British sweet tooth

cakes.jpgThe British fondness for sweets is alive and well, as we quickly discovered. Tea time is not simply something tourists want to experience—it is the national pastime, at all times of day!  Here is a lovely sampling of tea and cakes we enjoyed overlooking the Avon on the Pulteney Bridge. Note the brilliant sunlight: it was a day that had me combing the town for sunscreen.

Our day trip to Avebury stones—the highlight of our wanderings through prehistoric southwest Britain—took us to several enchanting villages, notably the impressively preserved Lacock, loaded with half-timbered 15th century structures and thick roofs of authentic thatch (see image below). Lacock was lovely, and some on our tour enjoyed recognizing the village from many (many) BBC history dramas, including “Wolf Hall” and a few Harry Potter films as well.

The magnificent site of Avebury, with its huge rings of hundred-ton standing stones dwarfed thatch1.jpgStonehenge as far as I was concerned. Poor Stonehenge had the uphill battle of trying to contend with our ubiquitous onslaught of Stonehenge imagery—we’ve all grown up seeing that heroic stone circle reproduced on tote bags, tea towels, T-shirts, and toys. The surprisingly small circle of real life stones didn’t have much of a change to impress. But Avebury did!

Circus in Bath

veggiescircus.jpgBut it wasn’t all cakes in Bath, a sophisticated spa town with a University, upscale boutiques, and a history of partying since the 18th century heyday of Beau Nash.

On the upper edge of the old city is one of many architectural beauties, a circular park ringed by cobblestoned streets and three elegant wedges of five-story Georgian rowhouses. It’s called the Circus. And at one corner is the town’s excellent little bistro, Circus, whose menu is long on local, seasonal, and organically-sourced dishes. We enjoyed salmon, potted local grouse, outstanding salads with tender greens and organic hazelnuts, and opulent plates of freshly-harvested vegetables.

October in London

Frpub.jpgom surprisingly delicious pub food to even more surprisingly great weather, London delivered many close encounters with artistic masterpieces, memorable music, lavishly green parks, and way too many packs of tourists, all taking selfies and shopping like it was 1989.

Pub food was skillful, both rustic and yet more loaded with freshness and flavor than I’d recalled from a visit to London 5 years ago. Sweet shops, cake emporia, and sanctuaries of tea all offered expanded savory menus along with incredibly beautiful — and very sweet — pastries.

Fortnum & Mason, however old school and giggle-making, continues to make the world safe for exquisitely tasteful sweets, such as the almost Baroque pastry cream and fruit creation below.

Serious Sweets

marshmallows1.jpgOpulence in Sugar!  Fornum & Mason’s own housemade marshmallows!

In pastel Queen Mum colors and flavors.

more reflections on England, to be continued….

directing a superstar

hamlet-anastasia-hille-large.jpgDirector Lyndsey Turner had her hands full with the historic production of Hamlet that closes next week. Building a production around a high-wattage celebrity must bring a unique set of challenges.

Here she was with the reigning theater superstar Benedict Cumberbatch, whose personal arsenal of dramatic weaponry stresses physical and vocal dazzle. Pitted against the young Prince of Denmark was gifted Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, a veteran of stage, screen and TV who brings both emotional thunder and intelligence to his role as Claudius, the new King.

The play clearly pits the young prince against his murderous uncle—the dynamic chosen by director Turner. Yet the hefty cast of supporting players—the strong-headed and duplicitous mother Gertrude, the naive maid Ophelia, Continue reading “directing a superstar”

Stellar Pinot from Muns

photo-copy.JPGWhat a pleasure to re-discover a favorite pinot noir. I’ve never found anything from Muns Vineyard less than interesting, and in the case of the 2009 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Pinot Noir, both interesting and accessible.

Balanced tannins and nuanced fruit, an optimum 14.1% alcohol, and lots of unfolding flavor notes ranging from earth and sassafras to spice and plums. I managed to save a few bottles, and now wish I had a boatload of this wonderful example of SC Mtn. terroir.

Thanks to Ed Muns and Tony Craig! (You can find this wine at the Muns Vineyard website.)

Knowing a hawk from a handsaw

hamletimg.JPGFinally, after months of anticipation, I was there at London’s Barbican Theatre watching the much-heralded Benedict Cumberbatch bedazzle the well-worn coinage of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Was the experience worth traveling 5000 miles and 400 years to savor? In a word, yes. In another word, unforgettable.

Cutting to the chase, the world’s most famous (and highly groupied) actor sinks his panther teeth into the plight of Denmark’s prince and unleashes gossamer revelations, nuanced depths, and an uncanny physical ability to translate psychological trickery into gymnastic grace.

Buffed to a chiseled gloss, Cumberbatch is sexy, savvy, and endlessly watchable—speeding, dancing, and stunning his way through the murky bits of dialogue and plot business, while slowing down and taking all the time in the world to explore each one of the celebrated speeches. For example, when he comes down smartly on the “is” of, “that is the question,” the entire soliloquy pivots and becomes an intimate aside to us, the listener. He is considering the tantalizing prospect of suicide, as well as the possible negative entailments of ending his life, and letting us consider each step of the inner argument along with him. This Hamlet confides that he knows that we know he’s only feigning madness in order to entrap his opportunistic uncle Claudius (played with oleoginous charm and lethal intelligence by renowned Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, of Rome fame.)

Those who witnessed his astonishing physical abilities in the theatrical Frankenstein last season will already be convinced that Cumberbatch is an actor gifted with moves that Barishnikov might envy. And he uses his body as another linguistic vehicle, Continue reading “Knowing a hawk from a handsaw”

about the liveness of live theater

showbiz-hamlet-rehearsals-benedict-cumberbatch-03.jpgSo, anyway, yes it was and always is worth whatever you can pay to be in the theater, in the moment that the play’s the thing.

Digital images of a van Gogh painting will give you the basic nuts and bolts of color, composition, and overall import. But they will never give you the history of the painter’s marks, the choices of when to make this gesture, or when to use cobalt instead of ultramarine. The exact thickness of an agonized brush stroke. For that you need to be face to face with the actual oil painting.

It is a mutual pact of energy between the actors and the audience. To be in a darkened theater, feeling the collective breathing of the audience as it responds to the smallest, sudden, unique gesture of the actor’s voice and body. To be completely there, and ready when the smallest new innovation, and unplanned physical grace note erupts, only that once, from the ensemble on the stage—this searing fairytale intimacy is why you endure arduous travel, long hours, uncomfortable seats, a paucity of ladies rooms, whatever it takes, because in the living moment of performance the artwork becomes immortal.

The actors work not only with cerebral intelligence, but with bodily intelligence. The intelligence of the fingers, the feet, the voice. At any unplanned moment they may deliver a line through the raising of one eyebrow. The audience murmurs its agreement. In the case of Cumberbatch last week, he may reinforce the anger of a decision with a single leap onto the table, or the slowing, growling, snarl of a single word.

We are there. We are with him. Our bodies hum. And he can sense it. It is an intense dance—when it’s done right. That’s why you’re in that seat, that darkened camera obscura of the imagination. The man who put the definitive sheen on the English language (Wm. Shakespeare) lives most fully in those moments of performance. All the rest is archival recording. Sweet and important, but nowhere near the eros and eternity of live performance.

You know what I’m talking about. You know I’m right. I worked hard and saved up. It was worth the trouble and the planning. The problem with it all is that once you experience this level of theatrical performance, you can’t go back.

To Play or Not To Play?

th1.jpgIs it too late for Shakespeare? I don’t mean the powerful texts themselves, the probing psychological depths, and brilliant literary analysis of what it is to be human—you know, the stuff that William Shakespeare, hard-working playwright, bequeathed to everyone who loves the English language.

No. What I’m asking is, is it too late for young, Selfie Generation audiences to actually sit through a performance of a Shakespeare play? Have they the attention span? Are they capable of submitting themselves to un-ironic moments of joy, sorrow, terror? Do they even know what the words (or scenarios) mean?

Since I’m asking, I’ll answer: not “no they don’t,” but “hell no they don’t!”

Given what I’ve seen lately in a certain redwood glen very very close Continue reading “To Play or Not To Play?”

True Confessions: a Critic’s Lament

While no one—and I mean no one—will sympathize with me, it’s tough being a critic. The smaller the arena, the harder it is to tell the truth. Why? Well, because essentially no one wants to hear it.

Oh everybody wants to hear the good news. They insist on teasing out the positive soundbites, the lines that can be pulled out and used for advertising purposes. Or to put on their Facebook site. Or to tear out of the paper and carry around in their wallets for the rest of their lives.

Yes, everybody thanks me when I provide feedback that supports their claims to be great at what they do. That’s when people are glad they can point out that someone whose opinion is respected has just praised them.

That’s what words of praise are: rewards for work well done.

So it only undermines genuine praise if Continue reading “True Confessions: a Critic’s Lament”