Saturday, 18 April 2015

Perfect Pets

I was listening to a radio discussion about the latest iteration of the film Bladerunner the other day. At the time I saw the film - ie when it first came out - I thought it was mainly a metaphor for "the human condition". That is, the desire of the replicants for a longer lifespan was really a human desire in mechanical clothing.

What I didn't foresee all those years ago was that, within my lifetime, conditions anywhere in my world might begin to mirror those in the film. A trip to Shanghai cured me of any illusions on that score. Or, to put it another way, if you want to know what Shanghai's like, watch Bladerunner..

And, while elsewhere urban environments haven't quite reached the constant warm rain and overwhelmingly dense population stage, slowly but surely the first generation of pre-replicants have been creeping into our lives. No, I know we haven't got things that are indistinguishable from humans yet, but we have got gadgets that it is very easy to anthropomorphise, and some of us at least are already starting to get in a muddle about the dividing line between machine and cuddly little animate being.

The first time I realised this was when those funny round vacuum cleaners that speed about people's houses first appeared. As soon as I saw them for sale, I found them appealing. The only reason I didn't buy one was that I was told they can't cope with old rugs - the fringes make them miserable, apparently. However, I wasn't surprised when I read that people who do buy them start to grow as attached to them as if they were a family pet. When they break down, their owners take them back to the shops they bought them from but, when offered a new replacement, they often get upset. They don't want a lovely shiny thing in a box out the back; they want the one that's part of the family. "No, no, you've got to fix our one", they cry, "he's special".

Which sounds a bit silly, until you start to see how sweet and pliant robots can be.

Or possibly I'm just unusually susceptible to the charms of small machines. I certainly have lost my heart to another example of the genus, which I see from time to time in the big park near my house.

The park contains a lake and around the lake are sloping lawns that often need cutting. Rather than a team of men with noisy mowers, the local authorities have chosen a robotic machine for the job. It rushes up and down the grass with what I regard as a touching eagerness. When it has finished its tasks, it scampers back to its master's side. Without waiting for any kind of reward, it manoeuvres itself into the correct position and trundles obediently up a ramp and into the trailer its been brought to the park in. You can see the man in charge finds it extremely hard to restrain himself from giving it a grateful pat.

Here is a video of the dear little thing at work. It comes from the machine's makers - who are a company called Dvorak, so I assume they are very clever Czechs or Slovaks - and it doesn't quite capture the machine's cuteness, (the machine, by the way, is called a Spider). All the same, if you watch it, it will give you a faint hint of its charm:

So. while someone in my house has just got themselves a small dog, I am not yearning for anything fluffy. Why would I, when I could have a Spider. Like a dog, a Spider comes when you call it. Unlike a dog it doesn't demand food or walks and there is no need to arrange for it be looked after when you decide to go away overnight or for a weekend.

Friday, 17 April 2015

King Lear - Northern Broadsides

It is astonishing that Jonathan Miller is so little used as a director in British theatre. If I ruled the world, he'd be opening a new production every week, (it sounds a lot, but he's no spring chicken so we need to wring the most we can out of him, while we still have him).

In my experience, the plays performed under his direction are intelligent, surprising, entertaining and moving. But others seem to disagree. There is some vague idea abroad - started I think by Stevie Smith, who wrote a mean little short story about Miller as a child (a spoilt child, as she saw it, or a, heavens forbid, precocious child; too often a "precocious" child is really a child who has not been thoroughly and effectively squashed) - that he is egotistic, whereas, at least as a director, he is the least egotistic person alive. His approach to plays is to read the script closely and try to animate it, without the use of gimmicks.

Meanwhile, the likes of Rupert Goold are feted. They are good at hysteria and pyrotechnics. They are good at the kind of productions Hermann Koch describes so well in his rather horrid novel Summer House with Swimming Pool:

"It was the first time I'd been invited to a Shakespeare production. I'd already seen about ten of his plays. A version of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the male roles were played by women; the Merchant of Venice with the actors in nappies and the actresses wearing rubbish bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads; Hamlet with an all-Down's-Syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage, King Lear with Zimbabwean orphans and ex-junkies; Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos projected on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men - the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging form their nipples, performing against a soundtrack consisting of artillery barrages, Radiohead songs and poems by Radovan Karadzic. Besides the fact that you didn't dare to look at how the handcuffs and weights were attached to (or through) the nipples, the problem once again was a matter of how slowly the time passed. I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays."

Miller meanwhile understands that a director is not a primary creative artist but an interpreter. He studies the text, he works with the actors, together they read the playwright's words closely. Thus they are able to bring life to a script, while remaining faithful to it. This is integrity in theatre. There is too little of it on the stage these days.

Anyway, I went to see Miller's production of King Lear, performed by the Northern Broadsides company. It is touring Britain. If you get a chance, go and see it - tour dates here. It is really, really good.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ypres Faces

I've already covered my favourite place in Ypres on this blog. It is St George's Chapel.

The chapel was built after the First World War and so I am able to wholeheartedly approve of it, without any quibbles about whether it should have been left as it was. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I am not as certain about whether the fabric of the old town should have been rebuilt or, instead, left, as some proposed, in ruins - a warning to those thinking of embarking on future wars.

Anyway, no doubt to the relief of the town's inhabitants, Ypres was rebuilt, and, if you can leave aside the question of whether or not it should have been restored at all, you have to admit that what you see at Ypres is an extraordinary feat of restoration. It is also a very pleasant place to visit:
More importantly for someone with my particular obsessions, it is a place with many faces on its walls. Here are some of them:

Okay, this isn't really a face, but a faceless helmet; don't quibble so


I'd look fed up if they'd stuck plastic electricity boxes all round me

I think he's got a headache from all that weird blue light going across him

No plastic boxes, no blue light bar, this one looks relatively relaxed

The sculptor doesn't seem to me to have made much difference between Mozart and Beethoven - the latter simply looks more cross

This fellow appears on the building in the picture above


I have to admit that it took me a few visits to notice how many faces there are at Ypres. You have to look upwards - on the cloth hall alone there are dozens, way up near the roof - I'm still trying to decide whether they are all completely different or whether they start repeating:


If faces don't appeal to you there are always ships:

and pretty brickwork: