India

Posted: November 5, 2014 in Travel

Friday 7 November

Having arrived in Delhi just after midday, yesterday afternoon was one of rest and recovery. Starting at 8.00 this morning, we embarked on a 10+ hour sightseeing tour of the cities old an new – a sprawling, smoggy, dusty urban mass with construction of new buildings and a metro system going on everywhere. There are traffic rules, which seem to be there to be ignored – traffic drives on the left and often the right, green lights mean go and red lights mean go with just a little more caution. It is great fun watching the mayhem from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach, as vehicles of all shapes, sizes, ages and states of repair do battle with each other. New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the era of George V, could have been the prototype for Milton Keynes, with roundabouts every few yards, but everywhere else is slow-moving chaos. As for the sights, it was a day of shoes on and off as we visited three places of worship. The Moslems charged 300 Rupees to take a camera near their mosque, so no photos of that, but it was a farly ugly building anyway. The Sikh temple was an eye-opener; we visited the kitchens where they prepare 20,000 meals a day to serve to the needy of all faiths. I have been to palaces or religion all over Europe and South America that are filled with precious metals and priceless works of art, so how cheering it is to find a religion that actually does something positive to alleviate poverty instead of just talking about it. Finally, it was the turn of the Baha’i temple, architecturally the most impressive, looking like a lotus flower, or, perhaps, a squashed up version of Sydney Opera House. We also visited the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi (sighted on the place of his cremation), the memorial to India’s war dead (rather predictably, a large arch) and, in fading light, the tomb of Humayun, a 15th Century ruler.

Saturday 8 November

Days spent hanging around airports are the worst of any touring holiday, but this was the worst of the worst! Firstly the tour manager hauled us off to Delhi airport an hour early, forgetting that it was a Saturday and that there would be little traffic. Once there, we were told of a 3 hour delay due to the plane having broken down; we joked that it would be an ancient propeller plane and it turned out to be exactly that (although I have since been informed that the Q400 is one of the best and most modern planes in the air). SpiceJet appears to be the Indian equivalent of Ryanair, charging for everything, but they kindly agreed to compensate us by waiving the charge for a sandwich. Having arrived in Udaipur, the Hotel Devi Garh, a former palace is truly fabulous. It would have been nice to have been able to spend the afternoon on the terrace in front of my room.

Sunday 9 November

A mere 8 hours of sightseeing today and a lot of climbing up and down steep stairs. Udaipur is known as “the city of lakes” and it often reminds of being beside one of the Italian lakes, with similar Summer temperatures and a heat haze settled over surrounding mountains. The Maharana still lives in a part of his palace, but the rest is now a museum, filled with interesting curiosities and remnants of glorious days. Udaipur has at least three hotels even more luxurious (and expensive) than ours; one of these, on sn island in the lake provided the setting for a scene in the James Bond film Octopussy. A more sedate afternoon saw us taking a boat trip around the lake.

Monday 10 November

A 10 hour drive (with breaks) from Udaipur to our base for Jodhpur, taking in some spectacular views and fascinating insights into Indian rural life. Whatever the roads, main trunk routes, narrow country lanes or the main streets of towns or villages, they have to be shared with cows, water buffalo and oxen roaming free and the standard of driving is breathtakingly bad. This drive began in lush greenery and ended in near-desert, passing through a mountainous game reserve where baboons can be seen everywhere and (apparently) leopards lurk unseen. We did not get out to take photos. It often felt as if we were intruders into an ancient way of life and, although there are plentiful signs of the modern world, the Rajasthan described by Paul Scott is still there to be experienced. We stopped at the ruins of a Hindu temple with magnificent carvings in sandstone, we saw an irrigation system powered by two oxen and ended the morning with a visit to a Jane temple. This had quite impressive architecture, but, due to a camera levy, no photos. This sect does not allow killing of any animal or plant, meaning that we were not allowed to take any leather items in with us, including wallets; so, when pestered for the usual tourist rip-offs, the truthful response was “no money”. They have a rather flawed business model! The final stop was at a makeshift Hindu temple dedicated to a local drunk who was killed in a motor bike crash in 1989, giving rise to some supernatural events. The hotel Rohet Garh is a splendidly converted 16th Century palace.

Tuesday 11 November

A day for exploring Jodhpur, a city of many buildings painted light blue (something to do with repelling insects) which make a curious sight when viewed from the highest point, the very top of the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort. After looking around the Jaswant Thada, a temple on an opposite hill, a lift took us to the Fort’s higher levels, arriving there at 11.00 exactly. The whole group then observed two minutes’ silence in an unforgettable setting, some being moved to tears. After more than an hour walking around the museum, we made our descent by foot. During the afternoon, we took a jeep safari to the outskirts of Jodhpur and beyond on bumpy dirt roads; it is doubtful if the jeeps, each seating four passengers, would have complied with UK Health & Safety standards, but all survived. The “safari” gave a wonderful opportunity to escape from tourist destinations and get a feel of the real India; we visited a family pottery-making business (the father demonstrating amazing skills as a potter) and a small farm where I succumbed to wearing a turban made up from 10 metres of cloth.

Wednesday 12 November

A long drive through the arid Thar desert from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, close to the Pakistan border. Still more of a worry, the road went through the area used by India for its nuclear tests; we saw lots of camels, but none with two heads. The hotel Suryagarh is in the style of an ancient palace, but it is 21st Century, with all mod cons and everything seems to work. The public areas of the hotel are fabulous and the rooms are luxurious, but lacking character. The hotel is also hone to several peacocks and to Alexander the Great, a beautiful Golden Retriever.

Thursday 13 November

Jaisalmer is known as the “Golden City” because of the colour of the sandstone used in the construction of most of its buildings, including the imposing hilltop fort. This is not a fort in the military sense, but a fortified town that is home to tens of thousands of people. This gave us the chance to experience Indian street life on foot as we climbed to the top through narrow, cobbled streets, crowded with pedestrians, motor cyclists, cattle and dogs. The only notable sight at the top was another Jane temple with intricate carvings, but it was the bustle, the vibrant colours and the cacophony of noise created by the street traders and the motor bike horns that made the climb worthwhile. Upon the descent, we saw streets of opulent mansions built from sandstone and displaying more elaborate carvings. Late in the afternoon, we went out into the desert to see the sunset across sand dunes; some more daring than I rode camels, the rest went in carts pulled by camels, mine by a noble beast named Rocket.

Friday 14 November

A quiet day with another long drive through the Indian countryside and villages, marvelling at how different life is here from what we are used to in England. The only stop of interest was two small lakes which are the Winter home if a flock of birds migrating from Siberia. No-one seemed sure about the exact species*, but we settled for some kind of crane. Our base for Bikener is the Gajner Palace, a former hunting lodge of the Maharajahs, set beside a large lake.
* I have now been informed that the birds are Demoiselle Cranes and that this is a very famous spot amongst ornithologists.

Saturday 15 November

A sedate morning walk around Bikaner fort gave few clues as to what was to follow. This fort is less imposing from the exterior than others visited , but the interior is full of interest, with the best museum seen so far. This was followed by an introduction to the tuk tuk, India’s 2-seater taxi which is like a small open car built around a motor bike engine. This would have been a hair-raising experience on a quiet private road, but, driving through an Indian city in such a vehicle almost defies description. When the driver wanted the third exit off a large roundabout, he simply cut off to the right in the face of on-coming traffic; something to be tried on Hyde Park Corner! From there, it was through the narrow bustling streets of the city, dodging between other vehicles, market stalls, shoppers and a variety of beasts, alive or dead. This was India for real, not a show staged for the tourists. After surviving that, a quiet afternoon at the lake beside the hotel was exactly what was needed.

Sunday 16 November

A drive back into fertile territory towards Jaipur. There are more signs of prosperity, but, although the roads are better, the driving standards are not. Along the way, there seem to be as many buildings under construction or demolition as are standing and functional. Our only stop was to view a hideous temple that might look more at home in Orlando than here, but our guide seemed to think it very important and rambled on for more than half an hour about it. At first glance, the Hotel Samode Bagh, which is set in expansive gardens once used as a retreat by Indian aristocracy, looks like a camp site. So a first try at “glamping” seemed likely, but the rooms under the canvas covers are, in fact, built of substances more solid.

Monday 17 November

The Amber Fort is by far the most magnificent seen so far, its walls stretching over the tops of hills into the distance and making it look like a section of the Great Wall of China. It derives its name from being located in the Amer region of the city of Jaipur rather than from its colour. Jaipur more generally is known as “the Pink City”, due to many of its buildings being painted in that colour to celebrate a visit by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). It took a jeep ride to get us up to the Fort’s lowest level, a large courtyard with a dozen or more elephants giving rides around the perimeter. From there, we climbed up to explore all accessible areas and gasp at the breathtaking views. After descending, we went to take a look at the Water Palace, but only from a distance as it stands in the middle of a lake. We moved onto the Royal Palace which has excellent museums devoted to portraits, armament and textiles, and an outdoor observatory which includes a sun dial, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the World and accurate to within two seconds. The large stone-built instruments in the observatory serve a range astrological and astronomical functions, all, we were told, ahead of the time when they were constructed.

Tuesday 18 November

The drive from Jaipur to Agra included two fascinating sightseeing stops. Firstly, we visited the step well at Abeneri. This is a huge hole in the ground with steps on all sides which princes of the age descended to cool themselves and bathe; it was built more than 1,200 years ago and is still in excellent condition, making a spectacular sight, but (fortunately) visitors are no longer allowed to descend. The second stop was at the ruined city of Fatephur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage sight on the outskirts of Agra.

Wednesday 19 November

A 5am wake-up call and then the short trip from the hotel to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. At first sight, the Taj was shrouded in mist/smog, but, as the sun became stronger, the white marble structure could be seen clearly and the position of the sun meant that it was shining most strongly on the front. The early morning was quite cold (hence the jumper in the earlier photos). The building is enormous and every bit as breathtaking as imagined. Visitors are allowed inside to see the two tombs, but it is the intricate artwork on the exterior which is more impressive; no paint was used, just precious or semi-precious gemstones. In the afternoon, we did a tour of Agra, starting with the “mini Taj” which is nowhere near as remarkable, but still has elaborate designs on the stone. On the way to the Moon Garden, we stopped to see an Indian “laundry” on the banks of the river, with washing being laid out on sand to dry; not the sheets from our hotel, we hoped! The Moon Garden is a serene, green park, lying directly across the river from the Taj Mahal. The final port of call was Agra Fort, to which the public is only allowed limited access due to it continuing to be used by the Indian military. Despite suffering from fort fatigue by now, this one is sufficiently different to hold the interest.

Here_Lies_Love_poster_notitleHaving the audacity to turn the hallowed ground that was the Cottesloe into a 1970s-style discotheque, the National has launched its re-named smallest theatre with a spectacular sung-through take on Philippine politics. Well, Argentina has already been covered, so why not? The only major difference between Evita and Imelda Marcos, this show’s subject, is that the former had the good fortune to die young and remain worshipped by her people, whilst the latter lived on in exile, widely loathed. Beginning life as a poor country girl, we see Imelda win a beauty contest and marry Ferdinand Marcos, a rising star of politics who wins the Philippine Presidency on a platform of reform. Accepting her husband’s infidelity, she becomes feted by World leaders and royalty and, when he becomes ill, she effectively takes over control of the country. The show depicts her as becoming a pill-popping, glamour-seeking fashion icon, but, surprisingly, overlooks her fondness for hoarding shoes. As Imelda, Natalie Mendoza handles all the transitions impressively, leading a high energy all singing, all dancing company of 22. The music and lyrics by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, all in the disco style and mostly up-tempo, fit the occasion well and drive the story, but only the title song lingers in the head afterwards and that could be because it is reprised at the end. If performed in a conventional theatre, this might not be much of a show at all, but it is elevated by a brilliant, technically elaborate and highly original production. Some of the audience is seated on balconies, but most of us are standing on the dance floor, which has a stage at both ends and moveable stages between them. We are ushered around, encouraged to clap and dance (a little), mingling with the performers, shaking the hands of election candidates and forming part of the crowd that forces the peaceful 1986 revolution. Colourful and vibrant, this is a great fun evening.

johnConceived and directed by Lloyd Newson for his DV8 Physical Theatre Company, this fusion of spoken word and modern dance creates a truly extraordinary experience. The words are taken verbatim from interviews with real life characters and the dance interprets individual  emotions and the connections between two or more characters. Sometimes smooth flowing, sometimes jerky and edgy, the movement that we see on stage merges seamlessly with the stories that we are being told. Much credit for making this work so effectively must go to Anna Fleischle’s wonderful, adaptable set, which revolves (sometimes constantly) to reveal expansive areas, small rooms, narrow corridors and darkened corners, the flow of the set often heightening the dramatic impact of the movement by the performers. The show runs for 75 minutes without an interval, but it has two very distinct sections: the first is based on interviews with John (performed by Andi Xhuma), telling of his life as part of the social underclass from childhood to early middle age – a life of social housing, state benefits, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, imprisonment, countless women, irresponsible parenthood and many bereavements, but also of success in the form of a University degree gained with honours. For the second section, the primary interviewees are the two owners of a gay sauna who tell, sometimes with considerable humour, of the day-to-day running of their business and of their clients, who include John. Both of the sections work equally well, but they are completely different in tone and content, making it feel for a time that they do not gel with each other; however, when they eventually come together, the emotional impact is shattering. This show is vivid, raw, brutal, life-affirming and totally unique,

girlfriendsThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Howard Goodall’s musical first hit the West End in October 1987 with an opening night that coincided with the great hurricane, but it has not kicked up much of a storm since. However, this is the second London revival at a fringe venue in just over three years, perhaps indicating that it is much more suited to small productions than to the big stage. Set in Britain during the early stages of World War II, the show centres on a group of young women from all social backgrounds and all regions of the country who join up to the WAAFs to play their part in the war effort only to find themselves folding parachutes, making tea for their male counterparts in the RAF and waiting anxiously for planes to return safely from their missions. Much of this follows a familiar path, to be exact Terence Rattigan’s Fare Path of which it sometimes feels a pale imitation, but the writers spice things up with a love triangle involving two best friends (Corrine Priest and Perry Lambert, both giving endearing performances) and a bomber pilot (Tom Sterling). Surprisingly in view of the involvement of Richard Curtis with the original book from which Goodall’s current version has evolved, there is very little humour either in the script or the lyrics and it is not for lack of opportunities. When two male officers sing No! in reference to a WAAF’s refusal to to surrender her virtue, we wonder what Sondheim might have made of it, yet the song raises not so much as a smile here. However, there is sincerity in abundance and only very occasionally do the book and Goodall’s lyrics sound trite as they delve into the futility of war and its cost. Catriana Sandison gives a particularly strong dramatic performance as a grieving woman who is veering towards pacifism and desertion. The score is full of simply structured melodies that are instantly catchy, but lacking in variety and unlikely to prove memorable. Sterling’s powerful voice stands out amongst solo singing performances that are somewhat patchy. However, Goodall’s music is suited perfectly to female chorus numbers, of which there are several, including rousing finales to both acts. It is worth the price of a ticket just to hear the harmonies created by the ten ladies in this company. Bronagh Lagan’s production takes place on a blackened stage and is seen frequently either in half light or in the dark with spotlights on individual performers. This robs the show of any sense of time or place and also casts a gloom which makes it more difficult to seek out humour. Choreography by Iona Holland, although limited, works well and the five piece band, under the direction of Freddie Tapner provides an ideal accompaniment for the singers. With musicals flourishing in fringe theatre, Girlfriends is the sort of small scale show that could be up for more regular revivals and, indeed, it provides a very pleasant way of spending a couple of hours or so. In this production, it is the lovely sound of the female chorus that keeps ringing in the ears long after the final bows have been taken.

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THIS-IS-HOW-WE-DIEChristopher Brett Bailey, the American writer/performer, delvers a relentless assault on the ears, some of which penetrates through to the brain. Pale and gaunt with his hair standing erect, he sits at a desk behind a large microphone and reads from sheets of paper, beginning at a manic speed, barely pausing for breath and slowing up only slightly as the show progresses. The style of presentation has the effect of creating a barrier between Brett Bailey and his audience, thereby forcing concentration on the words being spoken; when occasionally, he pauses and makes eye contact with members of the audience, it is with an icy, threatening stare  - appropriate as a lot of his material is very cold indeed The script mixes neo-existantialist philosophy with stories that show influences as diverse as Jack Kerouac and the Addams Family. Brett Bailey’s writing is at its best when filled with very dark, surreal humour, such as in an account of a visit to his girlfriend’s parents, but at its worst when simply offering a quirky view of the meaning of existence. The evening is rounded off with a rock band making a cacophonous noise whilst four spotlights glare and dim on an otherwise dark and bare stage. In all, this is an unorthodox mixture of forms and ideas which, in a weird sort of way, works.

FreeFall_087Vinay Patel sets his play in a soulless wasteland, neither urban nor rural, where transport links scar the landscape and the only signs of humanity are glimpses caught through the windows of passing vehicles. Specifically, this is a high platform on the Dartford Crossing, where Andrea (Molly Roberts) has come to end it all, having decided that she is of more use dead than alive to those close to her. Roland (Maynard Eziashi), a toll booth superintendent, has other ideas; he has spent many shifts watching as distant black dots plunge from on high into the polluted Thames estuary, but, on this occasion, he climbs up to find out more. This is not the first drama to ask the “to be or not to be” question and over-familiarity, particularly in the early stages, is the biggest obstacle in the way of Patel’s play gaining a grip. Once the play settles into a predictable battle of wills between Andrea and Roland to gain the upper hand, it strays into the territory of light comedy, as the banter ranges from old television programmes to brands of supermarket ready meals. This goes on for much too long, but, as it becomes clearer that Roland, in a dead-end job and with a fragmenting family, has problems which mirror Andrea’s, the drama builds to a powerful and distinctive climax.  This production, directed by Bethany Pitts for Polaroid Theatre, is lifted by two exceptionally strong performances, whilst Petra Hjortsberg’s simple stage designs and Ben Jacobs’ atmospheric lighting are effective in suggesting a bleak and hostile environment, in keeping with the writer’s themes.

the_distance_1_-_helen_baxendale_-_orange_tree_theatre_-_photo_by_helen_warner_-_webWe are frequently told that the World would be a better place if it was run by women, but Deborah Bruce suggests differently in her sparkling new comedy, which sees three 40-ish mothers descend into total panic, whilst the only voices of sanity are those of the men and a teenage boy. When Bea suffers a crisis of confidence in her abilities as a mother, she abandons her partner and two young sons in Australia to seek comfort and support from her two closest friends in a South London suburb. The friends are Kate, a domineering control freak and Alex, an alcoholic single mother of three (by three different fathers) who is in a frenzy because one of her sons could be caught up in the 2011 London riots, which are taking place at the same time. Helen Baxendale does well as the dazed and confused Bea, having the thankless task of playing straight woman to the comedy characters all around her. Clare Lawrence-Moody makes Kate an unstoppable force of nature, refusing to take “no” for an answer or even to even hear the word spoken in her insistence that everything will be done her way, whilst Emma Beattie’s Alex tows the line obliviously, consumed by her own problems. The appearance of Alex’s son Liam (Bill Milner) is the comic highlight of Act II; fed up with dispensing Ibuprofen to relieve his mother’s hangovers, he gives the perspective of the offspring and, in trying to impose order, he effectively mirrors Kate. Kate’s long-suffering partner (Daniel Hawksford) and his brother (Oliver Ryan) plead for common sense, but are largely unheard. Charlotte Gwinner’s production, performed in the round, moves briskly and Bruce’s writing contains nothing too heavy, but makes many wry observations about the nature of friendship and warns that parenthood is not something to be taken lightly.