Sunday, 16 December 2012

Listening to Lord Farquaad (or Lithgow Talks!)

I love my National Theatre Entry Pass – it provides opportunities for young people to access groundbreaking theatre at discounted rates. When they told me John Lithgow – the voice of Lord Farquaad – was not only starring in a show but also doing a Q & A, and I could see both for £8, I booked it straight away.
(Dinner at the National Theatre)

Lithgow was interviewed by Nick Hytner, Director of the NT. The first thing I noticed when he stepped on stage was how tall he was!  It was a memorable opening as Lithgow described being born in a prop box. Born into a thoroughly theatrical family, Lithgow spent his childhood summers with his Dad’s Shakespeare troop in Ohio, starting with the small bit parts and graduating up to the young leads.

Lithgow was no fool and secured a scholarship at Harvard. He describes himself as the ‘best actor in Harvard by osmosis’ only a small underestimation of his evident dramatic talent (!) and a time of prolific output – he featured in some 8 or 9 plays per term and his repertoire had by this time expanded from Shakespeare to encompass several Russian playwrights among others . On some kind of Erasmus swap Lithgow made it to LAMDA which conferred on him a love of London and a convincing English accent, he describes it as like ‘swallowing a horsepill of Englishness’.

Lithgow also passed comment on his lifelong profession of acting deeming it a reckless and stupid career path. He has done numerous other things on top of acting to fill the quiet season from writing children’s books to conducting orchestras. He does this he says to avoid the actor’s agony of ‘waiting to be wanted’.

With this backdrop I ran off to speed munch my dinner and then returned to the front row to see Lithgow perform the lead role in Pintero’s  Victorian farce, The Magistrate. Damien Lewis loved it - he was sat about 6 rows behind me, desperately trying to keep a low profile. The play was everything I’ve come to expect from comedy at the NT, riotous, professional, splendid and slightly mad. The script set the action firmly in London and with my local interests that really pleased me! As ever the staging was central to the success of the play, this time it both rotated and rose on expensive mechanical, silent sets. Lithgow provided some hilariously comic moments particularly when acting out being attacked by a dog who obviously wasn’t there! And I loved the song about trying to guess the age of a lady; it was suggested you might chop her leg off and count the rings!

The Magistrate is on until March, there are plenty of discounted seats available and I can’t recommend it high enough!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Merry Christmas Racist Santa!

As you will know from previous posts I’m a bit obsessed with Continental Christmas traditions. A couchsurfer from Holland visited me a few months ago, and I requested native foodstuffs as my gift. She brought a bag of Kruidnoten ‘gingerbread’ biscuits and the story of the racist Santa which I now present.

December 5th is the day that good little Dutch children get their presents from the benevolent St Nik. Whilst the commercial kids now leave stockings and bags for Santa, traditionally the children always left out their shoes. If the child had been good Santa would fill those shoes with sweeties; if they had been bad they would start a whole new adventure, in Spain.


Unlike other Santas, St Nik, patron saint of Amsterdam, has a time-share in Spain; he likes to stay warm whilst he’s making all those sweets and toys. He has a team of helpers, who look like Moors. The story I heard was that the naughty children had been engaged in slave labour for Santa, climbing up and down chimneys and acquiring black faces, as it turns out in bygone centuries Santa had a black servant called, imaginatively, Black Pete and it was he who adorned my pack of Kruidnoten, like the most unashamed, Gollywogg I’ve ever seen!

 Just so racist.

And because Santa has been living all year in Spain how is he supposed to get to Holland – by steamboat of course! None of this sleigh and reindeer business, Santa is a civilised chap, who rides a steamboat to Holland and then a white and noble steed! This being a tradition he probably borrowed from pre-Christian times when his name was Odin.

I am fascinated by all these borrowings from different times Santa from one culture has gained to form his fully-fledged expression in the 21st century. I wonder how Dutch Santa will translate again in another 100 years, will he catch up with modern transport and fly from Spain perhaps? Will he be less racist? Only time will tell.

Merry early Christmas everyone!