Dilettante's Diary

Mar 9/12

Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
NOVEMBER 3, 2023
Aug 2, 2023
July 4, 2023
Apr 21, 2023
Feb 10, 2023
Jan 24, 2023
Jan 11, 2023
Dec 2, 2022
July 26, 2022
July 4, 2022
June 2, 2022
March 25, 2022
March 11, 2022
Feb 14, 2022
Nov 19, 2021
Oct 2021
Sept 16, 2021
July 21, 2021
July 15, 2021
June 11, 2021
Apr 23, 2021
March 12, 2021
Feb 13, 2021
Jan 5, 2021
December 2020
Autumn Mysteries 2020
Aug 12/20
May 25/20
Apr 30/20
March 12/20
Dec 6/19
Jan 29/20
Nov 10/19
Oct 24/19
Sept 30/19
Aug 2/19
June 22/19
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Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page

Reviewed here: In Darkness (Movie); War Horse (Theatre); Smut (Short Stories)

In Darkness (Movie) written by David F. Shamoon; based on the book by Robert Marshall; directed by Agnieszka Holland; starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Frmann, Agnieszka Grochowksa, Maria Schrader, Kinga Preis, Herbert Knaup, Marcin Bosak, Kryzysztof Skonieczny, Milla Bankowicz, Oliwer Stanczak

This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that you expect to enjoy – especially when you find out that it lasts two and a half hours. You’re going to spending much of that time underground with some Jews who are hiding in the sewer system of a Polish city. In this true story, they spent about fourteen months there during the last stages of the Second World War. The Pole who’s in charge of maintenance of the sewers discovers them. Instead of turning them in for the bounty the Nazis are offering for every Jew, he decides to let them stay – for cash. The Jews have a good supply of money with them, so they pay him a daily rate to bring them food and keep their hiding place secret.

Thus, we get the kind of drama that always develops around people hiding in close quarters, be they soldiers, refugees, stowaways or victims of pogroms. There’s sexual tension, thievery, squabbles about food. Two children fight over crayons. Not to say that there aren’t tender moments too – as when two little kids stage a little show for the adults. Over and above the typical hardships facing people in hiding, this situation has the extreme horror of the squalor, the stench, the rats, the dampness and the threat of flooding. A major crisis comes early on when their Polish protector decides to move the Jews to a safer hiding spot in the sewers but there’s only room for about twelve people in the new location. Who gets to go and who is going to be left behind, probably to die?

Obviously, all this helps to drive home, yet again, the horror of the holocaust. Without denigrating the suffering of the people involved, though, it needs to be said that the movie makes for somewhat problematic watching. Given the fact that so much of it takes place underground, in darkness, with people’s faces illuminated only by the intermittent glare of flashlights, it’s not easy to get to know the characters. That makes it hard to care about them as individuals, to feel personally involved in their struggle. It’s also tricky to figure out what’s going on much of the time. So much of the action is furtive and obscure that, rather than sympathizing, you feel baffled. In retrospect, you can figure out most of what happened but, while the events are playing out there in the sewer, you don’t feel very engaged in them.

What does prove very engaging is the character of the Polish guy who’s protecting the Jews (Robert Wieckiewicz). We often see him in his life above ground, inter-acting with his wife and child, his young assistant, the shopkeepers and the Nazis. Time and again, he has to resort to clever subterfuges so that the discovery of his secret won’t prove fatal to him. Shrewd, cynical and self-seeking, he’s not exactly a bad man but his horizons are very limited and he’s no intellectual. For instance, it comes to him as something of a startling new idea when his wife (Kinga Preis) points out that Mary and Jesus and the apostles were Jews. His wife’s ambivalence about his involvement with the sewer-dwellers strikes a very authentic note but their mutual approach to the situation develops in a very moving way.

What helps director Agnieszka Holland make her points is excellent background music, notably a plaintive lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, at a crucial moment. Later, when the Jews are huddled beneath a Catholic church, the lofty music overhead helps to provide an ironic counterpoint to their misery. The only false note in the whole thing, to my taste, would be the shot of a man’s hand extended to help one of the children. The backlighting on the hand makes far too melodramatic an effect, an intrusion of Michelangelo, you might almost say. Apart from that one slip, the movie builds through some truly terrifying developments to a very emotional climax and an ending that says something well worth hearing.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Something of an endurance test, but worthwhile.


War Horse (Theatre) based on the book by Michael Morpurgo; adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company; directed by Nicholas Hynter and Nick Starr; featuring Melanie Doane, Tatjana Cornij, Bvrendan Murray, Richard McMillan, Steven Yaffee, Alex Furber, Brad Rudy, Dylan Roberts, Neil Foster Araya Mengesha, Ryan Hollyman, Tamara Bernier Evans, Patrick Galligan, Bruce Godfree, Brian Paul, Patrick Kwok-Choon, Rahnuma Panthaky, Geoffrey Pounsett, Addison Holley, Cara Hunter, James Retter Duncan; Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

The reviews have been fabulous. Everybody’s saying it’s the theatre event of the season. Friends who’ve seen it are tossing around words like "magic" and "wonderful". And there’s a close family connection to one of the cast members. (That, by way of disclosure.) So we had to see it.

But wasn’t there bound to be some disappointment after all the hype?

No. It’s true what they say. This is a wonder-filled production. You see things here you’ve probably never seen in theatre. (At least I haven’t)

Such as the First World War. Who would have thought they could give you that on a stage in downtown Toronto? It's all here: the guns, the flares, the bombs, the shrapnel, the poison gas, the tanks, troop carriers, the noise, the blood, the poppies, the trenches, mutilated bodies, the nurses in their white veils.

And of course, the horses.

As you probably know, the story revolves around a horse that's bought as foal by a farmer in Devon. The farmer's son names the horse Joey and trains him to plough. Eventually (we’re surely not revealing too much plot here, since you probably have the gist of it already), Joey finds his way into the war as a mount for a cavalry officer.

You probably never thought that a life-sized puppet of a horse, manipulated by three actors who can be seen plainly, could become such a believable and loveable character. But it does. These horse-handlers have managed to produce the quivers, the whinnies, the snickers, the snorts, the twitches of the genuine equine article. And the way the various characters talk to and respond to Joey helps to build up a sense of his character. Rightfully, he occupies centre stage as the true star of the show.

Which points up what makes this show so magical: it invites the audience members, in a way few shows do, to be involved in the creation of the work by using their own imaginations. Your willing belief in the illusions becomes an integral part of the experience. This goes not just for Joey, but for the other puppet and various devices. It’s amazing how a small puppet of a goose on rollers can create the sense of a lively barnyard. Or how puppets of crows flapping over decaying bodies can make you smell the corruption and decay. With a minimum of set and props, some overhead projections of a bit of sky or rooftops set you down emphatically in the various locales, be they idyllic farms and villages, desolate battlefields or the tossing waters of the English Channel.

Several moments deserve to be called coups de theatre. One of the most striking is the moment when we see Joey’s transformation from young colt to full-grown horse. Others occur when a semi-circle of chorus members (actors in smaller parts) suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere. I suspect these effects are achieved partly through a very clever lighting design. Because banks of lights upstage are facing the audience, it means we can’t see what’s happening behind them until the actors emerge from the gloom in an eery way. Sometimes, they’re singing very lusty songs that rivet your attention. Another very effective musical element is provided by two women who stroll through the proceedings, one with a violin, the other with an accordion, providing vaguely Gaelic-sounding ballads that add a haunting effect to the narrative.

All these astounding production values, you should know, are put to the service of a very simple, straight-forward story. The characters are not complex; the conflicts are standard. Don’t go looking for George Bernard Shaw. In spite of the context of the war, it’s essentially a sweet, sentimental tale. But aren’t all horse stories?


Smut: Two Unseemly Stories (Fiction) by Alan Bennett, 2011

Ordinarily, a book that consists of just two short stories wouldn’t get much attention. (It probably wouldn’t even get published.) But when you’re dealing with Alan Bennett, the situation is far from ordinary. As one of the celebrated members of the Beyond the Fringe troupe from the 1960s, and the author of innumerable prize-winning tv scripts and movies, such as The Madness of King George and The History Boys, not to mention his very entertaining memoirs and journals, he can command a certain respect for practically anything he chooses to publish.

Even a little volume with such a dubious title. The first story tells about Mrs. Donaldson, a widow, who regularly acts as a patient in training sessions for medical students. Since that gig doesn’t bring in quite enough cash, she decides to take in roomers. The first ones to take up her offer are a medical student and her boyfriend. Sounds pretty anodyne, in the way of, say, an Anita Brookner novel. But, true to the promise in the title of the book, the dear lady gets herself into a rather peculiar and atypical (for her) situation with her roomers. The fact that Mr. Bennett can make this rather preposterous situation very nearly believable is surely a credit to the seductive skill of his story-telling.

The second story revolves around a very handsome – and very narcissistic young man – whose mother is infatuated with him and who does not approve of the unattractive woman he has decided to marry. He has chosen her because she has lots of money. The cast is rounded out by the young man’s rather lacklustre father and another young man about whom we can’t say anymore without giving away too much. Nothing less than a sexual farce of multifarious couplings develops around these five people, something that might be a blend of Muriel Spark and Beaumarchais. (At one point, the tone of the writing also made me think of Graham Greene’s lighter works, eg, the short story "May We Borrow Your Husband?"and, sure enough, along came references to Mr. Greene.)

As to the salacious promise of the title, nothing very graphic or explicit is depicted. Yes, sex does occur but not in a way that most of us would call "smutty". Maybe the mere mention of certain things is supposed to be titillating. It seems that a certain British attitude to such matters infuses the stories, a sort of slap-and-tickle sensibility, the kind of thing that was so well summed up in the title of that famous play No Sex Please: We’re British.

Quite apart from any questions about the subject matter in Smut, the writing shows that Mr. Bennett is at his best as a dramatist. The dialogue snaps and crackles electrically. It surprises me, though, that some of the narrative passages have a rather ponderous quality. There’s even a certain clumsiness that you wouldn’t expect from a distinguished gent like Mr. Bennett:

True, the ignorance of the students gave him umpteen opportunities for sarcasm in which he was happy to indulge except that having begun by showing off a good deal he had got the idea (rightly) that this wasn’t a side of him that Mrs. Donaldson much cared for.

This proposal too, was not unexpected, her first line of defence her not long-removed appendix and the presumed need to treat her recently perforated abdomen with some consideration.

He and Betty had once done it in a tent overlooking Nidderdale, and [sic] area of outstanding beauty though it was it had not been a success and a vile tea in Pateley Bridge had not redeemed it.

Even allowing that the "and" is probably a typo, that last sentence doesn’t read well. You get the feeling that the material may have been composed orally without careful attention to how it would work on the page. One of the most troublesome and irritating aspects of the written text is the dearth of commas. Many lines, for lack of that simple device, require re-reading to make sense of them:

That apart it might be thought strange, his sexual inclinations being what they were....

...her mother-in-law had been neither so when Graham arrived home from the bank and there was always a delicious meal to be had it was a novelty.

The reflection problem (of which Betty was unaware) was unwittingly solved when hanging up some of her clothes she opened the wardrobe to reveal that the interior of the door was backed by a full-length mirror, so once she was in the bathroom Graham with a little experimentation worked out that fully opened the wardrobe door would give a decent account of what, all being well, would be taking place on the bed.

Something seems to have gone wonky with syntax in this one:

Careful about money an offer like this would normally have appealed to Graham but even he could see that acceptance risked turning what was a transaction into a relationship.

These somewhat surprising blemishes wouldn’t be mentioned if we weren’t dealing with a writer of such distinction. In any case, they don’t sabotage the many satisfactions the book offers. Trivial as the material is, you can find some meaning in it. The first story would seem to show that our behaviour in certain situations may show us that we’re not who we thought we were. The moral of the second story would have to be that, no matter where you’re positioned in any network of relationships, you may have no idea what’s going on with the other members. Succinct and droll lines come along now and then, such as: "Graham’s father having nothing to say, said nothing." The medical students in the first story may seem to be egregiously obtuse but you certainly get a vivid sense of the generational divide between them and Mrs. Donaldson. And this passage, a certain textual bumpiness not withstanding, would bring a knowing smile to any reader who’s been observing the human condition for more than a couple of decades:

One of the functions of women, Mr. Forbes had long since decided, was to impart an element of trouble into the otherwise tranquil lives of men. His wife, for instance, though almost alarmingly robust, claimed to be seldom altogether well, though it wasn’t anything one could put one’s finger on. True the trouble was often to do with that department Mr Forbes might have been expected to put his finger on but rarely did while at the same time being something intangible which, unless the man kept it in the forefront of his mind, allowed him to be accused of a lack of consideration and of being heartless. What was wrong, Mr Forbes felt, even with someone as stalwart as his wife was that the man was not perpetually aware that there was something wrong. That was what was wrong.


You can hear the chuckling from Jane Austen's niche in the Abbey.

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