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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Trust House Theatre, Rathkeale College, Masterton Saturday 1 – Wednesday 6 July 2016

Reviewed by David Famularo

fairies

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about magic. And there is plenty of magic in this production by the Rathkeale/St Matthew’s senior college. To the point where there is a touch of melancholy coming back to reality when the lights go up and you are back in your car heading home.

The fine line between reality and dreaming is one of the many intriguing and entertaining themes Shakespeare explores in Dream. He saves one of his best lines on this theme for the end of the play, spoken by the spontaneous and unpredictable fairy Puck:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.”

Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. It is brimful with some of his most quotable lines, most famously “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It’s a credit to this cast, its co-directors Joanne Simpson and Matt Hudson, and production team that the audience is able to dine out so fully on the language.

This is a visually and aurally sumptuous production that makes it easy to believe in fairies. You are consistently led from one pleasant surprise to another, not the least being two songs sung beautifully in the middle of the performance.

One of the strengths of this production is that it captures the unique nuances of each of the four relationships in question. For example, at first we are meant to despise the forced love of the Theseus, Duke of Athens over his conquered bride Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. But their love grows in a way that makes sense within the world of power in which they are fated to exist.

I like to call Coronation Street the Shakespeare of soap operas because like the Elizabethan playwright, its writers know the human heart. In places, the plot in Dream plays like one of those story lines in Coro Street, with misunderstandings, mistaken identities and general confusion.

Shakespeare gently exposes the flaws in each of his characters but ultimately Dream manages to find good in everyone. Anger is just a momentary confusion on the way towards a normal state of happiness and peace.

In between his musings on the nature of reality, and the magic of romance, Shakespeare still finds room to tease the more amateur thespians of his generation, who become a group of bumbling amateur actors putting on a play to impress at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Even here Shakespeare can’t resist creating a fourth dimension by holding a play within a play, much like artists and film makers have used mirrors and reflections to create infinity. He even manages to embed the Romeo and Juliet ending into his amateur production. Clever.

It was Aristotle who coined the term “suspension of disbelief” for the way humans will suspend normal day-to-day reality while enjoying storytelling, whether around a fire, in a book, or watching a play or film.

With its beautiful fairies, stunning stage sets and excellent acting, this production made the leap from reality to fantasy an easy one, and delivered its opening-night audience into the enchanting slumber of a midsummer’s night dream in the middle of winter.

Serendipity, a Bakery sign, and the World War I Featherston Military Camp

Serendipity is always a good sign, one that things are going the way they should. Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery has enjoyed a sprinkling of it in the past few weeks. As you may know, the Gallery building was constructed in 1918, originally as a bakery. The baking was sold from a small hut on the corner of the road which is now my home.

I’ve always suspected it came from the First World War military camp about two kilometres north of Featherston, based on two pieces of circumstantial evidence (interestingly, it was always known as “The Old Camp Bakery”).

One was that it looked very similar to the camp buildings, most of which were demolished with the timber recycled timber, but in some cases taken apart and re-erected elsewhere. The second was that this happened at more or less the same time as the bakery building was built. It made sense that the bakery’s founder Joe (short for Josiah) Towersey would take the opportunity to use one of these buildings, which were used for both military purposes and the needs of what was a small self-contained sign.

As serendipity would have it, I’m finally about to repaint the hut which has undergone many changes over the years, including being moved away from the road in the early 1980s, but still retains some of its original weatherboard cladding. I borrowed my next-door-neighbour’s waterblaster to clean it and the other house (my studio) plus some brickwork.

About a week later Joe’s son Hartley Towersey, still only in his mid-sixties (he was born when Joe was in his sixties) came into the gallery with a friend to look around what had once been his home (although by that time it was no longer being used as a bakery).

Old Sign for Camp Bakery

A vague outline of the bottom half of the letters B, A, and K can be seen

Hartley recalled that once upon a time the word “Bakery” had been painted on the front of the hut and noticed that the waterblaster had removed some of the paint back to the wood, to partially reveal the first three letters of Bakery. It was immediately decided that I would paint the sign on again.

Hartley told me about a book called Gateway to the Wairarapa, an official history of Featherston and the South Wairarapa, published in the 1950s that had a photo of the hut with the original sign on it, which I could use as a guideline.

I visited the excellent Wairarapa Archive in Masterton to get a copy of the photograph and talked to historian Neil Frances who has a particular interest in the military camp. The photo wasn’t in the book, but a photo of the hut in a forlorn state in 1979 was in another Featherston history, Memories of South Wairarapa. However, the sign wasn’t visible in this grainy image.

We discussed the likelihood of the hut having come from the camp and Neil pulled out a document that lists all the people who purchased buildings from the camp. Joe Towersey wasn’t on it. Neil then remembered that the Archive holds a colour tinted photo of the camp, that would show the colours used on most of the camp buildings. These turned out to be the same as the present colour of the hut, which still had its original paintwork. There was also a description of the colours in an old book – creamy yellow walls, maroon facing, and dark grey roofs.

Corner of the Ever Increasing Gardens

Corner of the Ever Increasing Gardens showing the colour of the camp buildings

This was further circumstantial evidence that the building came from the camp. Neil also gave me a photo of the main road of the camp taken in 1917 from Featherston Military Training Camp 1917 which was published at the time the camp existed. One of the shops in the photo had a sign for “J Ware. The Camp Boot Maker” which looked to have the same font as the still extant outlines.

I took this away to help get the font right. Once back at the office I realized that I now had all the letters in the sign for Baker in “Boot” and “Maker” – and rang Neil back to mention this. I commented that in all likelihood the same sign writer(s) would have been employed for all the signage at the camp (with some variation in styles) and the likelihood of this being the exact font was very high.

Main Street Featherston Military Camp 1917

Main Street Featherston Military Camp 1917

This stimulated another important detail about the camp’s history in Neil’s well informed brain, which was that not all of the buildings were built by the government’s Public Works Department. Some shop owners at the camp paid for the construction of their own buildings, most likely using the same builders as employed by the Public Works Department to construct the military buildings, and in much the same style. Any of these buildings removed from the camp would not be on the previously mentioned list of private buyers of the camp’s military buildings when it was broken up, and the hut could quite easily be one of these.

It should also be noted that Joe had previous experience as a builders’ labourer in Wellington as an adolescent in the 1890s so pulling apart and reconstructing the hut would be easily within his capabilities.

While the question of whether the hut came from the camp will probably never be known for certain, the chances are extremely high.

A Footnote: I was always planning to keep the original colours on the hut when I repainted it. Too often people buy an old building because of the appeal of its age but over-renovate so that virtually all the original spirit is lost. There’s something to be said for continuity being good for the soul. Also, Hartley is well known in the Wairarapa as one of the founder members of the Ruamahanga River Band which has been going now for 40 years.

Joe Towersey and second wife Kathleen in 1965

Joe Towersey and second wife Kathleen in 1965

Click to enlarge the two links below to read about The Camp Bakery founder Joe Towersey taken from the book Memories of South Wairarapa. NB A couple of additional facts not mentioned in the book. Joe went to work for Bill Adams Bakery in Masterton, later to become Ernest Adams. The fowl houses at the back of the bakery (on what is now a separate property) were kept by Henry (Harry) Stretton. His wife Joy was the niece of Joe.

Joe Towersey history 1

 Joe Towersey history 2

Under The Skin

Under The Skin

David Famularo

In reading recent issues of Nexus, an Australia based magazine that deals in subject matter outside the mainstream, it has been interesting to note that theories about body snatching aliens are common.

I had previously thought that body snatching aliens belonged to 1950s Scifi films, most famously Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This was supposedly a metaphor for McCarthyism in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it was feared a fifth column of Communists was infiltrating the fabric of American society.

China’s Communist government ironically fears religious group The Falun Gong in much the same way. Although the Falun Gong are non-political, it is their apathy in regards to political engagement that the Chinese government saw as a threat. Political apathy can be as dangerous, and even more so, as political dissension.

Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi, it turns out, is one of those people who believes in alien body snatchers. In two interviews he gave (one in Time magazine) which were recently reprinted in Nexus, he argues that there has been (and still exist) previous intelligent life on other planets similar to Earth.

These alien life forms are inferior to humans but because they have been around much longer, are still more technologically advanced than us. Nevertheless, they desire the superior human physical form and so have been helping humans make the technological progress necessary to reach the point where human bodies can be manufactured, the aliens’ ultimate plan being to inhabit these man-made bodies themselves.

The reason the aliens in Under The Skin want to snatch humans, specifically males, is never made clear in the film but that doesn’t matter because that is not its point.

Made on a limited budget, much like New Zealand films (receiving financial support from Creative Scotland, for example) Under The Skin’s only luxury is Hollywood star Scarlet Johansen in the lead. Other than that, the film makes do with the everyday world as its stage. Likewise, the actors playing the many small parts are convincingly normal.

There are two films Under The Skin reminds me of. One is The Man Who Fell to Earth from the mid-1970s starring David Bowie and the other Liquid Sky from the early 1980s. Indeed, Under The Skin shares with Liquid Sky a close relationship between aliens and sex and seduction.

One of the strengths of Under The Skin, which is based on the book by Michel Faber, is that at every point where it could so easily fall into a familiar narrative, it stubbornly goes against expectations.

The alien honey trap isn’t wired for empathy but I constantly find myself expecting it to express feelings of compassion, one of the most obvious examples being when a child is in danger of drowning on a windswept beach. But it is worth remembering that the alien’s sense of “alienation” is mirrored by the coldness that is often the norm in human society.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is when the alien seduces a horribly disfigured but endearingly naïve young man. And perhaps the entire film turns on this spot where his predicament gets under her skin. The young man has experienced victimisation all his life and the alien’s comprehension of this fact and accompanying empathy begins her own fatal transformation from predator to lover to victim.

Ultimately, however, the alien is not seduced by men but by sensuousness of the human body she inhabits. By being in one, she has in fact become one of Gaia’s children.

Magic in the Moonlight

Emma Stone and Colin Firth

 

Suspension of disbelief is the term – first thought up by Socrates and further developed by later philosophers – to describe the phenomenon where an audience on being told a story through one medium or another (eg storytelling around a fire, theatre, film) puts aside their usual sense of reality to believe in a fiction.  Fantasy becomes reality, the impossible becomes believable.

Humans seem to come hard wired with this facility, and it is amazing how quickly and easily we fall into this hypnotic trance. From the moment the first images fall on the screen at a movie, we become engrossed. If this experience isn’t maintained, the film fails. A film, like all storytelling, is a psychological realm, reflecting and evolving each viewer’s inner space.

The 1920s in which Magic in the Moonlight is set, is a relatively rare period for modern films to be set in. Generally speaking, our sense of relevant history only seems to go as far back as the 1930s. We have a simplistic notion of the “roaring twenties” – sharemarket speculation, jazz, flappers. I’ve only recently discovered what a fascinating decade the 1920s  actually were, in popular culture especially representing the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

It seems Woody Allen is well acquainted and intrigued by the era as well. He places his characters squarely in one of its romantic epicentres, the French Riviera, and unapologetically indulges in a picture postcard re-imagination of it – beautiful cars, stunning scenery fashionable men and women, hot jazz. He further captures its spirit through a story line and style of film making that, although more sophisticated, is reminiscent of movies made at the time.

As its title suggests, there is almost a corny romanticism to Magic in the Moonlight, but Allen doesn’t mock the era or undermine it with our modern day predilection for cynicism. He still has faith in the notion of finding true love. But depth is needed to make such a story line satisfying to a 21st century audience and this is where Allen, playing with notions of love and magic, adds substance and humour.

The film starts in a theatre where a “Chinese” magician makes an elephant disappear. I marvel at how Allen creates such a marvellous and convincing shot of a spellbound audience of the era. From there the story unfolds in the south of France. This enchanting realm becomes the landscape within which a worldly cynic and ingénue battle over each other’s perception of reality. Both see something in their opposite that is attractive but neither is fully able to escape their own sense reality.

And here lies one of the ironies of the film in – the suspension of disbelief. I (and I assume the rest of the small audience at my screening) find it much easier to take the side of the waif with supposedly psychic powers than the intelligent sophisticate, who is rational, but fearful and wounded by his own cynicism. It’s the same effect, although on a less grand scale, to what takes place in the mind of the audience in Scifi and horror films, where we identify with the protagonist who believes in aliens or monster, not the other characters who don’t.

Out on the street, neither would we. But for some reason we put aside all our usual sense of what is normal to one side for an hour or two. Out in the “real world” it is impossible for reality and imagination to co-exist. One assumes dominion at the expense of the other. Usually the real world wins out, and yet imagination is essential for existence as well.

Magic in the Moonlight argues both for and against the existence of magic. But it points out that humans can’t live without it, or at least a belief in it – this sustains us or at least helps us to survive without going mad. A lot rides on the outcome of the romance in Magic in the Moonlight.

Maleficent

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

What originally piqued my interest in Maleficent was seeing the poster in the foyer of Masterton Regent Cinema, which seemed to recapture some of the magic from Disney’s golden age. Indeed, the theatre itself still retains some of the picture palace grandeur of the same period. Plus it made instant sense for Angelina Jolie to play the part of the malevolent Maleficent.

I won’t give the plot away beyond saying that it involves conflict between the fairy and human kingdoms, recounts the “back story” to the events that took place in the 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty, and bends the denouement to suit a different moral message. Amongst its greatest pleasures, which can only be known by seeing Maleficent on the big screen, is how it draws on the past to create its magical realm.

Fairies have been part of European lore for hundreds if not thousands of years, a journey from genuine belief in the existence of fairie creatures to a purely imaginary world (for most people) today. In centuries past audiences used to listen to story tellers, and used their own imagination to picture fairies.

However, strange creatures have been the subject of the visual arts of European culture for many hundreds of years. They abound in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, along with painters like Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450 – 1516).

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

Indeed, the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is said to be based on the sculpture of Uta von Ballenstedt in Naumburg Cathedral by the thirteenth century Master of Naumburg.

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

While the illustration of the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland by John Tenniel is said to be based on the sculpture of a hare in Saint Mary’s Church, Beverley, England.

However, it is not till the nineteenth century and in particular the explosion of brilliant British art that fairies as we picture them more or less today start to appear in paintings and books.

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

To this day the great British fairie painters such as Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke pictured) have copyright on our idea of what fairies should look like.

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

It should also be noted that many of these artists drew heavily on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their subject matter as in the instance the Quarrel of Titania and Oberon by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

There are literally millions upon millions of contemporary paintings, illustrations, and statues of fairies produced by New Age artists but rarely do these ever have the charm or capture the imagination as the nineteenth century ones do.

While visual artists provided the fairie imagery, the primary stories are European folk tales collected or written by the likes of French author Charles Perrault (1628 – 16 May 1703) and German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859).

But to arrive at its final form, Maleficent had to be filtered through one more major cultural and artistic movement and that is the high art of Hollywood movie making circa 1930 to 1950. Although the original animated Sleeping Beauty was made comparatively late in 1959, Maleficent feels like it has drawn from the deepest well of the 1940s.

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

Jolie, who brilliantly plays the part of Maleficent, has all the retro star power of the greatest actresses of that age like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. There is one moment in the film where life and art become one with a very subtle but powerful reference to Jolie’s double mastectomy.

Maleficent reviewed at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery www.mazzolajewellery.co.nz

Director Robert Stromberg and cinematographer Dean Semler capture the gothic mood of these old films, especially through the close ups which bathe Jolie’s face in light and shadow. Most great films of old always had at least one special “moment” that became their signature and in Maleficent this is where Aurora draws Maleficent from the shadows where she is hiding.

Whereas Quentin Tarantino name checks classic cinematic moments, his films tend to end up as a pastiche of intellectual Post-Modern irony. Maleficent director Robert Stromberg never forgets that his film’s aim is to emotionally engage the viewer.

And Maleficent proves that many of Hollywood’s old school techniques can still be successfully employed to this purpose. The film is an emotional roller coaster as were all great Disney films of the past. This is Maleficent’s story, and it is her journey that we are meant to experience viscerally, her emotional revelations that we are meant to comprehend as meaningful to our own lives.

The film is sumptuously beautiful but beauty without meaning is ultimately unfulfilling. The meaning in Maleficent comes from the intelligent and relevant story line, clever dialogue, and most importantly of all, a powerful moral message.

Maleficent can be read as a commentary on the relationship between the sexes, as embodied in the fairies (feminine) and humans (masculine). The feminine is both weak and strong, while the masculine is strong but also weak. Environmentally, it can be interpreted as the masculine attempt to dominate nature, while the feminine strives to protect it.

As in all good fairy tales, some sort of resolution of this conflict is required and the answer is – as always – provided by love. Shakespeare understood that love is the wild card in any deck. It can turn order into chaos and bring order from chaos. But Maleficent chooses to free love from the traditional notion of girl meets boy. It is instead a free spirit that expresses itself in whoever’s heart it lives in. When the conflict does resolve itself the ending is a happy one, as it could only ever be in any great Disney film.