Unexpected Delights and a Disappointment

Villa Borghese park -even the water fountains are art
Water Fountain Villa Borghese

Tuesday: The Musee del Arte Modern looks good. It’s somewhere in the Villa Borghese area – a green swathe that covers a large area to the North of the city. The map I’ve borrowed from the apartment bears no resemblance to the maps in the park and I end up on the other side and have to ask a policeman for directions.

Museum of Modern Art

Lions are on guard outside this neoclassical building; ‘The Time is Out of Joint’ is written on the steps – this seems relevant. As is usual here, getting into the galleries is a matter of trial and error. There’s a shortage of entry signs but plenty of ‘Uscuita’ exit signs.

Lions on guard
Giuseppe De Nitir Le corse al Bois de Boulagne 1881

There are Italian impressionists here and it’s all very well presented. What becomes clearer as I progress, is the clever curation. Nineteenth Century statues are placed against or looking at the art. ‘Very Bad Things’ makes use of gallery windows to stunning effect. A whole section is devoted to works made out of building material – cement, bricks and reinforcing iron rods. At first, I think it is dull, but suddenly it all comes to life. The artist has taken two dimensional designs using the trompe d’oel technique (as seen in the Vatican ceilings) and realised them in three dimensions.

Beef carcass (skin stuffed)
Seated nude

There’s a café to enjoy coffee and cake, but you have to double back through one of the galleries to reach it.

Kandinskij
Kandinsky
Max Ernst
Very Bad Things
Very Bad Things
Andy Warhol
Giuseppe Uncini – nel Cemento
Uncini
Giulio Aristieo Sartorio Le Gorgone
Giuseppe Ponone – rear work made from briar thorns
Maria Sironti – Solitude 1925/6
Piazza di Popolo
Piazza di Popolo

The Piazza di Popolo with one enormous Egyptian obelisk is worth a look – every pizza seems to have one or two, and fountains. Popolo is wide and open with two almost identical churches at one end. Three roads divide them off offering views of diminishing perspectives. I take the right-hand road leading to the river and the Augustus Mausoleum. On the way I stop to stare at the only two (large) rainbow flags I’ve seen, hanging on the gates of an art school.

Augusteo

The Augustus Mausoleum is huge – it’s closed now for restoration but was once used for concerts. ‘On May 13th, 1936 the Augusteo, one of the most famous temples of music in Europe, hosted its final concert: Bernardino Molinari conducted music by Rossini, Martucci, Paganini-Molinari, Respighi, Wagner and Verdi. Later the Mausoleum was to have become Mussolini’s tomb, but this did not happen and the important monument was abandoned.’

Augustus
Peace Temple

Right next door is a modern building of elegant and clean lines. It houses the Museo Dell’ara Pacis – a fantastic reconstruction of a marble temple, buried for centuries. On the lower floor is an exhibition – Claudio – about the life of the emperor Claudius – made famous by the BBC series I Claudius with Dereck Jacobi. Related to Caligula (his nephew) and succeed by Nero, Claudius created an age of relative stability between tow maniacs. It was a time of scandal, plotting, murder and political manoeuvring – well worth the visit.

Caligula
Claudius on hearing of his appointment
His Mother?
River Tiber – St Peters

Moving on to the Piazza Navena. There’s the excavation of an ancient athletics track under here where you can have an underground lunch. I’m happy to sit above ground, watch the fountains and enjoy Bruschetta Pomodoro followed by thinly sliced beef with orange, cheese and rocket.

Piazza Navena
Piazza Navena
Piazza Navena
elderly person

Wednesday: I’m fitting in the Museum of Rome in the morning and I can use my metro card. I’ve gone to all the bother of changing lines, during rush hour, at Termini to take one stop to Republic, only to find that after a short walk the Museum is across the road from Termini. I’m early so there’s time for espresso at the Museum Café which opens early to catch commuters.

Caligula (you can tell by his ears)
Marcus Aurelius
Young man – hair detail

The Romans went in for carved marble heads of family members – much like a photograph album – that’s why you get so many of them. Some are designed to fit into marble bodies or plinths and hairstyles can help to date them. There are also some good examples of bronze statues showing various techniques for colouration eg lips, nipples and the cuts and bruises of a boxer. It’s all well laid out and I particularly enjoyed the frescoes and mosaics saved from houses and lovingly restored. Down in the basement is an extensive collection of Roman coins, if that is your thing, but there’s also some beautiful jewellery.

Bronze
Painted walls
Painted walls
Mosaic
Gold Jewellery
Gold hairnet

Onwards to the Villa Borghese area for an early lunch of cheap vegetarian lasagne (dull) at a working café in a side street. Today I easily find my way to the much anticipated Gallerie Borghese. I have a two-hour time slot from 1-3pm and it take ten minutes to exchange my voucher for a ticket, check in my bag in the basement then make my way back outside and up the front steps to the entrance. No photographs are permitted. It’s busy physically and visually. The rooms are overly ornate in Rococo/Baroque style. Panels of different coloured marble vie for attention and everything is crowded. I start off in the Caravaggio room, but they fight to breath here. Some, but not all, are good – nothing stood out. Marble statues and endless renaissance depictions of the Holy Family, the Madonna and Child by unfamiliar artists lacking in the brilliance of Raphael and Michael Angelo. There’s a Peter Paul Rubens which shines and a few other gems which get lost in the melange of colour. A contemporary artist is exhibited in the spaces left by paintings on loan or being restored. His art is to make holes in a surface. Some of these are a slash through the fabric or metal surface. At intervals throughout, printed statements from the artist explain how holes can be art.

Gallerie Borghese

Having left, what I thought to be, the best until last, I’m disappointed. Still it’s been a time of otherwise excellent experiences. I treat myself to a beer at the other gay bar ‘My Place’ followed by dinner at Naumacho again.

Walking in Rome

Via dei Fori Imperiali
Looking down on the ruins

Sunday and there’s no rushing to Ostia today. I’ve sketched out a walking tour, so we’ll see what happens. On the airport train, I met a pleasant American Couple who live and work in the Emirates; they recommended Ostia Antica as a day trip. I’ve been passing this place on my way to the swimming pool every day and I’ve worked out that it’s a site of archaeological significance. There’s enough of ancient Rome sticking out of the ground here in the city and I’ve seen the sites at Carthage (Tunisia) and more in Morocco.

The only evidence of the Eurogames in Central Rome
Romulus And Remus
Gigantic fragments

The Campidoglio is, like many buildings in Rome, sandwiched between a church and ruins, with the Vittorione towering nearby. There’s a magnificent square, designed by Michael Angelo with an equine statue of Marcus Aurelius who is much loved here. The two parts of the Musei Capitolini flank the Piazza and the third side is a civic building housing a wedding hall. It’s early and the crowds are light here. Everyone it seems is heading for the Coliseum.

Oceanus
Marble relief
Theatrical mask in marble
Audience room with frescoes & the pope

Getting into the museum is a test. On one side there is only an exit; on the other, a ticket office and two doors along, the security entrance which checks all our bag. Here, there is a magnificent collection of sculpture – not overcrowded like the British Museum. Each piece has space to breath and be appreciated. Some of the rooms are furnished with frescos painted on the walls. A modern addition incorporates ruins of an ancient temple and prides a huge space for another copy of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. – it’s impressive. Famous works – eg the Dying Gaul – are stunning and Caravaggio’s cheeky painting of St John the Baptist, is sexy. The model, obviously one of his pretty boys is smuggled into respectability with a saintly label. I go below to see the gravestones but miss the connection to the other side of the square. I exit and briefly consider giving the other side a miss, but there’s no problem and I’m allowed back in an take the tunnel under the square to the other side. Just as well as there are more treasures to be seen, including the famous view of the square from above.

Constantine
Marcus Aurelius
Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist
St Sebastian in seductive pose
Another naked hero fighting a monster
Gilded bronze man with club
Bacchus in red marble
Venus copy
Roman woman
The Piazza with Marcus Aurelius
Teatro Marcello

I’ve passed Teatro Marcello several times on a bus; now it’s time to photograph this very ancient Roman ruin, reclaimed in the middle ages and converted into the Orsini palace.

The Vittoriano towers white and sharp over the whole area. It’s a 19thc classical re-invention which seems oddly out of place. The Victorian age was one of energetic expansion and so-called improvement, not always achieving the desired result. I reference numerous English churches which were vandalised in this way by the Victorians.

Fathers of Italy
Ceramic roman

I notice from the other side of the road that people – not tourists are going through a door in the Vittoriano. I like going though open doors and especially if it’s free. This one leads to a temporary exhibition about Italian identity – how the nation was formed. It begins with the language – developing from a Latin base (like other European languages) with a situation where people spoke a variety of similar languages and dialects. Television is credited with consolidating the National dialect, though many retain their local versions alongside. Italy had become a mixture of republics, the Papal Sates and the vast kingdom of Naples to the South. This exhibition charts all this through the wars, Garibaldi, Mussolini and the post war referendum offering the choice of Monarchy or Republic.  Some how the flimsy plywood display units showing the gaps and the back of the display, make this raw and moving. At this point I have to comment that in spite of all the reports and predictions of a collapsing economy and infrastructure, everything seems to run smoothly in Rome. There are beggars here – more dramatic and dirtier than anywhere else. Some pose as semi religious-characters.  They have little impact on the trains and busses, which run on time at affordable prices. The refugees hide away in the park that was Nero’s palace trying to keep clean washing themselves and clothes in the ever-flowing water fountains.

one of many drinking fountains
Teatro Marchllo from the Vittoriano

Upstairs in the Vittoriano, the marble staircases seem empty and pointless and the other areas are closed off. I wander onto the huge balcony surrounding the building and offering great views of the city. I can hardly see for the glare of sunshine on the marble, but have difficulty finding a seat free of pigeon shit.

The Pantheon neoclassical facade

The next stop is the Pantheon – once a Roman temple – now a church constructed inside the ruins. There’s a queue but it moves fast. The place is crowded; buzzing with conversations which surge and die between announcements calling for silence. A recording is employed to cut through the buzz – the amplified voice, strangely at odds with its message. I sit down on a pew next to a woman tourist who has fallen asleep. The husband wakes her with his cap, brushing her eyeball with the rim as it sweeps past her. She’s not happy about that but goes back to sleeping. Light from the open circle at the top of the domed roof shines a shaft of light at one part of the wall. It’s dark and mysterious.

Inside the Pantheon
Bernini’s elephant

Outside, as I cross the Piazza, an African notice my green shoes and before I know it has put a friendship bracelet on my wrist – a gift. I’ve come across this before in Myanmar. He then offers me a small wooden carving, but want’s a contribution towards his family. No. I’m not playing that game and as I march off, he reclaims his free bracelet. I’m after a Coffee Granita, shavings of iced coffee layered with cream. It’s fantastic, though I think I could have done without the whipped cream.

Rear of the Parthenon

As I round the back of the Pantheon, to inspect the ancient Roman brick-work there’s a Bernini carved Marble elephant with an obelisk on his back – wonderful.

After a late afternoon nap, I return to Naumachio and try their mixed grill. Perfect. I’ve been observing a group of women who have clearly been here for the Games. One of them has a rainbow on her tee shirt and the same small blue ruck sac as I, from the Gay Games in Paris. As I’m leaving, I say hello and have a great conversation. They are badminton players from Ireland. The evening closes with my now routine gelato from my local gelateria.

A non Swimming Day – arts in NYC

Rodin – got us in the mood before the exhibition
Nice bum to greet us

Wolfgang is punctual for the ten am opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. We’re here to see the much praised and must-see exhibition of ‘Camp’, programmed to coincide with World Pride.

Chris & Wolfgang

In our search for the exhibition, we are seduced into the Impressionist galleries. Wolfgang is thrilled and has to revise his opinion of some painters. I’ve seen these before, but had forgotten how many impressionist paintings have ended up in the US. It’s great to re-visit these old friends.

Oscar Wilde teapot
Living as a woman

The word camp, is almost impossible to define and it’s not necessarily gay. Originating in France it can be roughly be described as standing with one hand on a hip the other arm limp wristed and striking a pose with attitude. Christopher Isherwood identifies two versions – High camp (with elegance and taste) and Low camp – without the taste, shocking, outrageous, vulgar. Susan Sontag is the only one to break it down intellectually. The exhibition itself is mostly about fashion beginning with Marie Antoinette’s big frocks. Seventeenth Century fashion is regarded as the height of camp. Then there’s the cross dressing – famously the brother of a king of France lived dressed as a woman for the later part of his life and there are numerous other examples – the Molly Houses where gay men dressed up in private and more publicly, male couples appeared in public as women. Oscar Wilde is cited as a camp icon as is Cecil Beaton, Vivienne Westwood, and tiffany lamps. The last room is a huge gallery of outrageous and elegant fashion which takes the breath away. Individually each display is stunning.

Jean Genet
Cecil Beaton
Gentlemen’s fashion
High or low?
Flamingos are always camp
The Rainbow
Liberace anyone?
elegant
Mommie Dearest?

I’ve bought an on-line ticket for the Guggenheim, just along the avenue from the Met. Wolfgang wants to walk though Central Park, but I’ve got the wrong direction in my head and we end up having to double back.

I’m hugely impressed by the way New York is embracing World Pride. Rainbow banners are everywhere, shop displays celebrate and there are churches flying the rainbow flag alongside the Stars and Stripes.

Methodists
In a Mapplethorpe frame

It’s the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit we’ve come to see – the Guggenheim has most of his work and although I’ve seen many of them before, there’s quite a bit of early work which is worth seeing. Mapplethorpe remains shocking, complicated and beautiful, more old friends. There’s a diptych where we can take a selfie and be in the mirror half of a Mapplethorpe.

I’m flagging by now and after a coffee, I have to go back to the apartment for a sleep before dinner with the Guptas. Udayan and Kathy live in the Battery Park area overlooking the site of the Twin Towers. They were very much caught up in 9/11 and the aftermath. Udayan and I were pen pals as schoolboys, whilst his older brother and wife were and are still important family friends. We walk though the beautifully planted park to an Italian restaurant – alfresco. The Guptas have their favourite, soft-shelled Crab while I carb up on a delicious pork and fennel pasta dish. It’s an evening of conversation – touching on politics and a lot about health issues. We flag towards the end and arrange for breakfast on Monday.

New Jersey across from Battery Park

Working the tube

He is there again on my return journey still working his way up and down the carriage on the Hammersmith an City Line.

         ‘Excuse me ladies and gents sorry to bother you … sorry to interrupt your journey. I’m currently homeless, I’m eighteen and have no family. I’m trying to get some cash together for something to eat and a room in a hostel tonight. Anything would be much appreciated. Anything? Have a good evening.’

The travellers in my section of the carriage studiously concentrate on what ever they are staring at. The advertisements for ‘Welthify’, their reflection in the window or just thin air in front of them. One woman is looking in her bag.

          ‘I don’t have any cash, but I might have some food here.’

I shrug as he passes. I seldom carry cash these days – sometimes a pound coin for the locker at the swimming pool but the token on my key ring works just as well. He is young, a few blond bristles show on his upper lip. His face is evenly dirty – blond hair stiff with grime looks as if it was once stylish but it’s grown out. He wears a sleeveless padded vest far too large for him over a hoodie. Grubby blue trackie bottoms sit on top of a still respectable looking pair of black designer trainers.

Two black travellers just past me contribute. The young woman has a handful of coins which she continues to play with. I want to help – offer him a shower and wash his clothes, but I know that’s not wise. An older gay man – could be easily misconstrued. He needs professional help.

As the tube draws near my stop, the young man appears again waiting to get off. He digs into his trackie pockets and withdraws handfuls of coins which he seems to be counting.

          ‘Ca, ca, ca boom ca, ca, cabomm. Brrroom, cha, cha, cha. Na, nana na, nana na.’ He chants his mantra.

Like me he knows which door of the train will stop by the station exit. I follow him as he bounds up the stairs. I wonder what he will to exit the station. Probably jump over the barrier or follow someone closely through the gates. By the time I get up the stairs he’s on the other side and buying something from the kiosk. A drink or sweets I imagine. I look back as I exit on to the street. He’s rubbing a scratch – card with a coin. I wonder if that works for him?

the Neighbours

          ‘Go over and see if there’s anything we can do,’ she said.

Pete hesitated. He was still deep in shock from the news and couldn’t for the moment think how he could help.

          His wife seemed to understand his dilemma. ‘The offer will be enough – to show support.’

He remembered the day they had moved in. The little girl was only a baby, the same age as their daughter. He’d said his name was Mohammed.

          ‘We’ll call you Mo; we shorten everything here. I’m Pete – no one calls me Peter and the wife is Sue.

          Mo was an engineer, he came to help re-build the city after the second earthquake. They’d got on well, after a couple of cultural gaffs. Pete quickly found out that a beer with Mo was out of the question and they wouldn’t be eating Sue’s famous egg and bacon pie – a national dish.  Luckily, she was ace at roast lamb and the other national dish, Pavlova was much appreciated. The gesture was returned with a middle eastern version and recipes swapped.  

          As Pete knocked on the back door, he couldn’t quite believe that his friend Mo wouldn’t be answering. It opened a few centimetres and he could see Jamal’s tear-stained face suddenly full of fear. In that moment, Pete understood that he was a pakeha, a white male, like the arsehole who’d shot his mate Mo and all the others. He’d grown up here around guys like that and mostly gave them a wide berth. He once defended his friend Hemi at primary school from one such bully making anti Maori comments in the playground – the only time he’d ever hit anyone.          

‘It’s only me … Pete … can we do anything?’

Jamal relaxed and shook her head.

          Pete felt tears welling. He didn’t recall having done this as an adult. He must have cried as a baby but grown men don’t cry. ‘This isn’t supposed to happen in New Zealand,’ he said.

          ‘We came here because it was safe. Where can we go now?’ she said.

          ‘It is … it was …’ Tears were streaming down his face. ‘This is not who we are.’ He was shaking with grief and anger. ‘We’ve lost so much today.’

Mother and Daughter

They are at the supermarket every time I go. Dressed almost the same, the mother wears a faded black jacket and straight skirt to the knee, stockings and comfortable shoes. She has alopecia and her remaining lank hair looks unwashed and plasters down her head. A light grey, long diaphanous scarf drapes her head but doesn’t attempt to hide her baldness. The younger woman wears navy and grey in the same style. She has already grown into her mother, without the hair loss. I always smile at them and they like that. They choose a few meagre items, discuss each one, look at the price and read the contents. Often, I see them in the entrance lobby with their full shopping bags, not sitting in the supermarket café, which they can’t afford but hunched on a ledge by the Argos catalogues – keeping warm – waiting.

Vienna discoveries and memories

Museum Hundertwasser

Tuesday – I’ve got my sights set on Museum Hundertwasser. It’s a bit out of the way – not near a Ubann station, so there’s a bit of walking ahead. I take a seat on the train next to an abandoned newspaper. The youngish woman opposite is taking photographs of articles. She says it’s easier to read them on her phone by enlarging. We get talking – it’s easier just to say I live in London. She says she loves London and that her mother took her there. ‘London people are so friendly,’ she says, not like here. I’m surprised by this and guess that this might have been around 2012, when London suddenly became uncharacteristically friendly. I learn that her mother is dead and get a sort of life story. When she finds out that I’m heading for the Hundertwasser, she insists that I go with her as her dental appointment is near there. We catch a tram and both get out at the same stop. ‘It’s not far, you just turn left then right.’ She’s a bit late for the dentist and disappears. There are signs, but I want to go to the museum first and have to resort to my sat nav. The building is magical, but no photography is allowed. The terracotta tiled flooring undulates unevenly with a claim that the earth is like this. I’m not so sure as, being older, I’m finding keeping my balance a slight challenge. One of the first things I notice is that Hundertwasser mentions being buried in Ao Tea Roa. I’ve never seen  my native land spelt in this way before and immediately want to know more. I scan his time line – he was Jewish and changed his name at some point, but there’s no explanation of how he survived the war as a child in Vienna. He went to art school, but didn’t stay. There’s a man dressed entirely in black wearing sunglasses. He has walking poles and walks around the exhibit repeatedly like an automaton. Strange – I wonder if he is part of the show.  The walking poles obviously help his balance on the uneven floor.

Silver spiral
Green town

The art is amazing and colourful. Often representational, including spirals of different colours. He seems to have travelled all over the world but after his first visit to New Zealand/Aotearoa he returned there repeatedly. He became ill and was cared for in a rural hospital and bought a property there. In the end he was buried in Aotearoa, on his property, with a tree planted over him to make use of his molecules in this new life. There’s a picture of the young tree doing well – I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not a native of Aotearoa, but a Tulip Tree or Liriodendron. Mum had one on our lawn when we were young it took twenty years to produce any flowers. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, I’m amazed to learn, designed flags. His Green Koru for New Zealand
is simple and effective. Ex-prime minister John Keys could have saved a lot of time and money by just adopting it.

For Australia he designed a red half circle supported below by the blue ocean and one star.

Hundertwasser House detail
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House

I’m interested to find that his flag for Israel included a blue star of David with a green crescent moon. He was also great at print making and graphics – an inspirational visit and I’m keen to get on down the road to see the Hundertwasser House – a block of apartments done in his inimitable style, not unlike Gaudi and to be found in various other world cities.  It’s gloriously sunny but not over crowded with tourists.

Karls Kirche

I’m slightly disorientated by now and take a while consulting my google maps to decide which way to walk. I take a risk and find a tram gong in the right direction. It passes an underground station, so I get off and take the Ubann to re-visit Karls Kirche, which we’d passed on our walking architectural tour. The church was completed in 1737 and combines a variety of styles and epochs in world history.

Karls Kirche
Karls Kirche
Ceiling Karle Kirche
Ceiling Karls Kirche

There are stairs up to see the ‘treasure’ – not really worth the climb and my legs certainly didn’t need the exercise. Inside the church are several large inflated silver and transparent globes which reflect the walls and murals. It seems vast and very high. This is due to various tricks of perspective which make it appear so. Marble columns and panels are tapered towards the ceiling. There’s a huge clump of scaffolding in one corner which houses a lift and I take this up to a viewing platform to see the ceiling art-work. Looking down is scary – vertiginous. Luckily there are Perspex panels – blacked out lower down to give a better sense of safety. It’s worth the journey to see the murals and the view down to the street below.

Secession
Klimpt Frieze
Original Secession
Front decoration
Klimpt Frieze

From here, it’s only a short walk to re-visit Secession, also seen in the near-dark on our walking tour. It has been stunningly restored and it’s now possible to go in. I’m down to my last few euros and so ask to pay by card. Many places in Austria still have minimum amounts, like 15 Euros. The nice man on the desk lets me in for the group tour price leaving me 30 cents. The main exhibition space is displaying video art/installation. Very engaging and suitably in the spirit of secession.

Dancing women

Down a level there’s similar work – a young man walking and falling over, getting up and walking – narrowly avoiding being run over by cars, falling down again and so on. There’s someone carrying a white screen which takes up most of the video screen. You just get a hint of the landscape. Down yet another level is the Kimpt frieze. Worth the wait for that. There’s a picture of the original building, the back of which was severely bombed at the end of the war. You can see the frieze of women holding up rings and now a small part of the frieze has been re-created. There’s also a photo of the ribbon of approval the building had from the nazis during their annexation of Austria.

Time to go back to my apartment for a rest and re-group. There’s another local pub style restaurant listed in the Gay guide. Sixta offers traditional Austrian fare and I have soup followed by the most delicious goulash. The clientele is not at all gay – mostly locals but I think the waiter might be.

Johann Strauss

I’ve booked an evening of Mozart and Johann Strauss music at the Kursalon, a concert venue where Strauss himself performed. I’m early and briefly look in the park to admire a golden statue of Johann. The venue is grand and looks like a wedding cake, all lit up with fairy lights. Crowds of coaches are pulling up and loads of tourists are flooding in. I notice that its €1 for the coat check. I’m all out of cash and so decide to take my coat in with me. That’s not allowed, I have to check it in.

‘But I don’t have a euro.’ I tell the man. ‘Can you do VISA?’ He suggests I go to a nearby ATM. ‘I’m not going to go to an ATM and withdraw one euro. I only do cards.

‘What, you wander around with no cash?’

‘Yes.’ I tell him. ‘Here, I have forty cents.’ He tells the coat check man not to charge me for checking in my coat. Result.

Kursalon

We are in a level concert hall with a dais at one end. Chandeliers drip liberally from the ceiling. I’ve gone for the cheaper seats at the back as I know that the sound should be ok. An usherette parades around the auditorium holding up a card representing no photography. She has a stern look on her face and makes sure that everyone in the hall has seen her. Finally, the musicians arrive; the leader of this nonet is an elderly violinist who seems to have a sense of humour. They start off with a polka – rousing stuff. Then we seem to be working our way through the well-known Johann Strauss waltzes and polkas. The trouble with waltzes is that they are for dancing. The first few staves are fine, then it becomes repetitive. It seems that there is only so much you can do to develop a Waltz. The solution is to bring in a couple of dancers. She’s very balletic with legs and arms going up and down, while he is no Nureyev, but good at leading a Viennese waltz. They can only dance in one plane – across the front of the dais and back – so the choreography is limited and can’t even compare with ‘Strictly’.  A soprano comes on and sings an aria from a Strauss Opera – it’s a waltz. Things might look up as a baritone comes on to sing some Mozart. It’s Non Piu Andrai – an aria I used to sometimes sing at auditions. His acting isn’t very good and he doesn’t quite have the right power. We are back to the Strauss waltzes and the dancers. Suddenly there’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart – this also has memories – strange – of performing this piece as part of a clarinet quartet at a secondary school chamber music competition. At last there’s the duet from Don Giovani – La ci darem la mano. The two singers return and they are very good. The baritone has found his place as the seducer. It’s an ok experience, but not stunning, although the Blue Danube is well done. The encore is another strange memory from way-back. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance Number 5. We used to play this in the town orchestra and I could never manage the clarinet part. I remember the gusto with which our elderly rural violinists attacked this piece. Sadly, the opera was all sold out so this is second choice.

Medals

The final day is travelling home. I’m ready to do all the airport security in reverse and you can even buy a bottle of drink to take through wrapped up in a sealed transparent plastic bag. Something in my bag has alerted the machine and I’m asked to open up.

‘Have you got any crystals?’ she asks.

Medals

‘Yes,’ I reply. I wondered if my swimming medals would cause a problem. Of course, they’re in my swimming bag right at the bottom of my carry-on. I’m in plenty of time, so there is no need to panic and I refuse to be rushed by the woman.

Later, back in London at swim training I ask my team mates if the same thing happened to them. Yes, it did. It’s hard going, the first swim in four days. I did six races, five museums and two palaces. My legs are wrecked.

Cultural Fusion to end the Auckland Festival

Anything exploring the interaction of two or more cultures gets onto my list. AWA, a collaboration between the Atamira Dance Company and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is a movement and music biography of Moss Patternon’s family. His dad worked on the Tongariro Power Scheme, damming central North Island rivers for hydro power. Years later he worked on the Yellow River, in China, where he died. His body returned in a closed coffin denying his family of Te Uru Rangi (a portal to heaven).

AWA – When Two Rivers Collide, uses Maori and Asian Dancers to create a beautiful tension between two cultures using Kapa Haka and Tai Chi to join the Waikato and Yellow rivers together to powerful effect. The string section of the APO is augmented with Taonga Puro (traditional Maori instruments) and Pipa a Chinese mandolin. Waiata Maori, performed by a children’s choir begins the performance and the focus is shared with a large Chinese choir. It’s an exciting mix, sliding between classical cultures which included Bach and Handel. The dance evokes the myth of Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) being separated by Tane Mahuta. The dancers work in close contact like flocks of starlings, each dancer taking his turn to lead the conflict, constrained by a dramatic semicircle of cables around the dance area. At times I wanted the dancers to take flight up into the cables, escaping the primordial slime in order to free the spirits.  This is not possible with contemporary dance, however, and beautiful as it is, the dancers are limited to delving deep into the floor – grounded with Kapa Haka and Tai Chi elements from which it borrows.

AWA remains a mystery – moving and beautiful. Increasingly New Zealand artists are collaborating to explore cultural relationships as a time when China and Aotearoa are talking trade. This work was well attended and received by a multicultural audience. My hope is that this and similar work will help to break down still prevalent hostility and suspicion amongst Pakeha New Zealanders.

The Bone Feeder began as a play by Renee Liang which was produced in 2010. It’s based on the story of the SS Ventor which left New Zealand in 1902 carrying 499 coffins of exhumed Chinese bodies returning to their homelands in Southern China. The ship was wrecked off Hokianga, finally sinking near the harbour. Coffins and bodies swept ashore were kept by local IWI until a time when they could be claimed by their families. Renee has successfully written an opera libretto for composer Gareth Farr.  This is a first for both artists and augers well for future New Zealand opera.

Farr has drawn on his early experience with the Indonesian Gamelan and expanded his composition skills to incorporate Chinese classical instruments – flute, fiddle and zither. A violin, a cello, marimba and Taonga Púoro make up the orchestra.

Young Ben, beautifully portrayed and sung by Australian tenor, Henry Choo meets The Ferryman (Tioti Rakero) and asks to be taken to Mitimiti cemetery where the bones of his ancestor, Kwan and three of his countrymen are excited at the prospect of finally going home.  When Kwan sees his descendant, he is reminded of his New Zealand wife. Chinese workers were forbidden to bring their women to Aotearoa and some took local wives, occasionally travelling back to China with money and to produce more sons. Ben, however is part of his New Zealand family so there is a question in Kwan’s mind. Is it appropriate for his bones to return to China? The plight of his Chinese wife, Wei wei is delicately portrayed by Xing Xing, while Chelsea Dolman does credit to Louisa. Together with four other female singers, they create a fantastic and atmospheric chorus. There is a scene where Ben can, in a dream, see Kwan and he is persuaded not to dig up the bones but feed them instead.

Chinese came to Aotearoa with the gold rush and have been here ever since and almost as long as the Europeans. They worked quietly tending their market gardens and selling the freshest fruit and vegetables in small towns all over the country. When the UK joined the Common Market (as it was then) New Zealand looked to Asia for markets, beginning a new wave of immigrants. It is helpful for Pakeha and Maori New Zealanders to be reminded of this long history and to learn, at last, about another culture.

Ibsen and Garland Recycled

Recycled theatre – Peer Gynt for this century.

I thought it was time to re-acquaint with Ibsen’s episodic ‘masterpiece’ and ATC’s offering for the Auckland Festival provided an opportunity to experience Eli Kent’s updated version. Somehow Peer Gynt had eluded me – I know I’ve read it and imagine I’ve seen it somewhere and of course there’s the Music by Grieg and perhaps I’ve seen the Ballet.  Ibsen’s other work, I know and love: Hedda Gabler, The Dolls House, The Master Builder and Enemy of the People all have strong narratives and powerful sub-plots which collide dramatically. Ibsen emerges as the leading and enduring architect of the ‘Well Made Play’ and modern drama.

Peer Gynt doesn’t behave like any of these works and yet it has a protagonist who, Odysseus – like, sets out on a journey. Gynt leaves home to wander the world, abandoning his mother and Sol, the woman he loves to seek (mostly) sexual adventure.  Much of the original narrative is lost in the recycling, replaced by Eli Kent as a character, sub-plot or even Troll, discussing with the audience and himself the process of writing and self-analysis with the aid of his projected mother and short-time girlfriend. Kent brings the landscape up-to-date beginning with Gynt’s seduction of his ex prior to her wedding to ‘The Batchelor’. Wherever you go with Ibsen, Trolls are not far away and topically, Gynt has a narrow escape from his next sexual conquest, the daughter of the Troll King. He can’t return to  Sol and so travels to America to seduce the leader of a strange yogic sect and again, narrowly escapes death. Years later and with a change of actor, he’s in Dubai with his ghost writers in a book deal. Milo Yiannopolous is also there for the party. An indentured Starbucks worker breaks in and shoots everyone except Gynt. It’s become clear now that he’s a survivor but Kent has meanwhile ‘given birth’ to Ibsen who protests about cuts and tries to take over the play. A lot of philosophy ensues and difficulty for Kent when the Actress playing Sol, refuses to wait for her love – thus scuppering the ending. Meanwhile, Gynt is judged by the Button-maker, not good enough for heaven or bad enough for Hell and is designated for recycling.  In the wake of a shipwreck Kent changes clothing and identity with Gynt in an effort to avoid his fate and the writer is left alone on stage waiting for a miracle to close the play.

At times it’s edge of the seat stuff, though the author’s navel gazing and sexual problems verge on the embarrassing – a significant number of the audience left at the interval – the wait was worth it. A mostly older crowd – the audience seemed bemused and possibly offended by the crudities and sexual references. The men in particular were uncomfortable. But that is what theatre should do isn’t it? There was an underlying feeling of gladness that they had taken this risk and were slightly liberated. Or did it remind them of their own younger selves in the 60’s and 70’s? Personally, I could have done without the angst ridden Eli Kent’s non character and wanted more of the Gynt story which was beautifully performed by the ensemble.

Rufus Wainwright recycles Judy with opera as a starter

I’d  heard of  Rufus Wainwright and knew that he’s a singer songwriter. I didn’t know that he writes opera and that’s what attracted me to this event. Only an email reminder from the Auckland Festival pointed out that he would be ‘Doing Judy Garland’ in the second half.

Prima Donna (the visual concert version) has come from the Adelaide festival. Actually only Rufus and his conductor plus the video have traveled. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and New Zealand singers have put this together. The Story is about an opera singer who lost her voice years ago in the opening night of ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’. Madeleine Pierard was in fine voice for this role. She’s announced in the press that a revival is planned and she’s found her voice, but the real test will be in the theatre.  Supporting roles are the maid, Marie, a girl from Paiccardy finding Paris so … different. Madison Nonoa has a high pure soprano, whilst tenor Filipe Manu gives the romantic interest singing about love in the garden, his best shot. Both of these young singers will be ones to watch in the future.  The music is beautiful and soars against a video backdrop where film artist Cindy Sherman, dressed in a costume worn by Maria Callas, silently plays the diva.

An opera audience is quite different from Judy Garland fans, except that there were a significant number of gay couples of a certain age who might get off on both. Judy has never really done it for me, though I’m semi-familiar with many of the numbers. I don’t think I’ve got the ‘Judy gene’ which gay men are supposed to have.  Rufus has a powerful belt to his voice and at times sounds a bit like Judy in her later years, particularly when he sings Do It Again in her original key. He works hard – too hard – I don’t like to see performers work that hard and then to let us know how hard it is going to be before or after a number. He’s got a good voice, but sadly it’s unremarkable. Fortunately he slipped in one of his own compositions, Forever and a Year from the excellent Australian gay film Hold the Man.  I would have liked to hear more of his original stuff.

 

 

New writing at the Auckland Festival

I wrote about Cellfish last year when part of it was presented as a work in progress.

Miss Lucy takes Shakespeare classes to a prison and has some remarkable and unexpected results.  Rob Mokoaraka, Miriama McDowell and Jason Te Kare have collaborated to forge a funny and moving script. The characters are introduced to Miss Lucy at a Powhiri (greeting) in the prison.  Some of the play is in Te Reo Maori and it is unexpected to hear the Prison Guard, leading the proceedings speaking Te Reo with an Indian accent. Mark Ruka and Miriama McDowell play all the characters between them often swapping over, though Miss Lucy is always played by Miriama. I still think that my question from last year stands, about expanding the cast to clarify characters. Audiences are willing to work hard but not this hard and some gems were lost, becoming a bit of a how – clever -are – the – actors exercise. The writing, sourcing heavily from Macbeth, draws parallels for the prisoners between their lives and the characters in Shakespeare. Miss Lucy has to overcome illiteracy, appalling family circumstances and damaged childhoods.  She also comes from a similar background but has found her salvation in Shakespeare.  Miss Lucy creates desires for the prisoners but she is drawn to one of the prisoners in particular.  He turns out to be the most damaged and seemingly un-redeemable, but he’s also her estranged younger brother. It seems she also had ghosts to confront. Cellfish confronts the undeniable prison statistics that Maori are three times more likely to be arrested, imprisoned and receive a longer sentence for the same crime.  You can more or less transfer these to black populations in the US and the UK and while Shakespeare may or may not be the solution, it’s pretty clear that some things have got to change with the system. There’s enough world-wide anecdotal evidence that The Arts can help, so it’s ironic that this production coincides with news that the National Endowment to the Arts in the US has been deleted.

Everything After by Shane Bosher is part of the RAW project.  Like Cellfish last year, it’s a work in progress. The War is over, Gay men no longer die from AIDS, or so it seems. Protagonist Nick has been through it all – friends and partner dying, making best friends with Nurse Mary on the AIDS ward and himself living with HIV. Things have changed rapidly in the last few years. People with HIV and on combination therapy live seemingly normal lives and most can be classified as ‘undetectable’. This means that the virus can not be detected in tests and the chance of infection is remote.  Additionally, something called PrEP is on the market so negative guys can take this combo of drugs and dispense with the condoms.  The psychology of HIV and AIDS is very complicated ranging from surviving partners deliberately going out to catch the virus (guilt?) to retiring from sex altogether (fear?).  Nick meets a younger HIV free guy and they really like each other, but Nick is unable to have sex and of course the relationship is short lived. He then descends into a Meth addiction phase and in the excerpt we saw engaged up in a blinding argument with best friend Mary.  The ending is not revealed yet, but clearly anything from redemption to death is possible.  This feels like it’s going to be New Zealand’s post AIDS answer to Angels in America. One to watch out for – next year perhaps?

The Biggest by Jaimie McCaskill is a story about Kiwi blokes doing what blokes do.  It’s not on the surface my sort of thing, but it’s new writing and it has Apirana Taylor (brother of my buddy Rangimoana) – two good reasons for seeing it. The first scene in the local bar confirms the blokey aspect and sets up the premise of three friends set out to win the Hauraki Fishing competition.  They want to replace the boat of their friend Stu who lost his in a road accident – cue for loads of jokes and abuse, especially as Stu has been confined to a wheelchair since the accident. Gradually I was drawn in by this story of male loyalty, love and identity. There’s an unexpected feel-good ending where paternity issues are sorted and although the mates don’t win the boat, Stu gets two surprises. The real ending however is the resolution of Poppa’s prostate cancer diagnosis and Mick’s return from Australia to embrace his Maori culture. I was disappointed that the Rangitira Theatre audience was sparse, but cheered by an older bloke who gave me the thumbs up on the way out.