The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

You could never get bored in a city like London, with its many hidden gems and endless fun places to visit. Out of the numerous plays, musicals, films and performances that I have been to, the one which has given me the most long-standing and impactful experience would definitely be ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ – an award-winning promenade performance presented by Punchdrunk and the National Theatre.

I went to see this ‘play’ back in the beginning of July in 2013. To this date, I am honestly still struggling to find words that would aptly describe this genre of performance – whether it should be classified as a play, dance, drama, or other genres? For now, I’d stick with calling it a ‘play’. 

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The play is staged at a 3-storey warehouse near Paddington. Upon arrival, my friend and I were made to queue in a dark, semi-open area, where people lined up in an organized manner –  separated by railings like in a theme park. We were given a synopsis of the story to read, and were released into the warehouse in small groups. Once we were in, we had to walk through extremely dark, maze-like corridors and passageways that had many corners to turn. As you could imagine, the feeling of being in a theme park felt only stronger. After the group of us congregated, an actress – dressed in old-fashioned clothes – greeted us and gave us white masks which had massive bird beaks. It covered our whole face, leaving our eyes as the only exposed area. The actress led us into one of those old lifts with vintage sliding gates and released us separately onto two different floors. She kept laughing crazily and speaking to us. It was obvious that the acting had already begun as soon as we stepped into the warehouse. I was left very curious of what the sets had in stall.

The first floor that we set foot on was designed as a small-town America in the 1950s with a number of shops, drugstores, pubs, small houses, a salon and a fountain. The set was massive, and took some time to explore – it was very dark and quiet, with the occasional eerie music and loud noise. We saw a number of people wearing the same mask as us, wandering in and out of the different houses and architectural buildings. The silence was ringing in my ears, and the feeling was very strange – as if I was living in a dream. I also almost lost my friend a few times, as every one practically looked the same. Soon we saw a number of white-masked people trailing a few individuals who were not wearing masks. We soon realized that those were the protagonists of the play.

The interesting thing about this production is that the story was conveyed via silent-acting, modern dance, massive bodily movements and clever use of the set and audience. There were hardly any dialogues and the actors (who wore no masks) were walking around the floor or lingering in different shops and houses – it was up to the audience who to follow and which story to unfold. The set was also decorated with intricate detail, and through wandering in and out of buildings, you were able to pick up and explore little things like shop receipts, canned food, and hand-written letters. I guess the idea was for us to decipher the story through the clues we picked up ourselves, alongside the acting and interactions we saw.

tn-500_fable2If I were to pinpoint what impressed me the most, it’d definitely be the second floor that we explored. Once we exited the staircase, I realized that I was walking on sand. In fact the whole floor was covered in it, as it was designed to be a desert. A woman was praying silently somewhere in the middle of the desert, with a group of masked audience surrounding her. Further along there was a group of women doing some kind of ritual, and a half-naked man dancing furiously. In the corner of a sand dune we found a tiny tunnel underneath. My friend decided to go in and so I followed suit. The tunnel was so tiny we had to be on all fours, and it reminded me of the tunnel that I went into in Egypt to see the mummies, although it was much darker at the set and I could not see my own palm even when placed right in front of my face. At the end of the tunnel was a spacious, dimly-lit room, designed as an abandoned space/room. I don’t think it was meant to signify anything, but it was a very weird and powerful memory, something I did not expect from this production.

All in all, I am not sure I was able to grasp the storyline very well. I know that the story is about betrayal and murder between two couples, with the traitor/lover roles being switched round between the two pairs. I think my overall feeling is that I was very impressed, but I feel that the producers could have made even better use of this kind of play, by giving more concrete clues for the audience to solve the story in a combined effort, or grasp a better understanding of the plot. I just wish that it had made better use of the endless doors that a set like this could have opened up to!

Alternative London Tour

I had the privilege to experience the award-winning alternative London tour back in late July, which is a ‘pay-whatever-you-think-it-is-worth’ walking tour around East London.

Our tour guide, Ben Slow, is an aspiring young street artist himself. He led a group of about 15 of us around East London, explaining the cultural and historical background of the area versus the all built-up and commercialized City of London, as well as providing insights on the various famous pieces of street art around Bricklane and Shoreditch.

I was pleasantly surprised by the tour. Once again London has proven itself to be one of the most interesting and culturally diverse cities in the world. Bricklane features a range of fascinating street art and graffiti, and I learned today that a lot of the street art is in fact legal. Many street artists are gallery artists that get paid a decent amount, and many of them are asked to/volunteer to paint on walls on the streets, thus subsequently offering their work for ‘free’ to us all.

Moreover, the culture of street art is very interesting in the sense that all the amazing big pieces of street art are not expected to stay on the same wall for more than 5-6 months. They get painted over once past their short ‘expiry date’. I found this odd and counter-intuitive because it almost provides a disincentive to street artists when their work isn’t treasured and showcased for a long period of time. However, this allows the area to stay fresh, and gives way for other artists to take part.

The area that we explored is culturally rich – it was initially an area where the French asylums congregated, when the City of London still had walls denoting the clear boundaries and East London was outside the City. Later on it became occupied by the Jews, which meant that the area was severely bombed during WWII. Eventually it developed and became a ‘Bangla Town’, and is the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi-Sylheti community. There is a lot of irony in that the area is basically right next to the financial centre of London, Bank, but is almost opposite to what it is; not only is East London fighting with poverty problems, the community is also fighting very hard to allow it to stay the same. There has not been much appreciation for the street art in the area, despite it being such an amazing place to visit for both locals and tourists. It is often difficult for creativity to be appreciated when the council is constantly looking to knock down old buildings and build modern, commercialized blocks in their place. I found the contrast jarring – we found a spot where we stood literally on the ‘border’ – filled with older buildings with street art and graffiti all over the walls, and to your right the high rise glass buildings, where my office actually is as well….

When Olympics came to London, the council tried hard to remove the pieces of art from various walls. However, I think that such an act is almost the same as shamelessly trying to deny your own identity/cultural background. Although there is graffiti which is messy and rude, a lot more appreciation ought to be shown to the proper pieces of art work that are filling up the area. There is so much that one can admire even without being an artist herself. I was totally surprised and felt belittled while standing in front of the many amazing pieces of creative work in East London. The time and effort spent on these should definitely be acknowledged more, and they are not something that London should ever be ashamed of.

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^ One of my favorite pieces – very simple and symbolizes cultural integration.

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^ A similar piece of work by the same artist but found in Waterloo when I visited the Thames Festival.

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^ An incredible piece of work by Elaxi – all done by brush/ink within 6 days.

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^ Chinese Artist painted two wired cats fighting with each other; completed within 10 hours only!

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^ Absolutely amazing work done by Roa – the wall is not even on ground level so it was drawn using a mini lift…

So much more to say but this will simply get too long. I definitely recommend this tour to anyone – tourists and locals alike!!

Tom Odell gig

I had the pleasure to attend 22-year-old British singer-songwriter Tom Odell’s gig at Sommerset House tonight. Tom debuted late 2012 and won the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award in early 2013. His first album was released in June 2013. I was originally unfamiliar with him and did not plan to attend his gig. However, my friend had a ticket to spare and after spending a day listening to his music at work, I decided that it’d be well worth it. I am really glad I went.

I like Tom for a lot of reasons.

For one, he is young and relatively new to the music/entertainment industry. This means that he is humble, sincere and honest. He played almost song after song during his gig, with minimal talking in the middle, and he absolutely poured his heart out to each song he sang. It was a shame tonight because he recently had a chest infection, which he has been recovering from. It definitely affected his singing. Luckily, he was still able to ‘wow’ the audience with his rather stable vocal performance and piano skills.

The second reason why I am a real fan is because he is a pianist singer-songwriter. Not many people can succeed with this package, because performers like him are limited to sitting in front of the piano, while having a band on stage doing backing. 99% of the time his bum was on the piano stool. He put effort into making the most out of the restriction and really showed off his skills on the piano, while head-banging heavily according to the beat and making it look as though he was breaking into a dance while playing the piano.

His third main appeal, which I feel is his unique selling point, is definitely his voice (and maybe his accent?). He delivers his songs in a unique style where he uses a rather rough tone when he sings, allowing his voice to sound very real and not overly processed. However, this is also why Tom Odell’s songs may not immediately appeal to listeners at first hearance. He is the type of musician whose work needs to be listened to repeatedly before you can really appreciate it, in my opinion. Of course, not to mention – he writes great songs and lyrics and his musical style ranges from ballad and jazz to rock, which is simply awesome!

Here I’d like to share my favorite song by him. It is a heart-breaking and mellow song. Suggest you listen to it at a quiet time on your own through headphones. Indulge yourself in his singing; the lyrics are just great:

Hard to know,
Maybe if I skim the stone,
Walk a different way back home,
It would all make sense.

Oh, shut my eyes,
Lose myself in teenage lies,
If I fell in love a thousand times,
Would it all make sense ?

Cause I,
I’ve been feeling pretty small,
Sometimes,
Feel like I’m slipping down walls,
And every line,
I ever get a hold,
It seems to break…

It was my first time attending an open-air standing concert and I was a bit disappointed by the fact that he only sang for an hour in total. My other complaints would include the constant smell of weed that lingered in the air and the continuous second-hand smoke coming from people’s cigarettes…. Nevertheless, it was a great experience – we were lucky with the weather, the stage was nice with effective sound and lighting. All in all, I had an enjoyable night, and I do sincerely wish that Tom will continue to flourish with his very honest music.

P.S. This post only serves as a sharing of personal experience, not a proper professional review of the gig.

Busking

True musicians enjoy opportunities to share their love for music with others at all times and busking is probably one of the most accessible mediums for such purpose. The beauty of busking lies in the fact that it provides free street performances to the public, and it is at the discretion of the audience as to how much they think the performance is worth. It is a win-win situation really – it is an emotional outlet for the performer, and the public enjoys free entertainment!

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My first busking experience was back in March in Hong Kong, as part of a campaign to promote International Happiness Day. Recently, I had the privilege to busk with my extremely talented friend, Kevin, at Kings X St Pancras London on a few occasions. There are often ‘wow’ moments in life that are indescribable, and I’d say that jamming with talented musicians definitely constitutes to major ‘wow’ moments for me.

It is difficult to describe, but Kevin and I both play by ear; we do not use any sheet music and this increases the level of musical engagement, as we have to pay close attention to what each other is playing to match our parts accordingly. There is a lot of ad-hoc improvisation, which makes it all the more exciting and fun to do!!

Busking in London is so different compared to Hong Kong, as people here appreciate it a lot more, and are much more generous with their applause and smiles of acknowledgement. Kevin and I have busked three times so far – him on the saxophone and me on the public piano stationed at St Pancras  - and we have had really decent-sized crowds each time. People clap after each song, and just a simple smile on a passerby’s face is very rewarding for me personally. Our repertoire ranges from broadway musical songs (e.g. phantom, les miserables) to disney tunes and classic pop songs such as ones from the Beatles. 

Our first busking session was 20 minutes long and we were surprisingly rewarded by a decent £12; second session lasted an hour which earned us a wooping £38; third session was interesting – a Chinese lady from Boston dropped by, requested a classic Chinese tune which we all sang along to, and gave us a generous £20 note (!). A professional pianist later identified himself from the crowd, and jammed a very jazzy version of Fly Me to the Moon with Kevin, putting me completely to shame! Strangers came up to talk to us – common questions include whether we are professionals, if we study music, etc.  We just generally felt very humbled by the many kind and encouraging words that people showered us with as they idly waited for their Eurostar trains to arrive.

It is these things that make London a unique and culturally charming place to be, and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to share my music with people here. It has been a real pleasure and I will never forget the moments when our music echoed down the hallway in the bustling station where JK Rowling’s very dream was brought to life.

Welcome

Hello reader – welcome to my blog.

 Throughout my short twenty-odd years of life so far, I have always been an avid blogger/writer. I love writing, and sharing my thoughts with others. However, my blogs in the past have always been filled with musings about love, life, ambitions, etc. A lot of posts were not very positive or were written for the sake of keeping myself sane. I highly doubt that my readers derived a lot of enjoyment from reading my blogs…

Hence, I have decided to change that. I created this new blog where I will be writing more about my life in London outside work, and my little ventures around this amazing city. I realized that this peaceful, yet fulfilling life, is something that I really treasure; and I suspect it is not something which will be long-lasting. So – while I do have the privilege to enjoy my single life around possibly one of the busiest yet most fascinating cities in the world, I shall record my adventures here and share them with you all.

Thank you for reading :)

NB: Mind you – people who know me should understand that, regardless of how much of an ‘adventurer’ I claim myself to be, I am not the most fun person that you’d know. I like to stay within my comfort zone and do things I enjoy only. So do not be surprised if a lot of posts here are, for example, about music-related activities..!