Friday, 23 June 2017

Jjimjilbang! The Traditional Baths of South Korea

I travelled to South Korea courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

There's nothing like getting naked and in hot water as a way of, er, immersing yourself in another culture.

So when I visited South Korea in 2014, I couldn't wait to try out a jjimjilbang, the traditional local bathhouse.

As I expected, these places are amazing. Firstly men and women bathe in separate areas, in baths of differing temperatures and compositions.

The compulsory nudity in the bath areas deters some overseas visitors, which is partly why it's remained an authentically Korean experience.

It's accessible to foreigners but still very much dominated by locals, who see these places as a leisure hangout.

In the bath area of a multi-storey jjimjilbang I visited in central Seoul, an attendant gave me the world's most efficient, energetic and somewhat brutal body scrub, removing what seemed kilos of excess skin.

The baths are relaxing, but it's the communal areas visited afterward which are the most fun.

There are people of all ages hanging about there in the pyjama-like tops and shorts we're all issued with.

Patrons can enjoy a range of facilities - snack bars, pools, ice-cold rooms, kiln-heated rooms, computer gaming rooms.

The cost for the additional services you use or food you purchase is recorded on your electronic wristband, and you settle the bill on the way out.

And there's always a sleeping room with simple beds, and big heated floor area where people can sleep - all night if they want to.

It was great fun to experience these baths on my first Seoul visit, joining locals in an activity which turned out to be both memorable and relaxing.

If I lived in Seoul I'd be tempted to visit one of these facilities every Sunday (especially in winter).

After a soothing bath, I could imagine spending hours relaxing, reading a book and, um, chilling out.

Recommended: Dragon Hill Spa, 40-712, Hangangno 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Adult entry $14-$18, depending on time of day.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Walking Old Delhi, India

A few years ago I visited India's capital Delhi, hosted by Thai Airways, and joined a memorable walking tour of the oldest part of the city. As its original publisher has now removed the resulting story from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

There’s only one way to really discover Old Delhi, the 17th century city laid out by Moghul emperor and Taj Mahal creator Shah Jahan: and that’s to walk it.

Though the government of India is centred on the geometric streets of New Delhi, the 1930s city constructed by the British colonial rulers, Old Delhi has more historic appeal.

Off pulsing Chandni Chowk, the district’s incredibly busy main street, are dozens of narrow alleyways leading to shopping precincts and eateries.

It’s not an easy place to navigate as a pedestrian. Which is why a guide from local company Delhi Heritage Walks leads a group through the organised chaos of Chandni Chowk and its back streets.

Forts and temples

The walk begins at the grandest end of Chandni Chowk, at a T-junction opposite the massive Red Fort, once the palace of the Moghul Emperors. Its outlines are hazy in the early morning, but I can make out the Lahore Gate opposite the walk’s meeting point, the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple of the Jain faith.

The guide today is Kanika Singh, a history graduate with a detailed knowledge of Moghul-era Delhi - and in fact the majority of the tour group is made up of Indians interested in their own country’s history.

Kanika explains that Sunday morning is the best time for the walk because it’s the only time that the area is quiet enough to lead a group; though 'quiet' is a relative term in Delhi, as there are plenty of people around us, strolling, sitting, shopping and cycling.

Martyrs of history

Squeezing along the cracked pavement between motorcycles and other pedestrians, the group follows Kanika as she points out merchants’ houses from the 19th century, their attractive facades now plastered with advertising.

Nearby there's a very respectable looking bank wherein the manager was killed by rebels in the uprising against British rule of 1857.

On a lighter note, a stall titled The Famous Jalebi Wala sells the deep-fried rings of sweet batter known as jalebi.

Further on, there’s another reminder of the diverse spirituality that’s at the heart of Indian history and culture: the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, an important Sikh place of worship.

It was on this spot, says Kanika, that the cruel Emperor Aurangzeb murdered a Sikh guru in the 17th century, which led to the later erection of this temple in his memory.

Alleys lead to the square

After passing a decorative blue and white fountain, Kanika suddenly leads the group off the main street into a narrow alley, pointing out a popular stall selling daulat ki chaat.

This fascinating sweet Delhi specialty is made from frothed milk, saffron, pistachios and sugar, and decorated with the edible silver leaf known as varq. It’s a light, insubstantial treat with an unforgettable taste, and the more poetic merchants will tell you it requires an additional dose of moonlight to get it just right.

There’s no time to sample any, however, as Kanika leads onward while explaining how these areas stretching back from Chandni Chowk were formerly nobles’ estates enclosed by walls and gates.

Most of these boundaries were pulled down by the British to aid movement, but the odd gate still remains. Kanika points to one, a solid metal structure behind a stationery stall.

Returning to the main road, the space suddenly opens out. Here was once a public square, with a pool that reflected moonlight - which is what Chandni Chowk means, moonlit square.

The European-styled building opposite was once the British-built Town Hall, though it’s watched over nowadays by a statue of early independence leader Swami Shardhanand.

A holy oasis

Crossing the road and entering another alleyway, we take a moment to inspect the interior of a small Hindu temple with a beautiful central canopy.

It’s dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva, but surprisingly it’s also a family home. Kanika says the owner sells tea in the alleyway in front of the entrance on weekdays, and indeed there’s a small teacup-shaped sign hanging on one side.

The smallness of the temple is in sharp contrast with the vastness of the Fatehpuri Mosque, the next stop on the tour.

Named after a wife of Shah Jahan, the founder of the city, it’s a congregational mosque with a spacious open-air interior within its walls. It’s a peaceful place to visit on a Sunday morning, as visitors walk through its interior holding their shoes in deference to the Muslim tradition of entering a mosque without footwear.

At the far end is a structure with graceful arched openings and a central dome, wherein the imam preaches his sermon on a Friday, the Muslim holy day. In the centre of the vast courtyard is a decorative water tank which worshippers use for ablutions before prayer. Perched along the edge of this are people, sitting quietly as if in contemplation.

After the hectic street, this is the perfect place to take a moment to draw breath, relax and appreciate a dash of serenity.

Chillies give way to a view

Nearing the end of its Old Delhi adventure, the group enters the Gadodia Market, a covered space given over to spice merchants. This is the place to buy chillies, and the pungent aroma of the hot red peppers seem ground into every stone within the market.

From here, the group enders a battered old stairwell and climbs to the top of the building. There’s a sweeping view of Old Delhi from this point, taking in minarets, gates, the fort, Chandni Chowk, and all the Delhi residents who make the old city such a memorable place for a Sunday morning exploration.

For more details and to make bookings, visit the Delhi Heritage Tours website.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Twin Peaks: It is Happening Again

When Twin Peaks burst onto our TV screens here in Australia in 1991, we knew immediately we were watching something special.

At the time, Narrelle Harris and I were deeply involved in science fiction fandom, particularly those sections serving enthusiasts of British programs such as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

So it made sense for us to extend our fannish habits toward this astonishing new American show, with strong strands of horror and fantasy in its DNA.

One thing we did was to hold a costume party, on 18 May 1991. That’s where the above photo comes from – yes, that’s me as Doctor Jacoby, at the tender age of 26. Here's another shot of some attendees, appearing as (from left to right) Nadine, Audrey, James, two Coopers and Blackie:

The second and more substantial thing was to create a fanzine, Wrapped in Plastic (no relation to the US magazine of the same name, which ran from 1992 to 2005).

Publishing a fan magazine like this was second nature back then for ardent fans of popular science fiction or fantasy TV shows. For – and bear with me here – the Internet as we know it was yet to be born.

Yes! The World Wide Web was only opened to the public in late 1991, and the Mosaic browser which made it useful and easily accessible debuted in 1993. Email had been around for a while, but generally only scientists and academics used it back then.

So, in the age before digital, we had to share our passions in pure analogue style.

That meant typing, collating and literally cutting and pasting material onto sheets of A4 paper, which would then be photocopied, stapled and posted to subscribers.

Aside from meetings where people might get together to watch bootleg copies of episodes unavailable on VHS cassette, fanzines provided one of the few regular forums for fans to discuss their favourite TV programs.

They contained articles analysing minutiae of episodes, and speculating what might come next. There were short stories continuing the adventures of characters outside the confines of the small screen.

There was fan art, and clippings from newspapers and magazines. And there were lively letters to the editor, our forerunners of Facebook posts.

So… here for your download pleasure is an edited PDF version of the four issues of Wrapped in Plastic, which ran from August 1991 to June 1992.

For copyright reasons I’ve removed the various photocopied clippings which took up a fair chunk of each issue, as well as an ongoing episode guide which seems redundant now.

At Twede's (aka the Double R), North Bend in 2015
What remains are articles, letters, reviews, cartoons, crosswords, short stories (one a bit saucy), and a lot of fan art.

Amongst this are marvellous covers by Andrew Williams and Tim Howe, and many entertaining illustrations by my late, great friend Ian Gunn – don’t miss his absurdly overcomplicated flowchart on the last page on Issue One.

As you flick through the PDF, you’ll notice changing fonts – sometimes quite horrible dot-matrix style ones – along with variations in contrast that can make the text difficult to read.

What can I say? I didn’t have a computer then, so most of the fanzine was typed on an electric typewriter. However, if a contributor provided an article on a sheet of paper in their own chosen font, it was much easier to paste that in than to retype it. Hence the variety.

Overlooking the Snoqualmie Falls (aka White Tail Falls)
and the Salish Lodge (The Great Northern) in 2015.
They were simpler times. But not, luckily, in Twin Peaks USA.

And now, all the way here in the future, it is happening again. As I said to my future self back in 1991, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” And I made that date. Sort of.

Thanks to all the contributors to Wrapped in Plastic back in the day; if I’ve lost touch with you and you happen across this post, please get in touch so I can thank you directly.

My greatest gratitude goes to David Lynch and Mark Frost, for sharing their extraordinary creation with us, both in the 1990s and again today.

Its dreamlike sounds, images and characters have stayed with me through the years, and in 2015 I was delighted to visit its filming locations in Snoqualmie and North Bend (with the assistance of Visit Seattle), and write about them three times:
  1. Postcard from Twin Peaks, for The Age;
  2. Welcome to Twin Peaks: a guide to the locations, for Lonely Planet;
  3. Welcome to Twin Peaks (aka Snoqualmie USA), in this blog.
It was good to looking through issues of my fanzine again, handmade expressions of enthusiasm for a superlative television series. And great to be doing so in the middle of new episodes exploring the strange world of Twin Peaks.

In the words of Agent Cooper, “I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen.”

With the new Twin Peaks season, it's once a week. But you get the idea.

Twin Peaks continues until September 2017 on streaming service Stan in Australia, with new episodes available each Monday afternoon. The omnibus edition of 1991-1992 Twin Peaks fanzine Wrapped in Plastic can be downloaded from this link.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Best Coffee in Singapore

When I was preparing to visit Singapore for the first time a couple of years ago, I asked my Singaporean friend Walter Lim [pictured above] for some cafe recommendations. He's recently updated that list for me, so it seems unfair to withhold its coffee goodness from the rest of you. So here, with his blessing, are Walter's Singapore cafe tips...

1. Strangers' Reunion. An interesting concept opened by a former winner of Singapore's barista competition, Ryan Tan. Probably one of the best espresso style coffees here. 33 Kampong Bahru Rd,

2. Chye Seng Huat Hardware. Another hipster joint occupying a former hardware shop [see photo below]. Its exterior is totally deceiving and I suspect it was inspired by Melbourne cafe joints! 150 Tyrwhitt Rd,

3. Nanyang Old Coffee. This joint serves traditional local-style coffee, which normally features a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, roasted in butter. One of the favourites in heritage-style coffee. 268 South Bridge Rd,

4. Killiney Kopi Tiam. "Kopi tiam" means coffee shop in our vernacular Hokkien dialect. The original Killiney coffee shop in Killiney Road may be worth trying. It serves the same traditional coffee as Nanyang. 67 Killiney Rd,

5. Nylon Coffee Roasters. This hole-in-the-wall joint in a quiet residential neighbourhood has its fans. They only serve espresso style coffees and nothing else! Pretty decent too. 4 Everton Park #01-40,

6. Ronin. Uses a coffee blend roasted and imported from Melbourne (haha), Australia. Its coffee blend is a mix of 13 different origins, and is full-bodied and nutty, with a light citrus acidity that is designed to be served with milk for a smooth latte/cappuccino with a cocoa finish. 17 Hongkong St,

7. Symmetry. Symmetry is a restaurant and bar that is inspired by Australian casual dining culture, and French cuisine. 9 Jalan Kubor,

8. Oriole Coffee + Bar. Opened by Keith Loh, winner of Singapore's National Barista Championships in 2010. Oriole has won a cult following of coffee enthusiasts. Sourcing the finest and freshest Arabica beans, roasted locally before being brewed and retailed at outlets in the city.


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Review: King Roger Opera, Melbourne

Having a happy life is all about balance, it seems. But that’s not as easy to achieve as it sounds, especially when it comes to balancing intellectual impulses against carnal, pleasure against self-control.

That’s the issue at the core of King Roger, a Polish opera from 1926 (Król Roger its original Polish title).

Its composer, Karol Szymanowski, knew well the tensions caused by extremes: as an aristocrat in an age of revolution, and a gay man in a time of sexual repression, he lived the conflict that’s played out on the State Theatre’s set.

And what a set. For the first two acts, the stage is dominated by a huge model of a head, perhaps representing the human mind that’s about to be subjected to psychological turmoil.

For into the rationally-ruled kingdom of King Roger comes a shepherd who is also a holy man, preaching a new doctrine of free love and sensuality, prioritising the pleasures of the body over the stimulations of the mind.

I couldn’t help but be reminded here by Rasputin, that contemporary of the composer who bewitched the Russian royal family and helped bring about their downfall.

The king is torn, condemning the preacher at the same time he is swayed by his all-too-human lust, represented on stage by athletic, writhing near-naked men performing an erotically charged dance on the lower levels of the head’s multi-storey interior. It’s a salacious nod perhaps to Szymanowski’s own conflicted sexuality.

It all ends in tears, of course. By the start of Act III the preacher has seized power, the head has been burnt to the ground, and Roger has been cast out without his beloved queen.

The revolution of pleasure is out of control, books are being burnt, and it’s only by baring his soul to the rising sun that the deposed king is able to seek redemption.

The Opera Australia performers do a fine job in what must have been a difficult production to master. I speak some Polish and I find it difficult enough to pronounce it correctly in everyday speech, let alone in song.

The set, with its giant head and symmetrical galleries, is a clever way to portray a psychological struggle in physical form, and the 1920s-era costumes are simple but effective.

As for the story, I suspect we all feel a little like Szymanowski in these difficult times – as if it’s easy to give in to excess, and balance is near-impossible to achieve.

King Roger continues at Arts Centre Melbourne until 27 May 2017. Click here for more info or to make bookings. [Credit: photos provided by Opera Australia, taken by Jeff Busby.]

Friday, 19 May 2017

Eastern Sleeper: Night Train from Kiev to Warsaw

I paid for my own train fare from Ukraine to Poland.

In June 2016 I caught the night train from Kiev, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland.

This was a full overnight journey (and then some). I boarded at 16:48 at Kyiv-Passazhyrsky station and alighted at 09:10 the next morning at Warszawa Centralna.

It was what you might call old-school European train travel. I'd paid extra to have a 'single', ie the whole compartment to myself.

My bunk was in a sealed sleeper car (with no connection with the rest of the train, and no dining car). My carriage attendant was an impressively tall Ukrainian woman with no English who made me a cup of tea while I dined on sandwiches bought at the station in Kiev.

Then there were the theatrics along the way. A couple of hours waiting at the border in the dim pre-dawn light while Ukrainian border guards searched for smuggled cigarettes, and loud clanking sounds accompanied the adjustment of the train's wheels from the Ukrainian to Polish gauge. Loads of atmosphere!

Despite all this I did get some sleep, and attendant Natasha as I came to think of her (I never did get her name) happily posed for a photo on the platform at Warsaw.

I heartily recommend the Kiev-Warsaw sleeper or its shorter Krakow-Lviv counterpart if you yearn for a little of that old-fashioned night train travel with a dash of intrigue.

Here's a selection of photos I took on the journey:



As it's not possible yet to book these trains online, a reliable service I'd recommend to book these services ahead on your behalf is Polrail. Bon voyage! Or as the Ukrainians say, Щасливої подорожі!

Friday, 12 May 2017

The LA You Don't Know

This article was originally written for the magazine of a travel agency, which was later bought out and never published it. So here it is, for your enjoyment (Disclosure: I've generally been assisted by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board when visiting LA).

If you ask travellers what they know about Los Angeles, they’ll mention some obvious elements off the top of their heads. There’s Disneyland, of course, and the Pacific coast. Hollywood, the home of the movie industry. And linking them, plenty of spaghetti-like freeways.

These are all there, of course, but there’s much more to LA once you take the time to explore its lesser-known districts and its quirkier attractions. Here are several things to try when you’re next in the Californian city.

Eat a French Dipped Sandwich

This classic sandwich has been a popular LA treat since 1908, and the best place to eat it is Philippe the Original. An old-fashioned diner on the edge of Chinatown, it boasts retro decor, sawdust on the floor, and an old-school candy counter.

Its famous French Dipped Sandwich was created when a roast beef sandwich was accidentally dropped into a roasting pan. The customer who ate it loved the result, so since then the beef-and-gravy sandwich has been on the menu.

Nowadays it’s prepared with a rich jus which has been rendered from roasting pan drippings and beef stock over two days. Eat it with pickles and potato salad at one of the long timber tables, maybe with a beer on the side.

Soak Korean-style

West of LA’s Downtown is Koreatown, a sprawling neighbourhood populated by migrants from South Korea. It’s a great place to try Korean food, of course, but also to immerse yourself in a jjimjilbang.

The main attraction of this traditional Korean bathhouse is its series of heated baths. They’re segregated by gender, and it’s an all-nude experience – no swimming costumes allowed. After soaking, patrons get dressed in the provided T-shirt and shorts, and head to the communal relaxation areas which offer dining and entertainment options.

One of the best places to experience the Korean bathhouse in LA is Wi Spa, located near MacArthur Park.

Stroll along Broadway

In past decades the Downtown district was a dodgy part of Los Angeles, and best avoided. Now it’s returning to its past glory as gentrification takes hold, and is worth visiting for the impressive old cinema facades along Broadway.

Owned by the city’s famous movie studios a hundred years ago, these picture palaces were once the showcases of Hollywood’s finest output. Now they fulfil a variety of uses, from shopfronts to live music venues, and some still screen films.

At 10am each Saturday, the Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour heads along this street, showing off its architectural highlights.

Meet a Different Kind of Star

There are plenty of stars in Hollywood, but you can raise your eyes to the original stars at Griffith Observatory. Situated on hills overlooking Los Angeles’ busy sprawl, this scientific complex is a beautiful example of art deco architecture.

Acting as an astronomical museum, its interior includes exhibits both old and new, along with a planetarium. From the outdoor terraces there are great views over the city, and you can also spot the famous Hollywood sign.

Carry a Tune in a Music Hub

On the western edge of the Downtown is LA Live, a complex of entertainment venues and restaurants. Within its contemporary architecture you’ll also find the Grammy Museum, dedicated to every aspect of music.

Over several levels, visitors learn about music genres from rock to soul, via interactive displays and audio recordings. There are also exhibits dedicated to particular singing stars.

See a Real Spaceship

The California Science Centre is the home of many fascinating exhibits involving science and nature. The most impressive of these by far is the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This enormous real-life spacecraft is suspended above the heads of visitors, allowing for a sweeping view of its sleek exterior.

Beyond this spectacular sight, it’s also possible to get up close with the early years of space travel. Encased within transparent shells is a Gemini 11 space capsule, and an Apollo capsule similar to the one that first took men to the Moon. For some hands-on excitement, you can also experience a mission within a Space Shuttle simulator.

For more details of LA's attractions, visit

Friday, 5 May 2017

Poutine! The Best in Montreal & Quebec City

For my 2013 visit to Quebec I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

On my most recent visit to Montreal and Quebec City with Narrelle Harris, I had a bright idea.

Poutine! Visit a number of places serving the classic Quebecois dish comprising chips, gravy and cheese curds, and rank them according to highly scientific categories.

So I did. These were the results.

1. Méchant Boeuf, 124 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest, Montreal

Decor Wannabe nightclub
Vibe Loud and energetic
Fill factor Far bigger than expected for a side
Score 3 (out of 5)

"Wicked Beef" is a noisy lively place with a dimly-lit restaurant area and a bright bar lit from beneath, with people rushing around and lots of loud conversation. Not a great place for a first date, but a great place to eat a burger, or seafood from the raw bar.

It doesn't specialise in poutine, instead it comes as a side to the burgers and other dishes. We order a burger with poutine as a side, expecting it to be something small. Instead we get an excellent tasty burger done medium, with a large plate of curds, chips and gravy in the classic style.

We feel we have to eat it before the burger, or it will go cold – and it looks like the kind of dish that shouldn't be eaten cold. It's tasty though not quite as hot as could be, topped with a non-conventional serve of pulled pork.

The only problem is, once we tackle the poutine, it's difficult to eat a whole burger.

2. Montreal Pool Room, Boulevard Saint-Laurent 1217, Montreal

Decor Minimalist diner with a long steel counter and photos of famous Quebeckers who've dropped in
Vibe Trucker stop
Fill factor Perfect late-night drunken fill-up
Score 4 (out of 5)

This century-old institution in the former red light district (actually still somewhat red light - there's a strip-teaseur joint across the road) serves up simple fare. Its highlight is the hot dog steamé, a steamed sausage in a bun with toppings including chopped cabbage and onion, and relish.

It comes, of course, with an optional serve of poutine. I order the combo of two dogs (they're fairly small) and poutine with a drink [see photo above], and focus on the poutine first.

Served in a polystyrene container, it's a sizeable serve of chips, gravy and curds. The curds are nicely firm, the chips aren't too soggy and the gravy is hot; so hot that I burn my lip, a hazard for the novice. On the counter are shakers of cayenne pepper and salt, and I apply the hot stuff to pleasing effect.

After that, the dogs are almost an anti-climax, plain-tasting in soft buns. It's a good combo; but I think the poutine upstages the dogs.

3. La Banquise, 994 Rue Rachel Est, Montreal

Decor Colourful tables and jumbled architecture
Vibe Cheap and cheerful
Fill factor Good way to refuel before hitting the Le Plateau district's very walkable streets
Score 4 (out of 5)

We hit this 24-hour poutine emporium about 9am on a Sunday, when it's nearly empty except for a steady stream of taxi drivers pulling in for a post-shift feed.

What else to order but a breakfast poutine? There are several options including one with the kitchen sink, Le Cassoulet, but I order a version called L'Ensoleillée involving chopped up bacon and sausage mixed in with the poutine, and a serve of scrambled egg on top.

It is, as you'd imagine, even more filling than a standard poutine (if that's possible), with the full, comforting flavour of bacon and sausage clearly evident. It's like a full English Breakfast has been broken down to its constituent parts and added to chips, curds and gravy.

Narrelle chose La Savoyarde, poutine with bacon, onion, Swiss cheese and sour cream. She said it reminded her quite a lot of her Dad's version of bubble and squeak.

4. Chez Ashton, 54 Côte du Palais, Quebec City

Decor Reinvented '50s diner
Vibe Colourful but quick
Fill factor Filling and nominally healthy
Score 4 (out of 5)

Quebec City is often visited after Montreal, and so many locals have told me to try Chez Ashton that we give it a go when we drop into town. Some say this place is the best poutine in Quebec, or at least the best in the provincial capital.

I'm confronted with a poutine menu offering just three choices: standard poutine, Galvaude (with chicken and peas on top) and Dulton (with spicy mince).

I go for the Galvaude, reckoning that the peas will allow me to regard it as a health food. It's actually very tasty, and the combination of chicken, peas and gravy, along with the chips and cheese curds, makes it taste not unlike a Sunday roast chicken and pea combo that your grandmother might have cooked up.

The gravy is particularly tasty, not too salty or thin, and it's a satisfying end to my poutine adventure.

As much as I enjoyed it, I don't feel the need to eat poutine again for a very long time. Or at least not until I next visit Canada.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Review: Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3, Melbourne

Guest reviewer: Narrelle M Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

I first heard that a woman would be playing Richard in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard III (rebadged by the company as Richard 3) via an article the title actor Kate Mulvany wrote for The Age back in February.

Her casting was fascinating not only as a woman intending to play Richard as a man, but because Mulvany herself has a severe spinal malformation resulting from treatment for childhood cancer.

Shakespeare’s King Richard III, with his hunched back and withered arm is not precisely the Richard of history, as we know from the discovery of his remains in recent years. Many people also make good arguments that he’s a lot less evil than the Lancaster-adoring (and by association Tudor-adoring) play would have him.

With this in mind, Bell Shakespeare’s production is a further step away from a play about history and embraces contemporary issues.

In the micro view, it’s about a terrible person whom we learn has been vilified since birth for his physical malformation. Richard is a monster, with a mind as twisted as his body. But which came first – his malice or theirs? Did he grow up so cruelly scorned that he chose to become the monster they saw, just to get back at them?

These are questions I always find fascinating about this play, and which were explored well in the London production starring Martin Freeman which I saw in 2014.

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard makes these questions central to the characterisation of the king, where we see his actions but only hints of his motivations, beyond the fact he hates the world and deliberately chooses to be as vile as possible.

He’s also charming, charismatic, ruthless and clever – or he’d never get away with what he does. He’s much cleverer than the people around him, who are riven by quarrels, rivalries, self-interest, petty ambitions and greed. They’re easy pickings for Richard to divide and therefore conquer.

Despite his cleverness and gleeful treachery, Mulvany’s Richard is a lonely man, “deliberately unloved” as the actress said in her article. As villainous as he is, you can see bent Richard is either patronised or treated with utter contempt by his family.

It’s easy to perceive that this has been his lot throughout his life. That kind of thing has to affect your own self-image, and onstage Mulvany masterfully gives Richard a very believable self-contempt that leads inexorably to his later realisation: “Alas, I rather hate myself.”

On this busy set Richard is forever surrounded by people, but almost nobody ever touches him, and rarely with any kindness. All the hands laid on him as he is declared king bestow on him a knowing glow. He’s tricked them all (and us too), and yet there’s a vulnerable joy for him in the contact.

That’s not as heartbreaking as a late scene where he’s trying to find something to swear on that he hasn’t ruined, and Elizabeth hushes and holds him a way, it seems, he never has been. It’s much too late to save or forgive him by then, but that moment of fragility is profoundly affecting.

Mulvany plays Richard as a man, but the combination of her true gender and her own crooked back (revealed to our awkward discomfort at one point) add to the sense that this prince, descended from kings, is accounted less than fully human because of an accident of birth.

There’s mastery in making an audience fall half in love with a self-confessed villain, leading us to collude with him in dreadful deeds, and then ultimately to feel compassion for someone who has proven himself a pitiless brute. And this is what the actor does with her final speech, lifted from Act V of Henry VI Part III: “I am myself alone.”

The collusion of the audience with Richard is the other brilliant strength of this production and the way it speaks of current politics. In the play program director Peter Evans says plainly: “For our times, this play is completely about Trump.”

The production that plays beautifully with the fourth wall, inviting the audience to egg Richard on as he slyly claws his way toward a crown. The cast make the most of the wicked humour and Mulvany is flawlessly, deliciously, blackly funny.

But like many who have voted for someone who’ll shake up the system – and who perhaps have found entertaining, even when their utterances are demonstrably untrue and contradictory – there comes a time when the sociopath on the throne isn’t funny anymore.

Despite achieving the crown and, it would seem, the love of the people, Richard can’t rest. Brutality follows brutality and the audience stops laughing.  One particular death, shown graphically on stage, renders his previous sass and wit very ugly after all.

I’ve spoken so much of Mulvany here, it’s obvious that she’s the linchpin of this production. She graces monstrous Richard with such humanity that even if you can’t forgive his grievous sins, you can feel compassion for him. Richard might hate the world, but nobody hates Richard more than Richard does.

Her jewel of a performance is ably supported, although the remainder of the cast shine less brightly. Sandy Gore as Queen Margaret curses her enemies with great gravity and intensity, and James Evans’ Buckingham provides an excellent counterbalance in his scenes with Mulvany.

There’s so much more to unpack, but it’s best to see it for yourself. Whether your interest is in the study of a very human man warped in soul and mind as well as body, or in the study of how power can be seized by the plausible from the complacent, you’ll be rewarded.

Whichever it is, the power of Kate Mulvany in the central role sustains the play. Melbourne audiences are rightly grudging with their standing ovations, so Mulvany richly deserves the one she was willingly given the night I saw her perform.

Richard 3 runs to 7 May 2017 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, visit its website.

Friday, 21 April 2017

By Train (and Train Ferry) to Copenhagen

I paid my own train fare from Lübeck to Copenhagen.

Last year I had an interesting surprise on my way from Germany to Denmark.

Having booked a first class train ticket to the Danish capital, I discovered upon boarding that the journey would include a sea crossing. And we wouldn't be changing trains on the way.

The trip began at Lübeck's main station, an attractive example of German railway architecture:

This was my first class seat. Deutsche Bahn's first class carriages tend to be arranged in a 2-1 configuration, so a solo traveller can get a comfortable spot with a table.

The countryside we passed was flat and green, with the odd crop of wind turbines. The exciting part, however, occurred when we reached Puttgarden.

This German town is a port on the the Fehmarnbelt, an 18km wide strait. On the other side is Rødby, on the island of Lolland in Denmark.

At the water's edge the train was guided toward a massive ferry which was waiting for us, and ran along tracks which extended inside the vessel's loading bay. Once we were snugly slotted between numerous trucks which were also making the crossing, we were requested to leave the train and go aloft via lifts or stairs.

It was a surreal sight, to step down and walk alongside a train parked among other vehicles inside a ferry:

Up top there was a beautiful view, though the hot days of the past week were starting to give way to chillier weather.

On the decks below there were shops, a cafe, a restaurant and even a dedicated lounge for the truckers. Quite a generous spread of diversions, given it was only a 45-minute crossing.

The short voyage over, we returned to the train, where once again I marvelled at the neighbouring trucks:

And a few hours later we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station:

So that was the end of my train ferry adventure. Sadly the train ferry crossing from Puttgarden to Rødby is due to be replaced by a tunnel in the next few years.

It'll cut the train journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen by 90 minutes, which is great; but it won't be half as much fun.

You can find find rail timetables and book tickets between Germany and Denmark at the Deutsche Bahn site.