Thursday 24 July 2014

Thank You for the Music: Stockholm Memories of ABBA

Dancing queens, as seen on on the ABBA City Walk
conducted by Stockholm City Museum
In June 2012 I met up with Micke Bayart in Stockholm, Sweden. In his youth, Micke had been a member of the German ABBA fan club and had met all four band members.

He later moved to Sweden, and in 2011 published the book ABBA by Micke, recounting his experiences as a fan.

Over some very strong Norwegian beer at a bar in the hip Södermalm district, we talked about ABBA…

TR: Tell me what ABBA means to you? Why were they special?

MB: ABBA made the best music there ever was. When I was a boy, it would give me joy, listening to them.

Benny and Björn were such good writers, and music makers, and they really reinvented themselves all the time.

I still remember when I listened to my very first ABBA record, it was Arrival in 1976. It was just by coincidence that I discovered them because as a little boy I used to have braces and my grandfather said “I need to take you to the neighbouring town to have some special treatment on your teeth.”

I said no way. Then I made a deal with him. Every time we went to see the specialist I wanted to have a small present as a kind of compensation. He said “It’s a deal.”

On one of the trips back home, we passed by a big window of a record store and I saw the album cover, of four people in a helicopter. I loved everything about flying. So I said, I want that record.

TR: That’s an interesting way into it. People talk about the costumes, but I seem to remember the music much more vividly than the video clips.

MB: You have to bear in mind that it wasn’t the age of MTV. So what they did from a very early point was to make those videos. It was a good way of being present in countries they never could travel to in person.

Also bear in mind it was the '70s and every other group had those outrageous costumes, like the Bay City Rollers, like KISS. Compared to them it was nothing special.

TR: How do Swedes remember ABBA now?

MB: Today Swedes are very proud of ABBA. Yesterday when I flew home from Barcelona, in the inflight magazine there was an article about great moments in Swedish history. Among them was 1974 when they won Eurovision with Waterloo.

That celebration would have never occurred in the 1970s because there was a strong left wing movement in Swedish society that felt artists should be singing about critical issues and problems in society, and singing live and not too commercial.

ABBA stood for everything that Swedish music at that time wasn’t.

TR: They were seen as too frivolous? Too trivial?

MB: Yes, and because they were making loads of money. Now all those people that really hated ABBA back in the 1970s praise them.

That’s a shame I think, because you should really stand up for your opinions. You can say "I was wrong", now I really appreciate them, but don’t pretend that you liked them all the way.

It was a cultural elite that had that idea. The average person really liked ABBA. They weren’t played that often on Swedish radio, so people had to buy the records.

TR: You’ve personally met all the members of the group. Do you have a favourite memory?

MB: There’s one meeting I’d like to mention with Frida. By the time we met her in '86 she had turned blonde. It was in Austria. She was there privately on a skiing holiday, and we approached her as the fan club.

She said, come up to my hotel, and then we spent almost three quarters of an hour talking very privately. She told us during the course of the interview that she had stopped singing and recording. We thought afterwards that we shouldn’t write about that in our fanzine.

It was so cool to be part of that, because I mean, hey, we were talking to one of the members of ABBA and at the same time she was so down to earth. And that’s of course the fact of being Swedish, I think you don’t look at yourself as being high up there and having the diva attitude.

A funny thing about Sweden is that with the long dark winter nights we’ve still been able to create such joyful music. That’s really an interesting combination, I think.

Find out more about ABBA by Micke at the book's Facebook page.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Quebec City Outside the Walls (Part 2)

Last post, I embarked on a walk outside the famous walls of Quebec City, reaching the decorative Fontaine de Tourny. My stroll continues...

Another French connection is the parliament building itself, built in the lavish Second Empire style of the late 19th century.

Its facade is studded with statues and names of famous figures from Quebec’s history and culture.

It's a potent riposte to Governor-General Lord Durham’s 1839 comment that its inhabitants were “a people with no history, and no literature”.

As I get closer, I can see the explorer Jacques Cartier, Montreal’s founder Maissoneuve, Quebec City’s founder Champlain, and some Native American figures.

There’s also a surprising statue of Wolfe, the victorious British general in 1759, opposite his counterpart Montcalm. As both generals died at the battle, it may explain why they’re given such equivalence here.

I learn more at the nearby Plains of Abraham, nowadays known as Battlefields National Park.

It’s an attractive public space of gently rolling green parkland, divided up by paths and gardens, with clifftop walks accessible from the side above the St Lawrence River.

Back in 1759, however, it was the site of a crucial tussle between French defenders and a British army which had unexpectedly scaled the cliffs in the dead of night.

The battle is recounted entertainingly at the Discovery Pavilion (835 Avenue Laurier) on the edge of the park. Its audiovisual presentation, Odyssey, tells the story of Quebec and greater Canada from 1759 to the present day.

It’s surprisingly witty and engaging – in the first section, actors playing Wolfe and Montcalm are interviewed as if by modern media, with miniature microphones stuck in their ears.

Later sections present a series of Monty Pythonesque animated historical paintings, and a TV newsroom reporting on the sped-up creation of Canada.

Leaving, I wander across the park and inspect a lone defensive tower, set up in anticipation of a 19th century American attack which never came.

Then along the park’s edge, past expensive-looking houses, to the monument which marks the exact spot where Wolfe died, carried from the battlefield by his soldiers.

From here, I head north toward the district of St Jean Baptiste, west of the city walls.

Rather than a collection of sights, this is a cosy, everyday neighbourhood of residential streets and shops, less trodden by tourists and with an authentic local flavour.

On Rue St Jean is chocolatier Erico (634 Rue St Jean). It’s spread across two shopfronts, one side set up as a chocolate museum.

This is packed with display cases of vintage chocolate tins, along with details of chocolate production next to models of the cacao pod. There are also some eccentric artworks, such as clothing made out of chocolate.

Stepping into the retail area, I ask the assistant what her favourite chocolates are; and walk out with both coffee-flavoured and maple syrup-flavoured chocs.

For lunch, the shop assistant’s colleague has suggested a long-lived restaurant further along the street with the unlikely name of Le Hobbit (700 Rue St Jean); presumably named in the 1970s when The Lord of the Rings was previously in fashion.

It turns out to be a smart bistro with exposed stone walls, modern décor and a surprisingly affordable menu.

There are French classics such as steak frites on offer, and unconventional choices such as bison ravioli. I go for the marinated chicken burger and a glass of Portuguese white wine.

I’m sitting on the narrow terrace beneath an awning as rain starts falling softly on Rue St Jean.

The air is pleasantly balmy, my feet are tingling from all that walking, and a promising lunch is on the way. If this is what life is like “Outside the Walls”, I’m all for it.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Friday 11 July 2014

Quebec City Outside the Walls (Part 1)

In 2012 I visited Quebec City, Canada, for the first time. Looking for a story beyond its well-known historic heart, I ventured into the area to the west of the Old Town. 

The resulting article languished in limbo after the magazine I wrote it for suddenly stopped publishing freelance submissions. But now the story can be told...

“Café allongé, s’il vous plait.”

A-lon-zhay. I like it, I like the way it rolls around my tongue. It’s my favourite new French word.

A café allongé is what’s simply known as a long black in Australia – but as we all know, everything sounds better in French. Even here in Quebec, Canada’s French-speaking province.

I’m sitting inside Paillard (1097 Rue St Jean), a cross between a boulangerie and a café on Quebec City’s fashionable Rue St Jean.

It has a grand, lofty interior which looks as if it might have once belonged to a bank. It’s lined with cabinets of pastries and long communal tables occupied by people browsing newspapers and sipping coffee, conditioning themselves for the day ahead.

It’s a pleasant airy space, and I’m tempted to linger. But today I’ve set myself the task of exploring outside the walls.

In Quebec City, most tourist activity takes place “Inside the Walls”; that is, within the 18th century fortifications erected against invaders. The old district within this area is beautiful, a collection of historic buildings and narrow winding streets with a distinctly European feel.

Unfortunately, that also means tourist crowds, including meandering tour groups, are concentrated in this part of the city; and I’m interested in seeing what else Quebec City has to offer beyond its trademark Old Town icons such as the towering Chateau Frontenac hotel.

So I finish my coffee and wander up the street until I reach the St Jean Gate. It’s an imposing structure of neat grey stone blocks and a conical green spire, looking in surprisingly good condition for its apparent age.

Then I notice the “1897” carved into its surface. I later discover that 19th century British Governor-General Lord Dufferin intervened to stop the destruction of the walls, but allowed the gates to be rebuilt in order to facilitate traffic and provide a pedestrian walkway above the streets.

I stroll through the gate, and I’m now outside the walls in Place d’Youville. After the Disney-like visual perfection of Old Quebec, this irregularly-shaped plaza is a refreshing dose of the real world.

It’s lined by a jumble of buildings from different eras, including the grand Capitole (972 Rue St Jean), a theatre and hotel whose Italian restaurant dominates the sidewalk with pot plants and red umbrellas.

The Capitole abuts the grim facade of an 1870s YMCA building, with a soaring brown modernist office building nearby and the Palais Montcalm music venue opposite.

Montcalm was the French general who lost Quebec City to the British in 1759, and died at the scene of the battle.

I don’t know whether he’d be consoled by his name being used by a venue presenting “classique, jazz, musique contemporaine, chanson et rythmes du monde”, but I like to think he would.

A steep walk alongside the walls and a dog-leg through an undistinguished park with concrete paths, and I suddenly pop out in front of the splendid Fontaine de Tourny.

The fountain so beautifully complements the Quebec Parliament Building (1045 Rue des Parliamentaires) across the road beyond it, that it seems it’s been here for centuries.

In fact it’s only been in this location since 2008, when it was presented to Quebec City on the occasion of the city’s 400th anniversary. Before that, it lived in Bordeaux, France, one of a pair which won a prize at the 1855 World Fair in Paris.

It’s an extravagant cast iron fountain, a confection of scantily clad figures resting beneath a basin bedecked with cherubs and fish, and large metal frogs spouting water like there’s no tomorrow...

Next post: Surprising statues, a momentous battlefield, a chocolate museum, and an unexpected hobbit.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Once More Unto the Breach: Bell Shakespeare's Henry V Review

The marvellous thing about Shakespeare is that once you know one of his plays well, you can keep seeing it over and over.

And the reason that never gets stale is that each company which tackles his work will interpret it in a different way. Thus the familiar - the text of Macbeth, for example - becomes new and stimulating as it's revealed once more on stage.

Thus it is with Bell Shakespeare's new production of Henry V. This isn't the first time Australia's premier Shakespeare company has interpreted the story of warlike Harry and his victory at Agincourt.

In fact the very first Bell Shakespeare production we saw after moving to Melbourne was Bell's 1999 version of the play, set in the trenches of World War I (and you can see Narrelle's review of the production by clicking here).

Photo by Michele Mossop

This time, the setting has been moved to World War II. Rather than the field of battle, however, we're looking at a room just beneath street level, scattered with broken bookshelves and piles of reference books.

The young cast is playing school students, accompanied by a middle-aged teacher. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on the street outside, causing loud explosions and flashes of light, we watch these students present Shakespeare's history plays to pass the time.

Key snatches of Richard II and Henry IV are presented, cleverly adding background, then finally we arrive at our play. This preliminary opening feels something like the "Previously on..." announcements at the start of TV shows, but also acclimatises us to the play-within-a-play setup.

Photo by Michele Mossop

And what a wonderful setup it is. By liberating this historical play from its sole role of relating a historical narrative, all manner of flexibility is created. As it's a production by a random bunch of students sheltering from the Blitz, fascinating use can be made of the "found objects" in their below-ground room.

Bookshelves are shifted into different configurations to represent boats, walls or trenches; the room's blackboard is enlisted to enliven the long speech about Salic Law at the beginning; and piles of books are used as seating and to imitate dinner plates.

Michael Sheasby as Henry V. Photo by Michele Mossop.

It's also natural for actors to take on different roles as the story progresses: switching between English and French characters, for example. And space is created for female actors to play male roles in this very masculine play, a necessity given the limited number of students present to take on the parts.

There's also room for unexpected developments, something you don't anticipate when seeing a well-known Shakespeare play.

When a German pilot suddenly appears through the students' door at the end of the first act, dragging his parachute behind him, the production is elevated from make-believe into something much darker; a development played out in full in the second act.

Michael Sheasby as Henry V and Darcy Brown as Le Fer. Photo by Michele Mossop.

This is an impressive and stimulating vision of Henry V, with a solid ensemble cast who tackle the complex staging with assurance. It's also that most unusual thing in the world of Shakespeare: a production that surprises.

Henry V runs to 12 July 2014 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings by clicking here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, click here.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Indie Theatres of Melbourne 2: La Mama

Of all the independent theatre venues in Melbourne, La Mama is the most famous. It's certainly proved to be the one with the most staying power.

This small Carlton theatre was founded within a former underwear factory in 1967 by Betty Burstall, who named it in tribute to the experimental theatre La MaMa in New York.

It was a godsend to emerging Australian playwrights, who had limited opportunities to stage their new plays. It helped kickstart David Williamson's stellar career; and Jack Hibberd's most successful play, Dimboola, was first staged at La Mama in 1969.

Over the years La Mama has maintained its position as the crucible of Melbourne theatre - a tiny but vibrant space where new works can be aired, with new actors and directors honing their craft in front of a live audience just off the busy Lygon Street restaurant strip.

Last week I paid my latest visit to La Mama, in the company of a uni student who was visiting from Perth and was interested in seeing some local theatre.

The production was titled The Art of Fucking, by Phoebe Anne Taylor. A provocative title for a play about twentysomethings struggling with the issues of 21st century youth, judging from the blurb on the website.

I wasn't entirely confident, I must admit, as we huddled around the open fire warming the courtyard of the theatre. La Mama does curate the plays staged in its premises, but that doesn't mean you'll always be happy with the results.

As it turned out, the production was very good.

It started slowly, with a group of friends sitting around a living room, unable to decide what to do with their evening and grappling with various mundane issues.

Then another character entered, freshly returned from an extended overseas journey and full of all the insights and personal growth she'd gained. In short, annoying but funny (to us).

It was at this point we realised that something dramatic had happened a year before - the death of a mutual friend, the catalyst for this international travel and for the unresolved tension within the group.

Two more acts followed, each set earlier than the first. First, the deceased woman revealed her connection with the group. Then, in scenes set at a party, we discovered the brutal consequences of her friendship with the young man within the household (and it wasn't what we might have expected).

As always with new work, there were a few rough edges here and there, and the actors seemed a little unfocused at the start. But the strength of the script shone through, and the ensemble grew more confident in their roles as the story unfolded.

At the end we were gripped by the revelations which came tumbling out messily at the party, with alcohol flowing and the characters' speech unguarded.

And as always at La Mama, the drama was aided by the necessary intimacy of the interior; with only 30 seats or so available to the audience, and the actors close enough to reach out and touch.

The Art of Fucking continues to 6 July 2014 at La Mama; find details and make bookings by clicking here.