Merely Players

Back on his 465th birthday I rambled on about the birth of my love of Shakespeare – a love that has continued unabated to this day. Today while visiting the Guardian website – about the only news site I got to these days and even then … but that’s another story – I came across this wonderful video: The Quarantine Players Project.

Well-known names from the British theatre join with theatre goers from around the world to deliver three of the iconic soliloquies in a way that gives them new life and, for me, new depth of meaning. “The Guardian and Shakespeare’s Globe put out an open call for theatre fans to record their own renditions of the speeches. More than 500 submissions were received for the project, which was produced by Jess Gormley, and a selection were edited together by Noah Payne-Frank.”

At a time when emotions are often close to the surface I find these are amongst the most moving of passages despite their familiarity. Never have I been so aware of where I am in those Seven Ages as I creep towards the sixth. And Prospero’s farewell is all the more powerful for that connection to my first brush with Shakespeare.

The word for April 8th is:
Soliloquy /səˈliləkwē/: [noun]
1.1 An act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers, especially by a character in a play.
1.2 A part of a play involving a soliloquy.
Middle English from late Latin soliloquium, from Latin solus ‘alone’ + loqui ‘speak’.
Or that conversation you have with your dog or cat in which all the grievances of life are addressed.

Nothing to be done.

Two great pessimists of the 20th century are compared. And the reader is challenged.

Samuel Beckett
Caricature by Tonio

I have a fondness, as does my friend Dr Spo for that great Irish-French* pessimist Samuel Beckett. For me that fondness began when I was a member of a young theatre guild attached to a theatre company in Toronto. We had a marvellous barn of a building on 12 Alexander Street** downtown, filled with sets, costumes and props from productions by the Crest and Canadian Players Company that had been unwillingly amalgamated to create Theatre Toronto. I was “director” for a workshop performance of Play, a one act piece involving a man, his wife and his mistress encased in funeral urns with just their heads showing. It was to be performed very quickly with a spotlight on each as they delivered their rapid fire seeming non-sequitars – twice through! We didn’t have body sized funeral urns nor did we have spotlights so each actor held a flash light pointing up to illuminate their face and turned them off and on as they spoke their respective lines. Surprisingly it worked and by the time we had rehearsed it was starting to make sense.

One utterance became a catchphrase between my friend Charlie and I: A little dinghy…

Eeyore and Piglet – original drawings by E. H. Shepard.

Now lest you think this is simply a senile ramble down memory lane by an old man – okay there is a bit of that – there is a reason I bring up Sam B. Recently a quiz was given to the cast of a London revival of Endgame to see if they could identify which phrase was Beckett and which that other great 20th century pessimist A. A. Milne’s Eeyore. Further investigation revealed that the two where very similar in their downbeat view of humanity and the world. So I thought I’d make up my own quiz and see how well my faithful reader would do on it.

Unfortunately WordPress will not allow embedding of Survey Monkey quizzes so the best I can do is provide a link. If you’d like to play along just left click on the link below and tell me who you think said what.

*The comment section of the Guardian was filled with irate comments when their reviewer used the term Irish-French. An entire Irish contingent was up in arms however as more than one person mentioned he lived in France from 1937 until his death in 1989, wrote in French then reworked in English, fought in the French Resistance, was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance , and is buried in Montparnasse. This would suggest the French tag is not entirely inappropriate.

**It is now the home of Buddies in Bad Times and prior to that the home of Toronto Workshop Theatre. The fact that it stills exists as an arts venue surrounded by the new high-rises that are starting to line Yonge Street is a bloody miracle.

The word for February 9th is:
Dinghy /ˈdiNGē/ /ˈdɪŋi/: [countable noun]
A small boat for recreation or racing, especially an open boat with a mast and sails.
Early 19th century (denoting a rowing boat used on rivers in India): from Hindi ḍiṅgī. The -gh in English serves to indicate the hard g. Unlike “dingy” where the g has a soft “j” sound! Don’t you just love English?

This and That

Well we are now into the tenth day of Christmas and there are very few Lords aleaping around here. The general tone of debauched revelry has become almost comatose in our house. It actually reached that level by the sixth day (December 31) at around 2230 when I sat on the couch cuddling and talking to Nora – dogs are a great excuse for talking to yourself as I’m sure any dog owner knows – and was suddenly rudely awakened by Mr Beaulieu telling me it was 2020. There were kisses all round (including a few from Laurent) and then it was off to Bedfrodshire. Ah the life of a sybarite!

Charlottetown Harbour – January 1, 2020

And speaking of 2020, in the past we have had Epiphany celebrations on 12th Night however as I will be having my first cataract surgery on the 7th we will forgo the Kings’ Cake this year. However by spring my vision should be like the year.

A Jewish Mother’s Hot Toddy

I subscribe to, a website devoted to spirits of an alcoholic nature. You may recall I spoke of, and costed out, one of their more exotic recipes a few months back. Well they’ve come up with a winter hot drink that should warm your insides and the heart of Jewish (and Irish/Polish/Italian etc.) mothers everywhere.

Chicken Soup Hot Toddy

Created by Johnny Swet of Jimmy at the James Hotel, NYC.

1 oz Gin
Dash of celery bitters
1/2 oz lemon juice
4 oz hot chicken stock
Carrot stick
Celery stick

Glass: Snifter

Pour all ingredients into a snifter and garnish with carrot stick, celery stick and parsley.

Now that’s chicken soup for the soul!

A House Divided

During the mid-1960s there was a burst of refreshing satire on American television. That Was The Week That Was (TW3) was an erudite if slightly watered-down version of the biting British series of the same name. The mickey was taken out of events political and cultural from the previous week with wit and the assumption that the audience was informed and aware. One of the frequent contributors was puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, best known for the children’s programme Kukla, Fran and Ollie, doing a series of hand ballets. His most memorable was the Berlin Wall scene in January 1965. The Christmas of 1964 the East German Government allowed divided families to reunite for a brief time. Using just his hands he captured the anticipation, joy and despair of the sad reality of the Berlin Wall.

I remember standing on the viewing stand at Checkpoint Charlie in 1983. Looking over the first concrete barrier towards the “death strip” and the second wall gave me a chill that had nothing to do with the foggy cold of that November day.

On Their Finger Tips

I was reminded of Tillstrom’s remarkable performance – it rightly won him a Peabody Award – by an article in Thursday’s Guardian on Kiss & Cry, the Belgian theatre company. Their performance style is unique and sounds fascinating. To quote David Jays on their current programme: At stage level, we see a devoted concatenation of dancers, cameramen and technicians, filming the action unfolding on intricate, tiny sets. On the screen above they resolve into scenes of hushed beauty, tracing a series of unfortunate events in a chilly forest, a scarlet club or a lovingly imagined home. The characters are the fingers of Grégory Grosjean and company co-founder Michèle Anne De Mey dancing and moving under the live direction of cinematographer and film director Jaco Van Dormael. Here’s a sample from one of their earlier pieces:

It a long stretch from Burr Tillstrom and those early days of one camera television to Kiss & Cry and their digital wizardry but at the centre of both is the emotions that can be conveyed simply by the human hand.

For some reason these two videos bring to mind the phrase “heart in hand”!

Over the past few years I have ended each post with Saints’ Days, which seemed highly appropriate when we lived in Rome, historical oddities or more recently bizarre holidays. This year I thought I’d go with a word of the day. There is no need to try and use it ten times in a sentence – though I will subtly put the dare challenge out there.

The word for January 4th is the first noun in the OED.
aa /ˈɑːɑ/ː [mass noun] Basaltic lava forming very rough, jagged masses with a light frothy texture.
From 19th century Hawaiian

Brought to Life

Art as Theatre and Theatre as Art.

300px-Sick_young_Bacchus_by_CaravaggioCoincidence is a strange beast.  Just the other day I was looking at some photos of patriotic tableaux vivants from the 1920s and musing, yes dear reader I have been known to muse, as to whither people still engage in this innocent form of entertainment.  At one time it was as popular on the Broadway stage as it was in town halls and in home parlours but seems to have disappeared. Then doesn’t my friend Cathy send me a link to this video of a performance September past in Sutri an ancient town about 50 kms north of Rome.


I often observed after visiting a church, museum or gallery in Italy that you would walk out into the street and see the same faces that Caravaggio, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo et al captured in their works.  This is living proof of that observation.

Paintings staged:
1. The entombment of Christ
2. Mary Magdalen in ecstasy
3. Crucifixion of Saint Peter
4. Beheading of John the Baptist
5. Judith beheading Holofernes
6. Flagellation of Christ
7. The martyrdom of Saint Matthew
8. The Annunciation
9. Rest on the flight into Egypt
10. Narcissus
11. The raising of Lazarus
12. Saint Francis of Assisi in ecstasy
13. Bacchus

Directed by Ludovica Rambelli
Video: Simone Calcagni

On this day in 1689: General Piccolomini of Austria burns down Skopje to prevent the spread of cholera. He died of cholera himself soon after.

The Importance of Understanding Earnest

Not the right title, you say! Well tell that to Ted Dykstra, because frankly I’m wondering if he understands Oscar Wilde’s sublime comedy of manners. Based on an interview he gave the Ottawa Citizen I had the impression he did. Watching Friday night’s opening performance of the NAC English Theatre season I have my doubts.

Now there is more than one way of approaching Wilde’s play of improbable probabilities and I have seen several but they have all had one thing in common: they were earnest.  According to several dictionaries I’ve consulted the adjective means “resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.”  Wilde himself refers to it as “a trivial play for serious people” and that is what makes it both funny and enduring.   It seems that Dykstra took “trivial” to mean farcical.  What he presented us with was a French bedroom farce without the slamming boudoir doors.   Pratfalls were taken, things jumped over, things thrown, bellows bellowed, audiences winked at and double takes taken – the only things missing were those door slams and the crack of Harlequin’s slapstick.

Don’t get me wrong I love  farce – bedroom or just good old fashioned knockabout – but if that’s what you want to direct then why not choose one of the many great pieces by Feydeau, Labiche or Ben Travers:  revivals of Italian Straw Hat or Rookery Nook are long overdue.  But to take one of the wittiest plays in the English language and turn it into a knockabout comedy – sorry old man, it’s just not done in the best of (play)houses.

Director Ted Dykstra (centre on floor) and his cast for the NAC English Theatre’s presentation of
Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest.

NAC Photo: Andree Lanthier

Based on the concept they were given it may be unfair to say much of the individual performances except that the ladies fared better than the men.  Unfortunately Alex McCooeye (Algernon) and Christopher Morris (Jack) bore the brunt of much of the clowning with Morris spending most of the second act delivering his dialogue at a relentless and frantic shout.  Perhaps because she sat or stood in almost monolithic splendor Karen Robinson’s Lady Bracknell was the most convincing performance of the evening.   Her very stillness made her reactions more telling and drew bigger laughs than all the mugging in the world could ever achieve.

Designer Patrick Clark’s sets and costumes caught the tone of playful seriousness – both Lady Bracknell and Algernon were slightly over-the-top but still within the bounds of early Edwardian good taste.  And as always with the NAC the production values were of the highest standard.  I noticed that we did not receive a warning about the fact that “real cigarettes” would be smoked at this performance – let’s hope the PC police don’t get on them for that one.

I saw Mr Dykstra, who I admire greatly as a performer and writer, in the audience and can only hope that he took note of the reaction around him:  yes we laughed at some of the business but the most sincere and loudest laughs came from Wilde’s dialogue.  I only wish the trust he had shown when speaking of the play had carried over to the stage.

A separate note:  The evening had begun with greetings from Elder Annie Smith-St George who reminded us that we sat on unceded Algonquin land but more important asked that we quietly stand and remember our brothers who had become one with the Spirit world in the past three days.  She spoke for a moment or two of the Creator who gave us the gift of laughter and joy that we would share in this place.  It was a lovely and touching few minutes.

October 25 – 1854: The Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (Charge of the Light Brigade).