Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical

A Michael Coppel, Louise Withers & Linda Bewick Production

Director: Gary Young

Starring: Natalie O’Donnell, Sarah Morrison, Alicia Gardner, Jayde Westaby, Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Josef Bar, Stephen Mahy

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, closing May 6. Opens Perth May 12

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Mammia Mia!?! Why review Mamma Mia? Haven’t we all seen it before or at the very least the Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried screen adaption? What more is there to say? If you like ABBA, you’ll like it. If you don’t, you won’t. Right? Hey, it’s closing, why bother?

I didn’t particularly want to go. I know the songs. They were indelibly tattooed on my memory way before the tapes in their cassettes wore through. I saw the movie – a feel good family treat that informed my expectations of the Musical. I just couldn’t get excited, not about going to a live covers show. But Mum was thrilled. My sister suggested we take her out as an early Mother’s Day treat. Seeing Mum so eager was reason enough.

I didn’t regret it. Live theatre is an altogether different animal than film. It’s a feel good romantic fantasy. Energetic, colourful, funny and, very simply, wonderful escapism.  The songs are so well suited to the storyline that at no point did it feel like a covers show with a plot stringing them together. If anything, the production highlighted how the songs have retained their relevance over the years by tweaking their presentation. Back in the seventies and early eighties when they were first released, all of the songs had a forthright appeal. Ballads aside, in the twenty years or so since they were reimagined for the Musical, they have evolved. Or perhaps we’ve changed – matured? become a little jaded? Those direct, danceable but robust lyrics of the first half, were delivered tongue-in-cheek which was very much the tone of the first half to the intermission. Carried away by its joie de vivre it was a little too pacey at times. Those self conscious lyrics can still have emotional weight, given just a moment more to settle.

The truth in the delivery of the ballads in the second half was poignant. That the audience was moved was heard in their applause-which followed each solo. Wonderful performances were given by the entire cast. There were sight gags and hilarious stage business seamlessly woven through the choreography of Danielle Bilios, the realisation of which was deftly handled by the chorus. The dream sequence opening the second half was a visual treat in its choreography, costumes (Suzy Strout), staging and lighting. Visually stunning, Linda Bewick’s set is postcard perfect. The lighting design of Gavan Swift reinforced the Aegean island feel, then danced along with the exuberant choreography before calling the auditorium into an extended disco. It’s really a lot of fun.

Any negatives? A little off putting was the volume of the overture played before each half. It was too loud. The explosion of sound bringing in the second half could have come with an OH&S warning. Too loud and sudden. I had to check how Mum (in her 70s) took it. In the first half there were times during the full company numbers that the voices were engulfed by the music, the lyric at intervals difficult to make out. It didn’t detract from the overall telling of the story and the feeling was still conveyed in the music. Was it a technical oversight? Or are all of the bigger numbers supposed to get a rock concert treatment? Like the pacing of the first half – were the music queues called in too quickly or was it supposed to be fast? But I’m nit-picking.

Mamma Mia! The Musical is a lot of fun. Much more so than the movie. Wonderful escapism, lau and big smiles abide. Sadly leaving Sydney but opening in Perth soon.

 

 

 

 

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Review: Brushstrokes of Life

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The Hellenic Art Theatre is a long running community theatre group that has entertained and edified Greek-Australians of Sydney for decades. Running acting courses, promoting performances in the Greek tongue and nurturing young performers and local playwrights, Stavros Economides and his troupe are integral to the local theatre scene. It isn’t any wonder that they’ve been tasked with educating the Greek Community about the benefits of the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The NDIS aims to provide services to families living with disability in their midst. What will the scheme provide? Services to alleviate the support network of the sufferer e.g., home visits by physios, access to support groups and respite carers. All well and good but why approach a theatre company to spread the word? Isn’t the internet faster and a whole lot cheaper? And what about another stack of leaflets in the medical centre or outpatients ward at the local hospital?

The problem is barriers. Yes, you can tell people the services are available but will that mean that they’ll take up the offer and use them. The stigma of having disability continues to be felt in a community still running to catch up with the greater community in its openness and acceptance of otherness. There is stigma in having someone with a disability in the family, stigma in having to accept help from friends and social services, stigma in not behaving like the rest of the group and in a very tragic Greek way, stigma in not suffering.

The best way to combat such entrenched inertia is with emotion. That’s where Hellenic Art Theatre come in. In three one act plays written to this purpose they speak to the disabled and their carers in a way that is didactic – sans sledgehammer – and entertaining.

The first, Rematch, written by Melba Papas and Evelyn Tsavalas, addresses chiefly the disabled. Jim, a footballer, ends up a paraplegic when his new car is collected by a semi-trailer. Where was Jim’s focus at the time? Taken by a selfie. His anger is lashed out in the family home before he meets another disabled man, Nondas, who gives him hope by his own example and tells him what the NDIS offers. The prescribed denouement precludes deep character development but that’s not the point.

In Brushstrokes of Life by Helen Papfilipou, Zogoula’s denial that her grandson has a mental disability trap both him and her in the family home. She tells herself and her friend, Katie, that the boy is not mentally challenged but lazy. Dance Me, also by Helen Papfilipou, entraps the brother of a physically and mentally disabled woman in a pattern of existence that limits his relationships growing up and is now threatening his career horizons. Angela’s, his mother’s, use of guilt to manipulate him aims to hit a chord within the Greek subculture.

Sacrifice, limitation on families’ freedoms, and deterioration of mental health and well-being are all addressed by these plays. In each case it’s made clear that talking to others openly and sharing experiences brings about resolution. Like a lot of political theatre the answers are simple and they are clearly offered. Printed slogan don’t plaster the walls of the theatre but the message fills the auditorium in voice overs during the longer scene changes. Necessarily optimistic in its outlook, Hellenic Art Theatre offer positive outcomes through involvement with the NDIS.

Solid performances were given by the veteran actors – Evelyn Tsavalas, Mimika Valaris, Angela Betti, Peter Michalopoulos and Michael Kazonis. Liana Vertzayias effervescent Angela was a joy to watch. Angela could very well have been a tragic figure but for the subtle satire of Liana Vertzayias delivery, now comic, now intense. Angela was anything but a caricature.

The greatest strength of the stories lie in the way they talk to today’s community – a selfie, a laptop, a mobile phone, references to well known localities,the theatre housing the show and Greek Australian migrant culture – the mythologizing of the Patris ship and generally its social mores. Many a gentle tear was shed then left behind by amusement.

Didactic? Sure. Entertaining, much, much more. Brushstrokes of Life is showing until May 6, 2018.

AI: Puppets or Puppeteers?

AI – Artificial Intelligence – it conjures up many emotions and motivations – wonder, fear, ambition, competition, vainglory, greed, hope. What is it really? Is it changing too quickly to define? It seems that when we talk of AI we understand different things. There is the sci-fi aspect – Rosie, the Jetsons’ goodhearted home-helper whose autonomous decision making and fast responses will save the domestic day vs Dr Who’s evil Cybermen, robotic soldiers with steely resolve, incapable of autonomous thought and whose metallic responses are powered, in now a very retro way, by commandeered human brains. Then there is the, very now, commercial application of man-made deep learning neural networks that power the advertising powerhouses of Facebook, Microsoft, Uber and Google. Glorified number-crunching processes that we have all interfaced with each time we’ve seen an ad on FB or Google that funnily enough espouses the desirability of that product or service we researched last month.  And then there’s that nebulous space inbetween, research, where the limitless horizons of science fiction are the endgame.

When Google’s AI program AlphaGo beat its human opponent at the ancient Asian boardgame, Go, it wasn’t a case of technology streamlining itself to play a more difficult game of chess. For AlphaGo to win at this game it had to play against the logic of winning. It had to learn that its opponent was playing to a cultural norm. That by playing an unexpected move it gained the psychological high ground and won. Did it signal the beginning of autonomous thought by a machine? Did it mark the first seed of free will? Or was it programmed to collect data on its opponents moves – as in the frequency of a style of logic – and assess the likelihood of the opponent playing against this style?

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Free will and breath, the common denominators of intelligent life, or are they? Just how intelligent can computers become? Will they ever be able to make autonomous decisions, moral judgements and act on them? Like Pinocchio will they ever be able to transcend the limitations of the materials from which they are made and breathe?

No matter our opinion on the matter, AI is coming and in some ways is already here. But we are told that we can make our voice heard. The Montreal Responsible AI Declaration is a survey of opinions on the matter that cover a series of issues that can be thought to determine personal liberty or impact on it. The University of Montreal through the survey hopes to gather opinions to guide it in writing a protocol for AI researchers and developers to abide by.

 It is requesting your say until 31st March, 2018.

Questions fall under the categories: well-being, autonomy, justice, privacy, knowledge, democracy and responsibility. Some of the questions are very specific and confronting e.g., Is it acceptable for an autonomous weapon to kill a human? while others are so general, they are difficult to limit to a clear response after a first read e.g., how can AI contribute to personal well being?

The types of questions posed highlight concerns that may not immediately cross the mind of the uninitiated. Must we fight against the phenomena of attention seeking which has accompanied advances in AI? This is a question of personal vanity and advancement against perhaps the greater good. Should machine learning be aided to advance when the developer doesn’t know what the machine will be exactly capable of – simply so the developer can show off or sell/publish his/her work?

Or Must we fight against the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small number of AI companies? At the moment machine learning, the back bone of AI needs a lot of data to operate. Amounts of data so large that few companies are able to collect and manipulate it, companies like Google, Facebook, Uber. These companies are not only data rich but money rich. What is to guarantee that profit motive won’t weigh heavier than an altruistic world view in their decisions of what to develop and how to use it?

There are questions that relate to freedom of speech. How to minimise the dissemination of fake news or misinformation. This statement is a little unclear. Are they referring to fake news and misinformation about the advancements in AI research and development or fake news in general? Fake news actually takes hold of the imagination because it’s answering an anxiety or fulfilling some kind of need, be it curiosity or a dearth in answers. What it does do, at its best, is inspire discussion and research.

Another question relating to freedom of speech and freedom of the individual in general is, Should research results on AI, whether positive or negative, be made available and accessible? Because AI has the potential to impact us all in the way we will live and the way that we earn a living and the world our children will inhabit, AI research should be accessible to all, in my opinion. What must be kept in mind though when thinking about this question is that not all countries foster the same level of freedom for the individual and not all private multinational corporations would be open to sharing their advances that give their marketing strategies an edge and so will have no qualms with using published research but not sharing their own advances (or making transparent the algorithms that form their AI’s Internal decision making processes). AI development is viewed with such trepidation by some that publishing adverse results in behaviours or outcomes may stymie further development funding in that area.

How to react when faced with AI’s predictable consequences on the labour market? This question brings bias into consideration. I recently asked a programmer whether he thought AI development is a good or bad thing. His immediate response was that it was a good thing. It will take away all of the mundane jobs and only the creative ones will remain. His bias was talking. He is an educated, well paid individual in IT. The kinds of jobs that would engage him will be beyond the understanding of many people of sound body in the community. A repetitive job or one that requires little decision making but simple routine-pattern following would not only bore him but take away some of his pride. However, to many in the community being able to perform simple tasks repetitively and earn money for them is a source of self esteem and income – consider mentally and/or physically handicapped people.

AI can not only impact the labour market in the jobs robotic machines could replace but if placed in charge of hiring individuals, they can impact on who gets the job. Arguments have been raised that the personal bias of the programmers of AI have been and may continue to reflect in their outcomes.

The ages old question about original sin and who was more culpable, the snake that gave the knowledge of sin, the woman whose curiosity passed on the knowledge or the man who used it, surfaces in the question, Can an artificial agent, such as Tay, Microsoft’s “racist” chatbot, be morally culpable and responsible? When I read this I had to ask how culpable was the team that wrote the program that fed the chatbot the data it used? Should they have placed a censor on the chatbot, effectively restricting the download of certain words, images or phrases? How would that have impacted its learning?

What if an AI’s behaviour was morally reprehensible and dangerous? eg., an AI that is placed in charge of an abattoir chooses to slaughter not only cows but any four limbed creature that inhabits the yard. Who would be to blame – the AI trying to exceed its quota or the programming team that failed to impress upon their creation the idea of limits or the ability to discern the difference between a Shetland pony and cattle?

For me the most important question asked is: Must AI research and its application, at the institutional level be controlled? Here I have to ask what sort of institutions are being referred to and what and how would the control be policed? What if the institution was a country manipulating its census data to feed an AI application?

In my ideal future, AI would be used to do the tasks that are out of reach of our physical realm  – because they are too small – as in genetic manipulation in medicine, past our reach physically –  space exploration, navigating the Kuiper Belt and beyond – or past our reach for their enormity and the immediacy of their need, like solving environmental catastrophes – or to avoid physical danger or risk.

AI is fascinating and exciting to me but I believe it should also be reined in. IT should serve humanity to humanities betterment and that of our planet. IT shouldn’t be replacing mundane jobs. It shouldn’t be aimed at increasing our leisure time – don’t we have enough – who will work in the end? It should be gathering data and leaving the processing of that data to us. While it doesn’t have a conscience, it should be leaving the decision making to us who do. It should be out there exploring, advancing medicine, studying clouds and global cooling efforts and generally opening new vistas, ai!

Photo Credit

Photo on Foter.com

 

 

 

What’s in a name – Macedonia?

Macedonian Boules Masks

Macedonian Boules Masks, a longstanding cultural tradition with its roots in resistance, worn today in cultural festivities and I imagine during Apokries (Mardi Gras).

Recently, and again and again during the twentieth century, the people of one of Greece’s northern neighbours have been claiming Macedonian heritage, history and ultimately Greek coastline (the prized port city of Thessaloniki), when they insist on being called Macedonian. They claim identity with Alexander the Great, the Greek speaking Macedonian King who worshipped the Ancient Greek Gods and spread his Greek language and religion throughout the lands that he conquered. The Greek people are infuriated by this and rightly, threatened. By making these claims they are laying the ground work for a “taking back” of ancient pride and territory to give to their modern day selves.

Over two thousand years have elapsed since Alexander the Great lived. In that time there have been many waves of people through his birthplace – Romans, Bulgars, Slavs, Turks. The region has shifted from being centred around Ancient Pella and within the boundaries of modern day Greece further north to include not only Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki but further afield, encroaching upon Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Can any of these nations justify expansionary dreams by claiming ancient custodianship? The Greeks claim the Macedonian name and history as their own via their custodianship of the Greek language over the millennia and belief that there have always been Greeks living in Macedonia. Why wouldn’t Alexander be Greek?

Do the people of FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian) have a leg to stand on? Did all of the Ancient Greek speaking, Greek god worshipping peoples identify themselves as Greeks (Hellenes)? What of the ancient Macedonians themselves? Alexander’s tutor was the philosopher, Aristotle, who despite being born in Northern Greece (Stagira) and writing in Greek is never referred to as a Macedonian. Did Aristotle consider himself to be a Macedonian?

Could the Ancient peoples of Macedonia have spoken and written in Greek but identified themselves with a different culture? If they did, how is it that it has escaped our notice? There were Greek speakers who may not have identified as Greeks. Was Cleopatra Greek – her first language – or Macedonian, by descent from Ptolemy, or was she an Egyptian queen, as she is remembered today? How about the Seleucid’s of Syria, who like Cleopatra were descended from one of Alexander’s generals and spoke Greek? Were they Macedonians? or Greeks? When the Jews celebrate Hanukkah are they commemorating a victory over the Seleucid Greeks or the Macedonians?

What of the Greek speakers of city states outside of the Greek peninsula that Alexander didn’t conquer? What of Syracuse and its most heralded citizen, Archimedes? What of the Ancient Greek speaking explorer from what is now France, Pytheas of Massalia?   Did they consider themselves Greek? Today, when we learn about them in school, we are told they were. Are we retrospectively giving them an identity they would find preposterous?

Can any group of people make claims on a modern nation by justifying ancient descent?

Even if the people of FYROM had a strong claim on ancient Macedonian culture, could having an Ancient Greek heritage give a foreign city or country or foreign group of people the right to make claims on the land and culture of the modern Greek nation? Alternatively, does this give the Greeks an excuse to claim Egypt, Syria, Israel or France as a part of Greece? The idea is ludicrous.

When it comes to language the people of FYROM need a strong argument (or more correctly apology) for they don’t speak Greek. But Alexander did. Their language is said to be related to Bulgarian. The coming of the Bulgarians into the Balkans is documented. It’s AD/CE. Greeks love to call them Slavs. The coming and settling of the Slavs in the area, down to Arcadia is also documented, its AD/CE. If only the Byzantine Empress Irene (752-803CE) could talk to us about the kids on her Athenian block when she was growing up. Or why and whether she incited her successor, Nikephoros I to re-Hellenise the Balkans in the 9th century CE as a consequence.

The problem with arguing for or against Macedonian descent is an ignorance on both sides of the history of the area and settlements and resettlements of ethnic groups in and out of it since ancient times. Early Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and 20th Century political history should be taught in schools on either side of the debate. An ancient civilized race would have had to have existed in isolation to not have a blended heritage by now.

Today, the people of FYROM can express a much more modern culture that has similarities to their Greek Macedonian neighbours- their music (clarinet, gaeda-bagpipe and drum), dance (boosnitsa/sykathistos), wedding traditions, palette (burek/pita), religion (Orthodoxy) and resistance under the Ottoman regime. Relations could be incredibly warm if it weren’t for this obsessive fixation. But do they have any claim to the ancient name and the heritage, Macedonia?

Alternatively, if the Ancient Macedonians were Greeks, why did they call their nation Macedonia?

There is a problem with identity when applied to the Ancient Greeks. They were too fiercely independent to ever be regarded as a nation. They were always independent city states – no matter what part of Arcadia, the Aegean or Mediterranean coast they settled on. They were Athenians, Spartans, Corinthians, Delians, Ephesians, Thessalonians, Samians, Syracusans and Macedonians etc. They all revelled in the same kind of art, philosophy, science/mathematics, religion and language.

Ancient Greek culture has a parallel in modern cultural practice versus identity. If we were to consider the way an alien anthropologist would look at the world today and have to take back a clear understanding of Earthlings to her/his planet, how would s/he categorise who we call Australians, the British, Americans, New Zealanders etc? I mean the predominantly English speaking world? Could s/he call us all English and relate us back to the modern nation on the British Isles as her people? Do we not all share the same language? Yes, but … Language is not enough it seems to define a culture.

Could our alien anthropologist categorise us by looking at what we do with ourselves? Are we not majority consumerists? Does the majority not watch blockbuster American movies and video games? Do the majority receive our information on chiefly American designed/owned technology – phones, social media, news? Does the majority practice secularism over our stated religion – or lack thereof? Do American-styled-owned products dominate our households? Could our alien anthropologist then describe the English speaking world as American? We may baulk at this idea but the similarities are great.

Going back to the Ancient Greeks, after the death of Alexander and the dissection of his dominion, they would never see themselves as one Greek nation spread all over the known world. Their broad culture and language was Greek and they held this in common. They could easily trade, read Homer, worship and celebrate together. But their administration was different. And they would be able to tell each other apart. A Macedonian was as different from an Athenian as a Brit is from an American.

Moving forward in time a thousand or more years, wouldn’t an American feel threatened if Cuba changed its name to Florida? What if the Republic of Ireland changed its name to Cornwall, would the English object? And would what Aussies say if Papua New Guinea were to rename itself, Queensland or Kiwis’ if Australia decided to call itself New Zealand? I think they would all object as the Greeks do today over the attempts at stealing the name, Macedonia.

 

 

Theatre Review: Richard III

Bard On The Beach Theatre Company

Gunamatta Park, Cronulla

March 1st, 2018 – touring around Sydney until April 20

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Whether you think about Shakespeare’s Richard  III as a Revenger Tragey or History play is irrelevant when casting the chief protagonist. He (or recently, she) has to be superbly, immaculately, unabashedly conniving and manipulative and self serving and most importantly, must revel in his /her vices – exalting in them like a cool breeze through the mire of a humid day. It’s not a role for anyone with any qualms about going there – laying aside their own morality and conscience for the duration of rehearsals and performances. Nor for anyone too concerned with how they personally may be perceived after the final applause. These days audiences are savvy enough to distinguish between the performer and the role, however, it’s still daunting. Bard on the Beach‘s Christian Heath nailed it.

It was a joy to see him plot and scheme and work the fates of all through the fingers of his one good hand. We laid aside our own morality to take pleasure in his success even though we might have cringed at the blood trail. Heath’s portrayal was BIG. His presence and delivery filled the space and brought the audience closer to him. Not a mean feat when you consider the stage is an open air amphitheatre, by a community centre, in a park, by the bay. His only aid was the night. Had the performance been staged earlier in the day, the magic would have been compromised I’m sure.

His big acting style was complemented by big staging. The performers used the amphitheatre including pathways through the seating to make measured entrances throughout, encapsulating the performance and its audience as a localised event in the park. They created a spectacle in the best sense of the word – the kind of thing an Elizabethan audience hankered after, from a cleverly staged beheading to Richard’s ghostly victims popping up from all directions in their bloody tunics wreaking their revenge on a dreaming Richard. Gory and sudden in their appearance they were fearsome and shocking. All this without an Elizabethan discovery ‘closet’ or trapdoor in sight. Soldiers marched down the hillside setting and onto the battle stage, thrusting and parrying a well choreographed fight scene that saw in, the play’s climactic ending. The spectacle was ably handled and presented and necessary.

Amphitheatre’s call for that, spectacle and big acting. By big acting, I don’t mean hamming it up. I mean big demonstrations of emotion that are delivered with the whole body – gestures of the hands, torso, head/neck as well as the gait of the performer. Emotions have to be conveyed across a greater distance to the audience and the audience has to be able to empathize with the performer. Communication has to be big in an open-air amphitheatre.

The stage was bare, the costumes were lavish and the Shakespearean language a no-brainer for this troupe. Yet something wasn’t gelling 100%. I found that I couldn’t connect with the female characters. I couldn’t feel for Buckingham’s fall. And the scene straight after the ghosts accost Richard where he is finally moved by his conscience-despite the wonderful work done by Heath, I couldn’t connect with the scene. I became a passive observer not Richard’s temporal accomplice. Why?

Richard III contains some of the flattest written females in the Shakespeare canon. To make them rounded so much has to be read into the role that an English teacher would cringe. But it has to be done, the words alone do not suffice. The women are the personal conscience and the public conscience of a would be nation’s ruler, the play and the audience.

While the staging was big, occasionally the realization of the text diminished to a tableau of talking heads in gorgeous costumes. On a bare stage with wordy text this is a constant hazard. The actors would have benefitted from a little more from the set – a dais, platform, freestanding buttress – something to break up the space. Something to allow movement to, up and around, something to aid relationships be established visually and help to convey the subtext.

Martin Estridge’s Buckingham was ably handled but the development arc of his character wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t feel for the loyal right-hand man being overlooked, deserting the despot and then losing his life. It’s really important that as an audience we do. If we don’t feel for Buckingham we don’t begin to disentangle our allegiances from Richard. The ghostly assassination of Richard becomes a good bit of spectacle but fails to move us. The moral of the play, if one is to be observed – unrestrained conscience/power in the hands of one man is no good, is not felt by the audience. Would the assassination of Richard by the ghosts have the cathartic effect the dramatist aimed for if we could see Richard’s face? Or if we felt more for his victims?

All in all, it was a good night out. I look forward to seeing more from this company. Bard on the Beach is touring Two Gentleman of Verona in Tandem with Richard III until April 20. Disappointed I couldn’t catch the Gentlemen this time around, I’ll be looking out for more from Bard in The Beach.

I’d love to see Christian Heath take on Iago.

 

Eis tin Poli with Machiavelli whispering in my ear

 

Eis tin Poli. I’ll be seeing you in the city. The polis. Which polis? Constantinopolis! Yes, Istanbul. Istanbul is the greeting, Eis tin Poli, in the Turkish mind’s ear of 1929. Istanbul is charming and exotic, rich with history and the diversity of the people’s that have made it their home. And rich, of course, with the warmth and hospitality of the Turkish people. However visiting the polis in 2014 stirred up rational, irrational feelings I hadn’t expected – grief for a city, a homeland and times that were never mine. But they were my family’s. I couldn’t enjoy the city freely, everywhere I turned conquest met my gaze and its base sound reverberated through the ether and into my soul. Conquest in Machiavelli’s terms.

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We stayed just off Taksim Square. Not the touristy side with all the grand hotels, nor the cosmopolitan side off Istaklal St but the far, forgotten edge. Here cobbled streets pushed the present past derelict mansions and stray cats, and strayer people lived temporary stays with permanent hopeless resolve. Refugees from personal and political cataclysms were taking refuge in homes abandoned to decay. Quiet façades and boarded doorways promised sound shelter for the homeless. How long had these buildings been neglected? Machiavelli whispered, since 1999? 1955? 1922? Machiavelli go away. Did they quake over the pressure of civil turmoil or seismic crisis?  Who owned these buildings? Where were they now? Machiavelli kept whispering.(1)

The other superior expedient is to establish settlements in one or two places; these will, as it were, fetter the state to you… (The Prince) injuries only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered. All the others are left undisturbed, and so should stay quiet, and as well as this they are frightened to do wrong lest what happened to the dispossessed should happen to them.”
The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, pp. 36-37.

 

When states newly acquired as I said have been accustomed to living freely under their own laws, there are three ways to hold them securely: first, by devastating them; next, by going and living there in person; thirdly, by letting them keep their own laws, exacting tribute, and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly to you.
The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, p.47

Machiavelli’s style of devastation was physical and spiritual in 1453. Did the residents of Constantinople really believe their unbreachable walls would fall? What was this explosive new weapon in comparison to the might of God? A story survives that a cleric – was it the Patriarch? a bishop? was fishing when news came to him that the Turks had broken through. He laughed it off. He just pulled up a good catch and stayed by the water to fry his meal. He replied to the messenger that if the walls had been breached then his half fried fish would jump out of his frying pan and back into the Golden Horn. Splash! and so they did.

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Orthodox Patriarchate College

In Istanbul in 2014 the pride of the Turkish people was everywhere on display, conquest declared on a sea of Turkish flags fluttering over the city. Each cloth depicted Sultan Mehmet’s victory moon on a background of blood red. The shape of the moon’s crescent declared the night of May 29th, 1453 ever present in the city – present on a full moon as well as the new, on government buildings and on private ones and even on Orthodox ones. The Orthodox, the descendants of the Rhomaioi/Byzantine keepers of Constantinople, can practice their religion in Turkey but there is tribute to pay to the mighty Turkish state, its flag declares their obeisance on the Orthodox Patriarchate College.

Conquest is constant. It seemed that wherever I saw an Orthodox Church a Mosque was built beside it, the call to prayers of the conquerors enveloping it intermittently throughout the day. Some Mosques began life as churches and like the Hagia Sophia, spear-like minarets now square them off. The Hagia Sophia itself has been and remains a psychological prize. Sultan Mehmet had to convert it into a mosque, whitewashing the historic and religious iconography of the Cathedral and the city. He tried to eradicate the grandeur and significance of an organic culture, millennia old. For the Byzantines, the Rhomaioi – the Greeks, it was the emotional rallying point for insurrection right up until 1922.

Conquest pervaded my senses the day we spent in Sultanahmet. We took a taxi (2) from Taksim Square where we were staying to where Byzantine monuments are concentrated and of course the Blue Mosque dominates the sea and landscape. Instead of dropping us off at the open square bounded by the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Justinian’s Basilica Cistern, the driver left us in front of a rug store on the other side. It was early in the day so we thought a detour was okay. It was a wonderful detour. No one does customer service like the Turkish people. The shop was multi-storeyed: just beneath street level they sold ceramics – beautiful, ethnic, colourful, and reminiscent of art nouveau. The design motifs were taken from nature with arabesque linework, watery glazing and a traditional feel that surely influenced the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1800s. Hefty in appeal, weight and price, I had to resist, but my appetite was whetted. Rugs, waited upstairs.

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The salesman was warm and talkative as he sat us on a divan, serving us Turkish tea and the most amazing Turkish Delight I have ever tasted. Each style of rug was representative of a region of Turkey or weaving technique. The salesman imparted his knowledge and was patient with our indecisiveness. He was chatty as he tried to build a connection with us. Yet, with all of his gregarious warmth he couldn’t crack my shell. Yes, we have a Greek background. Yes, my family originated in Turkey – Pisidia, Propontos and the Dardenelles. Yes, I remembered the earthquake that devastated Istanbul in 1999…Tears began to fall…Yes, the Greeks were the first foreigners to run to their aid. The Greeks were passionate to return to the Polis, yes? I couldn’t reply to why the Greeks ran to save the city, but they did. I looked at more rugs. Finally, we chose one from Mt Ararat depicting animals from Noah’s Ark and descended to street level. Led out by an adjacent door, we walked through a narrow room with glass-topped counters filled with Turkish Delight. Not simple rose water infused loukum but exotic flavoured Delights mixed with dried flower petals, pistachios, a variety of other nuts, pomegranate and dried fruits and spices I didn’t recognise. And so soft – so fresh- so delicious.

 

 

 

We walked to the Hagia Sophia from the far side, buying the kids Fez’ to wear from a hawker on the way. The queue that awaited us was trying on the kids’ already stretched patience, it tracked far into the square. Thankfully, young boys with wooden spinning tops on long cords zeroed in on their next customers just ahead of us. Our kids were taken with the zeal that comes from wanting to get a closer look at something that is being offered to other children. Eventually the enterprising locals offered our kids the same attention. The simplicity of the mechanism and the beauty in its motion was mesmerising… But, for how long?

Was there another way in to the museum? I decided to walk around the complex to see. On the far side, sure enough, there was another entrance. No queue. A guard and a turnstile and no crowds either! I phoned my husband to get smart, leave his spot in the queue and bring the kids around. Removing the kids took longer than I anticipated. I walked into a couple of stalls that were set up on the road side. They sold ceramics!!!! They sold sets of Turkish coffee cups with imitation Iznik tile designs. I started to haggle – when in Rome, er, New Rome, er, Constantinople, er, Istanbul…

This is beautiful. I’ll give you this much for it.

No, that is the price.

I’ve seen it cheaper elsewhere.

Not this design.

Yes, this design. Much cheaper.

My price is what it is.

But I’ve seen it much, much cheaper in shops off Istaklal Street. Honestly.

When the half cooked fish jumped back into the water, honestly.

And there it was – a reference to the defeat of the Greeks/Byzantines where I wasn’t expecting it. Don’t forget you were conquered, and won’t win now. I walked away empty-handed, miffed and conquered.

Few of the hundreds of visitors to the Hagia Sophia took the time to go around the back. It wasn’t an entrance to the cathedral proper. It was an eye-opener. The courtyard is bounded by the baptistery off the once Christian cathedral on one side and by Islamic family crypts on the others. Beautiful Iznik tiles and calligraphy adorn the final resting place of sultans and their family members. Their coffins covered in green cloth still rest in state elevated off the floor. It is a quiet, reverent place. A place of contemplation.

“But when states are acquired in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go live there in person. This course of action would make a new possession more secure and more permanent; and this was what the Turk achieved in Greece…”

The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, pp. 36-37.

The Ottoman Turks didn’t settle with just moving in. They were and remain assiduous in proclaiming their dominance. They appropriated centuries old spiritual and historical sites and made them their own. First and foremost is the Hagia Sophia. Permanent fixtures, minarets and the royal tombs, were added outside and Islamic calligraphy adorns the central dome. When you walk inside you can almost imagine it being an Orthodox Christian Church again until you raise your head and look above and beyond the colourful masonry up to the pendentives. As minarets square off the outside of the building, inside, four large, painted, wooden discs lean on the base of each cherubim. Today the mosaics have been restored as the Hagia Sophia complex is a museum – a compromise solution between two heritages and two religions. Byzantine mosaics of Emperors pay homage to their Christian god in the upper gallery while below the library of Sultan Mahmut stands empty. A holy place regardless of the noise, the tour groups, the hide-and-seek antics of my youngest child. Historically a holy place for two opposing religions. Could Christians and Muslims ever share this space in common purpose – worship? Spiritually, could we ever reach that height of acceptance, forgiveness, love?

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The Library of the Sultan Mahmut – built inside of Hagia Sophia

We arrived in Istanbul during Ramadan, a wonderful time to be in that city. Istaklal Street was abuzz with foreign visitors – tourists with a middle eastern flavour. In the morning floral garlands were offered in the Square away from the poised and watchful keep of four war heroes on their stone pedestal. Plastic helicopter blades shot off into the night sky and and flame fuelled miniature balloons delighted children and adults alike. We saw a harem for the first time. Eight people walking together through Taksim Square led by a man, an eight-or-so-year old boy by his side, then a black-clad woman wearing sunglasses, slightly to the side and behind, and followed by another six women. My western sensibilities were offended. But this turned to laughter that night when we encountered a different harem altogether.  One man, seven women and multiple designer tote bags were an armada tearing through the Square. This time, the beleaguered gent was struggling to catch up to his wives. At least they were all running in the same direction. Many a western man would flinch at the idea of a shopping trip with one wife, let alone 7!

Ramadan in Turkey means a celebration of the shadow puppet theatre Karagöz. Visiting the city on our own, not knowing the language and staying in an apartment, not a hotel, I couldn’t find a venue to go and see a performance live. But it was being screened on TV.

Just before I first started blogging Karagöz and Karagiozis were mixed up on Wikipedia. The Karagiozis site had images of the Greek puppet and then the rest of the characters were taken from the Karagöz repertoire. Wikipedia prefixed their articles with their wish to amalgamate the two puppets into one entry. The thinking was that the puppets had the same name and therefore were the same. It was the first theatrical issue I blogged about. I argued that they may have the same name but they look very different. And while they both serve to entertain, where the laughs are derived from are very different. Karagiozis began as a barefoot pauper from a ramshackle shanty on the outskirts of town. Always trying to get one over his Ottoman overlords he provided a release to a repressed culture of people. Karagöz on the other hand, was the well-heeled bumpkin who was in need of sophistication and whose theatre, a comedy of manners and situation, satirised the many different ethnicities of the Ottoman Empire.

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Karagiozis meets Karagoz

The obfuscation of the two puppets arises from an apparent general blending of Greek/Byzantine and Turkish culture since the fall of Byzantium. There is much layman debate over who was first to do what between Greeks and Turks. This extends to food – who was first to serve baklava, Loukum/Turkish Delight, pulverised coffee, kebabs/yeeros, revani, manti, imambaldi … Language is looked to, to provide the answer. Is a name Turkish or Greek? But in the Ottoman Empire language wasn’t always the greatest safeguard of culture. You just have to look at the tropes of the Karagiozis puppet theatre, so much of it is Roman. The world of Karagiozis exists in the streetscapes of Plautus’ comedy. Menander is said to have been the first playwright to incorporate stereotyping – stock characters – into his work which is what the shadow puppets are about. Comedy of the Late Romans in antiquity as well as the Romans under the Turkish yoke as in Karagiozis – is of satire and situations. It has been my contention that Karagiozis-style theatrical satire not as shadow puppetry, nor called Karagiozis, existed before Islam came into Asia Minor but had to metamorphise into a form that the authorities would condone. Islam at the time didn’t allow human representation, so shadows were a way of getting around religion.  Karagiozis, possibly evolved from a Selenus-type character, took the name and form of the popular Turkish shadow puppet theatre to survive. In Italy, Roman comedy developed into the very physical, masked street theatre, the commedia dell’arte, in Turkey Roman Comedy developed into shadow puppetry.

Neither Greek nor Roman nor Byzantine. Why not Rhomaioi, that’s what they called themselves?

Language may not be a perfect safeguard for culture but it can help. The Turkish language has preserved the identity of its Greek speaking population as Romans. What, you ask? Well who are they, this ethnic minority? Are they Greeks? They don’t live in Greece. The Greek they speak is a little more formal, the food they eat differs… Are they Turks? They don’t have equal rights with their Muslim counterparts due to their Orthodoxy. Are they Byzantines? The Byzantines were Orthodox but lived in ancient and medieval times and identified as neither ‘Byzantines’ nor ‘Greeks’. Are they Rum, as the Turks know them? Rum, Rumla, the Turkish way of saying Roman. How could they be Roman when they live in Turkey, not Rome, and generally speak neither Latin nor Italian? It’s a problem Western scholars face when trying to come to terms with a Roman Empire that had lost Rome, spoke Greek and was not recognised by the West as Roman in medieval times. I like Rhomaioi. It’s simple if it doesn’t look simple on paper. Rom-Aye-E! It’s what Greek-speaking Byzantines called themselves. Rome – the seed of their empire gets a nod without the pure implication of being citizens of an ancient city no longer part of the Empire.  Rhomaioi – Roman citizens transformed in name, language and religion all wrapped up in one word, Rhomaioi! Rum for the Turks, even today.

 

Agia Sophia Photo by Nikos Niotis on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Often when Turkish people talk of their pre-1453, historic monuments and architecture they refer to the people who built them in a past tense. As if their race has extinguished. As if there are no people left who have a heritage, a bloodline that connects them to this architecture. Could they claim it as their own regardless of it being a Graeco-Roman ruin in Ephesus or a Christian Church in Istanbul? Regardless that Rhomaioi are still around? On the other hand Turkey can’t claim this history or culture completely as it doesn’t feed the narrative of the victorious, glorious conquerors. In any case Constantinople is just a small part of modern-day Istanbul – the western side. The eastern side is a modern economic hub, so , so different, so now. A lot of Constantinople’s history and significant sites are obscure or forgotten. This is best illustrated by a trip to Phanar, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate.

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Neglect in Phanar – just across from the College

An eerie silence pervades Phanar. It’s an old neighbourhood with cobbled streets and fewer inhabitants than buildings it would seem. Off the main road, few stores exist and those that do, do so obstinately for the sake of maintaining their existence, they have given up any pretense of inviting customers. It’s a suburb trapped in a time warp, an alternate reality that you can walk in and out of. The streets are too steep for motor vehicles to access in low gear. Our taxi driver didn’t know how to find the Cathedral of St George and tried valiantly to push his car up the hill in low gear to the College. The College must be the Patriarchate, right? – it’s the only building with any semblence of prestige – former or current. The whining revolution of the engine was an invasion of sound that called the silence to attention. It felt right to dismiss the driver and just walk.

Once the equilibrium of silence and inactivity returned, gleeful wheeing swooshed down at us from even higher up those streets. A child astride a cardboard sled was tobogganing down a steeper block. Life in Phanar isn’t for the uninvited. Our coming had disturbed his play, but we weren’t the only ones – just the noisiest. There was a slow trickle of  foreign visitors – history students and Orthodox faithful, puffing their way up the hill looking for the Patriarchate, the College, Byzantine museums or sites. From them we learnt that the Patriarchate survives at the bottom of those steep streets, unobtrusively tucked away and humbled.

Don’t look for the Vatican in Phanar. Don’t expect taxi drivers to know where to find the Patriarchate. We were guided by other pilgrims who found it on their own. When you reach the Cathedral of St George, don’t be disappointed with its size. The liturgy, the relics and the history will move you. And if one particular relic of the Virgin Mary is the one you most hope to see – the icon that St Luke painted, the one that paraded the Walls so often throughout history, know that it isn’t there. It no longer protects the Walls but is protected elsewhere.

Istanbul is no Rome and Phanar is no Vatican City.

Why is Phanar so neglected? Is it to cloak the Patriachate with invisibility? Is it because so much Byzantine power emanated from the Patriarchate? Would it have to be so if  Byzantine history was universally appreciated? What does Byzantine mean for most people? For the polyethnic descendants of the Empire? Is it because no country can fully claim Byzantine heritage as solely their own that its study has been neglected?  Is it because the history of the Byzantines is one of a waning empire? Because its sites and relics are not celebrated does this perpetrate a vicious circle of neglect? My generation of Greek learners outside of Greece weren’t taught any Byzantine history besides the fall of the Polis. Our texts were standard Greek government issue of the 1970s. I’m learning about it now through the History of Byzantium podcast. I knew so little then that when we returned from Istanbul we had a Verfremdungseffekt moment when an Armenian jeweller was taken aback that we, Greeks, would know what Byzantine meant. His implication was that it had more to do with Armenian history. We were perplexed that he would consider it anything but Greek. We both have much to learn. Byzantine history has been a casualty of conquest, obeisance, neglect and…Karma?

Lets be fair, the Byzantine/Romans/Rhomaioi didn’t respect the monuments of the lands they conquered.

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Emperor Justinian’s Basilica Cistern

Arghhhh! Splash! My Fez! Pluts, pluts, pluts!

No. Stop! You’re gonna fall in. Let your father get it.

Shhh! Wait for the group to pass.

Can you reach it? You might have to get in. Want me to hold the camera?

Looook at the fish!

Stay put!!!!

Oooooo …my….hat….

Baba’s got really long arms.

My hat! Thanks Baba.

Trying to get a better look at the Medusa head column my excitable son had lost his new fez! Medusa’s head sits in a far corner of the Cistern, upside down, the base of a supporting column. It’s not the only architectural curiosity. Justinian’s Bascilica Cistern is made up many purposely built columns but also proud masonry from the far reaches of the Empire. They respected these foreign artworks so much, they ended up in a subterranean water works for no one to admire. Had conquest come hard for the Romaioi in the home of Medusa? The obelisk of Tuthmose III from the temple of Karnak was erected and still stands on the site of the Hippodrome, renamed the Obelisk of Theodosius and mounted on a pedestal celebrating that Byzantine Emperor and the races . Did it really need to be thus justified? It had its own majesty and purpose. Did it really need to be removed from Karnak? What purpose other than celebrating conquest could it have served? The Byzantines could never understand it. Did they have to celebrate their conquest of a much older and intriguing civilization thus?

 

 

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In a thousand year old church in the mountain town of Iassou, on Mytilene, is the icon of the Virgin and Child said to have been painted by St Luke. If so, it is the icon that was paraded around the walls of Constantinople when the young son of Heraclius held regency for his father.

Recently Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium podcast brokered the idea of doing a Byzantine audio tour of Old Istanbul, Constantinople. It’s something that would benefit any Byzantine history buff. It placed me in a quandary as I’ve wanted to write about Istanbul for awhile but have run away from it. Should I write the post? How do I convey the grief, excitement, nostalgia, anger and curiosity that my brief stay there invoked? And if what I have to say is negative, should it be said at all? It’s not my home but it was a very important part of my family’s livelihood back when it was still Constantinople. Does this colour my perception? Does it render my conclusions unjust and my post irrelevant? Then I read history blogger, Sean Munger’s response to the city and why he hasn’t visited it. Then there was Palaiologinos Ultimate Byzanitine Roadtrip post (set in Greece) and the history Fangirl’s podcast re the Grand Bazaar and Walls of Constantinople – all very different in feel but all taking me back to my quandry. Do I, don’t I? Catharsis won in the end. So here I am in 2017, writing about my responses to the city in 2014.

We enjoyed so much of the city. The kids loved chasing stray cats, riding a Phaeton on the Princes Island, swimming in the Maramara Sea and marvelling at the steam-punk mechanism of the funicular – the subterranean trolley car connecting Taksim Square to the ferry quay. There was so much to discover in the Grand Bazaar. Playing backgammon amongst locals in a street lined on either side with coffeehouses offering baklava, arghele and Turkish coffee. We had a lot of fun dressing up as Ottoman Sultan’s in a store set up in a corner of the Basilica Cistern. It didn’t go unnoticed that there wasn’t a toga or a red boot to be offered but it was a lot of fun.

It’s the pain of the past that Old Constantinople conjures up that makes Istanbul bittersweet. If Istanbul were Rome, the site of the Hippodrome would be alive with al fresco cafes selling overpriced coffee and souvenir stalls selling bobbing chariot car toys. Kitsch but embracing the greatness of a civilization that once belonged. In Rome, Romans can walk in the steps of their ancestors with pride. Why can’t Byzantine history be paid tribute to in the old part of the city without acknowledging Ottoman conquest. What has Mehmet to do with Justinian?

 

(1) Travel Tip – when booking your stay online, don’t just look at the apartment on the website, go to google maps and check out the streets that surround it. Wherever we stayed was clean and comfortable but we could have stayed on streets that were better suited to children.

(2) Travel tip – when going by taxi get your hotel concierge to order it for you, that way you can avoid what I came to see as the 16-60 ruse. This is where you ask the driver before the journey the approximate cost, he clearly states a figure in the teens e.g., 16 lira and then demands 60 lira when you arrive. So 13 became 30, 19 became 90, etc. It happened whenever we didn’t get a local to order a cab for us.

(3) Travel tip – when planning your visit check the days that the site you wish to see will be open. They all seem to shut one day a week but it differs for each site.

 

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell.

Looking forward to reading this one!

Adventures In Historyland

When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth.

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Review: Stardust Circus

Kingsway, Miranda 22nd September – 8th October

St Marys, 13th – 29th October

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They say never work with kids or animals in the theatre, presumably because an adult can’t complete with the cuteness factor. Having seen the Stardust Circus, I have to question that. Rather, never work with an overseasoned prima donna resting on her laurels – more later. No, the animals were engaging, the young performers were abundant and abundantly talented but the clowns stole the show – particularly the adults and the way in which they interacted with both the animals and the children.

The Stardust Circus has loads of family appeal. They offer a traditional circus with acrobats and tumblers, clowns and performing animals – acts that will surprise you. Humour abounds in all of the ground routines. Mischievous rebellion on the part of the animals, like the horse who refused to be saddled and the dog who gave his trainer his comeuppance, are seamlessly realized. There was audience participation, clean humour and positive rolemodelling as the performers were of differing bodyshapes and ages.

There were ponies, pigs, monkeys, goats, dogs and lions. My younger son lapped it all up while my recalcitrant teenager who was determined not to enjoy the show left in high spirits and grudgingly admitted he enjoyed it. Which act unanimously was considered the best by my company of tweets and teens? A trio of adult tumbling clowns head over heels for the same seating, The Vixers.

Another aspect of the show that really impressed me was that it was a unified effort that you see in family run businesses or historical acting troupes (think Moliere in 17th century France or the travelling commedia dell’ arte). The aerial acrobats sold popcorn before the show, doubled as clowns and pushed and rigged as stage hands. Everyone had multiple roles it seemed. The children performing are growing up with sawdust in their veins – or should I say, Stardust. The littlest clown making a cameo appearance looked to be about 4. Captivating my young charges was the highflying duo, Cassira. The grace and strength of 12 year old Cassius and 9 year old Talira was enchanting. I’d love to know how little time they spend with their electronic devices. All of the children of the circus certainly charmed with their skilful, playful and comic delivery.

But what of the overseasoned prima donna, resting on her laurels? Yes there was one but I wouldn’t be questioning her commitment – she is a lioness. The show opened with the performing lions. They did or refused to do their jumps to the delight of the audience and returned to their stools. Every now and again one of the more experienced lioness’ would turn around and gauge audience response. I could almost sense her saying, “Well, come on, give us a bigger hand, we don’t bite!”

Well worth a trip out 😊

Amoured and Plated with a Canard?

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,

Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer sheilde,

Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,

The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;

Yet armes till that time did he never wield;

His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,

As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:

Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,

As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, Canto 1

Picture a medieval knight, what do you see? A helmet? A sword? A horse? Heraldic trappings? Metal suits? Damsels in distress? St George? The Dragon . . . Fantasy? Mythology? Lies?

Recently my son came home from school and asked me to make him a full suit of armour – plate armour – not chainmail. It was a challenge that had immediate appeal. The only problem was my day job, I work very long hours in the family business. If this thing was going to be made I would need a lot of assistance. In fact, I would more or less co-ordinate the project and Junior would actually be making it.21728959_1288678501261842_4789541901581411969_o

Yes, he said he would be on board. He would do all of the paper mache I required of him. All of the painting too. Immediately he began working on the shield, so I began envisioning a plated armoured suit in corrugated cardboard. I cut the major panels of the suit and played with ideas of how to construct the necessary articulated elbow and knee joints. I had to think practically if he was going to wear the suit to Medieval Day at school. He would have to eat wearing it, which meant sitting down. He would have to kneel on the floor to work a miniature catapault and stand and stretch to fire an arrow from a bow. So it was to be flexible and durable to last the day – activities, lunch and toilet trips.

How flexible did it have to be? I thought back to the battles described by Procopius in his Persian Wars. Perhaps a little early in the Middle Ages and a little farther east than necessary but his accounts are that of an eye-witness. I thought about pitched battles and battlefields in general. When faced with an armed foe how functional would a suit of armour – plate armour be? Huns and horse archers had bows and swords and the ability to switch between both. Why didn’t the Roman cavalry wear a full suit – why did the best outfitted Roman wear chest plate only? Surely if plate armour was practical the Romans would have done it first? I had another look at the Bayeux Tapestry. Those Normans wore chain mail. Much more flexible but apparently just as heavy as plate armour. Could it be that plate armour wasn’t worn on the battlefield?

But what of all of those depictions of knights in shining armour – in history books, in the movies, in fairytales, in Scooby Doo?  What of the tales of the Pre-Raphaelite canvases, the songs of minstrels and the epic medieval poems? Are they all romances? Is none of it based in historic reality? And what of the suits of armour that have been preserved through out history? Were they just for show? What purpose could plate armour have served? The full suit, visor down is intimidating – was this its purpose?

I wouldn’t want by sons to wear plate armour in a pitched battle but if they were on Sentry duty, such a suit may serve its purpose, that is, if the soldier was on guard duty  – or heavily assisted by a page at a tournament.

Where is the Bayeux Tapestry for the later Middle Ages depicting knights on horseback in battle?

Could Edmund Spenser have been hinting at this impracticality of plate armour in the late 1500s when he wrote those lines? Did the major damage to plate armour come by jousts and not battles? No, I believe a real fighting knight wore chain mail – flexibility on a battlefield was key. Which was a great relief to my anxiety when the time came to make the suit. Sewing together faux chainmail and tunic was far less demanding than keeping Junior motivated to paper mache so many different panels of armour.

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Photo Credit – Plate Armour

http://foter.com/photo/museum-breastplate-armor-knight-metal-army-order/