Saturday, February 03, 2018


Homegoing is the history of the tribes of Asante and Fante, spanning centuries and continents, through the stories of the members of one lineage.
Maame, taken as a prisoner of war in a Fante village, delivers Effia and escapes the same day leaving her newborn. Back in her Asante village, she gives birth to Esi. The novel follows the two women's progenies as the political and social background transforms.
For a debutant author, to cover an entire history of a people is a tremendous task. To make it simpler, Yaa Gyasi broke down the stories into a number of chapters, one for each character that showcases a generation of each women's progeny.
Through these characters, the author shows us how the slave trade of the prisoners of war between the two tribes, eventually led to slave trade with the British and then ultimately their subjugation by the British.
One chapter showcases the introduction of the cacao crop, and another the slavery in plantations in Americas. Soon we move into the exploitation of the free black people as prisoners working the mines, the discrimination in free modern society and the identity crisis of young people born and bred in relative equality.
By separating the chapters which are essentially short stories, she worked on them individually which gives it a certain charm. However, it would have been a lot more interesting had the stories been woven together. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Network play

I watched The Network at the National Theatre and give it a 2/5 rating.

I give Bryan Cranston a 4/5. I deduct 2 points for poor direction that did not use the actor in a better manner, for costumes/sets that were too modem to worry about television and the overdone plot with little meat in that it barely holds together it's elements.

Let me start by reiterating the brilliant acting from Bryan Cranston. He was perfect as a middle-aged man with a monotonous life reading the news in the blandest way possible, even when the news is not so bland. He was perfect in his frustration with the mundane when he decides to end it. He was also perfect in his feverish madness as the messiah of truth. He was however repetitive and lacked any other dimension to his personality which is where I believe the director falls short.
Also, I couldn't help but wonder if Rory Kinnear might have done a better job.

The sets and costumes did not have anything inherently wrong with them but they just did not seem like they were from a past era. May be it was the use of glass (for rooms, etc) which I associate with the modern. May be it was clothing which possibly has not changed in generations for news readers and corporate employees. May be it was the restaurant (there were a few audience members having dinner on the stage) with its diners looking like ordinary people of today rather than the yester years passed. May be it was the use of this massive screen at the back which is effectively a flat screen, which we did not have during the 1970s when the play was set in. They could have at least put a box around the screen to make it resemble a box television. Instead they put three sound engineers on top of it and it looked like an EDM concert with the DJ deck above a screen where the DJ rolls his psychedelic visuals. The main stage also had a very shiny surface which is probably how TV studios look like but on stage it was glaring off a lot of light.

The plot itself was light. A bland newsreader is fired because his show has low ratings. He is so frustrated that in his bland way he announces he will kill himself on television. His ratings go up and the network keeps him on in this lunatic tabloid type show.
Because the sets fail, the story fails. The sets keep us firmly in today's world and the story is too yesterday for the internet generation. Not only are our newspapers and television tabloid, we create our own tabloid news through Twitter and blogs, the take down of Aziz Ansari as a case in point. We probably don't even read newspapers and watch television. We read WhatsApp forwards and watch Netflix. I understand it was an old movie that won Oscars for some of its actors as well as the screenplay.
I have not watched the movie but I can only imagine it was not adapted well. The story line seemed disjointed and the emotions not relatable. For example, the story tries to compare the television generation with its previous generation through a romantic relationship between a middle-aged man and a younger career oriented woman. I failed to see the chemistry between them and assumed it was just an affair so I was rather surprised when the man left his wife of 25 years and professed love to his younger partner. I was also so uninvested in this plot line that when he expressed his frustration regarding the lack of emotional involvement from his partner, I was surprised again.
A sad fact is the wife has a five minute role which seemed completely unconnected. And this is the same role that won the actor in the movie an Oscar, the shortest role to win an Oscar.
The play does have a number of monologues that makes it well placed for awards.

Without the romantic story line, the play could be cut short to 90 mins and may have kept the audience engaged as well as be able to keep the tempo on the play.
The audience members having dinner on the stage we pointless, except as a money making scheme which Jensen would approve.

Watching the play mostly on the large flat screen it felt like I was watching a movie. If I wanted to watch a movie, I would rather have watched the original.
Having watched the Black Mirror episode caused Fifteen Million Merits and also having watched the brilliant play Ink only months ago, this play was underwhelming.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Oslo, the play

I watched the play Oslo at Harold Pinter and give it a 3/5 rating.

May be the expectations from all the Tony awards and the publicity set it up to fail for me. The female lead of Mona Juul played by Lydia Leonard was bland with a very "calming" voice and an "earnest" face that get annoying very quickly. The male lead was just about average. The play itself was far too long. Abu Ala of Palestine played by Peter Polycarpou and Uri of Israel played by Philip Arditti stand out, performed by a Greek-Cypriot and a Turkish-Jewish respectively. Nabil Elhouahabi played perfectly the hot-blooded Communist, Hassan.

It was indeed historic that I should watch the play based on the Oslo peace process laying the foundation between Israel and Palestine on the day after Trump decides to move the US Embassy of Israel to Jerusalem.

The story was a bit drawn out and sometimes at the cost of losing focus. For example when Abu Ala and Uri really connect at a human level, they show us the Norwegian couple watching over them with some sort of altruistic view. But Abu Ala was wonderfully portrayed to showcase the clash between patriotism and the economic cost of it.

The most striking sentence comes from the hot-blooded Hassan shouting at the Israelites: you can either be the bully or the victim; you can't be both.
It's true, yet we are all guilty of it. When we bully someone we find a reason to justify it - a reason that makes us the victim.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Venus in Fur

I watched Venus in Fur at the Royal Haymarket Theatre and I give it a 5/5 rating.

We had read reviews that suggest the play was just about average and that Natalie Dormer was good while the writing/flow has had its stumbles. We wondered if we should watch it just for Natalie Dormer. In the end, the fact that the play is only 90 minutes long won over and we ended up going.

Natalie Dormer was indeed brilliant and her co-actor David Oakes was only slightly behind her. The two-actor and one-set play might be underwhelming for some but the impeccable execution and the length of the play make it electric.

The sloping ceiling and bare set gives a feel of a derelict attic space to the set but the upward sloping floor gives the actors more room. Such that, even when the actors step back a few paces from the audience, their presence is not diminished.

I once again mentioned the length of the play because it's hard to keep the audience hooked for 2-3 hours, especially with little happening on stage but lines from the two actors. With the story being that of auditioning for a role in a play, the actors change "costumes" on stage and even set their own lighting (although the actual lightning is managed by production).

I wasn't aware of the plot of the play prior to watching it, or the book on which the play inside the play is based on. If I had known I would possibly have found the play that much more involving. I was hooked in any case.

An actor arrives late to an audition and insists on auditioning for the female lead role and requests the director and playwright to read the lines of the male lead role in the play. As they begin reading, it is rather clear whether she is reading the lines or expressing her opinion on the play with Natalie Dormer changing her accent and her personality between the heroine of the play and the struggling actor. The director only just reads the lines to start with but urged by the actor, he begins to play the lines as well. As they continue reading, the line between the character and the actor who plays it gets blurred until eventually the two become the characters themselves. The chemistry was phenomenal, helped by the lightning and thunder.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Remains of the Day

This book is so simple yet so complex that a lot of it has just gone above my head. Knowing that it won the Man Booker would make it harder for me to critic it. All I can say is that I enjoyed reading the book very much.

Told from a first person narrative, an aged butler goes on a "motoring" trip to Devon for a well earned break as well as meet his ex colleague who he believes may be interested in coming back to work with him.

On his motoring trip, he reminisces about the wonderful days of Darlington Hall back in the day when it hosted many social events with men of stature where important decisions that changed the course of the world were taken. As he relays his story we realise a few things about him.
He values dignity of his profession above everything else. By this he means that a butler should maintain composer and continue his role irrespective of the situation and never let his true emotions show. He narrates several instances where he had done that and takes considerable pride in it. We understand this trait comes from his father who remained aloof to reinforce the principle.
He expects loyalty to his employer as sacrosanct. His Lord Darlington fell from grace when he sympathised with the Germans and tried to establish peace before World War II. But we see our butler Mr Stevens never questioning Darlington's intentions.
His professionalism leaves him incapable of comprehending human emotions that he refuses to indulge in whether it is witty banter that he believes he must learn in order to please his new employer Mr Faraday or his fondness that borders on love for his former colleague Ms Keaton that he wishes to meet with on the trip.

In a first person narrative, we see things the way our Mr Stevens sees them and then whenever he divulges new information, we peel away a layer of his reality until we understand but not entirely of what things really mean to him.

I suppose that's what makes it a wonderful book to read. We almost also give in to our own perceived reality and rarely do we acknowledge others realities.
This must have been a really difficult book to write. Like method acting, the author would have needed to really become the narrator to be able to divulge information that way.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three days in Budapest

A three day weekend seemed plenty of time to see Budapest. We arrived in Budapest at midday on a Saturday and left the city early evening on the following Monday feeling we were comfortably relaxed yet having gone around the city.
As most of you know, Budapest is actually two cities. Buda is hilly and green with a castle, a citadel, nice viewpoints and a statue. Pest is the hustling bustling city. We stayed in Pest close to the parliament.
As I said, we arrived at midday so we headed almost directly (thanks to our flight delay of an hour) to a free walking tour of the city. There were easily over a hundred people at the meeting point looking for the tour. I'd never seen so many people on a walking tour. K who has been Budapest in 2010 claims he couldn't even find a tour company that offers this and instead found a history professor who agreed to take five of them around. Thankfully though, the tour group was split five ways but we were still about 30 so it was still too large a group. Also, although it was a nice Sunday day of 26/27 degrees it quickly became apparent that it's not so nice when it's too sunny when you are out on a walk for three hours during the hottest part of the day.
Enough of complaining. The tour started in Pest and we realised that much of the city was destroyed multiple times and what we see now are new buildings despite of the fact that they were rebuilt to the original exteriors.

A little history for you. The country that is Hungary was occupied by some tribes sometimes referred to as the ungurs in old texts and some references to the Huns from the east. The country came together under King St Stephens combining some tribes, predominantly the tribe of Magyar. They fought with the Romans and the Turks over the years and ultimately created the mighty empire of Austria-Hungary with its vast expanse of land. However, they lost more than 2/3rds of this in the First World War. Soon after they were yet again stuck between a rock and a hard place, quite literally between the Soviet and the Nazis. They sided with the Nazis when Hitler promised them their lost lands but at the cost of the Jewish population. After Buda stood against the Soviet and was destroyed, the end of the Second World War led to four decades of Soviet rule.

The tour took us around St Stephens' cathedral named after the king, took us around some of the lime stone structures that still bear small amount of destruction when the Nazi spies and the Red Army fought running on roof tops like in the movies. The tour continued on the chain bridge (which was also twice destroyed but reconstructed to its original design) to Buda to see the place where Hungarians stood against the Soviet and lost. We then walked​ up to Matthias church and ended at the view behind the church.

K and I followed that with yet another climb up Gellert Hill to the citadel and the statute of Lady Liberty. The statue was originally put up praising the Soviet for liberating Hungary from Germany. But after public sentiment against the Soviet grew sour, the inscription was changed to just symbolise liberty and freedom. We then walked our way back to Pest across the another bridge.

At night we tried to go to some fancy Hungarian restaurants but they were booked up well in advance so we ended up going to <> Square in the Jewish District and ate at Menza which was also a nice Hungarian place. After that we caught up with some friends at this place called Instant. Budapest has a new phenomenon that they call ruinpubs. There were some large buildings in the Jewish District that were in ruins and cost too much to restore that the government basically gave up on them, ignoring them. Some young people began reclaiming these unused buildings filling them up with knick knacks and before you know it, they became artisty hipster places to hang out at day and night. So this place called Instant, we read about as being the biggest wth 27 rooms apart from the open courtyard area. It was a bit too large I think, to fill it up with random objects so most of the rooms were just empty with some themed faded wallpaper and chairs. As we were leaving though, we realised the place was getting really packed.

The next day, Sunday, we decided to go to one museum (because museums are closed on Mondays). After a lot of thinking, we decided to visit the House of Terror. This was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party which was the Hungarian party allied with the Nazis and then became the headquarters of the Communists during the Soviet rule - much like the Topography of Terror in Berlin. The museum starts with the Arrow Cross coming to power and then pushed aside by the Nazis who cause more atrocities and then the "changing of clothes" happens where the nation that did the dirty work for Hitler changes uniform and does it for Stalin. Then there is the 1956 uprising against the Communists but the might of the Soviet comes down on them and crushes them. And then towards the end of the museum, they don't explain how Hungary became independent but there is a large display of the photographs and names of the victimizers. That display struck me as odd but I would know later on a tour that the people of Hungary feel that those who committed the atrocities were Hungarians under both the regimes and these people did not face enough punishment. The museum is rather new and was built by the current PM Victor Orban and his party. It has received criticism for showcasing Hungary as a victim even though there were numerous Hungarians that perpetuated the Nazi as well as the Red Army cause.

So Sunday turned out to be a rather grim day because after visiting the museum, we chose to do a Jewish quarter walking tour. Our tour guide was witty so the longish tour seemed shorter. We walked to the Jewish quarter and discussed how when the Jewish came to Hungary in three waves, as and when there were disturbances in the Middle East and eventually when the synagogue in Jerusalem fell for the third time. The Jews settled right outside the then city boundary of Pest in order to trade with the city. They were foreigners and not allowed to own land. However as the trade flourished they got integrated, especially with the creation of the new sect of neo liberal Jews who bore a Hungarian identity and before the second world war, they made up a quarter of the population of Budapest. Today they make up about 2%. The Jewish District is home to the Great Synagogue which was until recently the largest synagogue in the world (now there is a bigger one in NYC). This synagogue and the parts of the Jewish District were a ghetto during the short Nazi occupation. The Jews in the city were protected for most part of the war while outside in the countryside, they were almost completely removed. Within the city, the protection lasted till the Nazis walked in only 9 months before the end of war and created the ghettos. Our tour guide showed us a photograph of the garden in the synagogue that was filled with mounds of bodies which was how the Red Army found them when they were liberated. The tour then took a cheerful turn when the guide starting talking about how the artists have been taking over the ruined buildings to create these hipster ruinpubs which are all in the Jewish District. The tour ended at Szimpla which is the most touristy of them all but with very interesting decor.

Following the tour, we went into the Great Synagogue which was the first time I had stepped into a synagogue. This particular one was designed to resemble a church with its altar and a neo Gothic and some moorish influences in architecture. It was meant to show that the people are willing to integrate into existing society. I also learnt that the mark of a synagogue was the ten commandments on display and that kosher meant a way of eating that segregates dairy from meat. We also visited the garden in the aforementioned photograph and I saw the same photograph, except this time I was standing from where it was taken and it's chilling when you look at the garden and suddenly be able to imagine the 3000 bodies in heaps. Usually,  a synagogue doesn't have a cemetery. Our synagogue tour guide himself was unaware of his religion until he was a teenager when his family felt safe enough to reveal to him how they burnt their documents in order to avoid being marked as Jewish.

Continuing on the Jewish theme, we had dinner at Yiddishe Mamma Mia. But it was mostly Italian food. After that we went to see Csendes, a local ruinpub recommended by walking tour guide but it was a tad too local in the sense it was empty on a Sunday night.

On our last day in Budapest, we woke up and dragged ourselves all the way with changes from metro to tram to bus to the edge of Buda to take a ride on the chair car. Sadly, it was closed for renovations. We then decided to go to one of the famous baths of Budapest, Scheszny. The city has some natural geothermal springs whose water is rich in minerals and can have therapeutic benefits. We went to Scheszny but we didn't pack any swimwear (and swimwear there was  some €80 which is ridiculously expensive considering this was Budapest). They do have a short tour around the place so we walked around a little bit and saw the open pool. Apparently the water comes to the surface at 70 degrees and has to then be cooled to about 38 degrees before it is let into the pool for use. In winter when it's snowing, it must be amazing with the steam riding from the pool. We then made our way to the opposite entrance of the bath because it was really beautiful. We also got ourselves a half litre of the mineral water that is drinkable. However it tasted horrible because of the sulphur and was really hot on a really hot day.

On our way back, we stopped at the Heroes Square nearby where we happen to see some VIP pay homage to the soldiers who died in all the wars. We went back to our airbnb to pack and leave but found out flight was delayed by an hour so we took the river bus along the river bank before we went to the airport.

One thing I must say though, there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of hen parties and stag parties. They were loud and boisterous and practically anywhere and anytime, including on the road at noon. All I have seen were British. Locals seem to be unhappy with them and occasionally lightly express their displeasure. One time, a British tourist was ashamed of her fellow countrymen and apologised on their behalf. It is very interesting that a culture known for its restrain would go to other countries and become so loud. You know, stiff upper lip, avoid eye contact and all that...

Barbershop Chronicles

I watched the Barbershop Chronicles at the Dorfman theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

I'm no expert on the communities and cultures of the Africans but from what I know, hair is essential bonding. Black hair needs to be taken care of regularly and by a professional so both men and women n need to go to a parlour or a barbershop regularly and the community builds. Although Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche writes that the men's section is always more cheerful as they share their ideas of politics and society while the women's section speaks of unachievable dreams of the straight hair.

The barbershops in this play indeed showcase the community and men sit around discussing politics as well as personal issues. The play switches between barbershops in Harare, Lagos, Kampala, Accra as well as London where are the various countries meet. And they are all ordinary barbershops with ordinary people. Be it that a young man "steals" a cut but comes back to pay or a young man who misunderstands the intentions of an older father-like figure out how the barber always chastises you for not taking care of yourself properly. 

The set has all the items needed at a barbershop that can be quickly moved around to create a slightly different layout in each city. The walls all have the hoardings of various outlets in the various cities and one of them lights up to tell you which city the current sketch is set in.

Colourful, filled with music and lively from the start to end, it is coming back to the National Theatre in November if you want to catch it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


I watched Ink at the Almeida Theatre and rate it 5/5.

It was fantastic and no wonder it got a West End transfer which means you can still watch it.

The play is about 3 hours long (incl interval) and hence I was a bit sceptical whether it would hold my attention for that long. I need not have worried. You jump right into it.

The play starts off with Rupert Murdoch making an offer to Larry Lamb which seems like a stupid move or a really bold move and we all know it's the latter because they succeeded. I didn't know the story of The Sun, neither did I know that The Mirror was once upon a time well regarded. I must buy one of each one of these days.

I'm guessing most of you know the story and it's simple. Murdoch buys a dying newspaper gives it to Lamb and pushes him to push boundaries and beat the most circulated paper of that time within a year. Lamb goes on to push rather too many boundaries including the detailed reporting of the kidnapping of a colleague's wife and of course famously creating the Page 3 that finally put The Sun ahead of The Mirror.

What is remarkable is how they showed this on stage with the intensity of a well-made movie. The fast paced life on Fleet Street, the jealousy and the rivalries. The play is about Lamb though. It's not really about Murdoch who has very little screen time. I don't know the full story but in this one, Murdoch is one of the good ones while Lamb is ruthless in the pursuit of ambition.

What is ironic is that Murdoch convinces Lamb to take the job by telling him that the industry needs an upheaval and outsiders are needed for that because at that time it was controlled by a handful of men from fancy schools. Come Murdoch, we know now that the media across the world is controlled largely by Murdoch. Beats me that they own Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

White Teeth

The first novel of the author, I came across this when I read up about Zadie Smith's new book, Swing Time. I thought let me start with the very first one and opened White Teeth.

Set in North London in very ordinary neighbourhoods filled with immigrants and their second generation children, I could understand it as could many people I would assume given the success of this book. As with such books, the story and the end of where it takes us is less important than the journey itself.

Andrew, a white guy who is racially blind ends up marrying Clara who is a Caribbean black woman raised in London and decades younger. They have a daughter Irie who is more black than she is white. Andrew's friend from serving in World War II is Samad, a Bangladeshi who marries his decades younger cousin Alsana from Bangladesh. They have twins Magid and Millat. Samad and Andrew often reminisce the war days, spending more time with each other alienating their younger families. Samad also has a pet peeve of going off on a tangent about how Mangal Pandey (a hero of the Indian independence movement) was his great great grandfather. Enter the Chalfens, a perfect over achieving English middle class family who become obsessed with these non white kids and believe they can groom the kids out of their "difficult" homes.

There are many layers and themes in this story. One of lies and secrets: nothing is ever what it seems at the Jones or the Iqbals, or at least that's what Irie thinks. One of religions: Samad is a staunch Muslim, Clara's mother is a Jenovah's witness, Chalfens are religiously scientific, there is also a group of vegans and animal welfare activists. Etc etc.
There is one theme of teeth which I suppose is where the title comes from but that theme feels so forced, it's ridiculous and not in the funny way. Many chapters for example are titled the root canal of so and so. Then there is Clara who doesn't have front teeth and Iris feels cheated when she finds out.

So anyway, it's a little funny overall. I think it was meant to be a little more funny than I found it. And I also realised that Roopa Farookhi sort of made me like this book less.
You see, I read this book called Bitter Sweets. A first generation Bangladeshi couple move to London and have a pair of extremely good looking kids that they name them Omar and Sharif after the famous actor and one of them grows up to be a cool dude while the other is a geeky kid; overlaying all this is a story of how the immigrant families live in lies while the white people are so truthful. Bitter Sweets was written after White Teeth. I can't help thinking that Bitter Sweets was hugely "inspired" by this book.

Samad's twins were indeed so handsome there were references to Omar Sharif. I googled him and I was disappointed. Anyway, the twins are also similarly different - one is the cool dude and the other a geek. In this case however, they didn't get along well. And we discussed anyway, the Chalfens are truthful. However, let's ignore this.

The ending of the book was somewhat too theatrical ( but so was the entire book now that I think about it) and rather unnecessary. Too many things happening at the same time that the author couldn't write it well enough and each segment comes off as half done.

In summary, the book has a lot in it that is worth exploring and in most instances it was well explored however in bits and pieces the writing falls short of the intention and it shows that it is a debutant effort.

Never Let Me Go

This is so deep on so many levels and yet is such a refreshingly light read. It does make you cry at the end. If you want to read it I recommend you don't read any preamble and for that reason, I will keep this very spoiler proof.

No, it's not a thriller. The book is written from the perspective of one Kathy H, a student at Hailsham and about her greatly ordinary life. Over time as people grow older, we chance upon information about the bad bad world out there and learn to deal with it. So does Kathy, supported by some friends.

It's endearing in a way to see campus life in Hailsham and remember that my six years of campus life were similar. We all have things that seem so important at that stage within the confines of that word, that outside it they seem so silly. And that is what makes this book so very special. The author was able to look at the world through the eyes of this little child and then a young adult all the while. This is also what makes epics like To Kill a Mockingbird. May be that's why this book is now part of school curricula. The author did use the older Kathy H as the narrator looking back at her life, I suppose in the off chance that he found himself not sounding young enough. This flashback angle also allowed for a non linear narrative, going back and forth between different experiences at different ages but all muddled up and remembered as and when our older Kathy H pleases.

The story goes on and on through how people deal with different situations, like bullying, falling in love and hating someone for something silly, etc. It's not a great epic of changing the world. I mean the story has potential to make for an action sequence but the author chooses not to. Because we are not knights and most of us deal with unpleasant information by ignoring it and pretending like it does not affect us, which exactly what Kathy and her friends do most of time.

The melancholy that Murakami brings and the ordinary told extraordinarily that shapes up Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the marquee of loneliness that underlines their works are all themes that run in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I just picked up his legendary piece of book, The Remains of the Day.