Saturday, February 28, 2009

a dutch interlude

On a train again and so much has happened in such a short time its hard to keep track. We have just left Avignon, having dashed away from the Provence region in a high speed train. Through the window fields of lavender and vineyards lie in wait for when they will burst into colour and activity. In the distance small villages cluster below ancient stony fortresses that seem hewn from the very hillsides upon which they perch.
Within a half hour we have covered two thirds of the distance of this journey in half the time that it will take us to get from Valence, where we change to an older, statelier, slower train that will amble towards Alps country and to our destination Grenoble.
Avignon is a walled city that is home to the Palais Du Papes – a giant catholic castle that took forty years and three popes to build – which was the papal seat from 1309 – 1377. There is a massive gold statue of Mary standing sentry high up on top of the huge building gazing perplexedly at the mess of shops and bustling cobbled narrow streets teeming with slutty Italian teenage tourists in gaudy shiny puffy jackets. Dani and I took a lovely lazy stroll in the sun in the Gardens above the Palais and surveyed the River Rhone and the Pont d’Avignon standing unfinished in the middle of it’s waters. The bridge has been immortalized in an old song that everyone here sings at the drop of a hat. The night before Dani had suffered at the hands of some terrible stomach bug that had her throwing up and mewling in pain for much of the night. It was a long hard night and it took us along time to emerge from our hotel room the following day to discover the sunniest and warmest day of the tour yet. So I piggy-backed Dani up for some of the way up to the gardens and once there we sat on the old stone walls, her head in my lap and we basked in the afternoon sun.
The show in Avignon felt really good. In the beginning of the show I stand behind the four long white screens that hang suspended from the bars, dressed in a black suit with a woolen balaclava pulled over my head. This makes visibility somewhat problematic as I peer into the half light of the pre-set lighting through the weave of the wool. I am then supposed to manipulate the screens by pulling on two pairs of strings in either hand for two screens. It normally goes off without incident but on this night I was disorientated and found as I started tugging on the strings to make the screens ‘breathe’ that I had one string form the left hand screen and one from the right in my left hand and only one string in my right hand. There were a few moments of panic as I stumbled around back stage like a blind drunk tangling myself up in strings and trying not to trip over the floor lights. Eventually I managed to figure it all out in time for my entrance. The surge of adrenalin served to make me feel really present and the performance was aided by this heightened state of awareness. I was reminded of the Bruce Springsteen blog that my good friend Duncan sent me recently in which the ‘Boss’ recounts his recent Superbowl performance. He talks about sometimes purposefully playing the wrong chord to make himself more present , more in the moment, more there - if he feels he is not giving it his all. Very inspiring to read about a legend like that who still has the kind of passion for performance that he does. I guess that’s what makes him a legend. Thanks Dunc.
Prior to Avignon, Dani and I had taken leave of the company in Lille after a few relatively boring days in suburban Roubaix and headed off to visit my friend Bram, his lady Rosa and their 8 month old baby girl Lena. I met Bram in 2002 (I think) whilst shooting a Dutch feature film in Cape Town for a couple of months. The movie was very kak, it must be said. However, we (the actors) got to do some very exciting things during shooting – like ride go-karts through the city and on the unfinished highway near the waterfront, climb the last pitch of Jacobs ladder on table mountain with its terrifying sheer drop all the way down to Camps Bay and its ascent to the backside of the cable car, swing from bridges – and all manner of crazy thrill-seeking activities. The film was also, incidentally, the breeding ground for the Most Amazing Show as Louw and I were cast (alongside KerenTahor and our dear departed friend Brett Goldin) as the South African members of the thrill seeking adventure gang that did all these stupid but fun activities. Some of my fondest memories from the shoot are driving back, with Louw and Bram in the front of the huge pick up truck that Bram (as Art director) had sourced for the film, to Cape Town after a long days shooting. These drives were a heady mix of hilarity and exhaustion. Warmed by the glow of new friendships igniting we would fan the flames of this burgeoning fire by setting a new gold standard in ‘kakpraat’. Bram was a surly bastard at the best of times who walked around with a dark cloud brewing above his head. He was unlucky in love and seemed always to be in a reckless kind of self-destruct mode, but through all this shone an amazing capacity for love and a shockingly insightful and refreshing honesty. Louw has kept in contact with him over the years and on one of his visits back to SA, Bram even built much of Louw and Janine’s kitchen. A kitchen, I must add, which they put to splendid and delicious use.
I hadn’t seen much of Bram in the intervening years and im not sure what prompted me to contact him but I will be forever grateful that I did. We changed trains at Amsterdam Centraal and got off at Haarlem about twenty minutes by train outside the Dutch capital. As Bram walked across the road to meet us I recognized him immediately, the same lanky lope of those skinny limbs, the shock of dark curly hair and the steely yet soft eyes, but it was like I was looking at a different person. There was no cloud. His face was clear of worry and his whole being radiated a kind of peace and love that had not had the opportunity to blossom before. We drove back to their place and he told us in his gruff deep voice of how this incredible woman and their amazing baby had changed his life forever.
They stay in a village called Hillegom on the coast. Their house is on an old abandoned mental hospital estate and their house was where the craziest of the crazies were kept. No. Really. Rosa is an art director of high repute and their guest rooms bare testament to this. Each room is themed and decked out with strange beds and wonderful furniture and cool stuff sourced for films. It’s a massive sprawling house filled with a great energy and warmth. Upon meeting Rosa and Lena its easy to understand Bram’s personal revolution. Rosa is a generous, intelligent, interesting, interested, warm, gracious, beautiful woman. She opened up her heart and her home to us, cooked up a mouthwatering storm and those post dinner conversations over a bottle of wine or a beer were so honest, so easy and so much fun. Lena was a little under the weather with her first cold or flu (not sure which) but nonetheless she was an absolute delight. It is an unfortunate truth that some children are more beautiful than others and Lena is one of the most beautiful babies I have ever seen. With a blaze of light orange hair, exquisite porcelain features, an extraordinary musical talent and a smile that would light up the corners of the coldest heart she kept us well entertained and in awe of her. She is one of those babies that ‘skrik vir niks’ and doesn’t let anything or anyone get in her way.
On our first day there after a glorious sleep in on the best bed ever and Brams delicious breakfast pancakes made especially in Dani’s honor the big man took us into Amsterdam for a day trip. He showed us around his old neighborhood in the centre of the centre of the centre (as he puts it) , where he still owns an apartment that he rents out to a friend and took us on a tour of the notorious red light district and its many ‘coffee shops.’ We took an eye popping shuffle through a narrow alleyway of lust with the ladies in their lacy underwear chatting away on their cellphones and tucking into late lunches of greasy slap chips and burgers. Dani, who has taken to filming everything with her little digital camera nearly got bliksemmed by one of the ladies of the night (or in this case one of the ladies of the afternoon) who stepped out of her glass cubicle and flowered all manner of colorful suggestions down on Dani with regard to exactly what she could do with her camera. We did some shopping , checked out the canals and bought some new music in the coolest little music store I have ever been in. On our drive back we drove into the setting sun, talked about the collapse of the capitalist economy and listened to our new music. As the sun sank into a fiery orange, red, purple, yellow supernova we fell silent and bathed in the transient glow of this one magic moment stretching out into eternity. I was again struck by the bare trees like spider veins bleeding into the sky but never more so than on this drive for the blood was there to see – its crimson life force spreading across the horizon.
The following day I left Dani cuddled in bed and went for a walk in the estate. The property is huge, forested and populated with a cornucopia of birds, little dams and yes, a river runs through it. As I stood there in the tangle of graying grass i watched as a cold soft breeze, breathing in whispers through the threadbare branches of the trees, urged a school of fallen copper leaves in a slow tumble across the overgrown park into the still pond. In the distance the low hum of traffic mumbled half heard suggestions of a gossiping metropolis. Wow, lank poetic. But that’s how it honestly felt in the moment. I decided to ignore the city and its ‘skinnering’ and went to wake Dani. We took Bram and Rosa’s bikes out for a ride and cycled to the beach. The wind howled and rain spat half heartedly down on us as we explored the little hamlet. We returned to the estate and continued to explore the grounds on our bikes. We drove along the river and down paths that took us through forests of eerie thin trees glowing in a sickly green from the moss wrapped around their trunks. In the winter this estate is the perfect location for a horror movie. I loved it.
We managed to squeeze in another day trip to Amsterdam – just Dani and I and we walked through the streets, did some shopping , checked out the theatre institute and Dani went to the Van Gogh museum. We didn’t have enough money for the both of us so Dani went in to see the ‘Van Gogh and the colors of the night’ exhibition as I took a stroll through the park and watched a man hit a tennis ball for his dog on the public ice rink. It was a beautiful day and the trip to the Netherlands to visit the wonderful Bram, Rosa and Lena was drawing to an end.
Thank you, thank you, thank you dear friends for your generosity and love in sharing your home and lives with us for that wonderful weekend. It was a very special experience for us.
We are in Grenoble now and it is lovely. The Alps rise up in snow streaked splendor all around us and the centre of town sprawls in a Haussman-esque elegance. We even took a cable car (France’s oldest) up to the Bastille high above the city yesterday and marveled at the view. Awesome. Although I did feel a little like my dad when he took us up the cable car in Cape Town when I was a kid. My knuckles were white as I gripped onto the handles inside our little glass egg dangling in the sky.
Going to rehearse now and set up for the show tonight. Much love

Sunday, February 15, 2009

strasbourg and beyond

We arrived in Strasbourg in the evening and after dropping off our bags in our rooms we (Neli, Stacey, Dani and I) decided to go for a walk and explore the old city at night. As we four strolled through a cross hatching of small cobbled streets with 14th-16th century buildings leaning over us at precarious angles, we chattered both in conversation and cold as Dani frequently wondered out loud where the next crepe was going to come from. In the middle of our meanderings we turned a corner and were confronted with an architectural marvel that quite literally made me produce an audible sharp intake of breath. The colossal Gothic masterpiece that is the Cathedral Notre Dame in Strasbourg sliced into the sky with vertiginous inducing grandeur. It’s impossibly intricate lacy façade lit eerily at night gave it a fragile ghostly feel as it loomed above us mere mortals, awing us into submission. It was quite honestly, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. We stood transfixed, as Stacy occasionally shook her craning head and said in wonder, ‘Inconceivable’ – a word she would repeat frequently throughout our stay in Strasbourg every time we past this monument to the impossible in pink limestone.
Strasbourg is a sprawling metropolis, home to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and is undoubtedly the cultural and intellectual capital of the Alsace region. Germany is but a stones throw away and it’s ties to the country are reflected through the architecture, street names and a history of push and pull conquests from the late 19th century Franco-Prussian wars to the Second World War. Despite its size however, the centre of Strasbourg retains a charm and beauty that makes you feel like you are wondering around lost in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that the centre is literally an island surrounded by canals and much of its architecture managed to survive the carnage of WW2. Dani and I took advantage of the buffet breakfasts at our cosy hotel and filled our flask with tea and stuffed our pockets full with baguettes crammed with cheese and salami and took to the canals with glee. We soaked in the atmosphere sipping on our tea, chomping on our baguettes as we lazily looked about at the tanners houses which lean over the canal and into each other at odd angles. We fed the swans and watched the tour boat navigate the sluices. I found it all very calming and fell deeply in love with this town very quickly.
We explored the interior of the cathedral and Steve will be glad to note that I began to differentiate between the characteristics of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The façade of the exterior is a dead give-away. The gothic style of this cathedral favors the intricate, detailed smorgasbord of sculptural detail that adorns the façade. What is particularly interesting about the building is that construction began in 1015, continued for four centuries and as a result displays examples of both Romanesque and Gothic styles. The eastern sections are essentially Romanesque but what is most striking about the building is its evolution into a gothic masterpiece with its flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults and the incredibly impressive façade. Inside, one feels as if you are aboard a great ship sailing toward the infinite and you can almost feel the pull on your soul urging you toward exaltation and the glory of spiritual endeavor. The stain glass windows, the beautifully sculpted pulpit, the sculptural narrative of Jesus’ betrayal at the mount of Olives in the north crossing and the pillar of angels in the south crossing all combine to further the viewers submission to awe. As a healthy skeptic of all organized religion it has been a fascinating journey through all these cathedrals throughout France and an intriguing insight into the power of art and architecture to win over souls for the benefit of the church. It is also interesting to witness, through these impressive structures, the kind of wealth and power they wielded for centuries.
Dani and I managed to circumnavigate the entire island on one of our walks. It gave me a great sense of the size and geography of the city and Strasbourg has been the only place so far where I have taken the lead in terms of navigation. Everywhere else I have dutifully and appreciatively followed Dani’s instinct as she has asserted her control over most of France whilst brandishing all manner of maps in her fists. Without her I would have been lost and desperately alone for most of this tour. We experienced a boon on our Sunday stroll as we discovered that all museums were free on the first Sunday of the month. This was just one of those Sundays and we set off on a museum marathon in haste. We took in the Museum de Beaux Arts, the archeological museum (which was awesome – massive – full to brimming with Roman sculpture and artifacts as well as a fascinating exhibition on the evolution of burial practices from earliest history till today in the Alsace region) as well as the Contemporary Art Museum. The Contemporary art stuff was a real let down. Just so much of the lazy smugness of modern artists – placing a brick in the corner or hanging a jacket on the wall and calling it art just doesn’t cut it for me. Give me virtuosity over cleverness any day. Although, there was some cool stuff to be found here – particularly these really dark biblical works by some Strasbourgian artist whose name I forget. His subject matter was all the really heavy stories from the bible- the crucifixion, Lucifer and his hordes fall from grace, the Christians eaten by ravenous lions in the Roman Dens – and his paintings allowed only thin shafts of light to illuminate the horrific narratives unfolding on his canvases.
Another highlight from Strasbourg has got to be the night we broke into the opera. I discovered the massive national Strasbourg theatre one evening when Danni and I were frantically trying to track down a laundry. We allowed the distraction to pull us away from this tiresome task and we discovered that a show was on that night that I had spotted in pamphlets throughout our tour of France so far and which had peaked our interest. The price of admission wasn’t too heavy and we decided to do it. The show was showing at another theatre further away, it was apparently sold out but the guy assured me that if we arrived early we would be able to get tickets due to inevitable cancellations. We got directions and headed back to our restaurant to get a bite to eat at our favorite little restaurant for some cheap good food in a quaint comfortable atmosphere for the budget conscience foot-sore and walking weary tourist. Stacey decided to join us and after a quick bite and a beer we set off for the theatre. Upon arrival we set up camp in the Pina Bausch-esque foyer and waited for the cancellations to happen. And we waited. Nothing. Packed to the rafters, the show went on without us and we sat dejected sipping on our beers as we wondered what to do next. After another beer we were rewarded with the selfish victory of the slighted theatre patron as audience member after audience member came filing out of the apparently very kak show. Buoyed by the fact that we had not missed much we traipsed off on our merry route home. By chance, we walked past the Strasbourg opera house during the last interval of the show. On a whim we determined to steal our way into the performance. And so with a brazen veneer of pompousness we strode in as if we owned the place, sneakily avoiding ushers and like a stream trying to find the point of weakness we flowed tier by tier to the cheap seats high above the hoi-polloi way down below. We took our seats in an inconspicuous corner with practically no view of the stage and stole furtive glances toward any over-zealous ushers who may try to thwart our cunning plan at the eleventh hour. We spotted three empty seats directly opposite the stage right up against the balcony and as the lights began to dim we scampered over and plopped ourselves in the red velvet as we giggled excitedly at our daring derring-do. And so it was that we sat down for the final act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Now the problem with sneaking into an Opera is that you then actually have to watch it. Siegfried turned out to be a bit of a whiner really, with Brunhilde having to coax him out of sulky tears with plentiful appeals to his abounding heroic manly hood before he promised to get off his arse and do something. Much gesturing and splendidly comic over-acting. The experience really was quite special though (despite my sarcasm), the building was phenomenal in its ornate gaudiness and the view we had of the stage was awesome. From our perch we could see everything – the orchestra in its entirety (which alone was fascinating to watch), the impressive scale of the stage design and lighting as well as the whole audience – and just the mere act of sneaking in gave me enough thrills to make it a memorable adventure.
During our one performance here, a friend of Neli’s from Berlin came to see the show. She loved it and is now trying really hard to get it to Berlin sometime – which would be cool.
We are back in Toulouse now, it’s been a week (or more) since Strasbourg and we have even completed the Bordeaux leg of the tour in the interim. It was a short stopover in the wine capital of France and a smelly hotel room and stomach cramps dampened my experience of the city.
We head to Lille high up in the north tomorrow and after that Dani and I take our leave of the company to go and explore Amsterdam and visit an old crazy Dutch friend.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

dijon to strasbourg

ah finally the machine works again - we are back in toulouse but here is what i wrote on the train to strasbourg - will post strasbourg experiences shortly.

On the small six carriage train from Dijon to Bescancon we bypass a patchwork of dormant fields. A dry forest of trees crowd each other like emperor penguins as if to ward off the cold and now closer to my left a tangle of trees wrap themselves around each other and surround a small dam. It’s hard to imagine what all these trees would look like with leaves.
As we pull into our first stop at Genlis, Dani takes a look around and exclaims; “It’s just like Bloemfontein” though I think that even Bloem locals would be irked by this unfavorable comparison. The sun is bright today and there is a glow in our carriage that heats us up quite considerably. Its nice and toasty in here and looks almost summery out there. Although there are clues which unveil the lie to that fantasy – little semi-frozen pools here and there, the ever present bare trees, an old couple out for a stroll so heavily wrapped up in layer upon layer of warm woolies that they look quite comic in their mid Michelin man waddle.
There is a young kid on board (11-12) traveling alone who, having forlornly waved goodbye to his mom at the station, has now taken to this solo-adventure with a terrible fervor. He has set up camp on one of the fold up seats in the small portal between carriages where we have stored our quite considerable cache of luggage. He abandoned this boring, polite adult world to create his own universe, having promptly set about re-arranging our stuff. He has industriously (if somewhat messily) moved parts of our set (three boxes packed to brimming with props and lights and a long rectangular mess of screens and poles all wrapped and taped up in cardboard boxes) to clear a space to sit. Now he listens to kak French rap music (loudly) and joins in the choruses enthusiastically apparently blissfully unaware of how tuneless his accompaniment actually is. If it weren’t so funny it would be annoying, but the ride is only an hour long before we change trains and head to Strasbourg. Much to the delight of my macabre aesthetic sensibilities we keep passing gangs of crows flapping menacingly above the frostbitten fields or standing ghoulish sentry like bouncers to the spirit world amidst the branches of gnarled trees contorted in frozen spasm. All in all they amount to more than a murder. A massacre of crows. If most birds alight on a branch, do crows adark? Intermittently our train even glides straight trough a forest filling my windows on the world with a surround view of these fantastic gnarlybone trees I cant stop talking about. Forgive me, for a fantasy reader such as myself, they are a wonderful canvas and my mind cannot help but splatter narratives across it.
Dijon was great. The older central part of town, only a five minute walk from the hotel is a collection of picturesque cobbled streets, quaint villagey houses, grand centuries old buildings and beautiful churches and cathedrals. We enjoyed a lazy walk through these beautiful narrow streets - we visited the palace of the dukes and even delighted in a taste test of a myriad of Mustard flavors in the self proclaimed Temple of Mustard. On our stroll we stumbled upon the Notre Dame Church (not to be confused with the cathedral in Paris). We were lured down a little back alley and whilst enjoying the view of the building from around the back we stopped off at an awesome little café for crepes (Dani has developed an alarming addiction for Pancakes with Nutella) and warm drinks and marveled at the odd collection of curios (strange puppets and very cool sculptures of fairy tale figures – dragons and gargoyles, drunk knights and slutty fairies). Our curiosity sated, our bellies warm and full, and the monkey on Dani’s back tamed for the time being, we set off again around the church. The front façade was fantastic – two tiers towering above us lined with three rows of gargoyles grinning down at us with a scary glee and torsos of men stretching out of the wall looking around at odd angles with strange manic expressions on their faces. The whole thing had a slightly crazy vibe about it. I loved it. Once inside we lit some candles and were awed by the beautiful stained glass windows and imposing organ. Steam escaped from our mouths as we walked around the icy stone interior and I think you would have to be truly devout to sit through an entire service here. The tendency to awe subjects into religious piety through the power of architecture, art and sculpture was a common weapon in the arsenal of the church for centuries and walking through these hallowed spaces centuries later it is still a truly humbling experience.
The theatre we played in here was great – a more traditional space (really big) compared to the ones we have played in so far and the auditorium rose in a steep inclined wall of scarlet seats. The show was a bit iffy. We were a little off timing wise and I had forgotten to set one of my props which led to a little creative improvisation. Still, the show is in much better shape than when we started and it was good to play in another French theatre. I have also really been enjoying the physical routine we do as a warm up before rehearsals and before the show. A nice mix of dancey type stretches, strengthening the core and increasing suppleness and balance in my hips. It has been good to have a new constant physical regime that we have been doing since December. It has been a welcome change to the stress and over-exertion of the Strictly days. Major muscle fatigue had kicked in by the end of that. I was cramping a lot and pretty much in constant pain. The routine that this show has employed has been the perfect antidote to the boot camp that was Strictly. My right hip is still in a little pain but the stretching seems to alleviate that. My flexibility has increased and I continue to work on my core strength and I feel like my rehabilitation since shattering my knee cap is almost complete. This makes me happy.
We change trains at Becancon with me carrying much of the 80kg set from platform to platform. Getting on the train was a frantic affair with a mild panic fluttering through the ranks as the whistle blew, with half of our stuff still on the platform. We managed to hustle on board though and embark on what is undoubtedly the highlight of our train expeditions thus far. We pull off and into the most robust countryside we have encountered. A broad river snakes its way alongside and beyond that the green river bank dotted with trees suggests summertime idyll. The bank then gives way to clusters of trees that in turn allow a bold white rockface to jut dramatically in to the sky. Atop, along it’s ridge a spiny back with a tree sprouting from each rocky vertebrae. Also all along the journey, cascading hills filled with trees that seem to retain a hint of their summertime lushness. Though they are bare now the quality is not the same as the trees that haunt the flatter regions – these ones somehow seem more alive. We are near the Swiss border now and all round the ground rises to meet the sky and the rivers are frozen. We pass by and through many pretty little villages each one with its own beautiful church as its centre piece. For a time I am cured of my homesickness and longing for African landscapes by these glorious sites. We are nearing Strasbourg now and off in the distance, high on the crest of the hill in the orange glow of the sunset I notice the outline of a castle. What an undertaking to build such a structure in a place so remote. But I guess back in those days it paid to see your enemy coming. This has been a truly great ride and I look forward to Strasbourg with eager anticipation.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


i am experiencing the most infuriating technical difficulties both with my own computer and the communal computer at the hotel _ i have so much more to report on and have written lengthy entries detailing these events but cannot, as yet,for some unfathomable reason post any of it on the blog; its complicated and irritating.