Friday, 13 December 2013

Christmas in London

The end of term, and the imminence of the trek home for the holidays, warranted a touristy day out in London. Despite having spent the last 12 weeks living at the end of Tottenham Court Road, I didn't feel like I'd made the most of being so central, and enjoying the city that I've been lucky enough to live in. Whilst always lively, London is bustling at Christmas. Excitable tourists, frantic shoppers and avid sightseers create a cheerful, festive setting.

Starting at Southbank, we scampered through the Christmas market on to the Hungerford Bridge. After a wintery night, the fog had cleared leaving a clear, but very chilly, morning - and a beautiful view of London. Wandering across the bridge, we came across a group of primary school children on a school trip singing along to Jingle Bells with a busker. That's the nice thing about the city: these two completely different groups of people had come together, linked only through a mutual enjoyment of Christmas, to sing. We enjoyed listening to them and, feeling appropriately Christmassy, moved on to our next location...

...The Natural History Museum.
Though not conventionally festive, I love the Natural History Museum and just wanted to visit to see the dinosaurs. Every time I walk into the museum, I want to be Ben Stiller in 'Night at the Museum' and play with all the exhibits! But in the spirit of maturity...and not being thrown out, I refrained. As it was only a quick stop on our tour of London, we headed straight to the dinosaurs. I think I was more excited than all the children in the museum.

Fun fact of the visit: dinosaurs died of hay fever.

Next, we decided to walk through Kensington and Chelsea. Feeling slightly out of place, we got excited about all the pristine houses that we'll never be able to afford; the unusual shop displays, and the extravagant fur coats and wedding dresses. Whilst we failed to spot anyone from 'Made in Chelsea', we got to see the Christmas lights at the Saatchi gallery and experience the exclusive Christmas atmosphere of the Kings Road.

Our last stop led us into Knightsbridge to London's most famous department store, Harrods. Naturally, we headed straight to the Food Hall, and were in awe of the selection and character of the foods on offer. I immediately searched for Paul Hollywood's produce (Great British Bake Off fangirl); I was unsuccessful in this quest, but the cakes on offer were super impressive! Harrods had every food item you could possibly want, with rooms ranging from confectionery to fruit and vegetables to 'Harrods ready meals'! I can't imagine ever doing my food shopping in Harrods, but visiting the infamous Food Hall was a curious experience nonetheless. 

We finished our adventure in Harrods' Christmas Grotto, and exploring the Toy Kingdom. A life size Lego Santa greeted us, and immediately a group of 18/19/20 year olds were transformed into children - fascinated by the replica Harry Potter wands and £1500 toy elephants. In fact, I never wanted to leave Toy Kingdom: I would have quite happily lived there! I wish I'd had the opportunity to go when I was a child. Aged 19, I was so enthralled by all the toys and books, such that I can't imagine how excited I'd have been aged 7 or 8. It never fails to amaze me how extravagant toys have become: with £30,000 cars for children and life size toy camels on offer, I'm intrigued as to who the recipients of these gifts are. 

For the first time, I feel like I've really spent time exploring the city in which I'm living. In the last 12 weeks, we've not ventured much further than the very local sights (Covent Garden, Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square), so it was a series of visits that were long overdue. We returned feeling very tired, but very festive- and in no doubt that London is a fantastic place to be at Christmas. 


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Land of Cush Exhibition, Dubrovnik

War Photo Limited is an exceptional gallery in Dubrovnik, focused on educating the public about the horrors of war through photography. Despite being most famous for its images of the Croatian Civil War, I was engrossed by the 'Land of Cush' exhibition.

Exhibited as a celebration of the first anniversary of South Sudan's independence, Cedric Gerbehaye's photos reveal the abhorrent consequences of Africa's longest civil war, and represent the birth of a new nation. Having previously known very little about the conflict in Sudan, I was, perhaps ignorantly, shocked to learn that there have been very few periods of peace in the country since 1955.  However, it was no surprise to discover that the 2012 conflict (the Heglig Crisis) was a fight over an oil-rich border.

Gerbehaye's photography is a product of the Khartoum regime responsible for the most frightful destruction of South Sudan. Until very recently, 'humanitarian disaster, war crime, crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing' dominated South Sudanese society - creating an environment where constant 'air raids, land battles, mortar fires, massacre and sexual violence' formulated a horrifying reality. Gerbehaye's images powerfully exhibit this, creating a picture of a victimised society against the backdrop of a spectral, bleak environment.

I left this exhibition feeling, in a word, empty. I was both disconcerted that I had been oblivious to this conflict, and completely overwhelmed by its new-found publicity - to me, at least! I wanted to know more about Sudan and the hidden conflict beyond Western influence. In this respect, Gerbehaye has been successful in conjuring interest in Sudanese culture and politics, and exposing the appalling nature of the war. Nevertheless, whilst the images are chilling, they seem to be enveloped with a simmering sense of relief - a final celebration of independence.

But, Gerbehaye leaves us with a daunting prediction. 'A new war will surely spill across borders quickly, given the stakes: oil resources - 80% of which are located in the south, access to the Nile, agricultural land and religious rivalry between Christianity and Islam'. 

Is Gerbehaye really celebrating, or simply exposing a vulnerable region which he anticipates to become ever more susceptible in the future? 


Monday, 14 October 2013

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company 2013

Whilst there's something curious and gratifying about approaching a show with few presumptions, my preconceptions about 'Hamlet' were auspiciously preserved, and surmounted in David Farr's 2013 production. I like 'Hamlet' and, after months spent studying it, I understand 'Hamlet'. I was intrigued as to just what Johnathan Slinger, "one of the RSC's great discoveries in recent years", had to offer. Aided by Farr's scrupulosity and Bausor's creativity and innovation, Slinger's portrayal of one of Shakespeare's most complex and disordered protagonists is absolutely commendable.

At a first glance, Bausor's set design is nothing more than an eclectic mix of Shakespeare's exploitation of the tragic genre: saturated by scattered skulls and cold lighting; an ethereal 1960s aesthetic, located somewhere between a working-men's club and a public school gym. However, it is perhaps through David Farr's infatuation with fencing equipment that the set becomes a microcosm or, indeed, a metaphor for the inner-workings of Hamlet's mind. Is the fencing motif simply a route into introducing swords into a modern society, or does it reflect Hamlet's paradoxical powerlessness? Presented with "the motive and cue for passion", Hamlet is not limited by his overriding fear; thus, perhaps the use of the foil reinforces Hamlet's untimely prevarication.

Similarly, the emptiness of the set, mingled with Bausor's meticulous attention to detail, may become a metaphor for Hamlet's inner psyche - a method of staging not unknown in the RSC. Despite a compelling stage presence, Slinger's Hamlet is physically and psychologically confined in his environment. The single wedding balloon, wound up in the metal rafters, leaves a bitter taste in the audience's mouths.

Interestingly, the set is free of any resplendent idiosyncrasies. Whether this reveals Hamlet's detachment from his family as a notion of royalty, or it is simply perceived as undesirably cliché, the audience is left unaware. Thus, Bausor creates a judiciously limiting space; one from which Hamlet can not, and does not, escape: that which is simultaneously claustrophobic and isolating. 

I went into this production with an incredibly defined image of who, and what, Hamlet was. Slinger played exactly my Hamlet. He is demonstrative and mesmerising as the grief-stricken Price; a premeditating, impetuous son; and an audacious and abusive lover. Slinger embraces the multi-faceted nature of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and utilizes this opportunity, arguably, to the point of excess. Slinger's portrayal is notable in its brutality towards Ophelia (Pippa Nixon): forcing her to undress, and smearing mud in her face. Whilst criticized by many, I was enamored by this interpretation since it emerged from a broader psychological exploration of Hamlet; these crazed junctures transformed Slinger's Hamlet into a wholly rounded and plausible character - a victim not only of jealousy, greed and lechery, but also of ineludible mental instability. 

Jonathan Slinger is surrounded by a good cast - though perhaps only a good one. Greg Hicks impresses as a convincing Claudius: impeccable stage presence, and the consistent nature of his character seems to root an, otherwise, capricious production. Claudius and the Ghost are doubled: Hicks is a brilliant ghost - compelling without being imposing; stirring an extraordinary moral, spiritual and physical presence. This doubling of characters further emphasises the complexity of the play; Hicks' Ghost reveals the merging of healthy minds with unhealthy bodies and, equally, Claudius' healthy body and corrupted mind. 

Nixon's portrayal of Ophelia is contemporary and innovative; she is concurrently intensely vulnerable and deceptively self-determining: all of which synthesizes into a confusing mix of madness, grief and deficiency. She is characterised visually by flowers, emphasising her fragility relative to the assurance demonstrated by contrasting military props. Nixon and Slinger establish a memorable stage exchange; their individual susceptibility complementing and exaggerating each other's, and creating a complex and tormenting relationship. 

The dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) however, was not nearly as authoritative. The mother-son relationship was somewhat understated, if not lacking. Whether this was a case of Slinger's character being too overbearing, stifling the potential for response; inadequacy and superficiality in Cornwell's Gertrude; or simply poor direction, I am unsure. 

Slinger's Hamlet was exactly what I'd hoped for; Farr's direction wasn't. That doesn't mean to say that I wasn't impressed, I was, but I couldn't have anticipated the originality with which he approached this production. He does justice to the intricacy and diversity of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', mastering a provocative set, an accomplished cast, and successfully fostering a thrilling interpretation of the play. 


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Dubrovnik: The Pearl of the Adriatic

For me, the best thing about summer is the annual summer holiday. After a very monotonous and stressful few months, occupied by A Level exams, I was more than ready for some relaxation, some culture, and some sun. This year's destination: Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Located on the Adriatic Sea in Southeast Europe, it's not a part of Europe I'd ever visited before. We were greeted by a rocky, undulating terrain; 30°c Mediterranean heat, and a culture incontestably different from that in Central and Western Europe. Whilst Dubrovnik is becoming one of the Mediterranean's most prominent tourist destinations, its fairly recent rise to recognition is obvious in the type of tourists it attracts and the relative lack of commercialisation. This was one of my favourite things about the city: we were able to walk down the cobbled streets leisurely; and, somehow, it's much easier to appreciate a culture when free of Starbucks, McDonald's and day-to-day invariability. 

I was lucky enough to stay in the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel: a 15 minute bus ride from the Old Town. The hotel itself was built into the side of the cliff, encapsulated by pine woodland on one side, whilst the sea unfolded along the front affording spectacular views. It was equipped with every facility and luxury imaginable: large indoor and outdoor pools; several bars and restaurants; tennis courts; a gym; a spa...the list goes on! For my family, holidays are usually spent sight-seeing as we don't ever seem to have time to lounge around. However, as Dubrovnik is such a small city, we were treated with time to enjoy our beautiful hotel: relaxing afternoons spent in the spa, or around the pool - cocktail in hand! 

Never having been to Croatia before, we were keen to see exactly what the city had to offer - and spent our first day simply wandering: discovering which treasures we wanted to explore further. Whilst home to a multiplicity of museums, walking around Dubrovnik Old Town is like being in a museum itself. A curious blend of Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture - and evident Italian inspiration - made it a beautiful city to be part of; alleviated by the Dubrovnik Tourist Board's effort to rediscover traditional Croatian culture, with evidence of historic costume and music scattered around the city. 

Of all the interesting and unusual sights I saw in Croatia, I have three eminently memorable experiences: walking the walls of Dubrovnik; riding the Dubrovnik Cable Car, and the War Photography Exhibition (post to follow). 

The medieval stone walls surrounding the city are the most distinctive feature of Dubrovnik; originally constructed in the 8th century, the walls have been damaged (by siege and earthquake!), and rebuilt to form the impressive structure they are today. Walking the walls felt like taking a step back in time. The walls were enhanced by canons and armoury, adding an element of reality to the experience. It was then that Dubrovnik became a destination of huge historical importance and fascination to me, over and above a sunny holiday location. 

The Cable Car ride was extraordinary simply because of the views it offered. In 4 minutes, we were transported 778 metres up the Srd Hill overlooking the city. I couldn't have anticipated the incredible views from the top: we were able to see approximately 40 miles in all directions - looking out over the Dubrovnik and the Adriatic, and the mountain range marking the border between Croatia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. At the top of the hill, we, unexpectedly, approached an amphitheatre and an elegant war memorial honouring the Croatian War of Independence. From the serenity of the Srd Hill, it was hard to believe the shocking conflict Croatia was living in only 10 years ago. We sat the top of the hill, aside the memorial and watched the sun set over Dubrovnik. It was beautiful, almost to the point of appearing mythical - and poignant to be enveloped in such a diverse, historically-sinister and unrefined setting. 

For me, the measure of an exciting holiday is leaving having learnt about a new culture, and experienced some memorable sights. The measure of a relaxing holiday is having read lots of books. Whilst in Dubrovnik, I was captivated by numerous scenes and exhibits, and read 7 books in just as many days. I enjoyed delicious seafood; built up a very healthy tan, and had a parrot sit on my head. Dubrovnik has certainly earned its title: The Pearl of the Adriatic. 

Friday, 9 August 2013

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below...

...Words without thoughts never to heaven go".

These words from 'Hamlet' became the inspiration for my blog. Shakespeare's Claudius, the master of these words, ensures that they are portrayed, contextually at least, with angst and guilt. Whilst they definitely don't carry the same moralistic and religious undertones in my reinvention, I can't help but think that my desire to coalesce my thoughts and words into something eloquent and worthwhile echoes Claudius' own supplication. The inclination to expound my thoughts with words perhaps reflects Claudius' compunction, that his words will convene to eliminate impenitent thoughts.

So, perhaps it is that I have too many thoughts, which consequently leads me to feel that too many things are left unsaid, or that thoughts and words are too often emaciated in casual conversation; or, indeed, that I wish I had the words and the opportunity to elucidate more of my thoughts. 

'Words Fly Up' was thus born out of my predilection to, at the very least, provide an outlet for documenting the range of cultural experiences I've been lucky enough to have; and ensuring that my words and thoughts coincide somewhere between 'up' and 'below'.
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