The Dover Road (Play by A.A. Milne) – Jermyn Street Theatre

the-dover-road-poster

Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book’s post I was made aware of this delightful 1922 play by A. A. Milne. Bought the ticket just 2 days in advance, and strolled along to Piccadilly Circus Friday after work. This is exactly the kind of time that makes me so grateful and happy to live in London and work in Soho.

I wonder why I didn’t know about the existence of Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is a tiny 70-seaters basement theatre in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and it seems magical that it survives. It was like entering a different world as soon as you step into the theatre. It’s so small that the seats are only 4 rows and the stage is on the same level as the first row, so you can walk around the stage set- and you most probably would, as the toilets are at the back of the stage.

I’ve never seen and read A.A. Milne’s plays – so this is the first for me (I loved Winnie the Pooh series) and I really enjoyed it. Agree with Simon that the cast was just perfect. And having seen many plays in big theatres, I realised how different, how more personal, and how much I enjoyed small theatre. You can actually see people’s faces and expressions, the voices were loud and clear, and in some scenes the actors were literally 2 metres away from me and I could see all the beautiful details of the props. I promised myself to go to small theatres more, and to go back to Jermyn Street Theatre when I see anything of interest.

The plot moved swiftly in The Dover Road – unlike some plays I’ve seen that seemed to take forever to build the first act. A couple find themselves stuck in the middle of the road to Dover (Dover is where you take ferry to France) in a place that could be a hotel, or a private house. It’s quickly revealed that the woman isn’t the man’s wife, and that the host of the house Mr Latimer isn’t going to just let them go on their way easily. He suggests that the couple, Leonard and Anne, stay for a few days to sort of test-drive their future life together, which would give them time and chance to reconsider if the need arises. Soon it’s revealed that Leonard’s wife is also in the house with her beau, experiencing the same formulae, just starting a week earlier.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about the play, the beginning almost seemed like a mystery or horror (a strange house with strange people that seem oddly prepared for the couple’s arrival), while Mr Latimer seemed slightly sinister with his hobby to detain couple in his house until they are “enlightened”. But it’s none of those things, as this is a comedy – and a thoughtful one at that, as it explores the silliness of romantic love and marriage.

The quadruple in conundrum aspect reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest I saw last year. After seeing The Dover Road, I’m thinking the abundance of wittiness in Earnest was almost too distracting. Milne doesn’t play too much with words, but it’s equally smart and funny. It did feel more modern (Earnest is almost 30 years older) and that possibly made it more digestible. I have full intention to read this play or Milne’s other plays in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Guardian’s The Dover Road review

 

The Book of Tea – Kakuzō Okakura

the book of tea Kakuzo Okakura

 

The Book of Tea was first published in 1906 – surprisingly, in English! I only realised this after trying to find the translator, or which translation was best, and a book group friend was looking for “the original”, hah! Here I thought Kazuo Ishiguro was the only Japanese writing in English (I’m sure not the only one, but certainly the most famous?). Apparently Okakura did it a long time ago.

This quote from the book seems apt then: “Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?”

The life story of Okakura himself might be even more fascinating than his little book. He was given a Western education at a missionary school by his father, and ignorant of Japanese culture until he was eleven. He mastered English as a young boy, but had troubles reading Japanese. To remedy the situation, the father then placed young Kakuzo in a Buddhist temple where he studied Confucius, koto (Japanese musical instrument), and calligraphy. A bit late apparently, but better than nothing I suppose.

The Penguin edition has introduction by Christopher Benfey that covers a bit of Okakura’s life. What I gathered was a man who was continuously torn between the East and the West. And this is apparent in The Book of Tea, in which he defends – too hard at times – the Eastern and Japanese culture, which was belittled by the West at the time (probably still is?).

The 89-page book is a collection of essays about tea, “Teaism”, taoism and zenism, art appreciation, and flowers. I liked the first 2 chapters about the history of tea, how it is originated from China, and about the three schools of tea: cake, powder, and leaves – that is in chronological order. Japan remains on the second school (i.e. matcha or powder green tea), as it was separated from the mainland, while China’s powder tea culture was wiped out by the Mongolians, and turned to leaves.

However going a bit further, it was a bit uneven for me in terms of enjoyment level. The chapters on taoism and zennism for example, I don’t have much knowledge of or keen interest in. The art appreciation and flowers chapters are quite interesting – as I love art and flowers. But I still think the book is most interesting when it talks about tea, and kept wishing it’d go back to tea.

The last chapter talks a lot about tea-room – an idea that is both idealistic and impractical to my modern mind:
“The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we must remember that all this is the result of profound artistic forethought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than that expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples. A good tea-room is more costly than an ordinary mansion, …”

That sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. I’d love it if tea-room is just really humble and minimalist. Sure quality can still be important, but to compare it with richest palaces and temples and mansion? Pushing it a bit far I’d say. I think this also makes the text feel a bit dated. Not sure how it was in early 1900s, but in this day of age the whole tea room concept seems only for the very wealthy and the elite few, a luxury that is the exact opposite of the humble cuppa that can be enjoyed by all, no matter which class of society you’re in.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

2 Graphic Novels: Habibi and Kiki de Montparnasse

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

habibi

I read Blankets by Craig Thompson a couple of years ago and found it very good and nostalgic (unfortunately I didn’t write my review on it). It’s about many things but what I remember the most is it’s a coming-of-age story about a protagonist who struggles with the Christian religion that he’s born in. Some struggles I’m familiar with, as I was born in the same faith environment.

Thompson’s second book, interestingly, touches again another subject that I have keen interest on – the other popular religion, Islam. I was born and raised Catholic/Christian in the country with the biggest Muslim population on earth, while retaining some traces of Buddhist religion from my ancestors. So though I end up rejecting all faith and not religious at all, I’d always be fascinated by the story and history of religions.

It seems that Craig Thompson has similar fascination, as he explores Christianity in his first book and Islam in his second book. Perhaps I’m bound to love Habibi based on my background that I stated earlier, and I did. It’s an absolutely beautiful book. And like Blankets, its number of pages alone (672 pages!) indicates the ambitiousness of the scope.

How do you even do graphic novel of 672 pages? I can understand normal book, which you can edit many times before it goes, especially with the use of computer these days. But how about drawing? Do you perhaps do a rough drawing of the entire book first, make sure the pace and plot are all right, before drawing in the details? I’d love to know his process.

In essence, Habibi is a love story between the two characters shown on the cover. Met as a little girl and an even younger boy, Dodola and Zam are not related by blood, but what they go through together create as strong a bond as any blood relation. In the harsh world they live in, their love fluidly changes according to time and circumstances, as they have only each other to cling on. The word Habibi means “my beloved”.

I kept trying to figure out the setting of the book, but I couldn’t. The architecture resembles Turkey, the landscape resembles Arabian dessert, and the clothing looks a mix of Moroccan. I couldn’t figure out the period too, as it seems to start sometime in the past, but goes to modern time in the course of the book. I think it’s on purpose that it wasn’t set in a particular real life country or time, more like an alternate universe with all the Islamic elements. I love how the book touches on the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and the slight differences between the books (the Bible and Quran).

In reading Habibi I’m continually impressed by what Thompson did. The narration isn’t linear, the subject matter is deep, the illustration intricate, and he takes story telling with graphic novel as a medium to a completely new level. Simply amazing.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel (Illustrator) and José-Louis Bocquet (2007)

Kiki de Montparnasse

This book tells the story of Alice Prin – who later was nicknamed Queen of Montparnasse and often known as Kiki de Montparnasse. She was a favorite model of many Parisian artists in the twenties. Hemingway wrote an introduction to her autobiography (one of the two books Hemingway ever agreed to write introduction for).

I read Kiki de Montparnasse not long after Habibi. That probably affected my reading a little, as I thought Kiki was way TOO linear (something that I never thought would be a bad thing). It literally goes from one event to another, like historical notes, almost text-book like. At this time this happens, next this happens, next that happens.

I also suffered a similar experience with reading Pablo, in the way that the book zips through who’s who in the roaring twenties in Paris, mainly painters in Kiki – a slightly different group than those appear in Pablo, but also writers, photographers, and film makers (the majority of whom I still don’t know). To make sure you get everyone, the book provides an extra index of people-you’re-supposed-to-know at the end, with a page of description for each person.

Both Pablo and Kiki are told from a woman model point of view in similar period of time and setting – the woman on the sideline, the muse of the famous male artists. I wonder how many of those they had back then? Probably plenty.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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