Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American playwright Tennessee Williams.

Some of the most famous post-war plays were written by Williams, largely in the 1950s. Some great actors made breakthrough, iconic performances in the plays on stage and on screen: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman amongst them. Williams won the Pulitzer prize twice and achieved many other awards, and yet his reputation has perhaps dimmed over the years - the view is his later work in particular was disappointing.

This late play was never performed in his lifetime, or indeed ever published. The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburne certainly is to be congratulated for putting it on the stage for the very first time, in such an enchanting production. As it was the world premiere I thought I had to attend: something to add to my collection of theatrical experiences: the world premiere of one of a great dramatist’s plays - actually on his 100th birthday, no less. They don’t make them like this any more.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy myself so much - I saw Rose Tattoo at the NT a few years back and really hated all the simmering poetic sentimentality (and that was an early work!)

And INGDTADOS has all the classic Williams’ hallmarks - a potent, virile, sensual yet feckless and inert male in a doomed yet compelling relationship with a downwardly mobile idealistic female unable to maintain traction on reality and clearly fated never to achieve her ambitions. Seedy glamorous New Orleans surroundings, self-delusion, sex, the threat of violence, over-the-top melodramatic backstory, poetry, terminal illness - it’s all there. However, the new element in all of this is that it forms part of a play within a play.

This is all brilliantly staged, with the play’s director and author suddenly emerging from the actual audience to argue over the lines - we are witnessing the final read-through before previews start. The actors complain about their lines - “Who talks like this?” - Tennessee is clearly relishing getting back at his theatrical foes.

By highlighting the theatricality of the piece Williams cleverly creates a space which privileges the drama; to some extent protecting it from the critics. It’s allowed to be a conflation of hackneyed old tropes, seeking to shock only by upping the ante (the male lead is practically nude for virtually the entire play; there is quite a lot of sex -the actors complain about the sex scene; the director argues with the playwright about it - “it will scare off backers”)

As a commentary on his own work it’s completely fascinating and it has the contrary effect of making the melodrama more emotionally affecting. I only wish he developed this strand of the play some more - there are slight, tentative hints of Williams’s identification with his heroines, especially towards the end, which are really evocative and promising. However, as it stands the dramatic framing is not thematically developed and only tangentally touches the play-within-a-play: all too easily, one can imagine the drama existing without the framing elements. And one of the stand-out set-pieces - an incompetent stage-manager’s hissy fit right after missing a crucial cue - threatens to completely derail the action. As amusing as it is, and as much as the audience absolutely loved Graham Dickson’s performance as Hilary the stage-manager, Williams the playwright should either have cut this completely or integrated it more organically into the action of the piece. I think it’s worth comparing this to Michael Frayn’s meta-theatre play Noises Off, where the back stage / on stage action is completely seamless and forms an organic whole, something this Tennessee Williams play doesn’t quite achieve, even as it tantalisingly hints at what could have been.

Which is not to say it is unworthy - I loved this production. The intimate, low-key space and delicate design tremendously enhanced the experience of the play. All the acting was superb: Lewis Hayes was suitably Brandoesque physically and was very natural emotionally as Tye. Shelley Lang as Jane was also magnificently cast, in the tradition of Vivienne Leigh and Elisabeth Taylor. And Keith Myers as the author gave an authoritative Tennessee Williams.

All in all, a terrific birthday present for Tennessee Williams.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mon Plaisir in London

London - Eating & Drinking - Restaurants - French

I appear to be going through a French restaurant phase - I was taken to this one last night my my friend Harry, in London on business from the USA. He looked tired from his flight and I was keen to find somewhere close to his hotel; this Covent Garden restaurant looked good and fitted that criterion. We also chose it in honour of Harry’s absent francophile wife, a best friend since my early childhood.

Both of us loved the ambiance right from entry - this place is exquisitely decorated in authentic French fashion. The menu states this is London’s oldest French restaurant. General De Gaulle, no less, dined here during the war.

Tables are stacked very close to each other - I worried our conversation was disturbing our neighbours. We were chatting up a storm, so their conversation didn’t disturb us.

Service was awkward, in that typically Parisian way familiar to tourists. The staff were perfectly efficient, I just felt judged by them the whole time. There were communication issues. Harry, being American, wanted to add a tip and as service was included I prevented him - if looks could kill!

My steak tartare was good - finely chopped rather than minced; absolutely zero fat; well-flavoured and seasoned (just perhaps slightly too much pepper for my tastes). It didn’t come with the extra garnishes the menu seemed to promise but to be honest didn’t need them. The waiter thoughtfully offered me extra bread. The fries it came with were sublime - very fine cut, they hit that perfect fried potato sweet spot of being crisp and crunchy while also meltingly yielding. A side of creamed spinach was a perfect complement. We washed this down with an excellent Merlot from the house list.

I’d be happy to go again; the cheese board looked very tempting.

Check out my review of Mon Plaisir - I am hedgiecc - on Qype

Monday, March 14, 2011


Watching Channel 4's Dispatches: Britain's Secret Fat Cats while blogging. I read and was very impressed by Naomi Klein's No Logo; however I missed out on her next book The Shock Doctrine when it came out. It seems to be cited more and more frequently these days though so I ordered it in from Amazon.

Basically, it appears to be Cameron and Clegg's playbook (with truly staggering amounts of Blairesque mendacity and spin of their own on top). Dispatches is showing, quite methodically and clearly, how government cuts will force privatisations which will enrich a very few at the expense of decent public services for all. One could perhaps argue that Reagan and Thatcher had genuine hopes of their "free-market" ideology actually working. However, 30 years later, after an economic apocalypse brought about by the very deregulation Thatcher and Reagan initiated, with middle and lower-class incomes over that time stagnating and even retreating while the top 1% soars exponentially ever higher, imposing the same policies without an explicit mandate is crassly stupid, if not criminal.

"A more accurate term for a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business is not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist. Its main characteristics are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm between the dazzling rich and the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security. For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favors and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture.

From Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade. But torture is more than a tool used to enforce unwanted policies on rebellious peoples; it is also a metaphor of the shock doctrine's underlying logic."

- Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2007

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Pancake madness

The Telegraph has a real bee in it’s bonnet about the UK’s growing fascination with pre-made pancake mixes and pancakes. It’s had a flurry of articles, some admiring the healthy growth of shop sales but most contemplating the [presumed dire] social significance of the phenomenon - the funniest being this satirical effort.

To me pancakes are one of the pleasures of a trip to France, where they seem to be a traditional part of street-food and fast food outlets. In the UK, we mostly ignore them until Shrove Tuesday when they become a big thing, despite most of us being extremely lapsed Christians. It’s all about the food, isn’t it?!

Why are we buying pre-made pancakes? Possibly because, like all cultural traditions, they have accumulated a mystique consisting of all kinds of conflicting rules and theories, guaranteed to confuse the low-skilled time-poor domestic cook.

Even Delia Smith, the patron saint of easy domestic cookery, rabbits on about sifting flour in piles, breaking eggs blah blah blah. In this regard I always remember my friend Mark’s approach - just bung all the ingredients (flour, milk, eggs) in a blender and flip the switch. Hey presto - pancake batter in seconds!

The next debate is whether or not to ‘rest’ the mixture. I’m with the resters - if the mix is in a blender jug it can just stay there for an hour or so until you are ready to start cooking.

Delia helpfully suggests using a soup ladle to ladle the mix into the hot frying pan - this is a really good idea and helps you gauge how much mix you need to cover the bottom of your pan. The first pancake is traditionally the sacrificial practice one, but no matter how disastrous looking always still tastes good!

And they really are pretty fantastic items - amazing that such relatively simple ingredients can achieve such a culinary peak experience. Crispy and golden, yet also meltingly yielding; fragile but with the tensile strength to wrap around a variety of fillings.

My pan is deep with sloping edges and a quick dipping motion is enough to get the pancake to flip. But it’s easy enough to use a spatula to flip them as well.

It was pancakes all the way last night - so I started with savory Roquefort cheese and spinach pancakes and moved on to the traditional lemon and sugar ones (still as amazingly good as when first made for me by my mum many years ago; pancakes have a real affinity for sharp citrussy flavours). The Nutella jar was eventually put away unused - too rich for me - but I experimented with a passion fruit decanted onto a pancake. Recommended.

The downside is they are very calorie-laden beasties, and like all fast food very more-ish - you can’t just have one or two. I had nine all told, which tots up well in excess of 1000 calories. Back to the diet today!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Black Swan

Wow! This is an extremely well-made melodrama. Great direction and cinematography - it all feels incredibly claustrophobic, and the white/black/mirroring themes are pursued relentlessly. Lots of wobbly-cam, and black industrial spaces. Very silly and great fun.

The acting is superb throughout. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s stage mother is freakily scary and Natalie Portman’s Nina and Mila Kunis’s Lily, Nina’s rival, are great foils for each other. I think Mila had the better part though, even if not the lead.

I’m not quite sure about what I feel about Natalie winning the Best Actress Oscar, though. It is a fine performance, understated as befits the reticent character she plays. The trouble is her character isn’t ultimately very likeable, so the performance is more admirable than heart-warming. And neither lead is much good at ballet - I mean, I’m totally ballet ignorant and even I could see they weren’t great (and the script calls for their director to repeatedly call them brilliant, which grates when they are plainly not). But these are minor quibbles - I sense it’s a budding camp classic in the mode of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or Mommie Dearest.

I wholeheartedly applaud Natalie Portman however for her brave (given her contractual obligations to the company), outspoken response to Dior’s designer John Galliano’s drunken anti-semitic rants. She was practically alone amongst celebs in speaking the truth, and perhaps bumped Dior into doing the right thing.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Quote London

“I love that London is a city on the run - I think if you want to see a little bit of all the world, London is the best place for it; everything that's impossible becomes possible in London.”

~ Simona Visinskyte, worker on the Shard. (Quoted in Evening Standard 4/3/2011)