Author Archives: Ron

Limits to Common Sense

Today’s Hamilton Spectator (September 31, 2019) has an opinion piece by Matthew Lau in praise of economist Milton Friedman, founder of the “Chicago School” espousing the virtues of unrestrained free market capitalism. He cites two of Friedman’s ideas, which he treats as obvious:

  • “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
  • “overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control “
Milton Friedman shaking hands with Ronald Reagan while Nancy Reagan looks on.
Milton Friedman and the Reagans. (Wikimedia)

The first he calls ” a statement that just about everyone accepts as true”, and the second is “nearly universally accepted”. In other words, common sense.

https://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/9572354-milton-friedman-s-ideas-still-resonate-we-should-listen/

Now, I have problems with both those statements. I suppose that puts me in some niche, some outlier category of people with weird ideas. Why don’t I think like everyone else?

“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” Speaking for myself, I am more inclined to be careful with someone else’s money than my own. I try to be scrupulous with money entrusted to me, but I reserve the right to spend my own money carelessly and indulgently. Most of the people who are my friends are like that. People who don’t care about harming other people are the people I don’t want in my own life. Fortunately, they aren’t hard to recognize, and easy to avoid.

My observation is that the characteristic most people share is fairness. Children generally have a strong sense of what is fair and what is not, from a very early age. Adults who believe in fairness would think that wasting someone else’s money would not be fair, but to waste ones own is “fair enough”.

“Overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control ” — oh, really? The source of monopoly control, surely, is the natural drive of corporations to capture as much of the market as they can. Governments have often used their legislative powers to fight against the restraint of trade through monopolies, and to instill fairness in the economic sphere. Of course, powerful economic entities try to corrupt governments to favour themselves and to deregulate the marketplace to their advantage.

When someone says that “everybody knows” something, I am inclined to be wary. Many things that were thought to be “common sense” have turned out to be false. “The earth is flat”, “the sun goes around the earth”, “immigrants steal our jobs”, “we can’t spend money we don’t have”, “we all have to live within our means.” (Of course, this last is nonsense. We all borrow from the future to pay for the present: mortgages, student loans, credit cards. If we didn’t, the economy would collapse.)

“Everybody knows” is the sign of the demagogue. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, common sense is probably the second-last. Common sense means not having to explain, research, analyze, demonstrate, prove. Everybody knows, don’t they?

The art of politics

Posted on August 2, 2019 by roncw

The NY Times columnists, a dozen or more,  rate the performances of the Democratic candidates as if they are auditioning for a theatrical performance. They answer questions that include ideas, but their responses are judged on body language and seeming sincerity. The ideas are selected from a list of alternatives, and the candidates are given 90 seconds to extemporize on their choice. They are not expected to sustain an argument, or to hear and respond to lines of reasoning from the other candidates.

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

I remember with fondness an election debate with Mulroney, Broadbent and Turner, the trio I satirized in my play The Beavers. I would have been happy to have had them at our dinner table, discussing with intelligence and insight the issues of the day—in two languages! I disagreed with some of what was said, agreed with some, but overall I was proud that our election was being conducted on that level.

That’s gone now, especially in the US. Some of the candidates are capable of that level of discussion, but they wisely eschew it. They know that only the soundbites matter, and that they deliver them without flinching.

So what? So what if all is fabricated? So what if there is no ground to stand on, no memory beyond yesterday? So what if everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we pick the ones we find most attractive?

Since most of us do not care to live in a real world (although we do), maybe the politician who offers the most attractive fantasy to the greatest number of people should be the one elected.

Reality is that shadowy, ungraspable world that will inevitable determine our fate, but we seem to have given up trying to approach it. Science and philosophy, both fundamentally driven by a commitment to consistency, are increasingly ignored. In their place we have inspiration and invention. In other words (heaven help us), art.

Playing Real Good for Free

One of the pleasures of our 10-day stay in Lisbon was the quality of the street music all over the city. Best of all was a really fine ensemble from Cabo Verde playing near the waterfront, Nôs Raíz. We listened to their concert for about 40 minutes and bought a CD, which turns out to be very well produced. The woman on the left had the job of selling the CDs.

Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.

Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.

Joni Mitchell sings a lovely song called “For Free”, about seeing a street musician playing a clarinet.

And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Street Rapper in Lisbon

Street Rapper in Lisbon

But these days, things are somewhat reversed. A lot of musicians are playing real gigs for free, or just about. And all those downloads that pay tiny fractions of a cent? Out on the street, the busker can actually make some real cash. And sell the CDs, and get some real money.

Busking is an ancient and honorable tradition. I am reading a book about Johann Sebastian Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner, and I came across this item on page 67: 

It is often assumed that, in addition to his singing in church, Bach, like [Martin] Luther, was a Currender, a member of those street-busking choirs in Eisenach, Ohrdruf and Lüneberg which collected charitable money…

Bass busker in London, UK

Bass busker in London, UK

We have a busker festival in Dundas, but I’m underwhelmed. The one real busker, our friend Michael Leech, who plays fiddle real good, was shooed by cops off the street playing outside the confines of the festival a couple of years ago. And he’s been chased away from the sidewalk near the LCBO on Dundurn, so there’s no music anymore outside. Just panhandlers.

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

 

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.

RSC: Tartuffe in Birmingham

Tartuffe (played by Asif Khan) takes a selfie.

The RSC’s new version of Molière’s Tartuffe is a remarkable piece of work. It transports the plot to Birmingham, and sets it in a Pakistani Muslim household. Tartuffe is a fake holy man, who has gained influence over Imran Pervais, and is imposing his fundamentalist version of Islam on the family, while he persuades his patron to sign over his possessions and give his daughter to him in marriage. All the while, he is attempting to seduce Imran’s second wife.

This displacement is a very apt parallel to Molière’s original Christian framework, but it could be undeniably tricky to pull off in these troubled times. And, of course, it needs to be funny! It succeeds thoroughly (and hilariously), thanks probably to the participation of Anil Gupta, co-writer with Richard Pinto, and Iqbal Khan, the director, who grew up in a in a Pakistani family in Birmingham. The script confronts preconceived notions and misconceptions of the audience head on, and manages to be educative and critical at the same time.

Parts of the script have a very loose relationship with the original, and others follow the dialogue quite closely. Most of it is in prose, rather than rhyming couplets, but there are passages that rhyme, and some rap sequences.

Darina, the Bonsnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

Darina, the Bosnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

The play opens with Darina, the Bosnian cleaning lady, with a monologue (not in the original) to help the audience get over some of their assumptions about what a Muslm family is like.   “Also, you should know, they are Muslims. It’s OK. Don’t be scared. I am Muslim too. You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslim? What they teach you in school?”

And that’s the spirit of the rest of the proceedings. Molière’s script, controversial in its time, provides a framework for satirizing hypocrisy and corruption today. It is clear that it is talking about corrupt elements within a community, not the community itself. And, by the way, it’s beautifully performed and staged. And very, very funny.

Richard II at the Almeida: the real Beale

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Almeida to see Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II. He had been a brilliant Timon of Athens at the National in 2012, in a startling production by Nicholas Hyntner that connected Shakespeare’s stark fable to the Occupy movement and Wall Street corruption. I knew that this Richard II had been reworked to focus on the theme of solitary incarceration, and I thought “what a good idea!” Richard in his cell suffers the disintegration of his personality, and halucinates the events that led him to his ordeal. Richard’s agonized musings, rather than historical events, are now the core of the drama.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida. Simon Russell Beale. Photo credit Marc Brenner
Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida

Exploring Shakespeare in this way is very like the experiments back in the sixties and seventies, by Charles Marowitz, Peter Brook and many more. Unfortunately, this production incorporated another aspect of those experiments: real things happening to real people (actors) on stage.

In this Richard II, Beale is hosed with water and has a bucket of filth poured over his head. A bucket labeled “blood” is sprayed over the stage. And so forth.

Well, Mr. Beale is a good sport. However, the play is distorted by these devices. Richard’s suffering evaporates, while we watch the actor letting himself be abused, and wonder what he is thinking, what he is feeling, why he lets them do it to him.

Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida.

There are kinds of performances where we watch real things happen to real people: prize fights, pornography, gladiatorial spectacles and so forth. They are fascinating in their way, no doubt, but I had come to witness theatrical suffering, and the real discomfort of the actor was enormously distracting.

Tate Modern Photo-ops

Picasso retrospective

Art lover at the Tate ModernChildren playing in Turbine Hall

I love the Tate Modern. There’s the shows, of course — the free ones from the permanent collection and the blockbusters. There’s the mysterious Tanks and the clever Artist Rooms. There’s the building, with all its curves and angles and long, long escalators, and the wonderful smooth sloping Turbine Hall. There are the people who swarm through it, who all seem  happy to be there. People from many lands, with many complexions, dressed up, dressed down, dressed tastefully, dressed oddly. And children, running and rolling and skipping up and down the shiny turbine slope. Photo-ops everywhere!Picasso retrospective

The show was Picasso 1932. An argument is made that this was a pivotal year for Picasso, and it seems so. However, Picasso had many phases in a long artistic life, and there are other years that are equally important. But what does it matter?

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Picasso paintings arranged as in 1932 retrospective

Lots to see in 1932, particularly since Picasso had his first retrospective that year, providing an opportunity to include works from other periods. Particularly interesting was an arrangement of a group of paintings and drawings just as they appeared in the exhibition in 1932.

I’ve been looking long and hard at Picasso’s work ever since the great

The view across the river

The view across the river from the members lounge

Picasso and Man exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario when I was in high school. (“Picasso and Man” it was called, though “Picasso and Woman” would have been more appropriate. This was 1964.) He’s like an old friend. I’m always glad to renew our acquaintance.

Gallery 46: Photos of homeless in 1970s London

A room in Gallery 46

Gallery 46 is in Whitechapel at 46 Ashfield Road, one of two adjacent Georgian houses. To be admitted to 46, you knock on the door of its neighbour. The gallery occupies three floors of the otherwise empty house.

The exhibition was “A Sort of Home”, photographs by David Hoffman of homeless people, some taken in a “wet crypt” under St. Botolph’s Church, and others in an unregulated Christmas shelter, run by Crisis at Christmas. These shelters accepted anyone, no questions asked, and allowed unrestricted activities (i.e, drinking and drugs). In this way, they provided minimal shelter for people who were otherwise unable to make use of more regulated facilities.

Black Alber comforts his friend Danny in St Botolph's Crypt wet shelter 1976.

Black Albert comforts his friend Danny in St Botolph’s Crypt wet shelter 1976, photo by David Hoffman.

The photos, black and white, simple and stark in composition, pack a powerful impact. There is nothing sentimental, just straighforward confrontation with the reality of certain lives and circumstances.

In one room, the St. Botolph photos are projected on a wall, accompanied by a sound recording of the hubbub captured by Hoffman on site. It’s a hypnotic and disturbing experience to watch while letting the din wash over.

National Theatre: Consent

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent is what used to be called a “problem play”, an examination from various perspectives of a current hot topic. The topic in this case: consensual sex versus rape. The characters are almost all lawyers or lawyers wives, except for one: a woman from the working class who has been raped. Two of the lawyers are trying the case, one for the crown and the other as a defense lawyer appointed by the Crown to represent the accused, the alleged rapist. “Who’s my lawyer?” demands the victim, but the prosecutor won’t even talk to her; she’s not a plaintiff, but a witness, and he cannot be seen to be coaching her on her testimony.

Consent, photo by Photo by Johan Persson

Clare Foster, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lee Ingleby in Consent at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The lawyers and wives engage in chit chat reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, but we (and they) gradually learn that all is not as superficial as it seems. Infidelities and sexual power games break and rearrange the relationships, and the men (primarily) try to achieve some kind of understanding of their emotional lives. All this to the click of highballs and wine glasses. At the end of the first act, rough reality breaks in; the rape victim crashes the party and discovers that the two lawyers are friends.

In the second act, one of the wives throws her husband out. Begging forgiveness, he ignores her repeated “no” and they have sex. His friends are horrified: technically, they tell him, this is rape.

There are more facets, more issues to explore, but you get the idea. The script, by Nina Raine, is skillful, smart and sometimes funny. The issues are examined with a certain level of evenhandedness. There are no villains, just imperfect well-bred middle-class professionals doing their best to cope.

I liked the play, but I can’t overlook that it pulls its punches. We want to see those lawyers in court. We want to see a lot more of the working woman’s ordeal than we’re given. And we want to see what happens when the gentle people have their day in court. This never happens. There’s all these lawyers, and no courtroom fireworks? They just talk it out, make concessions and compromises, and life goes on. Cop out.

 

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole

Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?