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Performances until 5 August. Recommended.

A one act play of 90 minutes, this is a family drama. Three years ago Henry died in the garden and his widow-wife, Sue, soldiers on with her three adult children, Erin, Naomi, and Daniel. Sandy Gore as Sue carries the burden, and does so marvellously. The others are fine, but she is the centre around which they turn, albeit reluctantly.

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Much is told in flashbacks to fill in the gaps.

Erin, Naomi, and Daniel have lives of their own and are too busy for more than brief and ritual visits to Sue, hastening in and out. Erin is the leader of the pack on some measures. She is married with two children, and a budding career as a literary agent. (Some knowing in jokes there from the playwright.) She has the least time for anyone else, the mobile phone constantly ringing, the off stage children demanding, the husband to be placated. Naomi, the youngest, is a drifting dreamer with pot smoking interfering with her work at the call center. Boy, does that explain a lot. While she is not pressed for time, well pot smoking keeps her busy. Daniel is on an upward trajectory at school, now department head. Poor sod. Daniel under constant pressure to mark papers, attend meetings, complete budget spreadsheets. He is in a relationship with Kim or is it Tim, I could not tell. Whatever the name, it is a man. They whirl individually in and out of Sue’s house.

She has found that she cannot communicate with them. Talk, yes, but communicate, no. It is partly their preoccupations that block the signal, but Sue also has trouble putting her thoughts and feelings into words. She is not quite sure what she wants to say, and that uncertainty together with their noise discourages her.

By chance she starts talking to a plant, as in the title, 'The Plant,' as a lonely person might talk to a pet, a dog. She finds that helps. As Georg Hegel would say, she objectifies her thoughts by speaking them into the world, and that is relaxing. It also helps her come to terms with the situation. Then she takes in a border, Clare, who takes the place of The Plant. See it to believe it.

This intruder rings alarm bells with the children who find enough time to chasten Sue, to warn her, to threaten the border, to spy on Sue.

By the end all three children are back at home. Erin was so successful that did not notice her husband’s departure until it was too late. Naomi has lost yet another job and spent all her dosh on dope when the rent is due. Tim/Kim splits from Daniel who is lost.

The play is the thing, and now that I know the name Kit Brookman, I want to see more. Though he looks like a child in the publicity photographs, the script has insights to go with the wit and zest.

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The players live up to the words, and we loved Clare’s shoes.

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The staging is minimal. A few cardboard boxes and one chair. When there is something to be said, few props are needed. Though there is Clare's gear.

We drove to Kirribilli over the Bridge and parked on the street to see the play, and then had lunch there on a fine winter’s day, bright, clear, and 18C with views of the Harbour while we talked about what we had just seen.

On a fine, clear winter’s Saturday with a temperature of 18C off we went to the Rocks to see a play featuring torture: à chacun son gout, as the clock struck thirteen. It was small town Sydney again. We drove in, and parked in front of the theatre and went a few doors down for a pasta lunch in the sun before entering the Orwellian world. When we left we went to the car and were home in twenty minutes or less.

George Orwell wrote ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ in 1948 and derived the year for the future world he imagined by reversing the digits. But that was a long time ago, both for 1948 and 1984.

it is a long and dense book, making it a challenge to condense into 90-100 minutes, that being the average theatre-goer’s endurance. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan contrived Orwell’s story within the frame of a bookclub discussion, which sped up the exposition, a nice idea well executed.

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In addition there was a video screen on the back wall used for some closeups and some the off stage action (sex). This was another very nice piece of staging. There were also feeds from a camera man on stage during the torture for those that like that sort of thing.

Effective use of lighting and sound added to the excitement, though it got repetitive after the fifth time. Less can be more in these things.

We were among the gods so there is no comment on the acting, though I was sure that there were actors on the stage, no faces made it to row ZZZ, except for those on the video screen, for which thanks.

Mercifully Icke and Macmillan did not try to improve on Orwell, as I have seen adapters try to improve on Shakespeare, believe it or not, but within the frame of the book club they let the story unfold as it does in the novel. However, like many other producers and directors, they missed one vital point. Their Winston Smith is a young man, whereas Orwell’s is older, and with good reason. He is jaded and cynical from experience. The actor here is a boy, and he is played as a boy. His actions are impetuous not measured. His fatalism is intellectual,not emotional. I have likewise seen productions with a young MacBeth, when the whole impetus of the Scottish play is that MacBeth, while at his peak, is ageing and his last chance is now. I have even seen a young King Lear, more an older bother to Cordelia, than the wizened, exhausted statesman Shakespeare had in mind.

Seeing this performance has inspired me to read Bernard Crick’s essay on ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ in the edition he prepared in 1984, and also perhaps, later, his biography of Orwell.

In that year of 1984 at New College (built in 1379, when the plumbing went in) of Oxford University I saw Crick, in a seminar of twenty, present a paper about the novel to promote the book. It was the most brilliant conference presentation I had ever seen, and still is. If ever a man was born to do a job, Bernard Crick was born to channel George Orwell. It was as it Orwell were in the room with us. While Crick spoke, or paused, I did not notice that in January the room was unheated; I did not notice the spring poking through the dilapidated chair upon which I was perched; I did not faint from hunger after the college breakfast of hard bread and brown water.

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Years later when Crick travelled to Australia and shopped himself for the pathetic seminar fees universities pay, someone asked me if we should host him. YES! I shouted, and stumped up all the dosh I could find around the place (being Head of Department at the time, I filled out forms).

This is the same Bernard Crick (1929-2008) who wrote one of the best freshmen textbooks ever, ‘In Defence of Politics’ (1962). He was also famous in those distant days for leaving a prestigious post at a British university to go teach in a night school for working class adults. The Wikipedia entry finesses this point.

Back to the play, some liberties were taken with the mention of screens, and the paraphrase of Neo from ’The Matrix’ at the end. I did not bridle at those, but they were unnecessary. If the play worked, they were redundant, and if it did not communicate, they were superfluous. They were there, I guess, to show the audience it is up-to-date.

Yes, the torture is there and it is unpleasant but it is less repellent than the blood and gore splashed over the screen in the latest shock-and-awe CGI blockbuster from Hollywood.

I first came across ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ on the after high school movie from a local channel which I used to watch after school and before sports. I often missed either the beginning or the end, or both. I missed the start of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1956) and there was Winston (Edmond O’Brien) feeding paper files down the memory hole at the Ministry of Truth. That was an attention getter compared to the usual fare of swashbucklers and westerns, so I paid more attention than usual. I went from there to the book.

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I now realise that O'Brien is too well fed, and Julia (Jan Sterling), behind him, is too old. Julia should be young and natural, whereas Winston is the (over) thinker.

When I re-read ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in 1984, inspired by Crick, one of the most powerful elements was Orwell’s portrayal of the weariness of the lives of the Oceanians. The privations, the monotony, the grey, the mould, the dirt, the 1,500 calories a day of tasteless gruel of which Oliver Twist would not ask for more. Orwell had lived through the privations of the Great Depression, followed by the shortages and restrictions of wartime rationing, which continued until 1954, as Britain struggled pay off its war debts. That was fourteen years plus the preceding Depression. A bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper, a finger nail clipper, a hair brush, a box of tissues, toothpaste, a cotton towel. and plenty of hot running water, all these things I used in the morning, are unknown to Oceanians. The privations grind one down and down and down. That is why an older Winston Smith is right. A man who is wearing out and this is his first and also his last chance to taste the forbidden fruit.

George Orwell insisted that the title of the book was ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and not ‘1984.’ I do not know why, and await enlightenment. Knowing that and being a tireless pedant I was on edge when we went to see the play because it is titled ‘1984.’ The tension in my shoulders relaxed when I read the program notes that refer, respectfully, to the novel as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ leading me to suppose the play is to be distinguished from the book by the use of the digits, as in Australia the Labour movement is distinguished from the Labor Party by the spelling, though I notice fewer journalist, wholly reliant on the spell checker, realise this fact. No such orthographic distinction is made in Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England.

Though Orwell did not use the term himself, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is now routinely labeled a dystopia. If utopia is a perfectly good place, then, so reason John Stuart Mill when he coined the terms, dystopia is a perfectly bad place in an 1868 parliamentary speech.

How is it that the USA Presidential incumbent retains the support of his voters when he acts repeatedly against their material interests?

Wake up! It is simple.

The President of the Electoral College of the United States delivers to his core supporters every day the two most important things they value. All else pales into insignificance against these two.

First, he is not a black man.

Second, he is not a woman.

End. It is primal. It is not about policy, not about politics, not about consistency, not about probity, not about government….

Politics is simple, until analysts make it complicated for their own reasons.

He also delivers to this constituency in other ways, too.

He is not an immigrant.

He does not have a foreign sounding name.

The title of this entry is taken from Vicente Fox, one-time president of Mexico, who has poked fun at Trump Donald on Facebook with more wit and zest than most others have done.

The word ‘Timbuktu’ entered vernacular English in 1863 as the most distant place imaginable, according to the OED. It has had many spellings over the years but the one used here is the standard in Wikipedia. Most who have heard the word take it to be mythical, but in fact it can be found on a map, in the sub-Sahara West African nation of Mali.

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Timbuktu gained some recognition among the Nerd Empire in the late 1990s for the collection of medieval and even ancient manuscripts gathered there, and more when these treasures were threatened by fundamentalists whom god had told to destroy all. Not all the nut cases are in D.C.

Timbu 1.jpg A building in Timbuktu.

Timbu airport.jpg The airport at Timbuktu

This book combines the Nineteenth Century story of Europeans exploring the interior of Africa to find this very place with the Twenty-First Century story of saving its aforementioned records from the flames.

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The quest for this African El Dorado began in the mid-Victorian period when intrepid chaps in Britain were looking for new adventures. Africa, the dark continent, beckoned. It was called the ‘dark continent’ and ‘darkest Africa’ not because of the colour of the skin of the natives but because it was unknown, in the dark. There was plenty of racism but this term was not an instance of it at the outset. Later, yes, certainly. say as it was used in the 1950s in Disney cartoons.

In part the book traces the efforts of the African Association in London to explore, map, and study Africa, partly directed by the affable Joseph Banks, who as a young man had accompanied James Cook on his voyage to Australia, and after whom Bankstown is named, along with flora. The method this private organization took was to recruit a series of intrepid men and send them off one-at-a-time. Off they went and mostly disappeared into darkest Africa, never to be seen or heard again. Disease, dehydration, animals, sand, stupidity, accidents, villains got them one after another. Inevitably, a Société d’Afrique in Paris got into the game so that the rivalry between England and France was played out on the way to Timbuktu. Then came the Germans looking for that fabled place in the sun.

On the other hand is the story of the threat posed by fundamentalists, which is told in the choppy and breathless manner that distinguishes contemporary journalism. It is a sandstorm of names and places that mean nothing to this reader, and at no point is there an orderly exposition of what the manuscripts, papers, and documents are, how they came to be in Timbuktu, and who had formal responsibility for them. Nor is there anything more than the repeated assertion that they are valuable to justify the importance assigned to them. In the telling, it sometimes seems this town on the sand just by chance was home to a number of private collectors who had somehow gathered the written material and at other times there are references to libraries, catalogues, steel boxes, and UNESCO grants. Later there are few references that indicate that Timbuktu became a centre for learning in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, but by then I was so lost it did not help.

This map below from Wikipedia shows when and why Timbuktu (Tomboctou) was an important crossroads that benefitted from proximity to the mighty Niger River, from which proximity it also suffered when the river flooded. The lines are trade routes used at various times.

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That combination of two stories is both an asset and a liability. It is an asset because it makes clear the importance of Timbuktu and its holdings and a liability because the author has a lot more to say about the latter story than the former and so it is unbalanced.

Books scattered.jpg Trashed books in Timbuktu

While the telling is repetitive and confusing at times, the subject is so important that I tried to persevere through all the confusion that the author reproduces.

There is a shower of proper names, descriptions of men with guns, the arrival of trucks, comings and goings as though this is a thriller. Well it is a mystery to this reader. One that remains unresolved.

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I supposed the author was a journalist from the disjointed style, the disregard for readers, and the indifference to exposition, and then I checked. Sure enough. He and this book get a lot of space on the ‘Guardian’ web site. Make up your own mind. I have. With perseverance I made it about halfway through before deciding I would learn more reading Wikipedia. No doubt Good Reads is replete with fulsome comments. No doubt the dust jacket of the hardcover proclaims it a best seller. No doubt.

Inspector Hermann Kohler and Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr, an odd couple of Occupied France, get no rest. No sooner have they nailed a culprit than a telegram arrives ordering them on an all night dash across blacked out France to another crime scene. This time it is Lorient near Saint-Nazaire. These two ports were the principle bases for German U-Boats from 1940 to 1944.

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The fateful telegram came directly from Admiral Karl Dönitz, nicknamed the Lion for his mighty bellows, commander in chief of the U-Boat fleet. Dönitz became head of the government for about three weeks after the death of Adolf Hitler. The telegram was odd in that he ordered them to investigate the allegations against the Dollmaker, per the title.

It is literal, the chief suspect is a dollmaker, who is also a very successful, and still living, U-Boat commander. Toy-making was a major German business for a long time and grew especially during the Weimar period to earn export income, because there were so many restrictions of German industries and shortages of material, wooden and clay toys were made. This captain has discovered deposits of very fine clay around Lorient and dreams of reinvigorating the family business when on leave between voyages.

A very unpleasant shopkeeper has been murdered on a cold and wet winter night along a railway embankment. Left it situ, Kohler and St Cyr arrive to investigate to the great annoyance of the local gendarme commander.

The nearby stones of Carnac provide the brooding presence of eternity for the nocturnal wanderers during the long black-out nights of winter. There are thousands of stones, some to rival Stonehenge.

With the death of the shopkeeper a great deal of money also seems to be missing, the money the dollmaker raised, mostly from his crew, to invest in a dollmaking enterprise with the deceased shopkeeper. Strangely though, as Kohler and St Cyr note, no one seems now to be worried about the money.

The suspects are many. It is surprising how many people were out and about on the railway embankment at the time of the murder. There is the shopkeeper’s daughter, who was probably spying on him for her crippled mother. There is a woman married to a musician who has gone silent. She may have been looking for her husband who roams the stones at all hour to listen to their music in the wind or for a lovers’ tryst. Their daughter was probably also out there, either to spy on her hated step-mother or to find her father. Then there is that gendarme commander who seems to have left footprints in the oddest places. The U-Boat captain was certainly there and readily admits it while denying the murder. Members of the U-Boat crew may also have been on the lookout to safeguard their investment.

As usual, claims to the Resistance are made both by the Germans to explain away the murder and exonerate the captain and by suspects to hide their guilt. Kohler is indifferent to these claims and St Cyr positively bristles because he has heard this plaint often used to cloak evil. To add to the brew there is at least one Jew hiding in plain sight and a young boy may have stolen the money to bribe passage to England to join De Gaulle. Or he may be dead. The Jew has no chance. The fatalism is endemic.

Around and around Kohler and St Cyr go questioning everyone, being told repeatedly not to question anyone least the morale of the U-Boat crew be undermined or the Resistance revealed. They are threatened, harassed, misled, and lied to. All typical. The U-Boat campaign is interrupted on every clear night by RAF bombing attacks, one of which nearly kills St Cyr, while members of the Resistance are preoccupied with setting differences among themselves with weapons dropped by the British during the distractions of the bombing raids.

U Boat bunker.jpg The submarine bunkers remain in tact despite the RAF bombings.

The well known fatality rate of U-Boats is sufficient to erode morale, and the Resistance is conspicuous by its absence in the tightly controlled area around the ports. Submarine connoisseurs will realise this is the area where ‘Das Boot’ opens.

Hardened kriminologist will have no trouble spotting the villain early on, but the interest in these stories is the trip, not the arrival. Lorient is a closed military zone rather like an island and its denizens know each other well, German and French. Kohler and St Cyr peel away the layers of lies, deceptions, half-truths to arrive at a conclusion or sorts. On the one hand it is a formulaic police procedure but on the other it is a study of humanity in such inhuman circumstances. The atmosphere that Janes draws is the chief interest to this reader.

Food is scarce, fuel nonexistent, warmth but a memory, tobacco beyond price, exhaustion general, rather than fear most people, German sailors or French civilians, are numb and weary. Yet the nightmare goes on and on.

The crew of the captain’s U-Boat have no desire to return to the depths, fearing they cannot beat the odds again, but if they must to back to sea, they certainly want the dollmaker at the helm and not a new officer, ergo he cannot go the slammer even if he killed the shopkeeper.

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Before becoming a full-time writer, Janes taught high school mathematics.

A tragedy might be a better genre for this novel. It turns on the accidental death of an owl on a lane in the English countryside. The vehicle that struck the owl had four occupants and their reactions to the death are the centre of the book.

There is the usual backstory about the two male principals in the car; they were acquainted in their university days. The women are accorded less space though one is developed into a formidable character who has a more clear insight that either of the men. Much of the early part of the book reminded me of ‘Brideshead.’

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The tragedy is that the accident leads to the downfall of the putative leader of the British Conservative Party, poised to become Prime Minister. When a character’s demise is the result of his own personality, it is tragedy, and that applies here.

Though what we readers are to make of Andrew Landford never became clear to me, and maybe it was not clear to the author either. In word and deed, until Landford became desperate beyond reason, he never put a foot wrong, yet there are hints, mostly from his one-time girlfriend that he has a dark side, the reader only sees that at the brief minutes of the death of the owl. As we see him he is sincere, forward-looking, open-minded, and the best man for the job, a Tory Tony Blair.

The story is told by one of his campaign advisors who gets caught up in first in the cover up and then the exposure. It is well written and is credible about the political machinations at Westminster as far as this reader could tell. There are some very nice portraits of other characters in this strange world.

There are some creaks in the plotting. while much is made of the police investigation into the death of the owl, it being a member of a protected species, the two women in the car at the time of the accident are not interviewed by the police. That oversight would never happen in Midsomer!

When I hesitated about the genre for this novel, one of the reasons is because the owls have mystical presence throughout. But there is a crime and a police investigation, slipshod, though it is and so I put in the krimi class.

Finally, I found the denouement with the caretakers to be deus ex machina.

P Yorday.jpg Paul Torday

Perhaps the simple explanation for most of my quibbles is that the novel was unfinished at the author’s death and he did not complete it, that was done by another.

I read this book more than a month ago but time and tide have kept me from writing up my thoughts until now. I chose it because of the intriguing summary on Amazon and the reference to Minerva.

Preparing for the Best and Brightest event reminded me once again of René Descartes and his method.

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