I made the impulse decision this morning to join a couple of friends to see Oleanna down in London. This particular production has been running for a while at the Garrick Theatre now and stars Julia Stiles (Ten Things I Hate About You, Mona Lisa Smile) and Aaron Eckhart (Possession, Paycheck), the former of whom I was quite keen to see.

We rolled up an hour early and managed to buy the best seats for only £17.50 when they normally cost £52. I’m told that you can do this at practically every single production in both London and the US and it’s the sole reason why most students can afford to see so many plays. I’d always known at the back of my mind that such things like this existed, but they’d always seemed rather remote and time-consuming possibilities instead of the remarkably trouble-free experience I had.

There was very little I knew about the play before it began; I knew it was about sexual harassment in a university, and that you were guaranteed to be intensely frustrated by the end of it. Considering that the total time of the play was a little over an hour, and there were only two actors, it turned out that beyond those two things, there really was very little else to the plot – not that this is meant as a denigration, but simply as a description. It was a highly intense and focused hour, with the two characters constantly interrupting each other (the script supposedly has more ellipses than words in it) in difficult performance.

Neither Stiles nor Eckhart struck me as giving outstanding performances, but then again it seemed to me that the play didn’t really give them the opportunity to show their range beyond anger/frustration and confusion – however, that’s just the way the play was written. Indeed, Eckhart’s self-serving condescension in the first act, and Stiles’ descent into righteous (and confused) fury in the third act left me extremely frustrated, as I’m sure was intended by David Mamet, the playwright.

So, a good experience which I will certainly repeat with all the other plays I can find.

After the play we waited outside the Stage Door to get autographs. Eckhart emerged first, looking particularly drawn but still signing autographs (including one on my ticket). He did disappear quite rapidly though, citing tiredness. Stiles, on the other hand, sneaked out through some other entrance to magic herself into a waiting car no less than five metres behind the crowd awaiting her. For some reason she still seemed quite happy to see all the fans, perhaps because they were behind glass.

This turn of events led me to attribute Aaron Eckhart’s tiredness to the fact that it was his turn to greet the fans, and Julia was in a good mood because she got to sneak out while we were distracted. In any case after Julia disappeared I could be heard exclaiming loudly, “What the hell is this? I didn’t even want Aaron’s autograph, and now Julia’s gone?”

Still, a quick trip to Harrods later saw us happily munching on Krispy Kreme donuts. They are as good as I have been led to believe, and for the benefit of readers I will now explain How To Get Free Donuts from Harrods.

When you stand in line at Krispy Kreme, they give you one free donut anyway. This display of generosity stuns most customers who happily munch away and order large amounts of additional donuts. However, the more savvy among us will realise that the only way the staff know that you have already received a free donut (which they are obligated to give all customers) is if you already have one in your hand.

Clearly, the solution is obvious: on receiving your first donut, immediately make it disappear. Whether it goes into your pocket or a bag or someone else’s bag is immaterial – what matters is that it is rendered invisible as soon as possible. At this point, since the staff are worked quite hard, the person who gave you your first donut will wander off somewhere else and another staff member will offer you additional donuts on seeing that you apparently haven’t been given one yet.

This strategy works best with three people. This allows the first two people to immediately backhand their donuts to the designated Donut Concealer (usually someone with a bag) and also allows for people to rotate around without arousing excessive suspicion, as might occur with larger groups. In a single queue, you can repeat this as many times as you dare; we only managed to get two free donuts each in total but I’m of the opinion we could have managed to get another one if we hid our second donuts as rapidly as our first.

A final word of caution – with great power comes great responsibility. If you get two free donuts each, and then go on to buy another donut, then you have approximately 600-900 kcals of donuts each. This is a rather enormous number of calories which significantly exceeds the amount that a normal person can burn off in a serious one-hour exercise session. Therefore, treat this strategy as more of a one-off trick rather than something to be repeated regularly.

His Dark Materials

Lal, Kim, Lat (Lal’s sister) and I met up in London last night to see the first part of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’. Naturally, in true Culture style we only managed to get to our seats in the very nick of time, not once, but twice! (it is nothing less than an abomination that they should have an interval of a mere 15 minutes between the two halves).

We were seated near the back of the upper circle so we were some distance away from the stage, but I didn’t feel it impeded our experience very much – of course, I would have rather sat right up at the stage but then that would’ve been a bit more expensive and difficult to sort out.

The play began with Will and Lyra, sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Gardens, talking to each other from different worlds, which was a rather good introduction to the story, and this was also used at the start of the second half. From there we plunge headfirst into main story of ‘The Northern Lights’ which in the play is more or less left untouched. While I can understand that, at least for the first book, you need to leave all the major events and characters in, the restrictions of a 6 hour play (3 hours for each of the two parts) mean that several sequences are compressed into only the most essential details – which unfortuantely leaves a lot of the wonder and charm out of them. Take Lyra’s stay at the bear palace in Svalbard – in the book, there are a fair few things that happen there. In the play, it deserves a scant five minutes – Lyra pops in, talks to the usurper King, there’s the fight, and that’s it. So to me the compromise between time and accuracy was acceptable, even good, but imperfect.

Generally, the actors were extremely good. Lyra and Will were cast very well and interacted smoothly. Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel was also well done, but you don’t get to see that much of him in the first half. Other good characters included the Master of Jordan College and Lyra’s mother.

The various supporting roles suffered from slight cariacture and totally bizarre accents. The audience was left in no doubt as to the identity of the main bad guy (for the first part, at least), Fra Pavel, as he walked onto the stage with an unidentifiable but unmistakably evil accent and – even more amusingly – a shimmer of violins and foreboding music every time he opened his mouth. Was this really necessary? I don’t think so. Ditto for the head of the Church, who had the strangest Irish/American/Italian accent. To their credit, they were both convincingly nasty.

Lee Scoresby, the Texan, had an overdone accent and seemed relegated to the role of comic relief, mostly. Iorek the bear, I felt, was played very well although Lal and the rest had issues with the accents of the other bears.

By far the worst offenders in the play were the witches. Serafina Pekkala easily won the title of ‘Most Irritating Voice’ – a kind of overdone, grandiose, booming and Very Profound voice. She was backed up by the other witches, who couldn’t seem to decide whether they were real witches or some idealised Amazonian warrior tribe who danced around a lot.

Finally, Father Coren of the gyptians was played perfectly.

The set design was excellent, and for someone like myself who hasn’t been to a major play or musical for a very long time, the versatility of the stage was highly impressive. The centre and surround of the stage would regularly move up and down and rotate between and during scenes and the backstage crew were clearly hard at work switching things around to make them look convincing. Given that HDM is apparently the cheapest production around at the moment only makes their efforts more praiseworthy.

The fact that I haven’t mentioned the daemons yet goes to show that they were done very well. About a minute before the play started, I think Kim mentioned something about the daemons being manipulated by puppeteers in black suits. This immediately filled me with a sense of impending horror, and certainly for the first five or ten minutes of the play I found it hard to look past the puppeteers and see the daemons (also voiced by the puppeteers). However, after the novelty wore off I quickly forgot about the guys in black suits and instead looked at the daemons themselves, which were manipulated very well and amusingly, Mrs Coulter’s in particular. Only the main characters were given ‘proper’ daemons – the minor characters had to do with daemons they carried around themselves.

On the whole I found the play very enjoyable. I haven’t read the books for at least a couple of years but it seems that Wright has so far been very faithful to them. There are many things that could be improved, but even more that shouldn’t be changed. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the next part on Tuesday.

Incidentally, we all thought that watching all six hours of the play in one afternoon wouldn’t be that difficult. Think again. Three hours was long enough.

Some links about the play in today’s Guardian – an article about Archbishop Rowan William’s praise of His Dark Materials and the praise itself.


I’ve just come out of a production of Copenhagen at the ADC Theatre here in Cambridge. A more complete post and review will have to come later, but I have to describe what I felt. Through the stages of revisions and unveiling of hidden and assumed meanings throughout the play, at the end it seemed that everything around me was suffused – almost turgid – with meaning. Yet whenever I tried to pause and think about a single item, the meaning flitted away. Brings a new meaning to the term ‘thoughtful’.


Whenever I go on holiday, I always think it’d be a good idea to do something spontaneous and unusual. Most of the time though I don’t really bother since there isn’t anyone I know who’s around to watch, and in any case the ideas I have invariably involve a fair amount of risk or money. So on Saturday, after a long visit to San Diego Zoo and the nearby science center, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society performing in the park and looking for actors.

The Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society puts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday in Balboa Park, and practically all of their actors simply walk in off the street (as it were). After watching a couple of scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought it’d be fun taking part and within a few minutes I was being coached through Act IV Scene III as the Second Lord.

The scene was fairly long and the guy I was talking with mainly was pretty good. As for my own performance, I don’t know how that went – the audience didn’t throw anything at me, at least, and there was even a good bit of applause at the end. Having an English accent obviously helped.

A real problem with doing this sort of thing in the UK is that the weather is completely unreliable, and since the point of the society is to get members of the public to participate in a classical production with the minimum of effort, it really does have to be done in a public place like a park with decent weather. Of course, this is no problem for San Diego, which I have long since concluded has the best weather in the world.

Into the Woods

Saw a truly wonderful musical at Oxford called Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. The first half is a medley of various fairy tale characters including Jack and Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, brought all together by a quest by the baker and his wife. It’s a traditional musical first half with fun songs and has plenty of inside jokes that adults will appreciate.

The second half is far darker and more realistic (well, as realistic as you can get in a musical) with characters being killed and strife all over the place. Although the moral of the story is layered on a little thick at times, it’s still a great change from most lighthearted musicals you see these days. Plus, the songs are still great. I just ordered a used CD of the songs from Amazon (my first experience with ordering used goods from them). Anyone here seen the musical before?