Tearing Down the Fourth Wall

Pushing Up Daisies vs A Comedy of Errors

“O! I’m going to the theatre, Darling. The cinema is sooo plebeian. Mink or Chinchilla to guard against the cold?”

Nauseating!

“It’s a Brechtian interpretation. Perfect for my essay on comparative approaches to theatrical storytelling on the early 20th Century Stage.”

Alienating!

“Ohh, goody, there’s a hearing loop in the auditorium!”

Tragicomedy!

“Chookas, Sweetie. I’ll be in the fifth row, towards stage left.”

Familial, fidelity.

“How could he be cast over me?????”

No Comment.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

 

Theatre audiences haven’t always fallen into such broad categories. Look around an auditorium and you will see a refined bunch of people with seemingly singular taste. But they’re a small umbrella group. Of course, I’m not referring to the big musicals that seem to break out and draw people in – crossing boundaries of wealth, sub-cultural fixations and education, and beyond the community of theatre practitioners who love and support the craft and each other.

Spending two to five times as much as the price of going to the footy to see a drama or an opera, can be an edifying, fulfilling experience but it won’t provoke the same audience response and loud catharsis that the footy can. Oops! Isn’t the theatre supposed to be cathartic? Hasn’t that old Greek word entered the English language to describe what goes on in your heart when theatre is at its best? When it lifts you, makes you see yourself and realise that you have changed or can change or that somehow life can be better?

Catharsis in the theatre is a very personal thing. It quietly slips down your cheek when no one is watching.  It wasn’t always the case. In Shakespeare’s day it was caterwauled at the performers, its heckling parleyed back and forth between the auditorium and the stage along with a barrage of soft tomatoes, and it could take to the streets in insurrection.

I don’t think you have to go so far back as Shakespeare to find audiences so engaged with performances – perhaps only back to just before the advent of television. When theatre was the only choice of dramatic storytelling for all.

In modern presentations of plays directors and their troupes try to instigate some of that interaction.

Shakespeare wrote the asides, as if they were improvised, to address his audience directly into his texts. At the Pop-Up Globe the performers run through the groundlings’ standing pit, and the stalls. They invite the audience to photograph them mid performance; they hurl fruit into the audience and lewd staging is used to raise laughs and lower everyone’s inhibitions. The twenty-first century audience smiles in appreciation of their nod to historical performance peccadillos and laugh too, but say nothing in response.

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

What would happen if the audience did respond? and as often as they were invited to and, when they weren’t invited.

Over the past week I have attended two very different productions. Both were comedies. The first was Shakespeare’s classic, A Comedy of Errors in the Pop-Up Globe and the other was Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by the Hellenic Art Theatre. In the first production, the ensemble dared the audience to interact. In the second, they had to deal with it as a matter of course.

How to cook with no ingredients - feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

How to cook with no ingredients – feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by Γιωρου Γαλιτη,  under the direction of Stavros Economidis satirises stereotypes found in modern day Athenian society. It does this by a series of monologues presented as eulogies to the newly departed. Each eulogy is honest rather than diplomatic and more revealing about the living than the dead. Among the different types we hear from is a thief, a bishop, a socialite, a politician, a surgeon and, poignantly, a chef (Nick Tsioukanis) who advises how to cook for life under the austerity measures imposed on Greece in the wake of the economic crisis.

The stage is bare, dressed with only two coffins, diagonally pointing into centre stage. Each monologue is delivered between these two coffins beginning with the personification of death himself.

The nature of monologues is to be addressed to the audience directly as much if not more than the stage environment. Conventionally, the audience sits up and listens closer. In this production the audience is alert and engaged from the get go. As Death enters and requests mobile phones be switched off, the pre-show chatter is diverted and acknowledges his request. Chatter isn’t entirely quelled and remarks fly on every entrance by a subsequent performer.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

“Ah, here she is! It’s Evelyn.”

“Hmm, Stavros has lost weight.”

It’s clear there is a familiarity between the performers and their audience that has been accumulating over years of offering and attendance.

When each eulogy begins with an address to the deceased, someone has to voice the audience concerns that the latest performer has made a mistake. Clearly the dead man was named for someone else.

“Get it right, it’s so-and-so in that coffin.”

“No. It’s supposed to be a different person, now.”

As each monologue is given, audience members comment and add short anecdotes among themselves. It’s clear and loud that they can relate. Occasionally the performers were heckled within the context of the character that they were presenting.

Without even having to try, the fourth wall is down. Why did the Pop-Up Globe troupe have to put such an effort? Could it be that the answer lies with the audience?

The widow

The Widow (Evelyn Tsavales)

I’m apt to hypothesize that a lot has to do with the fact that the Hellenic Art Theatre have a relationship with their audience that spans many decades. There is a familiarity of faces across the fourth wall and also between the pews of the auditorium. They are not the disconnected group that attend the larger commercial theatres of the city. They share the migrant experience that binds them whether its mink on the shoulders or uni books in the backpack or personal connections to the company. There is security in this familiarity.  It’s something that I’m betting this audience shares with that of the audiences at the Globe in the age of Elizabeth and James. Then, there was the homogenous experience of being citizens of London who waited for the theatre for their drama where for decades HA Theatre’s audience waited for HA Theatre to be the sole provider of theirs.

A lot has to do with the comedy as well. When they offer Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women later in the year, I can’t imagine that there’ll be heckling.

With such an abundance of audience banter – how do the performers deal with it?

The General

The General (Stavros Economidis)

It would take a seasoned performer with the resilience of a street performer or swift repartee of a stand-up comedian to take it all in stride and keep the momentum of the written text going. That’s how I imagine the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, to have been like. The exercise of the same members of the ensemble, play after play in front of a familiar audience would insite asides, heckling and banter that Shakespeare never recorded.

The cast of the Hellenic Art Theatre take it all in stride and offer a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα is playing at the Mantouridion Greek Theatre at the Addison Rd Community Complex in Marrickville until 30th September. English surtitles are projected throughout the performance. Bookings: www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au

The Pop-Up Globe is offering Shakespeare in Moore Park from this September and October.

Advertisements

Pop-Up Globe: A Comedy of Errors

“The Best Night of Theatre Ever” – Australian Stage on Pop-Up Globe Melbourne

“This isn’t dusty Shakespeare. This is now. Alive. Like a Party”

“LIMITED SEASON, STARTS SEPT 5”

Read the hype. Are you excited? Do you absolutely have to go? If you miss the Sydney shows will the only alternative be flying the 21+ hours – if you’re lucky to get a direct flight – no stopovers – to London? Will your experience of Shakespeare ever be the same again? Following this train of thought I had to go. I had to go now – like the persistent urge to pee that’s never sated, my anticipation ran at a cross-legged stampede through my patience. Opening night wasn’t soon enough. It had to be, now, now, now.

So it was I saw a matinee preview and thus couldn’t enjoy the best night. What about the best day?

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe company have put the latest research from Sydney University into what the second Globe Theatre would have looked like into their construction of their demountable theatre. The second Globe Theatre stood longer than the first and would lave seen a greater number of performances of Shakespeare in the Jacobean Era before the closure of the Theatres in the 1630s. For this reason they tell us they chose the second Globe over the first to emulate. The groundlings stand before the thrust stage and each level of stalls provides seating with appropriate price fluctuations. Draughty and wet at times, towels brought along could be needed as well as a pair of sunnies to proof against the stealthy sunlight chasing through the scaffolded stalls. But the experience is about emulating that of the early 17th Century and it seems to do just that.

At eye level with the thrust stage: discovery space and entrances on the back wall, structural columns break up the performance space and scaffolding on the right supports the stalls for the audience.

Taking away all hype and advertising, if I were to stumble upon this theatre I’d be very, very excited. Much has been said of the lack of props and setting on the Shakespearean stage but their lack doesn’t justify performers having to work within a pool of light in a nebulous black void filled only by their costumes and presence, as we often see. That’s not the Jacobean stage at all. No, what is missed is that the entrance doors and discovery spaces – both the central double doors and the balcony alcoves over the stage proper – have roles to play. They conceal and they reveal. The columns of the entrance porch and the columns supporting the ceiling all break up the space and lend the actor their presence to be reimagined.

The Pop-Up Globe’s, Southampton’s Company, under the direction of Miles Gregory use all of these architectural features to bring to life the plot. They don’t limit their playing space to the stage but traipse through the stalls and ground entrances claiming all areas. They extend the reality of the play into the groundlings throwing produce and asides their way. What’s wonderful – fresh and classic at the same time – is their ability to step out of the reality of the plot and refer to themselves as players without breaking the illusion of the play. I imagine this to be experience with the other plays on offer over the next six weeks: Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice.

From the programme and publicity leaflet

A Comedy of Errors was a lot of fun. Few opportunities to extend the play with visual gags and slapstick were passed up. The cast have a lot of fun with it. Ryan Bennet and Blake Kubena as the twins Dromio are perfectly cast. They look enough alike to pass as twins but differ enough to be told apart. Both are wonderful comic actors who project the same incorrigible comic soul. Watching their antics is pure joy. Serena Cotton’s Luciana is exuberant, energetic and endearing. Romy Hooper’s gloriously uninhibited Adriana is sure to raise eyebrows.

A lot of the laughs come from visual extensions that move beyond the intension of the playwright. Shakespeare was a bawdy fellow if his scripts tell us anything about him. This is a bawdy interpretation and very funny but the physical extensions of the script don’t necessarily aid the understanding of the relationship between Adriana and her husband that Shakespeare intended. Shakespeare’s bawdy wit is obvious in his words. When his words dictated the visual gags, I found the humour more gratifying.

The action is set in the Ottoman court under whose jurisdiction Ephesus was in thrall when this play was written. Musicians aid the exotic setting with drums and flute. An arghile pipe stands with the band and wafts its incense through the air. Colourful costumes represent a mish-mash of cultures ruled by the Ottomans, Sufi’s, Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and the Duke who is dressed as a Turkish Pasha. The costumes are so exotic where the courtesan is dressed as a 1960’s socialite and Aegeon wears a modern-day con’s coveralls I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. But just a little.

The Pop-Up Globe is here for the next 6 weeks. To experience Shakespeare in this replica environment is a real treat. As promised, The Comedy of Errors was alive, like a party – a well dusted one. It’s left me itching to see more.

Online Bookings can be made at http://www.ticketmaster.com.au/popupglobe

The beautiful canopy/ceiling above the stage, with the upper level discovery alcoves and balcony.

Review: Tales of Hoffmann

Rockdale Opera Company

August 18-26, 2018, Rockdale Town Hall

Musical Director: Luke Spicer

Director: David Brennan

Looking for a good night out? Boo! Did I scare you? No? How ’bout…”OPERA!!!!” Scared now? What about, “Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann!” Yes? Edgar Allan Poe, better? No? Hoffmann is scarier – his stories have been operatically realised by the great romantic composer, Jacques Offenbach.

Okay, “OPERA! HOFFMANN! OFFENBACH!” Now you’ve got to be scared!

Mention a good night out and most people won’t immediately think of the Opera. It’s that thing that happens in that funny looking building on the Harbour. It’s performed in a foreign language. It’s expensive. Everyone speaks with an apple in their mouth and they’re just the audience. And the sound is…different – sonorous singing complementing a rich instrumental accompaniment – not the usual demonstrative rapping or tuneful skipping out of lyrics meant to be bopped to. It’s decidedly not pedestrian and not easily accessible.

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Heymish PR

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Oscar Smith

But what if it was? What if it were in English and each act opened with a dramatic introduction setting the scene about to be sung? What if it was offered in suburban Rockdale, with plenty of free-parking and easy public transport? What if Musical Director, Luke Spicer, presented a superb orchestra to uplift highly trained and talented singers? What if the Director brought with him the experience of years as a principal at Opera Australia as David Brennan has? What if the core of the Rockdale Town Hall resonated with the song of disparate lyrical organs expressing their joy in concert with each other, in concert with Offenbach?

It would be a shame to miss it.

The Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann, offers all of this. If you haven’t experienced opera before, this production is all too easy. An act by act synopsis is offered in the programme and just enough time and ample lighting to comfortably read it in the scene changes. Adjusting your ear to the style of singing may take a few moments – like accustoming yourself to Shakespearean English –  but it’s worth it.

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Heymish PR

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Oscar Smith

The poet, Hoffmann, walked away from his creative muse to pursue love with disastrous and macabre results. Three of his exploits detail his bizarre infatuations: with a life-size, battery-operated doll; a Venetian enchantress who steals his reflection and hopes to steal his soul; and the lovely Antonia who loves him but risks her health when she shares his music with him.

Benjamin Oxley’s Hoffman is sympathetic and real. The warmth of his voice and the sureness of his pace and actualization endear us to his plight. Camilla Wright mesmerises with her realisation of the doll, Olympia. Her robotic movements and painted smile fool few beside the lovelorn Hoffman. There is much to admire in her delivery, she enchants with her acting and musical humour.

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Heymish PR

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Oscar Smith

Barbara Jin, portrays Nicklausse, a student who the Muse has charged with looking out for Hoffmann. She physicalises her character’s emotions roundly, communicating her state of mind emphatically without hamming. Ray Dubber, a company veteran, delights as the near-deaf servant, Franz. He has a larrikin’s face for comedy and is a delight to watch, a delight to listen to.

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Heymish PR

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Oscar Smith

Opera poses many challenges for its performers: they must sing the right notes; carry the tune at volume; and bring across their particular character. In a couple of instances towards the end of the second half, the strength of the full orchestra posed a challenge for the performers. But the feelings were there.

This opera was unfinished by Offenbach at his death. We are told that the act in Venice was left the least developed. Dramatic tension within this act could perhaps have been better utilised with a bigger delivery of the dastardly Dapertutto, the purveyor of reflections and souls – perhaps from costuming or make-up? Perhaps the blocking of his movement and interactions?

The costumes are evocative of the early 20th Century and aid in setting the production. The set itself is stripped back and striking – a lit backcloth and black silhouettes creating the Tavern and Venice effectively.

All in all, the Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann is a good night out, even for the uninitiated. Very enjoyable.

Tickets can be booked online. Phone bookings: 02 8197 1796

Hurry, the run closes August 26!

 

Review: I’ll be Back Before Midnight

The Guild Theatre, Rockdale
Director: Jennifer Gilchrist

This was first published in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, online edition.

The coals are lit, the broth is brewing, the Guild Theatre cauldron is fed a dash of Beetlejuice, a flower from the attic and a sprinkle of Sherlock Holmes to offer up Peter Colley’s international smash, I’ll be Back Before Midnight. This black comedy, sans satire, is seasoned with a little drama, plenty of plot twists and a revelry in horror movie tropes.

I'll be back by Midnightcouch

Lani Crooks as Jan Stapleton and Robert Mason as George Willowby, photo courtesy of the Guild Theatre

Jan Sanderson (Lani Crooks) is a neurotic wife who has just been discharged from mental care after a nervous breakdown. In spite of her anxiety, her husband, mild mannered archaeologist, Greg (George Gleeson), takes her to the country. It’s Jan’s hope that they will reinvigorate their marriage. Laura (Natalija Karna) arrives with a mind to renew her relationship with her brother as well. George (Robert Mason) is the hands-on landlord/caretaker with an incorrigible black sense of humour, an easy yarn and a wicked laugh, who checks in on them from time to time.

Jan and sister-in-law, Laura (Natalija Karna)

Jan and sister-in-law, Laura (Natalija Karna), photo courtesy the Guild Theatre

What begins, somewhat, as a psychological drama soon develops into a thriller as we question where the action is really taking place – in reality or in Jan’s head? Is her sister-in-law really playing with her mind? What’s really going on between the siblings? Natalija Karna’s Laura is needy and conniving. George Gleeson cruises along evenly as a likable Greg, until… da, dah, daaaah – no spoilers. Robert Mason embodies the rustic farmer with country charm from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He has a lot of fun with George and so do we.

Archaeologist, Greg Sanderson (George Gleeson) and his landlord, George Willowby (Robert Mason), photo courtesy The Guild Theatre

Archaeologist, Greg Sanderson (George Gleeson) and his landlord, George Willowby (Robert Mason), photo courtesy The Guild Theatre

Painted in sepia, Bill Ayers’ and Jim Farrow’s set design is deceptively ordinary. This 80’s living room comes alive with clever sound effects and various lighting techniques that complement each other to offer the kind of haunted house you’d experience watching an old movie. The house extends past the stage with exits in the usual places but each closed door or drawn curtain holds expectations as the house and performance gradually comes alive with suspense and sinister purpose.

The sound effects pervade the house spreading unease. Mundane noises, aptly timed and curtly delivered, are incorporated to help put you on the edge of your seat, and unexpected exits and entrances to jolt you out of them. The central sliding doors become a focus of suspense in the second act as Lani Crooks hits her stride when the canard woven around Jan begins to fray.

If you like haunted houses, old horror movies and plot twists you’ll enjoy, I’ll be Back Before Midnight. It’s playing at the Guild Theatre, Walz St, Rockdale throughout August, closing on September 1. Tickets can be booked on ph: 9521 6358 or online http://www.guildtheatre.com.au/2018-season/ill-be-back-before-midnight/

img_2956.jpg

The Sound of Music

Bankstown Theatre Company

July 27- August 5, 2018
Bryan Brown Theatre, Cnr Rickard Rd & Chapel St
Director: Glenda Kenyon; Musical Director: Ian Buchanan

Julie Andrews’ and Christopher Plummer’s most beloved musical, The Sound of Music has arrived at the Bryan Brown Theatre. Wait, shouldn’t that be Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music? So you would think, however, so ingrained are the portrayals of Maria and Captain Von Trapp by Andrews and Plummer that any production since that movie has to deal with many expectations: how the cast should look, act and sound. But how do you meet expectations when casting requires strong, lyrical voices and chemistry between the players?

BW_low res

Maria (Lauren Eade), the Captain (Peter Sahlani) and the Von Trapp family children

Director, Glenda Kenyon, has been gifted with the considerable vocal talents of Lauren Eade as Maria. With eyes open you may see Eade but close them and you’ll hear Julie Andrews. Eade’s stage presence charms throughout the 3 hour production. When the children, pining for their missing governess finally hear her make her return, their joy is easily transferred to the audience. In a production that translates the iconic scenes from the movie onto the stage the children’s delightful choreography will cuckoo childhood memories from the cobwebs. The children shine.

bw2_low res

Lauren Eade as Maria and Dale Selsby as the Mother Abbess

The sound of voices are the strength of this production. Peter Sahlani plays his emotions on his sleeve while his voice is a nice complement to Eade’s. Dale Selsby encapsulates the Mother Abbess – her still authority and her compassion. Her characterization is flawless. The deep resonance of Daniel Rae’s (Rolf) singing is powerful as it’s unexpected. I wanted to hear from him.

Liesl_Rolf low res

Courtney Emmas as the 16 year old Leisl and Daniel Rae as her beau, Rolf.

There are a few surprises for those who haven’t seen the stage show before. Did you know that the Baroness and Uncle Max sing? Taking license from this difference between stage and screen, Simon Fry’s Uncle Max is a distinct departure from the austere impresario you may expect. Melissa Goman’s calculating Elsa sheds some of the icy chic for a song and dance with Max. Generally, the production pays homage to the movie from the characterisation of the nuns to the look of final scene in the abbey garden.
It’s an ambitious production. The Bryan Brown theatre, for those who haven’t patronized it before, is a comfortable, air-conditioned modern, facility with ample underground parking in the heart of Bankstown. The stage sports a wide apron of seating that keeps the audience close and performances are afforded a certain amount of leeway for intimacy despite its capacity. However, the stage itself is not deep. The staging and cast size of this production exceeds the limitations of that depth. The operatic scope of the set would have better been realized on a bigger stage.
Fans of the movie will find much to enjoy in this family classic. I challenge anyone to see it and not have joyful echoes of,  “Doe a deer …” ringing around their thoughts for days afterwards.

Matinees and evenings showing at the Bryan Brown Theatre, Cnr Rickard Rd and Chapel St, Bankstown until Sunday August 5th.

Tickets are available online or by phone: 0481 869 858

Photo Credits

HeyMish PR

A version of this review, catered for the St George and Sutherland Shire communities was first published in the online Leader.

 

That’s NOT Baklava!

img_2860


Traditional Greek Baklava – walnut and cinnamon, The Sweet Spot. Patisserie, Randwick

“That’s NOT Baklava!”

I don’t know who was more mortified – the bakery serving Sydney traditional Greek baklava since at least 1962, my mother-in-law who was the recipient of the, to-her-mind, transparently absurd suggestion, or me.

Non-plussed but armed with the fortitude that the costumer was always right even when they were wrong, the baker was very politely going to right her customer’s wrong.

“This is how baklava is made all over Greece.”

“But is not real Baklava. Real baklava is from Mytilene.”

“Of course Mytilene makes delicious baklava but isn’t it just local variation?”

“Hmpft…” My mother-in-law pointed to a box. “Has butter?”

The baker subtly tilted her head.

“Pft… Walnuts?”

Another tilt of the head.

“Pfffffft…That’s not Baklava!”

Authentic Turkish Baklava with Pistachio, Mastika Ice Creamery, Belmore

At a family gathering a close friend with a fine nose for flavour and a passion for postmodern cuisine brought over her latest culinary accomplishment – hazelnut and rose water baklava. Oops! I forgot to warn her not to offer said mother-in-law any.

“That’s NOT Baklava!” rang through my kitchen. Profuse apologies, red faces and awkward silence followed. Unfortunately the discomfort wasn’t memorable enough for the offense not to be repeated or me to issue warnings at the front door. The next time almost caused an international incident.

Armed with the only true baklava, my mother-in-law offered her signature dessert to another baklava aficionado.

“Baklava!!!! That’s NOT Baklava. Real baklava comes from Turkey, from the town of Baklava!”

“Not Turkey, Mytilene!!!@!@!!”

That was it, I had to hit Google. I had already enjoyed the light delight of Lebanese Baklava, or more correctly, Baklawa as it’s pronounced in Arabic, but I wasn’t aware of its spread across the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. I found surprising mention and recipes for Egyptian Baklava, Bulgarian Baklava, Jewish Baklava, Morrocan Baklava, Iranian/Persian Baghlava and Armenian Baklava.

Traditional Lebanese Baklawa with Cashews, Ibrahim Pastries, Rockdale

Historical hearsay is rife regarding where it originated. Was it Armenia? Persia? Greece? or in the Ottoman Empire? Local stories and cultural beliefs are full of bias fueled by modern day nationalism, but is there any truth to any of them?

Armenia, the first kingdom to install Christianity as its state religion claims baklava as a sweet tied to its Christian Easter lent – 40 layers of filo for the 40 day fast. 49 CE is the date of Armenia’s conversion and also its inception of Baklava. Did it enter Armenian cuisine the same way the Gospel’s did – via Jerusalem? If so, then logically baklava originated in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it’s a dessert found throughout the Arab world without determining an origin. This makes sense when Morocco and Egypt are brought into the equation. Does this then make it a Persian sweet? The Persian Empire extended throughout the Middle East but didn’t quite get to Morocco, but the Caliphate did. Perhaps baklava isn’t as old as Christianity.

Clearly the bulk of websites discussing the matter favour the Ottoman Empire with its origin. One website credits the kitchens of the Turkish Sultanate in Istanbul with the development of a similar Ancient 8thC BCE Assyrian sweet into Baklava. However, with apologies to my guest, the internet wasn’t able to produce a town called Baklava in Turkey but the sound of the word, Baklava brings Turkish to mind.

Could the Ottoman Empire be a short odds guess? The repetition throughout all of the recipes and websites of the Greek word for leaf-thin layered dough, filo, led me to ask whether it may have a Byzantine origin? That Empire did reach Morocco but not since the 6thC C.E.

Wikipedia tells us that the oldest recorded origin sweet for baklava was made by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Placenta is mentioned by Cato and is believed to have developed in Roman/Byzantine kitchens before being refined by the Ottomans. It goes further in saying that on the Island of Lesbos there exists a baklava type sweet that is still called Placenta…Lesbos. Of all of the Greek Isles, why Lesbos???@!!@! Lesbos, aka, Mytilene, my mother-in-law’s home island! I ran it past my mother-in-law. Yes, there are some villages on the island that call baklava, placenta.

Just because the Romans documented a ” juvenilia” version in the 2ndC B.C.E. does the present day sweet without its key ancient ingredient, cheese, make it true Baklava? The Mytileneans have kept the Roman name for it alive but removing the cheese shows that it’s undergone some development,

If I had to pick a culture that has embraced this sweet and really celebrated its variety it would have to be Turkey. They will offer you pistachio, cashew, walnut, tahini and molassas, chocolate, sour cherry, apple and cinnamon, rhubarb…etc. varieties. Can they all be considered baklava?

Sour Cherry baklava with baklava ice-cream on the side - Hakiki, Enmore Rd Enmore

Sour Cherry Baklava with Baklava Ice-cream on the side – Hakiki, Enmore Rd, Enmore

Ok, so my mother-in-law’s baklava may have the earliest recorded roots. I’ll admit that. It doesn’t mean that everyone else’s baklava isn’t real baklava – just different. I’ll have them all with my Greek, er, Turkish, er, Lebanese, er….. extra short, black, muddy coffee.

Which is the real baklava…baklawa…baghlava? Aren’t they all unique as the variations in their name? But where did it originate?

Well…

And the moral of the story is, don’t ever argue with your mother-in-law. Er, maybe, just don’t argue with mine.

A big thank you to my fb friends and friends general with their suggestions of what baklava should be and where to find the best baklava in Sydney – Eleni, Costa, Cindy, Heidi, Sophia, Theo, Esen, Stella T, Georgia, Daniela, and Nic.

Revisiting the Nemes Crown

It’s been over two years since I began making the first Nemes crown to interest my son in Ancient Egyptian history. Since then the posts on my thoughts and process have been viewed many times more than I could have anticipated. Initially, they were getting too few views to persist with, but I did. I was entrenched in a 12 hour a day job in hospitality and believed that if I didn’t keep blogging that I’d lose whatever ground I had made with it and perhaps forget how to write. I had to publish something. Reading over them the other day I cringed. What has made them so popular?

IMG_1148

I ended up making two crowns as I wasn’t happy with the first and blogging about both of them. What intrigued me at the time was the difference between Tutankhamen’s crown and other King/Pharaoh’s. There was the uraeus and vulture coupling at the forehead and the ponytail at the back. I encountered many considerations in making them sit evenly:-

  • should I use a support for the fabric – as starching fabric didn’t come into use until about the 16th century CE in Europe
  • ensuring that the stripes presented correctly
  • ensuring that the shoulder lappets stood perpendicular to the face and sat on the shoulders
  • ensuring the lappets didn’t flap
  • and an unexpected one, making sure that the crown didn’t ride back.

I had to consider the possibility that the golden crown was a figurative representation of a religious idea – that the pharaoh shone golden light. The problem was in choosing a fabric – what colour should the stripes be – golden thread and applique would not come into use until the time of the Romans.

With all of these considerations, wouldn’t it all be easier if it was made out of gold? And if it was to be gold why didn’t they just bury it with him when the time came?

Two years down the track and I’m faced with another possibility. Recently there has been an announcement that the artefacts from King Tutankhmen’s tomb will be making their way Down Under in 2021. Very exciting news – more work for me. You see, if I were to take my son to see the exhibition wearing either of the Nemes Crowns that I made, he would look ridiculous. He has out grown them already. Twelve years old when I made them, he is now nearly fifteen. His age coincides with that of King Tut when he reigned. If Tutankhamen wore a linen Nemes crown then several must have been made for him over the course of his reign. I wonder whether there will be a few in the exhibition if any at all.

I hypothesized at the time that perhaps King Tut never wore a cloth Nemes Crown. As a child growing up, wouldn’t it be convenient to have an official pharaonic mask and crown that someone else could wear on ceremony for him? How awe-inspiring could a child-king be? Could this be the idea that has inspired interest in visitors to this blog?

Or could it be questions about the coupling of the vulture and uraeus. Looking at many images through Lionel Casson’s Time-Life Books, Ancient Egypt,  and confirming my suspicions with google image searches, and Pinterest searches I noticed that the vulture on his Nemes Crown only appears on his funerary artifacts – something that he couldn’t have arranged for himself. Why would his successor, Ay, have instigated this? Was it politically motivated to present a united Egypt – each animal representing a different half of Egypt? Did it have more to do with added protection for the boy-king in the afterlife?

What I’ve taken away from the exercise which saw me comparing crowns from different eras of Egyptian history is the belief that in the Old Kingdom Nemes crowns were linen and the king didn’t necessarily have to wear a uraeus. By the time of the New Kingdom –  I will believe until I get to that exhibition in 2021 – the uraeus was entrenched in the presentation of the Pharoah and his crown was made of gold.

An index to all of my Nemes Crown related posts appears at the end of the post, King Tut’s Crown: A Lapidary Jeweller’s Perspective.

My interview with History of Egypt podcaster, Dominic Perry, appears here. I was listening to this wonderful podcast while I was crafting and researching my ideas. Joyce Tydlesley’s Tutankhamen’s Curse and Carl Roebuck’s World of Ancient Times were also very informative and thought provoking.

Now my challenge is to write something just as interesting, if not more.

Ancient, Byzantine or 70s domestic fallout

Artefacts can pop up anywhere in Greece – sometimes even digging up the back garden or snagged on a fishing line. I imagine the same can be said of many countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their earth has experienced the ebb and flow of successive civilisations. Discarded or lost, daily indispensables of yesteryear when resurfaced become mementos of a disconnected past.

Catching up with my widowed grand-aunt many, many years ago she gifted me with the fragment remains of a broken bowl. To remember my grand-uncle by, she had said. It came to him on the bank of the ancient canal in Potidea. He had this great spot there where the fish could be relied on for a meal or two. Occasionally his line brought up curiosities that weren’t edible. Take this one, she said. I thanked her for her wonderful gift and took her word that the fragment was old – αρχαίο and precious.

img_2759


Top view of my artefact

But how far a throwback is it really? Snagged in a canal built by the Ancient Macedonian King, Cassander; fortified by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (c.482-565CE); reinforced by the then Byzantine overlord of Thessaloniki, John VII Palaioligos in the early 15th Century CE; and finally redug in the 20th Century, my memento’s hiding place has experienced the traverse of many epochs and today graces a lovely beachside town but when is it from? Questions.

What can be gleaned from just looking at it?

So, I’m of the mind that any pre-existing style can be copied by later generations. I needed to find the earliest possible example of its style to limit how old it could be but not forgetting that its style could have been copied as lately as yesterday.

Fragment showing foot of the fragment.


Fragment showing foot of the fragment.

It’s made from a red clay. It has an incised design etched into its surface that is brown among larger planes of highly glazed ochre/mustard. The design is floral displaying rosettes/spirals and leaves arranged in a cross pattern with arcs opening away from the central motif. I suspect that it’s a repeating pattern but the entire motif is lost. Its most striking curiosity is that it’s glazed only on the inside. The outside of the bowl is both undecorated and unglazed.

Its earthy tones remind me of dinnerware from the 1970s – but they were glazed inside and out. The lack of an outside glaze would be frowned upon by a modern day housekeeper. Fine as an ornament for dusting, how many cycles in the dishwasher could it go without cracking or discolouring? And if not the dishwasher – how well would the outside of it clean after being stacked on top of other such bowls with the curried remains of dinner potently leaving their mark? With modern-day obsessions with hygiene and high standards of cleanliness, unless it was made for decoration I think it must be genuinely old.

Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.
Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.

Beneath the foot there is no,”Made in China” sticker attached with super adherent. Nor is there a country of origin, Greece, Hellas or anywhere else stamped and baked into the ceramic foot. Nor is there any monogram or maker’s mark as are on other byzantine ceramic fragments on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

It doesn’t look Ancient Greek and its patterning isn’t intricate nor colourful enough to bring Ottoman Iznik ceramics to mind.  So I targeted Byzantine ceramics for my search. The design looks like sgraffito, a technique used by Byzantine potters but its colour is baffling. The majority of sgraffito Byzantine bowls and plates I found on pinterest had a cream background with splashes of green and yellow pigment.

Finally something caught my eye. The reminiscent but unbroken bowl is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is described thus on Pinterest:

Red earthenware covered with a white slip with incised decoration of five gyrating bands within a medallion under a yellow glaze.  Found in a tomb at Kertch in the Crimea. Byzantine (Probably Crimea) 12th – 13th Century. Museum Number 141-1908

How does a bowl from the Crimea turn up in Northern Greece? Could a trade vessel have gone down the Bosporus through the Dardanelles, the Thracian Sea and thence to Thessaloniki dropping its load or some of it in the canal? But why would a foreign vessel pass so close to the mainland? According to Wikipedia, Russian and Serbian Orthodox Monks/Scribes moved to the nearby holy mountain, Mt Athos, in the 1070s AD – a reason to be carrying Crimean crockery so close to Potidea?

The Victoria and Albert Museum have other examples of Byzanitine sgraffito worked bowls with this colouring that hail from Constantinople in the 12th – 14th centuries. They can be seen here (13th-14th C) and here (12th-13th C). Perhaps it isn’t so old and exotic as the Crimea, 1000 years ago. Perhaps it is only 800 years old and from Constantinople? Looking further across Pinterest I came across this look of ceramic made in Thessaloniki in the 14th century, pinned from the British Museum’s Byzantine Legacy collection.

Where and when and by whom was it made?

I’m satisfied that it’s style is probably Byzantine from sometime between and including the 12th-14th Centuries. Of course it may have been made anytime after that, copying the older style. It looks closest to the Crimean bowl in colour, texture and etching style so although Constantinople and Thessaloniki are closer in proximity to Potidea where it was found, I can’t help thinking of it as Crimean. The fact that it doesn’t bare a monogram hints that it may not have been thrown in a renowned ceramics workshop. It was made for daily use by the Byzantine everyman.

Whether it is just a 70s recreation or truly is a piece of medieval crockery I’m really pleased to have it. When next I’m in Greece, I might have to make the time to go fishing in Potidea. I may just snag myself another mystery – no crock.

My Pinterest enquiry:

https://www.pinterest.com.au/craftytheatre/ancientmedievalbyzantine-pottery/

Review: Snoopy!!! The Musical

This review appears in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.

MMS_SNOOPY_NathanFarrow_LouisVinciguerra_LexiHutchinson

Snoopy, The Musical opened at the Sutherland Memorial School of the Arts, June 15. Starring Nathan Farrow as Snoopy, Louis Vinciguerra as Charlie Brown and Lexi Hutchinson as Lucy

Peanuts! Get your peanuts! Peanuts and Hot Dogs, er, Hot Dog, er – make that Cool Beagle, the coolest beagle, Snoopy!!! Miranda Musical Society are reaching out to Peanuts fans with their latest musical. The Sunday comic strip comes to life with larger than life performances from its all-singing, all-dancing cast.

It’s been awhile since the beloved gang have featured in weekly print. And long gone are the years where a major holiday didn’t go unmarked by a Snoopy movie on TV . Remember the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Beagle? It didn’t matter your age, it seemed that there was always something to engage every member of the family. But that was a while ago. How does Snoopy!!! stack up today?

Leaving aside preconceptions and treating the plot – or more correctly series of comic strip stories – as that of a loosely strung together overview of the lives of a group of primary school kids, what do we have?

MMS_SNOOPY_PaulTuohy

Paul Tuohy as the blanket carrying, thumb sucking peanut, Linus.

Portrayed by a cast too young to have been inundated with Snoopy comics, cartoons and plush toys, the talented cast do an admirable job. If something of nuance is lacking it’s made up for in vitality and energy. The pace of the show skips along. There is never a quiet moment yet Louis Vinciguerra’s poignant portrayal of Charlie Brown comes across through all the clamber of the Peanut’s troupe’s emotions. If Charlie Brown’s losing to Snoopy and  his life situations has been taken for granted for generations, it isn’t in this production.

Snoopy!!! has a talented cast of singer-dancer-actors. Nathan Farrow as Snoopy oozes cool with his affected nonchalance. Alexis Hutchison as Lucy and Tamana Rita as Sally Brown are bounding bubbles of exuberance. Paul Tuohy’s lovable Linus engages the audience. Jess Punch lays out Peppermint Patty’s sensitivity and offers it to you as she looks you and Charlie Brown in the eye. But if there is anyone to fear who may steal the show, it has to be Blake Bennett as Woodstock. His portrayal is part clown, part mime, all joy.

MMS_SNOOPY_JessPunch

Jess punch as Peppermint Patty minus the iconic auburn hair and baseball cap

Filling the orchestra pit is an ensemble of percussionists, keyboards and guitars. This is a live show. Musical Director, Adam Foster and Choreographer, Madison Larsen have helped create a rich offering. Erin Macbeth’s costumes help distinguish the characters immediately, despite their head styling. Bob Peet’s set design is a mash-up of comic art, Charles Schulz’s iconic dog-house and those generic Playschool cubes. Comic images light up the backcloth and the whitewashed wings cleverly reset a scene with a new flood of bright colour in Loki McCorquordale’s complementing lighting design.

Will today’s kids like it? They may not recognise the characters. Punning, Snoopy in-jokes and 20th Century references may go over their heads. What will appeal to tweens and up is the song, dance and humour. Essentially what kids (and adults) need doesn’t change. What made Snoopy popular in the first place was the ability of the Peanuts gang to reach out with their stories. Tim Dennis’ production does this with panache.

Snoopy!!! is playing at the Sutherland Memorial School of Arts, just across the road from Sutherland train station and commuter carpark, until June 24. Tickets are available online

How ancient is αρχαιο ?

Aρχαιο is a word bandied about in Greece a lot. I don’t mean by historians or archaeologists but by the lay person  It’s a glamorous word. It’s impressive and esoteric and marks a place, statue or artefact as important. Technically it means ancient but does it always mean Ancient Greece?

IMG_0977

Tower ruin outside Olinthos – it’s ancient, or is it?

Greece has a very long history of habitation by people expressing different cultures: pagan, Christian, Muslim.  Wherever you visit, if you indulge the locals they will regale you with stories about their place’s monuments, topography, churches, ruins etc. Not all of the ruins are well documented. Their history may be filed away in an archive somewhere with nary a signpost to explain why a tumbled down tower has been allowed to stand. A local yarn may be as good as you’ll get.

Chalkidiki in northern Greece has many towers I’m told. On the road to the αρχαιο, yes-if-really-is ancient, archaeological site at Olinthos stands the recalcitrant ruins of a tower. I’m told that it’s αρχαιο.

I’m also told that once upon a time it was the lookout tower for Olinthos. Sentries would be posted atop to watch the sea for pirates or foreign invaders. Sounds convincing? Hmm… I found no mention of it in all of the information on display at the archaeological site. Maybe it’s not that much, αρχαιο?

I’m told that, once upon another time when a polis was being attacked, the queen was spirited away through a subterranean tunnel system that ran from the city to the coast via this tower. But which queen, in which era? And how long was the tunnel system? Was Olinthos the starting point or was a settlement further inland? And did the tunnel reach the tower all the way at Nea Fokeas?

DSCN0285


Tower overlooking Nea Fokeas, Chalkidiki – is it ancient? byzantine?

Did you know that it’s said that one αρχαιο king actually buried his treasure beneath one of the towers? Truly, what I’m telling you sounds a little far fetched even to me, especially when you consider that night, that summer, when Johnny was coming back from the club and came off his motorbike right through that lower window. Johnny said that the tower was full of hard dirt – his head can testify to that. No treasure, no tunnel. Local lore needs to satisfy the ever expectant tourist.

If the locals can speculate, why not I? So…if you were to light a beacon on the battlements of the tower at Nea Fokeas could a sentry atop the Olinthos Tower see it? And if not Olinthos what about that Byzantine ruin in the beach at Potidea? And from Olinthos could it be seen further inland by Galatista? Could these towers have been part of a beacon relay from Thessaloniki to Constantinople?

Leo the Mathematician (c.790-869CE) was said to have developed the beacon system that spanned Asia Minor from Constantinople to the Cilician Gates and warned the capital of an invasion within an hour of its sighting. Leo was the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki between 840-843 CE – why wouldn’t he instigate a warning system for his city, the second city of the Empire? Theassaloniki does have that old, dare I say αρχαιο, iconic White Tower – what more could it be appropriate for? Could all of these towers be that old? Where are the other towers in Chalkidiki?

When in doubt consult the internet.  The White Tower of Thessaloniki is an Ottoman construction over the site of a Byzantine tower mentioned in medieval literature. The tower at Olinthos is the Tower of Mariana and displays a cross in the configuration of its brickwork, on its far side. And it’s Byzantine. No mention of who Mariana was, if she was a queen, when she lived nor whether she had to escape a siege through a tunnel. As it stands it was built in 1374 – too late for Leo.

The tower at Nea Fokeas is also Byzantine, St Paul’s, after the monastery complex on which it stands . It also overlooks the sea. Did St Paul visit it? When was it built? Is it connected by subterranean passage or merely styling to Mariana’s Tower? Built originally in 1407, it too, is too late to be from Leo.

The ruins in the beach at Potidea may or may not be part of Byzantine fortifications built in 1407 by Ioannis VII Palaiologos – the same year as St Paul’s! The other tower further inland at Galatista is also Byzantine. Together, could they all have been part of a later warning system?

Speculation, hearsay and local lore – heart warming hearth stories feeding the need of history devouring holiday-makers! They should probably be taken with a draught of ale, mug of hot chocolate or dragged out slowly overlooking an Aegean beach with a bottomless frappe on the table.

Occasionally local traditions can inform history. Have you heard the one about baklava?