Thursday, March 02, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude



It's not a hundred years but one hundred years of solitude. The word one gives a sense of certainly to it. So it is that the fate of Macando is certain as well. It does not matter that there is such a long story through generations on and on, only history repeats itself. It does not matter how many times the matriarch Ursula tries to change the course of the future to stop history from repeating, to save Macando from its fate. The fate is certain and it will be so.
It's a long story and a very long one, and so densely packed that every page is oozing with detail and the story just keeps going on and on. Yet you know the end is coming, soon. Yet you are never bored, not for once. Yes, you occasionally wonder where it's all going and why it's so repetitive but that is what it is. You see, history repeats itself.
A man and his wife, escape their village because the man murdered another and they travel far and wide and finally settle down in a place and that's how the Buendias establish Macando. There they have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters. Most of the sons are named either Aureliano or Arcadio and the daughters are few and have a few different names. The repetitive nature of the names adds to the confusion while reading the book but when you follow the story it helps in setting the similarities of every generation. Ursula sees it too, especially when a pair of twins named these two names get swapped at birth and spend their whole lives being called by the other name. Yet traits tell Ursula that they were probably swapped. Aurelianos are supposed to be pensive and poetic while Arcadios impulsive. Talk of magical realism, the twins die at the same time and mistakenly get swapped when they are buried, ensuring that each went to the grave with their birth name.
Through out the story, it seems like many ills befall this little settlement and yet it was meant to be. Eventually the settlement is destroyed and just before it is, the last of the family decodes an ancient parchment that had been with the family for generations. And when the fate of his family dawns on him, it is also the end of it. And when it has all ended, a passerby would never know Macando once existed there...
They say Gabriel Garcia modelled this story on Colombia. I don't know enough about Colombia to know. All I know is the beauty of his magical realism that I had understood when I read the obituary of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on The Economist and I knew that I had to read this book.

The Girl with Seven Names



I've read many books, more than many people I know. However, I had never been able to complete any form of lengthy non-fiction. This book is the first piece of non fiction that I've read fully. (Of course it helps that it is a story.)
It's the true story of a North Korean defector who went to China and then eventually sought asylum in South Korea. She later helped her mother and brother come to South Korea.
While I love to read about books set in different cultures woven into the normal stories of every day people, reading about terrible odysseys in horrifying detail is not something I seek out. I feel that many of these sad stories (fiction) from outside the developed western world are made so to sell the poverty or suffering to the Western audience. For example, Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. However, what made me pick up this book was an article in The Financial Times of a lunch with her. I knew that her book would be very different.
The Girl with Seven names is different. It's not a sob story but a story of hope. Truly this is how I believe most stories of hardship would be. The story is not about the hardships but about what keeps one going. Most of the difficulties she faces are written in a very matter-of-fact manner without delving into detail. What is in clear detail is the pain of missing her family with the knowledge of what it means to have a North Korean defector for a family member when living inside that country.
She was born and brought up in a well-to-do resourceful family in North Korea and hence spent most of her life there believing North Korea is the greatest country in the world and that South Korea is full of beggars. She truly believed it like most others who were in the good books of the Party. What this book opens our eyes to is the happiness of living in North Korea and that brainwashing and lack of access to the outside world makes you accept whatever you are told to be true without questioning.
All the misfortune that befalls her is just that, she does not curse. But even the littlest of lucky instances happen to her and she would praise them with the kindest words. Sometimes you think she was lucky and the suffering of others was much larger but then again she makes a statement that catches you off guard and you realise what she had gone through had changed her so much and had just decided not to talk about it. But it's true however, that there were so many kind strangers,  acquaintances, friends, distant family, that supported her at every juncture. It restores your faith in humanity. It made me cry when a complete stranger in Laos helped her with not just money but physically being present along her side during visits to a prison.
The most striking sense you get from her is her courage and her bubbling warmth. Aptly, her chosen seventh name is Hyeon-seo which means sunshine and good-luck.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Monk Key

Monk Key, Songs of the Mist by Sashi

The story line is good but everyone has a story to tell. It's how you tell it that matters. And a good author takes time to build characters before plunging into the story.

Take the first couple of pages for example, about this woman who realised that the man she wrote letters to, for over a decade, and who just had a funeral, was still alive and his daughter who found the letters emailed this woman saying she is going to find her father. But that's not all is it? A woman who writes letters and lives away from civilisation has a smooth running life that she enjoys, which we are not told about at all. She then receives an email and we don't know how she felt when she received it so unexpectedly after she returned home from her usual (coffee? walk? music classes?) smooth floating life. So much could have been said in the first few pages. So much.

Other obvious stand outs include the use of  'sparkle in the eye' which often refers to excitement, mischief or general happiness, and definitely not tears and the sadness of losing a husband or father.
Difference between sports and games, use of passed out vs graduated, usage of he/him to refer to more than one person in the same paragraph leading to confusing understanding, etc show case the lack of good editors more than anything else.

And then the story itself is so desperate to be epic and spiritual that it is nothing but.The book reeks of ambition that falls short of action.

Malta

We went up to Malta for Easter last year. Easter came too early that year and most places weren't warm enough. But I've had enough of the London's never ending winter so any sunshine is better weather.
Hence, when we went to Malta it was slightly ahead of the beach season. It is most famous for its beaches but the beach crowd hadn't gathered yet and the 40min we spent on a beach was with jackets zipped up to the neck and hoodies protecting the ears from the cold wind. But that meant we saw Malta for Malta.

Hagar Qim and Mnadjra temples - we saw these on our last day though this is the first thing on the list of why to visit Malta. These are the oldest temples in the world, pre-dating the pyramids by about 2500 years. These temples however are not the oldest structures in Malta only dating to about 3500-4000 BC. But certainly the most well-preserved and standing structures. You can see clearly the different chambers, the pinkness of some of these limestone blocks that indicate the use of fire and the magnificent alignment that ensures sun rays flow through and focus on the inner most chamber on spring and autumn equinox as well as the summer and winter solstices. There were various pots and figurines found in these temples. Funnily enough, these well preserved structures are made out of large limestone blocks. They were preserved because they were surrounded by layers of different mud. Once the excavators found them, the limestone began to corrode due to the air and rain. Now they have this huge canopy over it but the sites need a better solution.

Azure Window - this is the second reason people come to Malta (the first being the beaches). It's a beautiful window of rock that has been eroded by the sea. Reminded me a lot of Durdle Door, Jurassic coast. Apart from being extraordinarily beautiful, it has recently become more popular because of Game of Thrones (the show, GoT) for being the location of the barbaric wedding of Khal Drogo to  Daenerys Targaryen. Much of Season 1 was shot in Malta but the shooting of this particular scene apparently altered some of the natural rock formations and the environmental authority was not very happy, causing the shooting to be moved to Croatia instead. Given the boost to economy and tourism I'm sure Croatia is not complaining.

The two of these are on either ends of the country, so naturally on the either ends of the trip. On the first day of our trip, we made our way first by bus to the edge of Malta island, then by ferry across to Gozo island, then by bus again to the other edge of the Gozo island where the Azure Window is. After spending about an hour at the formation, we grabbed that same (hop-on hop-off) bus to Marslaforn which was the beach where we were freezing in the wind. Then we went to The Citadel in Victoria (Gozo) which again inspires a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) with its narrow roads and high walls. We then went to Ggantija Temple which is yet another temple of similar age but unfortunately it was closed that day (for Easter). 

The next day we went to Valletta which is the capital city and a beautifully walled city that just screams GoT. We took a walking tour (of the city from the historic perspective rathar GoT but you just can't miss it when you are walking in the walkways of the Red Keep. We also crossed the water to the fort (which was also closed!) and to Cospicua In the evening we went to St Julian's for dinner which is a touristy area where all the fancy hotels overlooking the beach are. (We were staying at Sliema)

The day after we went to Mdina, the old capital, probably the tiniest ever walled city which ask explodes with GoT. For example, as you walk into Mdina you remember this is also the entrance of King's Landing and you feel you just walked into the sets. The whole city is so well-preserved that it is nearly like a set. The walls probably get washed every week, they are so sparkling clean, unlike a relic you would usually except. We also walked the road to Rabat, and I can't remember why. I vaguely recollect we wanted to watch the Dwejra cart ruts (Misraħ Għar il-Kbir) which are essentially some sort of tracks carved into the stones during prehistoric times and no one knows why. But we didn't go because they looked some what underwhelming.

The final day, as I already said, we visited the temples. Ghar Dalam caves were closed for viewing that day. Ghar Dalam caves trace the first of human activity that has been preserved dating some 5200 BC. Anyway, we had a brilliant historic visit to a beach country and flew back.

The Libertine

I watched Dominic Cooper in and as The Libertine at the Royal Haymarket Theatre and give it a 3.5/5 rating.

I wanted to watch it for Dominic Cooper. I started watching Preacher and the bad boy trying to be good role came off remarkably well from him. So when I read the synopsis of The Libertine, I pictured similar shades but with a lot more of the so-called royal excesses. I have to say, I was disappointed.

You see, there is the talk of excesses. There is little to show what it meant. May be when it was written, what the play showed were excesses. But then again the scandalous excesses of Les Liaisons Dangereuses were certainly something. Wolf of Wall Street, now that's excesses. Great Gatsby, that too. Even the threadbare production of Doctor Faustus showed excesses. The Libertine didn't. It showed some crass noise about dicks and dildos, but not a lifestyle. The lifestyle was mostly of a pathetic man whose artistic outcry is that of a 14-year-old boy thinking dicks are so scandalous. He didn't seem in control of anything and his excesses didn't seem to empower him. 

Dominic Cooper was not bad. It was just more of the Preacher, with his broody sense of bad-boy-ness. Nothing remarkable but nothing to be upset about. The actress Elizabeth Barry played by Ophelia Lovibond was well portrayed as a strong woman who is focused and would not change her life for a little drama. However, why she ever went to the Duke in the first place is unconvincing. 
Nina Toussaint-White played Bella, a much more convincing role. She was flamboyant and lit up the play during much of her performance and she defined excesses for the entire play.

The sets were beautiful, though. For a West-end show they managed a few changes and the lighting transformed you into a different era. The costumes and the like added enough authenticity to the play.
All in, it wasn't bad enough to get riled up about it but it wasn't good enough to get excited about either.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Red Barn

I watched The Red Barn at the Lyttleton, National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.


The sets were incredible. I think Lyttleton has always been very innovative with their sets. During the entire play, what we view is controlled by an aperture that the director, Robert Icke creates and sometimes moves it around. The scene with the snow storm through a white screen with wind bellowing is almost like watching a movie. And that's how the play starts.

In a snow storm, Ray is lost and his young wife, Mona is left waiting for him at the home of the friendly couple, Donald and Ingrid Doff. And what ensues is a psychological thriller. There isn't much to tell without giving the game away. What I can say, however, is that I have been waiting to watch Mark Strong perform since I missed his A View from the Bridge last year. And perform he did! He managed to transform into this boring hen-pecked middle-aged husband with a mid-life crisis that I wasn't sure it was him at all until he took a bow at the end of the play.
Hope Davis was wonderful in her calm demeanor. And Elizabeth Debicki was well, Elizabeth Debicki, the same sexy trophy wife/girlfriend that she was as Jed in The Night Manager. There was practically no difference.

The sets, as I said, were incredible and I can go on about them. How the Dodd's home in Connecticut has low ceilings and reeks of mediocrity while Ray's New York penthouse is flashy with modernity and high ceilings. A stellar end sees an entire room move in front of your eyes, again through that aperture that Robert Icke so wonderfully manages. The play is complete treat!

Nice Fish

I watched Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre last night and loved it. I would give it a 5/5.

It's a crazy doodling piece of art. Two friends go ice fishing, well only one of them is fishing, but two go ice fishing. And then they talk about life and how things turned out in their lives. Except it's not in a boring meandering brooding way. But in a, well meandering brooding way, but not boring and not "artsy" deep, just plain hilarious. They meet some characters who may or may not be there but that doesn't matter. Because it's funny and it's true. I think that's where the play got it right - not just the funny bit but the true bit. Well not entirely true, but generally true.

Mark Rylance was fantastic as this dim old fella. He was so good at the end, I almost cried (or was that because I was laughing so hard? I can't remember now). There were some incredibly funny lines that I would fondly recollect and start laughing all over again. I believe it was also co-written by him. I suppose it's comic surrealism if there is such a genre.

The sets were bare and well-done in this tiny theatre space. There was attention to detail like that little train moving in the background. They used dollhouses and puppets, which probably has a deeper meaning, but to me, it just seemed like nothing should be taken seriously. Could the sets have been better? Probably. As K pointed out, spring didn't see the ice melting and no one was really slipping. The puppeteer deserves an applause for subtlety. I didn't even realise there was a puppeteer, and I thought it must be a battery operated doll. The scene of a wind storm was beautifully done, but by the actors than anything on the set.

It's still playing if you want to watch it. I would highly recommend.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

No Man's Land

I watched Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at Wyndham's Theatre. I normally assign a rating afterwards but I'm not sure about this one.

It is a strange play. I understand the No Man's Land between the living and the dead, where memories exist and disappear at the same time. But the story itself is hard to follow so much so that I'm not surprised if people say there isn't one. Yet it explains the no man's land effectively. It leaves you with this unsettling feeling that life is slipping out ever so slowly and there is little you can do about it. In that sense, it is a well written abstract play, and nothing like those modern abstract plays that try so hard to be cool by being abstract (check out my favourite scapegoat, The Valley of Astonishment).

Having said that, the play is only as good as its actors. And Ian McKellen holds it all together, with little support from Patrick Stewart. The other characters are entirely dispensable. I don't know if that's how it was meant to be. If not for McKellen, there would be no play.

Even at the age of 76-77, performing at length with such brilliance and dedication, I was just glad to be in audience to watch Sir Ian McKellen. And I'm so glad to have been able to see the two actors on stage, and together.

So I suppose, I would like to give it the best rating for the experience. But remove one actor and the play falls away, hence it really deserves a lower rating. So, best to leave it be...

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Spoils

I watched The Spoils at the Trafalgar Studios and give it a 4.5/5 rating.

We went to watch it for its star cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Kunal Nayyar, Alfie Allen) and it's got rave reviews on the Broadway.

It certainly lived up to it. Written by Jesse Eisenberg, it looks at the life of a spoilt rich brat in his late twenties. The humour is good and the acting is brilliant. Everyone fits well into their roles but of course, it's Jesse Eisenberg's play, written for himself. He is natural at it, not just wanting but believing himself to be the centre of the universe. In some ways, so is Kunal Nayyar naturally in his comfort zone of a hard-working immigrant. Alfie Allen (so different from his sad existence on Game of Thrones) is a bubbly happy man about to marry the love of his life. He works at an asset management firm which people his age think is success, except our self-centred protagonist. Among Game of Thrones' finest actors, his acting prowess is wasted in a one dimensional character which of course he plays incredibly well.
Annapurna Shriram is strongly subtle (if such a description exists) with few lines but all of them filled with character. Even her little toe is probably in character, playing a competitive, ambitious doctor. Katie Brayben is unremarkable.

The set is simply a Manhattan apartment, much like a city flat. But well done with a little balcony and a small kitchen.

The ending is a random. I think it should have ended when our protagonist passes out on the floor. Or if sometime later Kunal comes back, picks him up and takes him to his room, out of pity. The current ending is weird, out of place and unfair to Kunal in some ways.
And as brilliant as the play may be, it feels like Jesse Eisenberg is limited in his creativity and it's this kind of man-child role and humour is all we can expect from him. Still it makes for good entertainment. I strongly recommend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Threepenny Opera

I watched The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

Now then, it received mixed reviews but I thought it was wonderful entertainment. And to think Rory Kinnear is a bad guy, Casanova and a true opportunist! He wasn't the lovable parish in The Casual Vacancy or the self-sacrificing Prime Minister in Black Mirror or the victimised citizen in The Trail. But then, I missed him as Iago a few years ago and now that I can see how perfect he would have been, I regret more.

It is a funny play with minimal sets. I shouldn't say minimal actually, because it really was the set of a set, with the scaffolding and all that.
It was interestingly a musical, one I would not have expected on National Theatre, but of course, nothing like the West End production extravaganzas. It was also one of the few old plays the I liked.

PS: I delayed it for so long it makes little sense to publish it, except for my own logs.