Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A pretty busy few days

It was a hectic weekend, and Monday was pretty heavy too. Good hectic, in the main, but it has still left me feeling a little wambly-legged with tiredness. Never mind – I can get early nights for the rest of the week now, and I’ve had a bloody good time in the meantime. Of course, trying to have a rest during the week isn’t always feasible, but I'm doing my best, round the edges of the busy "start of the school hols" patch at work.

Saturday I met my mum for lunch and the terrific new English National ballet programme of ballets by the late Roland Petit. Sunday I went to the Ealing Global Music Festival in Walpole Park (a sort of one day mini-WOMAD) and danced my feet off all afternoon and evening. Monday was unpleasantly frantic at work, a classic “we’re short-staffed and the ‘phones won’t stop ringing” day, but in the evening I met my stepmum Jane for supper and the last Harry Potter movie – oof. At the London IMAX, so double oof.

I am now reeling slightly from the amount of activity; a lot of talking, a lot of eating out, three late nights, lots of dancing and a sort of cultural information-overload.

Mum and I found a new place to eat near Covent Garden, which is always good news; a small but pleasant bistro with the unimaginative name of “Bistro”. Mixed meze, pancakes stuffed with creamed spinach and goats cheese, salad, ice cream, a glass of wine; all very straightforward stuff, fresh and healthy (well, apart from the ice cream) and a bill of under £15 each.

ENB can be very happy with their Petit triple bill. Some of the newspaper reviews have tended towards the sniffy, but to me as a common-or-garden ballet-goer this was a cracking programme, full of energy and drama; the only thing that really looked dated was the copious amount of onstage smoking…

It was hard to believe, watching Erina Takahashi’s shy tenderness in “L’Arlesienne”, that the last time I saw her in action was as a practically fire-breathingly evil Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux. Her partner was the febrile, sexy Esteban Berlanga, doing a good line in wild-eyed distraction and frenetic leaps. Around and behind their doomed-love-story, a small corps de ballet dances lovely, folk-dance inflected rounds and chains that somehow convey both the contentment and the blinkeredness inherent in a tight-knit community.

“Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” brought another terrific young bloke on stage; Anton Lukovkin, a handsome young man with an unusually pointy chin, hurling himself with abandon around the stage in a pair of off-the-shoulder dungarees. It was short but very exciting stuff, and a tour-de-force for the two leads.

I’m not very familiar with Petit’s work. I’ve never seen either of these first pieces before, though I saw “Carmen” (the final piece in this bill) once on television when I was about twelve. I could remember being impressed then, but no particular details of what I was impressed by. Part of what grabbed me, then as now, was the sheer theatricality of it all; the sexiness, the aggression, the high drama of the final duet-cum-duel. My exposure to ballet back then had been very much of the order of “Swan Lake”, “Fille”, “Nutcracker”… Not chic-yet-vampy women in corsets standing on chairs and shouting, and certainly not erotic violence and murder.

I can only begin to imagine the impact this had on a London audience accustomed to the delicacy and classicism of the pre-Macmillan-era Royal Ballet… Not just the unabashedly sexual pelvic movements, but the furious energy, the stamping of feet, grinding out of cigarettes, slashing high leg extensions, all must have seemed like the proverbial bolt from the blue.

I loved in particular the way that even in the central love scene, as Carmen and Don José move through their highly sensual pas de deux, there’s a constant undercurrent of muted aggression that suggests their essential incompatibility as effectively as any amount of speech could do. A corking good show altogether.

Sunday afternoon was spent in the boiling heat, with a large water bottle, a couple of pints of Hobgoblin and an assortment of the usual Festival Food – Thai street nibbles, a crepe, some popcorn, veg curry, fruit sticks with chocolate sauce… Plus bluegrass, ska, Cuban rock, Balkan gypsy music, Hungarian traditional dance and Congolese soukous. Great dancing stuff, and one filthy, sweaty, tired and very cheerful Dent at the end of it all.

To finish off on Monday night with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part two” was a very welcome finale to the weekend (especially coming after a pretty trying day at the office). It’s excellent; fun, exciting, a bit emotional, good battle scenes, cliff-hangers and great special effects. It was my first time at an IMAX, too – corblimey, now that’s what 3d cinema is good for! My only problem was that Jane and I had been to Sagar in Catherine Street first and eaten an enormous supper of aloo chaat and spicy creamed wheat and dosas, and super-rich creamy mango lassis, and we were both absolutely stuffed by the time we got to the cinema, trying not to entertain our neighbours with burping - such a ladylike pair we are...

At least yesterday evening I stayed in, wrote, and flopped. Pushing on with the revision of “Ramundi’s Sisters” I’ve noticed the spacing in my typing is all to pot. Between full stop and capital letter I've got one space here, two spaces there; it’s all over the place. Trying to make it uniform must be just about the most boring job out, but it has to be done. I like to know I’m producing clean copy. Chuntering through it I had a sudden good idea for solving something that has been bugging me in something else; it necessitates a bit of a rewrite there as well, but what the heck. So I think I’ll have a look at that tonight, for a change. And then an early night.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Flute retains the magic

Last night I was at “The Magic Flute”. I very nearly wasn’t, because The Crazy Intern, with whom I was going, got us totally lost on the way. This was my second experience of being navigated by someone using a hand-held GPS device, and it was no more inspiring than the first. I am worried when even machines can get dyslexic left/right confusion. Trust these things no further than you can throw them, that’s my advice.

Since we were trying to find St John’s Smith Square, which is in the middle of that horribly featureless Westminster hinterland of giant offices near Victoria Station, navigation by normal landmarks and features like pubs and shops was tricky, too. And it was raining. So we missed the overture (perhaps not the end of the world, as it was a piano version) and got soaked instead. We arrived just in time to scuttle into some seats at the back as the serpent – who looked like a giant, legless, red-eyed papier-maché Snoopy – emerged from its burrow to menace Tamino.

It’s easy to laugh at a small-scale production that sets out, with a tiny cast, minimal budget and no orchestra, to convey the same degree of drama and delight as a performance at Covent Garden or the ENO can accomplish. Oyster Opera apparently spend most of their time doing street concerts, wedding singing and light-hearted performances for corporate events. They are a very small outfit indeed, and it showed. Luckily they were doing “Magic Flute” whose crazy fairy-tale lack of logic can take a fair amount of added peculiarity without caving in under the weight.

A lot of the time, the director had had the sense to play to the company’s strengths, in particular the youth and energy of several of the performers, and to make a virtue of necessity where some of the problems were concerned. You’re trying to put on an opera that needs eighteen soloists, a large chorus and a full orchestra, and you have a total cast of twelve including the pianist? Then you thank god your pianist is excellent, and you double everyone else up, left, right and centre. The final chorus sounds a bit thin when sung by the six characters who can remotely rationally be on stage at the time? The heck with it; you rewrite the plot to have Sarastro forgive the Queen of Night, Monostatos, and the Three Ladies, and then they can all stay and sing, too.

The doubled and trebled casting produced some impressive quick-changes; the Three Ladies must have spent every free minute stripping and changing costumes, as each of them also doubled as one of the Three Boys and as an acolyte at Sarastro’s temple. Monostatos and the Speaker of the Temple also appeared as the Two Priests, the Two Armed Men (unarmed, in this instance), and as the wielders of the puppet birds pursued by Papageno at his first entrance.

There were some pretty major weaknesses, of course, but they were the sort you expect when you go to hear twelve people doing a touring production on a shoestring in a church. The set wobbled. The lighting was poor to the point of stygian. Some of the acting was decidedly sixth-form. The hollow stage platform was pretty noisy underfoot. Sarastro nearly lost part of his costume at one point when it became snagged on the set. A production at my brother’s school years ago managed a more effective staging of the trials by fire and water.

More seriously, two of the cast were completely out of their depth vocally. I won’t name names; I don’t like sniping at people whose abilities fall this far short of their ambitions. If they know who they are, then they know they were over-parted and should have stepped back gracefully, and they’re probably pretty depressed about it already. If they don’t know who they are, then there’s no saving them anyway since they haven’t the self-awareness to make the grade even if their voices could have taken them there (which they almost certainly won’t).

To compensate for having to wince a bit when these particular individuals were on stage, there were no other real weak links. The rest of the singers were good or better than good. We got three good Ladies, a Queen of Night who romped through the grandstanding hissy fit of “Die Hölle Rache”, a charming Papageno, a terrific Speaker/First Priest/First Armed Man, and an excellent Tamino from Paul Hopwood. I had started off remembering that long-ago school production and wondering if this would beat it for clunkiness (believe me, a school production can be pretty damn clunky even if your darling bro is one of the Priests lumbering about embarrasedly onstage); it didn’t, largely on the strength of the good parts of the cast. That and the pianist, who gave a truly heroic performance. I would never have expected a single piano to do such a magnificent job of replacing the orchestra. Much kudos to that man!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The tide of life is at slack water

I'm having one of those phases when life seems slack and spiritless. Not a serious, full-on attack of the blues; just a flat patch. I seem to be wandering blankly through each day and each week; nothing much happens, yet every day I get home tired and just want to relax with the radio or the tele on, some sewing, and my supper. Preferably an easy supper. Tonight, for example, is going to be an omelette.

I am doing some writing; I'm about halfway through the extended short story I mentioned a while ago. I'm also about halfway through doing the seams on the blouse I let out, and I've finished the panelled dress. I did bake a cake on Sunday (& I've brought half of it in to work to share, to prove it). I even got a little bit of pruning and tidying done in the garden, between the humongous rainstorms. So I'm not being unproductive. I just feel disengaged and dust-and-ashes-y about things. It's like having a timid distant cousin of depression following me about bashfully all day.

I can't complain, really, since I know how very much worse this stale-flat-and-unprofitable feeling can get. It's probably connected to being tired. Tomorrow I'm meeting The Crazy Intern at "The Magic Flute". It may actually not rain for a whole day, today. I'm having lunch and going to a matinee with my mother at the weekend. Things are fine, really they are; it's not the world, it's me. Stale, flat and unproftable.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Another Friday, ahh...

It worries me, when I wake up on a Monday thinking "Drat, another Monday" and get to a Friday thinking "Oh good, it's Friday". It's the only life I'll get, after all, at least as me (as Rose MacCauley puts it so perfectly, "Whatever follows after, we shall not have this life again"), and I am wishing it away. But the summer is always the busiest time of the year at work, and this summer the "long-term short-staffed" problem is really starting to tell on everyone, too.

There is an early stage in that situation, when everyone is in agreement; we all have to knuckle down and do our bit to keep things going. One stretches a bit, takes on a bit more, finds it is feasible, finds that the pressure is still manageable; then one is asked to take on a bit more, and so is everyone else; and then a bit more again; and once again one grins and says "We can handle it, come on, folks, yo-heave-ho"... After all, there is really no alternative but to try one's best. None of us want to drop Kew in it; and no-one wants to be a slacker, even at the best of times, much less in difficult ones. But over time, as the pressure does not ease but grows incrementally, and the duration of the period for which this will go on increases, too, and the possibility of any improvement recedes steadily, one just gets, quite simply, tired. There's a point (which our team at least has reached some time ago) where there is absolutely no more slack to be taken up. Performing at full-stretch-plus for month after month starts to take its toll; and because everywhere one looks there is the same thing - over-stretched, worried people trying to hang on and do their best - one gets demoralised as well.

It is chiefly just tiredness, plain old tiredness. Compared to other places I've worked, which had much less serious staffing and financial stresses on them, there is an amazing lack of grumbling here. We all want to keep things going and not let our colleagues down. We almost all manage to keep the bigger picture in mind most of the time. But we are all so tired. And there is still no end in sight.

On a more cheerful note, the Gardens are looking wonderful, and despite some very gloomy weather forecasts last week, the Kew The Music open-air concerts were not rained on (well, about five minutes of drizzle, one evening, but otherwise dry).

I have finished re-reading "The Last of the Wine" (& cried my eyes out over it once again) and started on an entertaining murder mystery called "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Carola Dunn. Carola was at school with my stepmum Jane, and it is enormously pleasing to know that I have this tiny connection with a real, published author.

Carola's books make no attempt to be great literature, but they are enjoyable without being potboilers. Her characters are credible and likeable, she gives one enough of the clues that there is a hope of spotting the killer, and she describes Saffron Walden, where much of this latest story is set, well enough to leave me planning a visit some time this summer. Not bad for a straightforward piece of summer reading.

The Mary Renault also left me dreaming of travel, but going to Athens is a bit more of an undertaking. Besides, at the moment Athens might be rather an odd experience, owing to the strikes and demonstrations (with which I am in sympathy, but which nonetheless I don't want to get caught up in). There's a huge magic in waking up and drawing the curtains to see the Parthenon silhouetted against the morning sky. I shall have to go back there some time soon. Maybe I could manage a long weekend over the winter?

But for now, it's Friday and it's been another tiring week, and I'm looking forward to a couple of days off, not doing anything or going anywhere. I will tidy the garden, bake a cake, and finish Carola's book.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Kew Music week...

Always a hectic week, this, as the annual Kew summer picnic concerts happen. The telephone enquiry line is inundated with calls from people who haven’t read their advance information leaflets, people who’ve lost their tickets, people who are panicking about the iffy weather, and so forth. The 'phone hardly seems to stop ringing for most of each day.

It hasn't been all work and no play, though. On Monday night after work I went up to Trafalgar Square for another of the Big Screen events; managed to find my friends in the crowds, ate too much, and cried my eyes out at Kristine Opolais’ marvellous performance as Madam Butterfly.

On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, however, I went home exhausted after a solid day of ‘phone calls and no lunch break, and had a stiff drink and an early night.

Last night I was helping out at one of the concerts, handing out fundraising leaflets and directing people where to go, with all the enthusiasm and good cheer I could muster. I was released from this duty at about 8.00pm; managed to find my friends in a huge crowd for the second time in a week, and enjoyed a splendid concert from the inimitable Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. I also enjoyed the good company, some rather tasty paella, and probably a bit more to drink than was good for me. I danced a lot, the others danced a fair amount, the music was great, the atmosphere happy, the weather held fair apart from about five minutes of drizzle, and the final ten minute firework display was gorgeous.

Now I’m off to be a ticket tearer for tonight’s concert, so it's on with the bright smile and the cheerful energy again. Vesti la giubba, and all that. Actually ticket tearing is rather fun, in a crazy sort of way; but I am tired, and really looking forward to a quiet weekend after this.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Lovely afternoon

It's a lovely day, the best kind of summer weather; sunshine and puffs of snowy clouds, hot but not too hot, with a gentle breeze. I've just been out to buy some vegetables from the Kew Diploma Students, who sell the produce of their veg plots every Friday lunchtime (proceeds go towards funding a field trip). Just as I was raking in my purse to pay for my Swiss chard, purple beans, mangetout, radishes, basil and parsley, one of the students appeared at the sales table carrying bunches of sweet peas, so I added some of them as well. I now have them on my desk in a paper cup of water, and the scent is filling the whole office.

The Gardens are looking glorious, despite the way the weather lately has been veering from drought conditions through hailstorms to torrential rain, and back again. The waterlily pool by the Jodrell Laboratory is filled with floating cups of flowers, and buzzing with dragonflies; the lavenders are all in bloom, and the classic herbaceous borders in the Duke's Garden, just outside our office, are a picture of richness and colour; salvias, heucheras, geraniums, clematis, echinaceas, and great banks of daylilies in darkest mahogany and palest cream.

All that loveliness; and fresh-picked vegetables as well. I shall make a chard and fresh herb omelette for supper, and a salad of steamed beans and mangetout. It looks as though it will be a while before I have any of my own home-grown produce - my chard plants are tiny, ditto most of the tomatoes, and my beans are rampaging up their sticks (& anything else they can lay hold of) and producing masses of leaves, but no flowers as yet.