2. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

Continuing from my previous post looking at the secular art in Byzantine ceramics of the 11th-14th centuries CE.. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post would be Byzantines at play – hunter/falconer; a dancer; and a lady at sport.

The Hunter/Hawker

The Hunter Hawker ceramic bowl, From George and Nefeli Giabras Collection, The Bank of Cyprus Collection

Held in the Bank of Cyprus Collection, this 14th Century bowl from Cyprus depicts a young gallant in a field surrounded by birds. There is a zig-zag pattern of leaves around the rim of the bowl reinforcing the outdoors nature of the scene. The field is indicated by the flowers around him. The birds, were are told, are either his prey – falcons, if he is at play, or scavengers eyeing out carrion. I lean towards the idea that he is hunting for sport – falconing? as there is no illustration of carrion anywhere in the image. He bares aloft his bardoukion – Byzantine mace- and most likely a seistron in his other hand. The seistron would be rattled to attract the prey.

His clothing is sumptuous in its decoration and the birds surrounding him are similarly rendered. To me, the birds decorated so, indicate a belonging with the male figure. They appear kept by him – likely trained for the hunt. I can’t help thinking of the sport of hawking/falconing. I imagine that the gallant attracted his game with the seistron, clobbered it with a fling of the bardoukion and awaited its retrieval by the birds. Perhaps my imagination is running amok like his prey in the field?

 

The Dancer

Dancing Figure An Athenian Ceramic reproduced with the kind permission of the Benaki Museum in Athens, Copyright, Benaki Museum, Athens

This Athenian bowl from 11th – 12th Century, held in the Benaki Museum, depicts a dancer mid performance. To my mind in her hands she clicks together pairs of metallic zills or wooden spoons that have been used in  Greek folkloric dancing like castanets. The ball on the other side of her is a prop that belly dancers today incorporate in their choreography. The patterning of her blouse is a standard motif that has been used in many of these ceramic illustrations that haven’t depicted dancers – e.g., wedding bowls. Regardless, it calls to my mind rows of coins that would shimmer when she shook. The flaring out of her skirt in both directions evokes the movement of her hips taking it there. Immodestly, her skirt falls just below her knees, like male attire in her world – something excused by her occupation. Perhaps she is dancing a precursor of today’s tsifteteli?

Contrary to my modern idea of the sexuality of dance, her curly hair is confined within the strictures of a headdress in the shape of a halo. Perhaps she isn’t a seductive professional dancer at all, but simply a girl who likes to dance.

 

The Sportswoman

Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus' globorum?

Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus’ globorum? held by the Famagusta Museum, Cyprus. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Michael J. Fuller


The third bowl is Cypriot. I came across it on the St Louis Community College website and am reproducing it with the kind permission of Professor of Anthropology, Dr Michael J Fuller. It fascinates me in that I can’t make out exactly what the woman is doing.

The floor length gown and restrictive coiffure define her sex. She holds a ball dangling on the end of a some kind of holding stand in one hand which she is poised to hit with a baton/bat in the other. What sort of sport is she playing? Did it involve any other players and if so how many? Two as in shuttlecock of perhaps more as in croquet? Perhaps it was something akin to Erasmus’ globurum – that she could have perhaps played alone, hitting a wooden ball and seeing how far it would go?

These have been my pick of three Byzantines at leisure. What I’ve found gratifying in trying to understand what’s being depicted here is that I’ve been able to refer to my  understanding of Western medieval history or my personal experience with Greek folk culture to try and get a connection to the past they represent. You may look at them and find something wholly individual in them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Previously in this short series:

1.Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

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My Fiction

Sci-fi, romance? No, fantasy. No, not really. Romantic – sort of – science fiction, fantasy with space travel but not with space ships, with sea shells – well, not quite. Ammonites, space travel with ammonites – fossils of prehistoric organisms. But they are more than just organisms. They are curious, adventurous and a wee bit unethical.

During the lead up to Christmas and New Year I’ll be posting four instalments of a novella that I’ve written that coincides with the holiday period and the major focus of this blog – the theatre. It’s set in the Sydney CBD and railway tunnels and, drum roll… Sydney’s subterranean, Theatre Royal.

It’s a work of fiction that I’ve drawn from my experiences working in stage blacks as well as taking in the sights, exhibitions and traffic of my city. I call it, Ghosting Europa, as in the moon orbiting Jupiter. As each new post is blogged out, I’ll be transferring each instalment to the tab in the horizontal bar above, Ghosting Europa. I hope you like it.

If not, no fear, the new year I’ll be questioning history and theatre with my usual appetite.

3. Community Theatre: The Turtle and The Empty Stage

Having a Set vs the Bare Stage

Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Putting up a stage show can be a costly operation. However, the time true motto – beg, borrow, steal, mightn’t be that necessary anymore. Who needs a set anyway? The emotion, the story, the talent will hold it together, will thrust a performance out of the darkness and into the hearts and minds of the audience. All of those extras are most needed by a performance that can’t stand on its own. Well, um…maybe not.

So, professional actors make it look easy. Who needs a prop – they can make a mime real. What to do with their hands when silence requires them to listen or swathes of text handled incorrectly deteriorates to clenched-handed newscasting? Professionals know the balance between not employing their limbs or looking like windmills in a storm. Where to stand and, whether and where to sit, slouch or recline when officious situations are required to bring about the power relationships within the drama or social status needs to be visually defined becomes a little more difficult.

For lovers of the craft who aren’t professional actors or professionally trained, not having something to define the setting, the social strictures or physical ones demanded by the text can be frustrating. Fancy costumes may look pretty but alone, they can’t describe the physical dynamic between characters. A couch, chair, column, raised floor, set of steps or rostrum, breaking up the space can help define status and setting.

Of course, if you are going to employ a set it has to be incorporated into the rehearsal process as early as possible – to best utilize it. The set doesn’t have to be meticulously realistic or overly dressed but practical. Sometimes it becomes a character of its own.

The set has a job to do that aids the performer in bringing off the page what the playwright has intended. It should support the performers so that they can fulfil their own potential. Today that potential may be limited, but in the future with greater stage time experience, that potential will grow.

This series of posts have been inspired by my more regular attendance at community theatres around the south of Sydney this year.

Other posts have been:

  1. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage –  Silence and Listening
  2. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage – Accents, Performing in a Second Language and Disabilities

2. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage

Accents, Performing in a Second Language and  Disabilities

Acting is fun. Performing is exciting. Putting on a different reality feels more complete when we take on the mores of someone totally different to ourselves. Assuming an accent or physical infirmity is fun and challenging. If we don’t give it a go in a community space where else are we meant to try it on?

In the case of accents: does the play actually call for them as a necessity? The best written of plays have something to say across cultural boundaries and borders, down through years, decades, centuries and millennia. It stands to reason then that just because a play was written in America, Britain, South Africa or Rome its place of origin shouldn’t have to be experienced by wearing its accent. Unless of course, humour based on accents and misinterpretation or creating a sense of otherness is called by the text.

The problem with adopting a foreign accent or a limp etc., over the course of a play is maintaining it. As soon as it slips the audience will be removed from the reality of the story and will be expecting another slip. The focus will move from the intent of the playwright, director and troupe to the ability and integrity of the production as a whole.

I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m advocating for puttingmeasures in place where you are less likely to fail. Your character has a limp,consider strapping a shunt to your leg – has a shrivelled arm – strap it, is ahunch back – secure an encumbrance of some sort to your shoulders – personalsafety first of all. Your character is an eastern European spy, or you areperforming in a language not your own – learn and rehearse your lines incharacter – don’t let yourself slip.

Previously in this series:

1. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage

Next up in the series: 

3. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage – The Set or the Bare Stage

1. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage

This year I’ve attended and reviewed a lot of community theatre. I love it. I love it that there is so much of it around Sydney. I love it that it brings people together to create theatre and to watch it. In our smart phone world, the physicality of live theatre is fresh and vital and compelling. Done well, it’s a wholly engaging form of storytelling that pulses before you.
It’s not always perfect and there are certain foibles that recur across different forms of community theatre and styles of presentation. I thought at this time of the year I’d reflect a little on them.

The Stage tells a Story – Creates a Theatrical Illusion
Key to creating good theatre is the aim to immerse the audience in the glamour – the make-believe illusion of its reality. All the actors onstage have to be engaged with this reality whether they have an action to convey or not or whether they are speaking or not. If a performer is on stage they must always remain in character.
It may sound obvious and automatic but it’s not.
Active Listening is Important
Active listening happens when a performer being spoken to listens and response with their entire being to a speaking actor or action onstage. If you don’t have a speaking part – how attentive is your character to what is being conveyed – can the audience see with your stance, posture, gestures how the information / action is affecting you? Are you conveying the importance of what the speaking performer is saying by your attentiveness?

Lonely hearts, Katherine (Peggy Leto) and John (Barry McMaster)

Lonely hearts, Katherine (Peggy Leto) and John (Barry McMaster) photo credit: Craig O’Regan

At the current production of Rockdale’s Guild Theatre’s Silent Night, Lonely Night I was thrilled by the performance of lead actress, Peggy Leto. Her character listened to monologue after monologue of text and was absolutely engaged by it – we saw it in the way her character was affected by what was being said in her gestures and facial expressions. When her character’s turn to audibly respond came, her words didn’t gush out like a newly released dam. In keeping with her character, her responses were measured and timely. When she spoke on the phone, the silences in the half imagined-dialogue had a natural duration – the audience could make out the exact responses of the invisible, inaudible other side of the phone line.

Being this comfortable on stage comes with the confidence of knowing lines early in the rehearsal process so that your character and her/his relationships with other characters can be shaped in rehearsals and continue to grow in performance.
Advice to actors – know your lines as early as possible in the rehearsal process – when you don’t it shows.

A mark of a good performance – the mark of a good cast – the mark of a confident director is the use of pace and silence. If your cast can maintain the illusion of the story when they are silent on stage, the stage can support great moments of dramatic tension that come with silence. A dramatic high or low has been reached – the playwright is making his/her big statement – then let it sink in. Don’t denigrate it by rushing over it. Silence has impact – so long as all on stage remain in character.

See Peggy Leto in Silent Night, Lonely Night at Rockdale’s Guild Theatre until 24th November 2018

Next – in 2. Community Theatre- The Turtle and the Empty Stage acting appendages – accents, disabilities and the empty stage

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.

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!

 

That’s NOT Baklava!

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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.

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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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?