempo and sing con moto simultaneously, which is rather like coming back to your normal walking pace while trying to go faster.

The first half or more of the piece is in a kind of recitativo style (that's indicated as well). So there is some excuse for giving the singer an indication of where to move forward and where to pull back. But most singers would do these things instinctively, and the excess of markings merely get in the way. IMHO.

It's like getting a play script from the director in which he's gone through and marked how you should stress each word, speak each phrase, where you should breathe, how loud you should be here and soft there. The lines of the original script would be buried beneath all of these markings.

Transcribing Mr Head's song would be fine except that as the transcriber I'm supposed to make sure I include all these extra details. I'm greatly tempted to leave them out, though of course that would mean not doing the job properly. It's very possible I'll miss one or two, even after a thorough proof-reading. But I'll grit my teeth and do my best.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Mumbersons ˗ and the Blood Secret

I'm pleased to say that my co-writer on Grimhilda! has come in to help with the last stages of the book about the Mumbersons - the 'sequel' (of sorts) to the earlier book. Currently the title is The Mumbersons ˗ and the Blood Secret. 

She read it through a couple of weeks ago, or so, and said, Wonderful. Love it. That's very encouraging. And then of course the work started, rejigging lines, cutting phrases, sentences, paragraphs, adding in things that were missing, and tightening up the plot so that awkward persons (like herself) don't come along and say, But why.....?

Someone will always come along and ask, But why?even when you think you've covered all the bases, but you have to live with that. One of our aims is to see that these kind of people are in the minority!

The story's two main characters - Billy and Olivia - have been friends for a short while before the story starts, and together find themselves having to deal more than one curious thing involving Billy's blood, and why someone should want to have some of it. The connection with Grimhilda! becomes evident at the end of the first chapter, and increases as time goes on. More than this I'm not prepared to reveal just yet! 

I'm aiming to have it ready before Christmas 2014, and hopefully it will encourage people to go back and read Grimhilda! if they haven't already done so. 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

National Shakespeare Schools Production

Last night we went to see the three mini-Shakespeare plays presented by the SGCNZ: the National Shakespeare Schools Production for 2014. Over forty senior school pupils from around the country came together for only a week and have had workshops and various trainings, as well as managing to put on, between them, three cut-down versions of Shakespearean plays. Cut down to about 40 minutes each, so still quite substantial. And these pieces were rehearsed only in the mornings of the week the young people were together, which makes the high level of performance and direction all the more astonishing.

We went to see the three productions put on two or three years ago, and one of those, Hamlet, was very compelling. But the other two didn't quite take off as well. This year all three are top-notch, full of wonderful actors, and so well directed that even people who find Shakespeare not easy to take would be enthralled.

Henry V was the first of the three, with Henry himself being played variously by seven different actors, boys and girls. The continual swirl of the action, the large groupings coming and going and the sheer enthusiasm made this a great start to the evening. My only disappointment was that the delightful scene between the French princess and Henry was missing. But it was probably too long to include, and would have been less effective cut down. In spite of that, this was a clearly directed piece that gave the young actors plenty of scope for drama, emotion and action.

Love's Labour's Lost came next. Pared down to its bare essentials it still managed to make the most of the comedy and retain some delightful scenes. The actors got hold of the comedy style with gusto and wonderful energy, the boys in particular making the most of every movement. It was good, in fact, to see young actors in this play, which focuses on the immaturity of young people (especially young men) when they fall in love, and how a 'gap year,' as it were, might well be more effective in making love stronger for the long haul.

In this play, for the most part, the boys played the boys' parts and the girls played girls, except for girls who played the delightful constable and the pompous Boyet and academic Holofernes. But whoever was playing whoever, there was such energy (for instance when the boys realise each of them has fallen in love and kept it secret, or when they're in disguise as Russians) and sense of comedy that the whole thing was utterly enjoyable and showed how Shakespeare, even when he throws long-winded words around like a whirlwind (long words are a theme in this play), is still amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. (Even in the midst of Hamlet he lets Claudius mix up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, something that audiences have done since the play first began; this was retained in the middle of all the seriousness of the rest of the play.)

Hamlet was played by two different actors (as he was in the previous version). This gave both actors time to refresh and bring renewed energy to this intense role. And were they intense! Sean Young and William Lu were equal to each other in strength and commanded the stage. There were some wonderful moments when they somehow swapped without your noticing, particularly at the grave scene where Ophelia (beautifully played by Rachel McLean) lies dead. At other times it was as if one actor handed over the role to the other. Beautifully done.

But the other actors in this piece were uniformly good: arrogant Claudius (Peter Thomson), emotionally-torn Gertrude (Maya Wyatt), pompous Polonius (Daniel Botha) and angst-ridden Laertes (Calum Hughes), to name just a few. The direction was full of invention (though my wife and I never quite figured out what people on the scaffolding were doing), including Polonius hiding himself inside his hoodie by having it on backwards when he was supposed to be behind the arras. And the fight scene with long duelling swords was as terrifying as you're likely to get. How they managed to get this rehearsed in the time allotted is beyond me.

What a climax this play has: not only the fight scene going on in front of the stage but Gertrude drinking the poison while her husband is trying to entice Hamlet to do so, deaths at the back, deaths at the front. It's a nightmare to put together and yet how wonderfully it works.

The performance is on again tonight, at 7.30 at Otago Boys High School's auditorium. Cash sales only at the door. Take the opportunity and see the wealth of talent there is around this country.

17.10.14 I'm pleased to see all those I mentioned here have been chosen to go on the trip to the Globe in London next year. And several of the main actors in Love's Labour's Lost have also been chosen to go. Excellent.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The uncompassionate poet and mother

Another extract from Margaret Forster's biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Wilson was her personal maid for many years, from just before she was married. She took on the arduous task of maintaining the household in Florence, but also in other places on their travels, taught herself Italian from a book, and spent a great deal of time babysitting the Brownings' only son (known as 'Pen.') In spite of this, when she finally asked for a rise in her meagre pay after many years, the Brownings (who were not badly off) rejected her request. In this extract, some years later, she had fallen in love with the household cook, whose sleeping accommodation was even smaller than Wilson's - and Wilson's private room was smaller than Robert Browning's dressing room. Forster's irritation with the selfishness of the Brownings often shows through in the book, not only in this passage.

Wilson and the cook, Ferdinando, had had intercourse sometime prior to the events described here, resulting in Wilson becoming pregnant. By this time the two servants were married (a crisis in itself for the Brownings) and all four were in London for a few months.

Wilson, unable by the end of August to hide her condition any longer, told Elizabeth she was expecting a baby in a few weeks' time. Elizabeth was appalled. She wrote to Henrietta [her married sister] on September 6th that she was not only 'shocked' but 'pained.' Clearly, the baby had been conceived in the Casa Guidi [the Brownings' longstanding rented accommodation in Florence] by the unmarried couple. She does not appear, for all her acknowledged recognition of the power of sexual attraction, to have thought back to the living accommodation in Casa Guidi, to that room of Wilson's next to the even smaller one where Ferdinando slept. The proximity for two people in love was irresistible.
As usual, it was not only the immorality which shocked Elizabeth, that admirer of George Sand [infamously known for her many lovers], but the deceit. She hated to think Wilson had not confided in her. She had never given Wilson the least cause to be sure of her sympathy and tolerance in such a situation but she was angry that she had not been naturally trusted. But at least her affection for, and gratitude to, Wilson was sufficient to make her try hard in this crisis to 'think chiefly of her many excellent qualities and of what she has done for me...' as she put it to Henrietta.
Quite what she was prepared to do for Wilson in this hour of her need was not at first clear. Obviously, Wilson would have to go somewhere to have her baby: she certainly could not give birth in her employers' lodgings. It was arranged that she would go to her sister's who lived in East Retford (her mother had died two years before). Equally obviously, Elizabeth would need a new maid: managing on her own during Wilson's annual two week holiday was one thing, managing for six months another.
But these were trivial decisions compared to the underlying major one: would Wilson come back after the birth of her baby? Could she come back? Could she bring her baby with her? The Brownings' answer to that last question dictated all else: No, Wilson could not take her baby back to Casa Guidi. The apartment was too small, they could not afford another mouth to feed and Wilson would be unable to perform her duties properly. So they gave Wilson a choice: either she remained in their service, leaving her baby with her sister, or she left their service and kept her child. Where her husband Ferdinando fitted into this choice was for Wilson to work out. If she stayed in England, she lost him, unless he could miraculously find employment and support her and her child; and if she went back to Italy, she kept him but lost her child. She left for East Retford with no illusions, still undecided.
Nobody had offered her the only truly compassionate alternative: to keep both husband and baby, return with them to Italy, board the baby out nearby and continue working. Victorian employers though such magnanimity absurd. Elizabeth was a creature of her time in sharing what they saw as an entirely justifiable viewpoint: her peers would not have expected her to behave in any other way. But the author of Aurora Leigh [i.e., Elizabeth], so concerned with the plight of poor working women, so close to a servant who had proved her loyalty over and over again at considerable personal risk, cannot be judged by conventional standards. Elizabeth failed Wilson as Wilson had never failed her. To take Wilson and her baby back to Italy would have been impractical, inconvenient, unreasonably charitable - but it would have not been impossible for people as resourceful and courageous as the Brownings.  [pages 302/3]

The saga continues some pages later. Another maid went back to Italy with them for an interim period, until they returned to London again. 

There was one farewell Elizabeth was thankful not to have to make: Wilson was coming with them. She had at last made her 'choice'.  A year alone with a baby in East Retford had most effectively decided her. (In fact, she had made her decision within two months of the Brownings' departure for Paris the year before and had told them so but they had said they considered they were bound to her replacement, Harriet, until they returned to London.)
After the return from the Isle of Wight and Somerset, Wilson had her baby Oreste brought down from East Retford for a final leave-taking before committing him to her sister's care. Elizabeth described him as 'a pretty, interesting baby...with great black Italian eyes.' His parents proposed sending part of their wages back to East Retford each month to support him until they could be reunited. When that would be, or how it would come about, nobody was optimistic enough to speculate.
Nowhere in Elizabeth's correspondence at the time did she express any compassion for Wilson's agony. The mother who adored her own child and had been overwhelmed by the violence of maternal feeling, and the poet who was about to publish a poem full of the tenderness of women for children, and a defence of the exploited working-class girl [Aurora Leigh], both seemed untouched by her own maid's anguish. This was a severely practical matter. Nobody had exploited Wilson, nobody had forced her into marriage or motherhood. She was a servant, she had married, she had had a baby: the rules of the game were laid down and Elizabeth abided by them.
But it is not, strictly speaking, true that she was obliged to do so. It was not even true that no Victorian family could take in a servant's baby. Josephine Butler, soon to be famous for the campaign she led against the Contagious Diseases Acts, wife of an Oxford don, had already done so: she took in an unmarried girl who had been seduced by a Balliol man and had borne his child. There are enough isolated examples of that kind of courage, that sort of deliberate flouting of social convention, to suggest that Elizabeth could have taken Wilson's baby home with them if she had really wanted to, if her compassion had been large enough. [pages 315/6]

There is something of a 'happy ending'. After leaving the Brownings' service, Wilson eventually set up a boarding house in Florence, where she looked after the painter, Walter Savage Landor, among others. He had stayed with the Brownings in Florence some time before, after his wife left him. Wilson's son, Oreste, joined her at the boarding house when he was seven. (He had a younger brother by then, as well.) Later, she abruptly left Italy and returned to England, setting up another boarding house there, but this venture failed. She returned to Italy, destitute except for ten pounds a year Robert Browning had allowed her for old times' sake. When the Browning's son, 'Pen', brought the Plazzo Rezzonico, he remembered the old servant and took her in. She lived with him there, then went to Asolo with him, where she died in 1902. Her husband Ferdinando seems to have parted company with her in the late 1870s, but turned up later and was also taken in by Pen. Plainly the son had more compassion than either of his parents.