The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

Christchurch: How we mourn

It’s been 12 days since New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack, and some things are slowly getting back to normal. The shock has worn off and we’re surrounded by an increasing flow of hot takes; vigils that some say turned too political and all the usual suspect columnists back on their pet peeves. Hard questions are going to be asked about how it happened, and what we could’ve done. Life, despite everything, goes on.

But the signs of an outpouring of national grief, of 50 deaths on a scale that feels a lot like our tiny island nation’s own 9/11, are still all around. We’re still having national memorials – Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is playing at one this week.

Even in my little corner of Auckland, you see signs and tributes. Piles of flowers at mosques, chalked messages on the sidewalks, signs at the roundabouts. Even on a windswept beach about as far from our bustling downtown as you can get without going for a swim, a lovely handmade memorial of colourful flags fluttering in the black sand, seashells carefully shaped into the one symbol all the bloody terrorists in the world can’t wipe out – a human heart.

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They are us, New Zealand.

IMG_5346.jpgWhat do we do when the worst happens?

This isn’t New Zealand, they said when the news broke.

Of course, it is, because it happened here. 

It can happen anywhere. It’s happened in almost every town I’ve lived in at one point or another, now. But New Zealand is seen as a haven, a too-good-to-be-true Hobbiton in the eyes of the world, a fantasy which often ignores our very real problems.

But it shouldn’t happen here. Our country has never, ever had a mass shooting of the kind that claimed 49 lives so far in the Christchurch mosques, people who were born in New Zealand, people who came to New Zealand from all over the world to find better lives. Having lived here nearly 13 years now, I can say that this is a kind, open-hearted nation for the most part. “They are us,” said our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and they are.

IMG_5357.jpgA few thousand of us came together in Aotea Square in downtown Auckland today to mourn in the hot sun, to show these racist white supremacist shitheads out there that we are better than them. 

I fear that the internet has reached its final singularity as the world’s greatest propagator of hate speech, a never-stopping infernal engine that amplifies, accelerates and agitates all that is the very worst about the human spirit. I wish I knew what to do about it. 

What do we do when the worst happens? I haven’t a bloody clue, to be honest, but I know that gathering with a thousand or two other people who cheer New Zealand’s swirling, ever-changing diversity and who understand there’s room on this planet for all kinds of races and creeds made me feel a little better, if only for a moment or two. 

Flying away: New Zealand’s extinct birds

300px-Giant_Haasts_eagle_attacking_New_Zealand_moaIt’s not an insult to say that New Zealand is literally for the birds. 

Birds were the dominant species in New Zealand right up until the first Pacific Islander settlers arrived here a mere 800-900 years ago – a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. We were the real-life Jurassic Park – an island ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, busily doing its own thing filled with creatures strange and bold. 

While it’s been knocked about quite a lot by us disruptive humans in the centuries since, if you squint hard sometimes you can still imagine what NZ, this land of birds, once was like. 

I sit out on my deck on a calm evening and can hear the gorgeous hooting black-and-white tui, the massive kerurū pigeon with its distinctive whoosh-whoosh wingbeats, chittering flocks of colourful rosella parakeets originally from Australia, and more. 

New Zealand was a beautiful paradise floating off all by itself in the southern oceans for millions of years, but it didn’t take much for the bird-based ecosystem to be nearly destroyed after humans came along. 

I wish I could have seen some of New Zealand’s extinct giants in the wild – the massive moa, taller than a man, running across the Otago plains, or the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle in history with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (3 metres). These were the apex of New Zealand’s pre-mammal ecosystem, and would’ve been something to witness indeed. They were huge, probably terrifying birds, but they didn’t last long after the first people, ancestors of today’s Māori, arrived here. 

Huia_BullerOther species lasted longer. Another long-gone beauty is the huia, a gorgeous little thing that went extinct around 1907. The huia had one of the more striking differences between male and female birds in the world – the male had a standard-issue shortish beak, but the female had a dazzling, bizarre bill that was twice as long as the male’s, arcing downward like a rainbow. The huia were extremely sacred in the Māori culture, with feathers worn at the most sacred occasions. 

Then there’s the sad and wistful story of the Stephens Island wren, which by the time humans took notice of it was only found on one tiny island in the Cook Strait between North and South Island. The story is that the species was entirely wiped out by the local lighthouse keeper’s cat, which isn’t entirely the whole truth, but a good example of how easy it was to knock native NZ species off the map entirely. A few feral cats and an entire species is gone forever.

220px-XenicusInsularisKeulemansLittle battlers like the wren – which was apparently flightless – didn’t stand much of a chance when settlers came knocking with their cats and rats and the like. 

New Zealand still has many of the world’s unique birds – the kiwi, so strange and curious it’s like a living fossil, is our national icon and so famous it’s what most people around the world call us all. It’s nearly become extinct several times in the last few decades, saved only through the hard and innovative work of some very dedicated people.

But sometimes I wish I could still see the ones that aren’t here anymore and the wonders they must have been. 

The Pop-Up Globe: Keeping Shakespeare real

img_0696One of my highlights of the last three summers has been working at the remarkable Pop-Up Globe theatre in Auckland, a working replica of the famous second Globe Theatre of 1614 that Shakespeare and company used. 

Its design closely replicates the actual experience of the punters of 400 years ago, lords and ladies, groundlings and commoners. The Pop-Up Globe, created by Dr Miles Gregory, has been so successful it’s gone on to be replicated in Australia and is now in its fourth season here in New Zealand. 

I started volunteering there a couple years ago, and it’s been an amazing experience. You help the crowds, deal with any issues, and get to bask in the glow of some amazing actors performing the greatest plays in history. The Pop-Up Globe has done some smashing productions (A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the fairy dialogue done entirely in Māori and an all-female Henry V are among my favourites) and sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. 

img_1910I’ve loved Shakespeare since a superb high school teacher (thanks, Mr. Lehman) showed us how the Bard wasn’t all dusty words and impenetrable verse, but a living, breathing body of work that contains some of the greatest stories ever told. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not merely read aloud in a halting adolescent voice in a dry classroom. 

The biggest appeal of Shakespeare to me is that he seems bottomless – you can spend a lifetime studying the plays and still come up with new angles, new turns of phrase and new spins on characters you’d never imagined. 

One of the great things about seeing a play multiple times is how it changes, in small and big ways, from show to show. The weather, the audience, the actors’ moods, a quirk of fate. Watching Richard III five or six times in a row and it’s never quite the same show. You get a heroic appreciation for the actors and crew who sweat and bleed for their art nightly.  It’s why theatre will always be there because it’s so cracklingly alive compared to staring at a screen.

img_4348A joy for me is seeing how into the plays the audience still are in 2019. This isn’t boring Shakespeare – trust me, when the stage blood starts gushing into the audience during the bloody close of Richard III, you wouldn’t call this stuffy. There’s a witty, relaxed vibe that’s perfect for a New Zealand summer. We get all kinds of crowds – young, old, repeat customers and those who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in their life.

A big highlight has been working at a dozen or so school shows. You haven’t seen Shakespeare’s gender-studies comedy The Taming of the Shrew until you’ve seen it with a capacity crowd of 700 screaming high school girls. 

I’ve just been a tiny, tiny part of the Pop-Up Globe, working somewhere near 50 shows in the past three seasons. But it’s been an immense highlight of my summers and it’s a star performer of New Zealand’s theatre scene. Long live Shakespeare. 

New Zealand: In the summertime

img_0767I’m in my 12th year as a New Zealander now, a statistic which kind of stuns me. That’s about a quarter of my life now, and I’ve been a dual citizen of two nations for several years. And I’m finally starting to think of January as summer.

One of the biggest inversions of American life to adjust to for me was Christmas no longer being the icy, sweater-wearing time of year. I grew up in the mountains of California and had many white Christmases. In New Zealand Christmases are the sparkling blue of the ocean and clear skies (or the splashes of early summer rain), the white of clouds and sun bouncing off golden sand, the red of blooming pohutukawa trees. Instead of sleigh bells it’s the growing buzz of cicadas echoing around the bush. 

In New Zealand, EVERYTHING shuts down for about two weeks from Christmas through New Year’s. Many businesses close entirely. It’s not just Christmas, it’s our summer school holidays, our big break in the year. Throughout January, I get tan, I constantly have the feel of sunblock on my skin, and sand seems to be everywhere. From our house, there’s about 10 beaches within a short drive; hundreds within an hour. 

img_4609I’ve finally noticed these last few years that my mind has shifting toward accepting January as the summertime, toward seeing Christmas as summer holidays. The heat and sun seems normal. In a way, it makes a lot more sense to roll everything together – the bustle of Christmas, the optimism of a  New Year, the languorous stretch of school holidays. By early February or so, things start to get back to normal. Most people return to work in January sometime, and by February, while it’s still summer heat for months to come, school’s back in session, the commutes and chaos of ordinary life all normal. 

It’s Christmas. It’s New Year’s. It’s summertime in New Zealand, and all’s well. 

Why you don’t want to be a Tim

I said I wasn’t going to write a lot about politics on this here blog, but the Tims of the world went and pissed me off.

Tim was one of several in a New York magazine article featuring young people who say they probably won’t vote in next week’s primaries.

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How did not voting work out for everyone who skipped 2016? 

I first voted in a US election in 1992. I first voted in a New Zealand election in 2008, and because I’m a dual citizen, I get to vote in both countries now (New Zealand has national elections every three years; America’s presidential elections are every four, and the ‘mid-terms’ every two, so I get to vote a lot of years). 

I’m pretty happy in New Zealand, where I’ve lived for 12 years now, nearly 1/4th of my entire life. We’ve got an awesome Prime Minister right now in charge who’s way cooler than I’ll ever be, and I like having a leader I respect and feel like I can root for. But I still vote in the US, too. I even vote for the sheriff and council in the little mountain county I grew up in and I vote on the 40 or so bizarre and incomprehensible propositions California loves to put on each ballot. 

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The voter turnout difference between New Zealand and the US depresses the heck out of me. In New Zealand’s 2017 national election, 79% of enrolled voters voted. In the United States, 55.5% of the voting age population showed up. In New Zealand, you’re required to enrol to vote at age 18 (or when you become a citizen). In the US, you’re not. 

Despite wanting to keep this blog a T—p-free zone, I don’t hide my political leanings and my feelings on the current direction of the US. I regularly get New Zealanders and others telling me they’re horrified about what’s happened to my country. But I still vote. Even when they make it kinda hard for me to vote overseas – this year, for some reason I had to re-register in California again – I vote. I never quite know if my vote gets there or if it “counts” or “matters”. In my voting lifetime, I think I’ve backed a lot more losers than winners. But I still vote. 

It should be easier in America, I fully admit. There’s gerrymandering, there’s voter suppression efforts that reek of racism, there’s about a dozen different ways to cast your vote depending on what state you live in, not all of them foolproof, and for some reason, America still thinks having Election Day be on a Tuesday, a regular work day, instead of a weekend or even a public holiday, makes sense.  

The pendulum swings a lot in the US. It swung one way in 2008, another in 2016. Who knows which way it will go next? I don’t have time for anybody living in America in 2018 who doesn’t have time to vote this year. Who thinks it won’t matter. It may not change things – I’ve given up election forecasting for good after the last couple of years – but what the hell else will? 

I mean, seriously, Tims of the world. Just do it.