Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Happy Birthday Oscar! (Wilde)

'The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Trafalgar Studios'
As I nudged past the greying Quentin-Crisp-esque queens (the very best type of queen if you ask me) and the politely disinterested sixth form English class into the small basement room, I couldn't help but ponder if I had made a bad decision.
I had decided to take the 16th October off some weeks before, as a way to best celebrate the 160th birthday of my hero and idol, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. The fact that I had a load of paid leave to use up at the same time was entirely coincidental I assure you. I had seen that there was a play based on his trials (people sometime forget there were two trials, the initial libel action of Wilde vs Queensbury, then the subsequent criminal trial of Wilde vs Regina) currently playing at London's Trafalgar Studios.
I jumped at buying tickets, as not only was there to be free booze, but Wilde's grandson himself, Merlin Holland was to be present for a question and answer session afterwards! Head full of rapturous imaginings, I travelled up to London, only to immediately disappoint myself when I realised it was the evening show the extravaganza of free booze and questioning was to be at.
Ho hum. Settling down with a programme and a ludicrously expensive glass of prosecco I was far too awkward to resist getting (seeing as everyone else had one) I waited for the show begin.

Given we were crammed awkwardly into the small basement studio of the theatre, the play didn't really formally begin, more dissolve into existence as John Gorick (Oscar Wilde) made his entrance on stage, re-enacting Wilde's speech from the opening night of 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' Gorick's portrayal is probably the closest I shall getting to seeing Wilde in flesh. At times witty, evasive, catty, kind, selfish, naive or wise but almost always invariably charming. It also helps too that he speaks in suitably mellifluous tones. Franklin Dyall said Wilde's voice was like "brown velvet, played like a cello." Whilst this isn't quite that, I think he makes a jolly decent stab at such a thing anyway. Wilde remains an interesting and flawed character in this play, evoking both sympathy and pity at the depths that his pride and shame takes him to.
This as much as because of Gorick's portrayal as well as the script itself by Merlin Holland & John O'Connor, drawing much from the transcripts of the trials themselves. It would have been so easy to have portrayed Oscar as an epigram-throwing Saint Sebastian but instead the play portrays as something more complex and flawed, something which is ultimately more interesting and human.
Wilde whilst in the dock is out of his traditional comfort zone, that of hurling earth-shattering bon-mots like flower petals. He is not openly angry or upset, but he is most certainly uncomfortable. He tries to twist and turn away the line of questioning from himself, and indeed to turn away any hint of impropriety with all these pretty young men he spends so much time with.
His beautiful, effervescent speech is used to ensnare and strangle him, to drag him down into the muck and mire, it is still horrid to watch, even a century after these events have happened.

Aside from Wilde's portrayal by Gorick, is there much else to say about the play? Well, yes of course, but given that Wilde does literally and metaphorically take centre stage for so much of the action, the supporting cast of Rupert Mason and William Kempsell mainly act as means for Wilde to advance his story forward. However, their respective roles as Edward Clarke, Wilde's defence attorney (Kempsell) and as Edward Carson & Charles Gill, the two respective prosecutors (Mason) deserve special attention for the adroit and adept manner in which they are played, whether hectoring or coddling, wheedling information  out of Wilde or witnesses, they definitely grabbed my attention.

After the play I slowly meandered homewards to my awaiting coach, thinking. Was Wilde a martyr? He could have so easily escaped to France (as is mentioned in the play) or have dropped the libel action as soon as possible, when he saw it could never possibly go his way. Was he trying to defend his honour in some doomed, misguided attempt? Was he foolish? Maybe. Maybe any of these things really. Even though Wilde's career was effectively over from the time of his sentence to two years hard labour (despite the later emergence of De Profundis and the Ballad of Reading Gaol) and his name and good reputation was tarnished and thrown into the mud for decades to come (to this day, Holland's family has not gone back to using the name Wilde) he has now become an idol, a symbol for the decadence and beauty of both the late Victorian period and of the aesthete and bohemian movements that he espoused. Perhaps by allowing the bestial and cruel trial to go ahead, he was nailing his colours to the mast and allowing not just himself, but an entire epoch and segment of society to die with him, to instead allow the hypocritical and moralistic popular Victorian society to wash over him and in turn expose their own venalities. I could be wrong, I almost always am. What I am sure of at least is that Wilde remains my love, misguided as he may have been, martyr he may have become, beautiful in mind and soul as he always shall be.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde is on show at Trafalgar Studios 2 in London until the 8th of November. I sincerely hope you go to see it.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Last Laugh

The old man was dying. And he had come to accept that. He had lived a long, eventful life, and this was the end, he knew it had to come sometime. Being stuck in this nursing home while it happened was the irritating part. The room that the old, old man was in was filled with wheezing, bleeping and blinking machinery, with their electrical tendrils snaking about the room and sometimes hooked into the body of the old man, often in the most embarrassing locations.
The view from his rooms window, as far as the old man could see consisted of a dual carriageway, its roar muted by double-glazing to a low murmur. The skeletal branches of a dying elm tree tapped occasionally against the window, as though knocking to seek entry.

The knocking sound seemed louder than usual in fact. The old man stretched his neck with what seemed like a great deal of effort, as though trying to ascertain best where the noise was coming from. He managed to get a view of the doorway. An orderly was knocking on the open door. "Mr Chariman? Your family is here to see you?" she said in a honeyed voice. The old man hissed phlegmily, as though trying to speak, but the orderly had already walked off down the corridor.
"Dad you old so and so! Fancy not seeing us in so long, eh?" A man in a cheap polyester business suit and garish tie strode in, bringing a group of four others in behind him. The son had his hair slicked back with brylcreem, and a number of ugly gold cygnet rings littered his fingers. A permanent gormless smile lay on his face like a stain. "Come on kids, come and see your grandpa!" the son brayed. He strode across to a chair by his fathers bedside and jumped down into it. He clapped far too hard a hand on the old man's shoulder. Following him in was a small squat woman with peroxide blonde hair and bulging eyes, two squealing twin children who were fighting over a plastic gun, and a sullen, pale teenager with her face fixated on the white screen of a smartphone. The children immediately took up positions by the far corner of the room, nearest the window. The woman awkwardly stood in the middle of the room, as though awaiting orders.

"So Dad, how are we then? Still knocking about?" Michael had initially gone for the tactic of speaking as loudly and disjointedly as possible, so beloved of those wanting to speak to the elderly, but changed tact somewhat one he noticed the jarring silence of his father.
"Dad, you not speaking? Whats wrong with you, you old bugger?' he looked round to his wife. "Stacey, luv, what do you think the matter is with him?"
"Look at his chart, that might say" the woman suggested. Michael gazed down and flicked through the pages. "Well! It says here that he had a stroke two months back! Fancy that!" Michael exclaimed.
Stacey came closer to the bed. "That must explain all the calls we had whilst we were in Tunisia. Thought it was them bloody tele-marketers!" She began to laugh. Her laughter was uncomfortable and high-pitched, like a burst of machine-gun fire, and made the old mans hearing aid whine.
"Well we might as well try and see if we can get you to do anything while we're here! Come on kids, come and see your granddad!" Michael tried to get the two twin boys to put down their plastic gun, which by this point they were bludgeoning each other over the head with, but to no real avail. Michael softly chuckled to himself and talked half to himself, half to the old man in bed. "Heh! Them two, Kyle & Kane, they're going to be two lads about town when they're older and no mistake! Ah well, boys will be boys eh?" Michaels rambling trailed off into awkward nothingness, so Stacey decided to take some initiative.

"Come on Maisy! Come over and see your old grandfather!" she chirped. Maisy shuffled over from her perch by the corner closest to the window, sat down in one of the chairs by the bed, briefly looked up from her screen, grunted something that might have been construed as a 'hi' and went back down to her urgent business. "Awww, wasn't that nice, see Maisy?" Stacey said, seemingly unaware of anything going on around her.
The afternoon visit drew on, and the shadows of the dying elm tree began to cast a darkness into the room. The attempted conversation lurched to other matters. Michael clapped his hands together, as if in prayer, and gave his best earnest expression."Now Dad, you know we haven't been in the best of straights lately, we could barely afford that second holiday to Tunisia this year, and given the kitchen needs doing..."
"What he means Dad, is that if you really wouldn't mind, you could just will us that ring there..." Stacey lilted.
Her small, piggy eyes flicked to the large, gold wedding ring on the withered hand of the old man. "I mean, Judy died nearly five years ago! It's just wasting away being on you! You could help us so much if you just gave us that old thing!" Stacey tried to plead for it as though it was a worthless trinket, a tactic cheapened somewhat by the the hungry look in her eye when she looked at the ring.
"Anyway, you're not going to need it where you're going anyway!" Michael said.
Perhaps this had overstepped the mark. What looked like cold fury entered the old man's eyes. Michael couldn't tell really, maybe they were cataracts. He and the old man held each other in their gaze for a few seconds too many. Long enough for the twins to put down the now-broken toy gun they were fighting over and look up. Long enough for Maisy to look up from her phone in bewilderment. Long enough for Stacey to think maybe giving another burst of her machine-gun laughter would be a bad idea. Michael broke eye contact and looked down at the ring. The old fart wouldn't be able to do anything, what if he just...?

A knock at the door punctured the silence. An orderly and a short, be-suited old man wearing thick rimmed spectacles stood in the doorway. "We have Mr Chariman's solicitor here, he would like a few signatures for his legal papers" said the orderly. "But we were...." started Michael. He looked back into the eyes of his father. "Fine. Lets go." As the orderly walked back down the corridor, Michael approached the man, "You won't get much out of him mate" Michael bitterly said. "He's gone completely gaga." The solicitor shifted awkwardly in his shoes. "Come on, lets go, there's no point being here anymore." Michael gave the old man one last pat on the shoulder, though to the old man it felt more like a shove. No-one said anything else.

The old man's family filtered out of the room, their raucous burbling once again filled the hallway as they left. The s man waiting outside shuffled in nervously once he was sure they had left for good. "So Stanley, how was your family then?" he asked the dying man, almost in a reverential whisper. Stanley said nothing, but gave a mournful, chesty rattle. The other man drew closer to the bed and sat in the recently occupied chair. "We both know you don't have much time Stan, old man, and as both your friend and your solicitor I just wanted to make sure you were absolutely sure of this will I drew up for you." He looked over to his friend in the bed, a keen awareness seemed to fill his eyes that hadn't seemed to be there in many months. This must have meant something to the solicitor, for he tried to push forward his line of questioning. "Shall I read you the will again, just so you're sure?" Silently, nearly imperceptibly, Stanley nodded. The lawyer began the lengthy recitation of the will, Stanley all the while not saying anything, just keenly concentrating on the words being reedily intoned. After a few minutes, the solicitor had finished. "So are you utterly sure these are your wishes then old chap?" Again, the old man nodded. And as though gathering up his energies for a great physical effort, he shifted up in bed and licked his parched, dry lips. "Read me the part where I disinherit the entire family again, please" he croaked.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cartoon Confessional

I put my love of animation and cartooning all the way back to my childhood. Me and my sister were often shipped off to my grandparents to babysit whilst my parents were working, and to the pass the time while I was there, I often selected a tome from the cavernous bookshelves in my grandparents living room, sat back in an old recliner and read page after page of Peanuts, or Hagar the Horrible, or the New Yorker compilations of cartoons of the year. Whilst other grandparents I knew had old Readers Digest novel compilations and the like littering their shelves, my grandfather was different. My grandfather, John Power, was a cartoonist.

You won't have heard of him, virtually no-one has outside of the cartooning fraternity of the time he was working, but he was a cartoonist and a gagwriter nonetheless, and that just meant the world to me. Once I found out that the cartoons I was seeing in these books had sometimes been made from a gag suggested to Chon Day, or Mischa Richter, or Bill Hoest, or Don Orehek, (if you know those names, I salute your nerdiness) and that this work had then gone on to be published in Punch, or Playboy, or best of all The New Yorker, my adulation for him grew and grew and grew.

Never mind the fact I couldn't draw (I still can't for that matter) from the moment I knew of his trade, I wanted to emulate him in every way possible. To his credit, my grandfather taught me what could be taught to a over-enthusiastic nine year old with saveloys for fingers. The importance of a clean and clear line. The basics of displaying character emotion, and perspective. Most importantly of all, how to draw a cartoon suit. None of these lessons, bar the last one has stayed with me. I may break down in tears in envy at the skill and quality of some of the work and fan-art I see online, but if you want a stereotypical business suit circa 1954 drawn from a face-on perspective, I'm your guy.

The dream to be  a cartoonist soon faded, but my admiration of my grandfather and love of cartoons and comics grew further. I became quite the precocious connoisseur, for instance harbouring especial fancies of the mordant humour of Sam Gross, or the distinctive art style of George Booth above others. These cartoons took me to an absurdist and strange world, and its comics like these I have to thank for forming my sense of humour (for better or worse) I eventually became so entranced with these miniature worlds of whimsy and morbidity, I repeatedly begged my grandfather to give me one of his cartoon books. He could have easily refused, given how precious they were as a reminder of a life of work to him, but he eventually relented and allowed me to choose one. I chose a compilation of the best New Yorker cartoons of 1962, to which he inscribed using his scratchy ink pen 'To Oscar, with love from Grandad- April 2000.' He said in his twinkling way afterwards, so as you never could tell whether he was being facetious or not 'I may leave you some books in my will then.' I thought nothing of it at the time, I just held onto this book like a sacred talisman thereafter. I have the very same book before me now. It's a bit battered after being moved around various bookshelves for fourteen years or so, but still intact. According to an address stamp on the inside cover, I notice it belonged to Dick Wingert, friend to my grandfather, and the creator and artist of cartoon-strip non entity Hubert, a strip so dull hardly anyone remembers its existence, despite running for nearly fifty years. But lets move on.

Tied in with this burgeoning love of panel and strip cartoons was the fact that my grandparents were the only people my family knew who had satellite television. This acted as the gateway into the world of animated cartoons for me. For several hours each day, I sat transfixed at my grandparents widescreen television (this was the late nineties, so it was a CRT and therefore only slightly smaller than Burkina Faso) watching bright, exciting and manic glories on channels such as Cartoon Network. What especially fascinated me were reruns of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, I laughed maniacally at the beautifully over the top violence, revelled in the sheer bizarreness and  how alive and active these characters were. Trapped in a very boring and lonely childhood, these cartoons were like having 500 volts zapped down my spinal column. When I saw Daffy Duck get steadily and steadily more angry at the unseen animator in the classic 'Duck Amuck' I kept thinking 'Why don't I know anyone like this?' 'Why isn't my life this exciting and manic and just... fun?' I was in love. The real world seemed drab and tedious and unnecessary in comparison to these wonders I was seeing and reading. There's a wonderful quote by Matt Groening (whose Simpsons acted as a gateway drug to his arguably even better comic strip 'Life in Hell') that goes like this-

"I think the appeal of cartoons is their handmade quality. Regular writing, that’s typeset, is edited, and you can’t tell how many hands have messed with it. But a cartoon in a newspaper is generally hand-drawn and hand-lettered, and to me cartoons in magazines and newspapers are little windows. There’s all these grey columns of type and grim reality and unpleasantness, and then you get these little frames of joy. That’s what cartoons are to me. Handmade. Undiluted.

That's a quote that has always stayed with me, outside of the grey and drab world, cartoons are always there to escape into. As well as offering an ejector seat from the world we find ourself in, cartoons also offer a mirror up to our faces and can make us confront issues, show us the ridiculousness of life as we live it, or can just be like I've implied, a bunch of funny drawings. That's what so wonderful about them, like literature cartoons and comics can be so many things to so many different people. You want serious drama? That's fine! I can recommend Maus, or Persepolis or Grave of the Fireflies....oh you want some thing lighter, but still offering a deep emotional message? Well sure! How about  Walt Kelly's Pogo, or Peanuts, or Calvin and Hobbes? Perhaps my personal favourite of Gravity Falls? This is the thing, to brush aside such a nuanced and varied art form as 'kids stuff' or stupid or unworthy of ones attention is not only denying the talents of hundreds of thousands of talented artists and storywriters, but also the hundreds of millions of fans who love and are devoted to this work. Try it for yourself before nay-saying, art comes in many forms and it is ludicrous for society to just take a unchanging and binary definition of it just because what comes along to challenge the old way of doing things may be strange, or liked by different sections of society than what comes normally.

My love of cartoons waxed and waned over the years after first falling in love with them. Other things came and went to replace my affections. But my obsession was always there in the background. Meanwhile my grandfather grew older, more fragile, until he eventually had a stroke in mid 2011, which he eventually died due to the complications that arose from it last year. He hadn't been himself for these years, the dementia had seen to most of that. But even then, when I was first introducing my girlfriend to him, I said, as if to stir a memory out of him; "You were a cartoonist weren't you Granddad?" His face cracked into a proud and wistful smile. "Yes." he said. 

Sometime before the funeral I found out that my Grandfather had gone through with his facetious half-promise of fourteen years ago and had indeed willed his entire cartooning legacy to me. His books, his framed originals of cartoons gifted to him by friends, his files upon files of ideas. Aside from the fact that I would have to rented a warehouse to house all of this, I thought it better to just leave it there at my grandmothers house. That way I can always go back and try and recapture the kindness and infinite patience of my grandfather to his strange, overenthusiastic grandson. I suppose this has rekindled my love of the animated and drawn format really. Why else would I be writing so candidly as I am now? Why else would I be voraciously reading and watching and collecting cartoons at  a pace I haven't done since childhood? All I know is that I have a lot to be thankful for and lot to catch up on.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Bojack Horseman

I don't know whether it's because I'm either an inveterate man-child or because I just genuinely love animation as a rich and nuanced art form that can tell so many different stories in so many different ways, (thinking about it.....nah the first one obviously) I have been on something of a cartoon binge lately, which finally led to me to watching the entirety of Netflix's new original animated series 'Bojack Horseman' after having had it recommended to me by a friend.
Bojack Horseman is a rather odd premise for a show when you describe it in writing, (but then again, so many good shows do sound odd when you do so) Bojack, (deftly voiced by Will Arnett) is a horse in a universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side. He is a washed up TV star living off of the glories of a successful TV sitcom called 'Horsin' Around' (think Full House meets Mr Ed) that ended 19 years previously. He spends most of his time laying about his Hollywood mansion, slowly getting drunk with the closest thing he has to a best friend, an amiable slacker called Todd (Aaron Paul). Things take a break from the usual alcoholic norm as Bojack is assigned a ghost writer called Diane (Alison Brie) to help write his tell-all-memoirs in order to shoot him back to fame, or at least a close approximation of it.
Now so far, so normal I guess (if you count talking drunken horses as normal), the embittered has-been celebrity has been done before in comedies, such as in the recent 'Episodes' starring a self-parodying Matt Le Blanc, and more notably in the second series of 'Extras' starring Ricky Gervais. However, I don't think they have done this with the same degree of commitment and effective pathos that Horseman offers. Whilst Bojack Horseman is, first and foremost, an animated comedy show (and happily, yes it is very funny) it does offer a beautifully dark and depressing glimpse into the shallow tackiness of the Hollywood establishment.
Bojack's fame is a double-edged sword so to speak, he's flattered and pleased when recognised for his previous TV work, but remains bitter and depressed that he is unable to focus on what he really wants to do, in this case a biopic of a famous racehorse called 'Secretariat.' He enjoys the trappings of fame and wealth, through his vicarious and sometimes vulgar displays of wealth (at one time he buys the restaurant he is arguing with someone in just so he can continue doing so long into the night) but at the same time is repulsed at the vacuous and tedious nature of it all. He's callous and petty, at various times sabotaging the burgeoning musical-writing career of his friend Todd to avoid loneliness, as well as trying to ruin the wedding of his ghost-writer Diane after he falls in love with her. But at the same time he has a deep knowledge that he carries all of this guilt and selfishness within himself, and he knows that it is fundamentally wrong and he should be trying to make amends. Perhaps not a jerk with heart of gold, more a jerk who at least realises he's being a jerk in the first place.
Putting such an emotionally complex characrer into the shiny and superficial world of Hollywood is wonderful, as it allows him to interact with (and bear the blows) of so many different characters and situations, from the blithely unaware and chipper rival Mr Peanut Butter (Paul F Tompkins) who doesn't realise he is a rival or an enemy at all, to the bitter and determined agent/on again off again girlfriend of Bojack, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris). Whilst Bojack's public face to these people is usually one of blunt sarcasm, one feels there is a much deeper relationship with the people he meets below the surface, one of dependency and reliance.
This is one of the few times in recent years where I think the balance between emotion and comedy has been pulled off with a much better degree of panache than usual. Too much pathos and you end up with the mawkish atrocity that is 'Derek', too little and you end up with your audience unsure as to whether to laugh at it or not, (and this is how we end up with terrible portmanteau words like 'dramedy' oh dear god kill me now) But I feel 'Bojack' treads that fine line quite well, veering competently between the sublimely ridiculous in one episode (Bojack enters into a public feud with a Navy Seal, who is actually a seal, after he takes the last box of apple muffins at a grocery store that the seal had apparently 'bagsied') to the more serious (Bojack finds that a best friend he fell out with  is dying from cancer and tries to make amends, and even within this they're able to find time for a nice silly subplot involving Todd)
Unfortunately the show's received decidedly average reviews, which I feel is a great shame as this show has a lot of potential, especially given another series has already been green-lit, so I advise to go check this one out for yourself.