The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tony Blair, Bush’s partner in Iraq disaster, reinvents himself as a humanitarian

Filed under: Blog — Lucy Komisar @ 4:50 pm

Sept 29, 2016

Tony Blair was in town for the opening of the United Nations, which draws heads of state, foreign ministers, and people who think they ought to travel in those circles. Former British Prime Minister Blair was one of the latter. One of the architects of the Iraq War, he came to attempt to reinvent himself as a humanitarian. He has set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to work with education programs to deal with extremism across the world. To help stop it. (Do you know the meaning of chutzpah?)

He has also reinvented himself as a very rich guy, selling his services to various Gulf sheiks and the president-for-life of Kazakhstan.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair had the help of the Council on Foreign Relations, which aided his PR offensive by pairing him in a meeting with UNESCO head Irina Bokova to discuss “the role of education and civil society in preventing global extremism and raising awareness among governments.”

It was a surreal event. In his remarks, he never mentioned the Iraq War. You recall that Blair, known as “Bush’s poodle” (“I will be with you, whatever”) took the UK into the disastrous Iraq War, for which he has just been condemned by the British Committee of Privy Counsellors in “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry,” known as The Chilcot Report, after its chair.

Among the litany of Blair’s calamitous decisions, it noted that the British “chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”; that military action “was not a last resort”; that when the United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix said weeks before the invasion that he “had not found any weapons of mass destruction and the items that were not accounted for might not exist,” Blair wanted Blix “to harden up his findings.” Blair knew that Bush’s purpose was regime change.

And when the Baathist military were sent home (but not disarmed), they created ISIS. And the conflict metastasized throughout the region, yielding armed conflict and terrorism on a level that had never existed in the region before. (At least not since the Crusades.)

Lucy asks Tony Blair a question.

Lucy asks Tony Blair a question.

So I asked Blair, “Thinking critically, [he had been talking about the need to get the Islamists to think critically], what role in educating the people who became extremists was played by the fact that their countries were invaded, intervened, bombed by forces led by your country, for which a report in the U.K. now blames you substantially, condemns you substantially, and the Americans under Bush—what lesson do they get from that?

And do you think that can be challenged by giving them some books or classes? Or should there be—is there another lesson that you learned from that?

BLAIR: “OK, I think I know where you’re coming from. (Laughter. After all, it’s the neoliberal Council. In the UK, he would be booed.) He quickly deflects the question to what other leaders did.

The Chilcot Inquiry Report.

The Chilcot Iraq Inquiry Report.

“Look, let me be very frank with you, because there’s not just that report on Iraq, by the way; there’s a recent report on Libya which then accuses David Cameron of having promoted extremism by the action in Libya. There are people who will say that the Russian actions in Chechnya promoted extremism. For the French by the way they—it’s the cartoons that have provoked extremism, the French action in Mali. You can disagree with foreign policy decisions, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, wherever else in the world.”

He moves from detailing other western failures to declare that none of it mattered!The roots of this extremism are not to be found in foreign policy in the West, and we will make a fundamental mistake if we believe that they are.

“Now, you can agree or disagree with these decisions. And you can say, well, as a result of that decision, you enlarged the space for these people to operate, right? We can have that debate, and that’s one debate. But the question we’ve got to ask ourselves is why—let me take not the one that you might expect me to be defensive on, but let me take Libya, OK?

“Why is it, when you remove a regime that was undoubtedly a brutal one, and you give the country a chance to get on the path to democracy, and you put a large amount of aid into it, and you try and bring everyone together—why is it that there are elements that then through terrorism try and disrupt that whole process? And that’s the question you’ve got to ask, because otherwise what we do is we effectively bolster the propaganda of those people who were attacking us.

“You know, it’s like today in France you have people who say by banning the so-called burkini, right, in France, you’re going to provoke terrorism. Now, you can agree with banning the burkini or not banning the burkini, it’s one debate. You end up by saying by taking that action you are provoking terrorism, in my view, you are making a big, big mistake.

“The roots of this are deep. You know, they’re generational. It’s why it’s going to take a long time to deal with it. So you can make the point about being against the foreign policy decisions that I took or others have taken since then but, you know, the foreign policy we have engaged in—for example, in Syria—is the very opposite of the policy we engaged in in Iraq. Has the outcome been better?”

Generational? Was there Islamic extremism and terrorism of the sort we see today roiling the region and threatening Europe and the U.S. generations ago?

Blair: “OK, so my issue is agree/disagree with the foreign policy. But we will make a fundamental mistake if we think this extremism arises from what we’re doing. We haven’t caused it. We got caught up in it. And we’ve got to learn the lessons both of what we did over the last 15 years in both sets of foreign policies that we’ve engaged in since then.

“But the fundamental thing that we have got to get right is to understand the depth of this issue. And education is a necessary part, not because it’s going to cure it by—you know, you’re not going to stop terrorism by putting books into classrooms, that’s true. But you will help defeat the ideology if you educate the next generation of young people to be culturally open to those that are different.”

Blair’s answer: Forget the Iraq War and the Western bombing of Middle Eastern countries. The West can end Islamic extremism through cultural education. Yada yada yada. Well, maybe planes can drop books instead of bombs.

The Sept 22 text and video are here, with Lucy’s question at 38:25. The Chilcot Report is here.

More about the report.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Bordeaux from medieval to modern, discover a gorgeous city of wine

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 1:27 pm

Bordeaux has been transformed in the last few decades by Alain Juppé, mayor since 1995, who ordered the cars to underground car parks, cleaned the grime off the stone buildings, and turned the city into a gorgeous place for pedestrians and visitors. And as it is a center of the wine trade, a place for wine tastings and trips to vineyards, and a trendy cultural center, it’s time you visited Bordeaux!

Rue des Faussets.

Rue des Faussets.

I knew Bordeaux was a city of wine, but I didn’t expect it to also be a place of such charm. Then I learned there was an historical connection. I got a taste of it in a walk through the historic center with Christine Birem, a very knowledgeable guide, who took us through the city from medieval times through the 15th to 18th centuries and its very modern present.

Start out by understanding that Bordeaux is a port, a trading city. Christine explained that Bord eaux  means the bank of the waters and Eaux bourde means marshland. The first port of Bordeaux was on an estuary of the Garonne River at a place which is now land. But eventually, the port moved to the Garonne.

Bordeaux was a fortress with ramparts. In the oldest part of the city, houses were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its first houses were of the wine merchants. Ships stopped there, off-loading spices, coffee and tea and taking on wine barrels.

Porte Cailhau

Porte Cailhau

Some of the old structures date to when a French king decided to construct elegant buildings for the wealthy business people of the wine trade. Some old buildings have wood on their outer walls; some have sculpted masks.

Christine pointed out a house with symbols of the Far East, where the owner traded. When houses sit on small curved streets, that means that lane existed in the Middle Ages. She explained, “They had no feeling of going straight, they just constructed where they wanted to construct.”

In some buildings, artisans made ropes for ships. Or they were the abodes of chandlers, the retail dealers who provided supplies and equipment for ships. The river is ever present: when on a house you see a vase with water flowing out, that represents the River Garonne. Now the streets have other purposes. Rue des Faussets, where houses seem to lean into the street, is popular for its restaurants.

The street of silversmiths includes buildings from the 15th century. In the windows you see the stone cross, typical for the Middle Ages. Now, the silversmiths make cups and medals for commemorations. Rue de la vache is the street through which cattle were brought into the city.

Pilgrim pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrim pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela.

My favorite historic monument place is the 15th century Porte Cailhau, the main entrance into Bordeaux. Construction began under King Charles VIII, his coat of arms is on the arch. Cailhau was the name of a mayor of the era. The bell on the tower was rung in case of fire. As the houses were mostly of wood, fires were frequent. Today it rings every first Sunday of the month.

From the other side we see the 18th century. On the left side is a small window, a prison window. The prison was the hotel of the golden lion. When the ship chandlers needed strong sailors, they came here, gave authorities some money – “Here’s a strong man, I need him, I give you 20.” Those prisoners went on ships as sailors. Impressed seamen.

Christine showed us something special about the 15th century Eglise Saint-Pierre (all but the choir was rebuilt in the 19th). Look at the sculpted figures on the right side of the arch. The third from the bottom is a pilgrim – we know that from his hat with the sign of pilgrims, a shell with waves of the river. In one hand is a paper roll, and the finger of the other points south, the direction of the pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Campostela.

2016-08-25-10-34-19And we notice there and on numerous streets, the small round brass plates indicate the pilgrims’ road. The famous Rue St James (pronounced szham-es) is still the way to Santiago. There’s a new pilgrims house, which costs 13 euros to stay overnight. It has small rooms with two beds, furnished with paper sheets! You need a pilgrim’s pass, which is complicated to get.

Cafe at Cathedral.

Cafe at Cathedral.

Going back in time again, the cathedral was once a 12th century Romanesque church. It was enlarged in following centuries, till by the 15th it had become flamboyantly gothic. The cathedral square had a statue of the king on horseback, but that was removed at the time of the French Revolution. Another revolution was made by Mayor Juppé. The square once had been a parking place, and the church was surrounded by car traffic. Now that is all gone, and the cars are replaced by terrace cafes. Cars park underground and people ride trams.

Houses had gables in the 16th century, and in the centuries to follow, roofs became flatter. We saw one with an iron rail with a medallion of the house owner. There’s a reason for the wrought iron on buildings. Bordeaux had been famous for swords, and when guns put swords out of business, the sword makers turned to creating wrought iron railings. (Swords into plowshares?)

There’s a plaque at the house of Simon Millanges, who printed essays of the 16th  century mayor of Bordeaux, Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance.

Here's where Montaigne's essays were printed.

Here’s where Montaigne’s essays were printed.

The golden house, la maison dorée, with geometrical ornaments shows the beginning of art deco at the end of the 18th century.

Highlighting another kind of art, the theater is on a large square, a site which the Romans called Burdigala and where they built a temple. Its ruins were discovered by the architect hired to build the theater, which has existed since 1780 in the same style.

For a port, you need a customs house, and the 18th-century building along the Garonne still functions. It’s on the square of the stock exchange, Place de la Bourse, also 18th century stone. But the magic of that site is across the street, the “water mirror,” set on a quai of the Garonne, which reflects the buildings at the Place de la Bourse.

The Water Mirror.

The Water Mirror.

The size of the “mirror” is 180 meters long, 40 meters wide, 2 centimeters of water deep over a granite base. It was planned as a mirror of the buildings on the stock exchange square. But, there are moments when it stops being a mirror and shoots up in mists. The water disappears and then in a musical rhythm is pushed out by round plates as mist. It was designed ten years ago by landscape artist Michel Corajoud and is listed as a contemporary World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  People, kids, love to walk through it. Young people gather there in the evening.

More about fixing up Bordeaux. “We are world cultural heritage,” said Christine. “But before 1998, Bordeaux was black. All the houses in Bordeaux had this color.” They were black from the grime of pollution. Mayor Juppé started cleaning them up. Private owners got subsidies from the government if they put their own money toward the cleaning. And that was tax deductible. Low income people couldn’t afford it, for the others, it was free. With the pedestrian streets came shops and cafés, which were encouraged to bring life to streets that had been dominated by cars.

Constellations exhibit at museum of contemporary art.

Constellations exhibit at museum of contemporary art.

We came across the name Burdigala again, surprised to find it on the boat of a tour company that runs short cruises on the Garonne. There’s not a lot to see, but we liked viewing the new wine museum from the outside and getting a glimpse of the old wine warehouses north of the historic center. After World War II, the port moved north. The old warehouses are now cafés and boutiques.

From centuries past to century future! I always visit the local modern art museum to see what contemporary artists are doing. The Centre of Contemporary Visual Arts, CAPC (Musée d’art contemporain), showed that French artists – or at least the museum curators! – are attuned to changing politics – ecology, feminism, movements against racism and world poverty. The major exhibit, taking up the entire ground floor, was called “Constellation.s.”

Woman in flooded town, from the Constellation.s exhibit.

Woman in flooded town, from the Constellation.s exhibit.-

On the theme of architecture, cities and human habitation, it is built of criss-crossing panels reaching high to the ceiling, all of them dealing with phases of human development on this planet. Directed by Francine Fort, and using words like “connectivity,” “empowerment,” “special justice,” it turns global politics into art.

The mayor enjoys the new mood of the square.  His office is in a palace for royals finished in 1782. After the revolution, it became the town hall. The walls of the drawing rooms are original.

A highlight of the trip I keep till last. You have to do a wine visit. De rigeuer. It can be at a class or tasting in town (ask the tourism bureau for recommendations) or a visit to a vineyard outside town. The tourism office arranges those, too. There are numerous to choose from, depending on which Bordeaux wine area you want to visit, for example Graves and Sauternes, Médoc and Margaux, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, and more. Usually, you visit two vineyards with two different denominations in the same area.

Caroline Perromat at Chateau de Cerons.

Caroline Perromat at Chateau de Cérons.

I chose the first because my companion can drink only white wine, but if I had another choice, I would take a trip to Saint-Émilion, since that includes a visit to the medieval village. The trips take 4 or 5 hours, depending on the distance from the city.

A guide on the bus provides background and answers questions. You get a tour of the cellars, a visit to the vines, explanations and, of course, tastings! A tourism office booklet lists them all, and the days they run, some full days with lunch, some half, some evenings.

Outside museum sign says in the face of terror, folly and fear, the answer is culture.

Outside museum sign says in the face of terror, folly and fear, the answer is culture.

I went to a tasting of Cérons, a sweet white wine in the region south of the city that produces Graves and Sauternes. The wine here is poured by Caroline Perromat at the Chateau de Cérons. We also got a visit to the caves and a look at the vines.

I drink to Bordeaux!


Bordeaux Tourism Office.

Le Cour Carree.

Le Cour Carrée.

Bordeaux City Pass gets you free or discount admission to museums, monuments, wine tours, local transit and more. 1 day €26, 2 days €33, 3 days €40.

Centre of Contemporary Visual Arts CAPC (Musée d’art contemporain).

Christine Birem.

Christine Birem.

Arc en Rêve exhibit through Sept 25, 2016.

We stayed at La Cour Carrée, a small boutique hotel in a renovated 200-year-old town house perfectly located in the center of the city.

For the Burdigala cruise on the Garonne, meet at Ponton d’Honneur, Quai Richelieu, just south of the water mirror.  Book through the tourism office.

Wine tours. Book through the tourism office. And visit Chateau de Cérons.

La Cité du Vin. The new wine museum, 1 Esplanade de Pontac. Never got to see it, the top of my list for next time.

Personal note: as a travel journalist I appreciate that French tourism organization and assistance is the world’s gold standard! And so was our knowledgeable and attentive guide Christine Birem, with bon courage but perhaps a little épuisée after a near three-hour walk on one of the hottest days of August!

Photos by Lucy Komisar.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lisbon: gorgeous history, art, culture, food, wine in a south Europe you probably don’t know

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 8:00 pm

I hadn’t been to Lisbon for decades, not since just after the Revolution of the Carnations in 1974 when the military overthrew the dictator, Antonio Salazar. Happy people in the streets stuck those flowers in the muzzles of solders’ rifles and on their uniforms, and so the revolution – which turned democratic — got its name. It was glorious to visit again, and experience Portugal’s well-deserved reputation for charming, warm and friendly people. But for many American travelers, Portugal is not on their list. It should be.

Pousada Lisboa at the corner of the Praça do Comércio.

Pousada Lisboa at the corner of the Praça do Comércio.

The welcoming vista when we arrived (after a few wrong turns from the nearby airport!) was the main square, the Praça do Comércio, also called Palace Square, where a royal palace existed for 400 years. (The royals were overthrown in 1910, when Portugal became a republic. The revolution of the carnations was not Portugal’s first!)

It is a large space bordering the Tagus River and edged on three sides by two-story buildings that after the 1775 earthquake were constructed to house government offices. The ground floors are arcades fronted by colonnaded passageways, the outer walls are a sunny gold (also known as royal yellow!) and the roofs are red tile. An equestrian statue of King José I, which dates to 1775, oversees the center of the square.

Horse and Rider sculpture in Library of Pousada de Lisboa.

Horse and Rider sculpture in Library of Pousada de Lisboa.

We are staying at one of those grand buildings that used to be the Ministry of Interior. Last year, it became a hotel, the glorious Pousada de Lisboa, which you see on the corner.

It is owned 50 percent by the government and 50 percent by the Pestana Hotel Group, the largest hospitality chain in the country, which specializes in luxurious monument and historic hotels.

Pousada de Lisboa breakfast room.

Pousada de Lisboa breakfast room.

You feel as if you are in a living museum, with paintings and sculptures on every wall, in every corner. Even the dining room has historic wall hangings and ceiling paintings. Not to mention a delicious breakfast buffet: Mangos and papayas, lots of lox, and flutes set out to hold a morning sparkling wine.

The feeling of being well cared-for begins at check-in. No standing in lines to be addressed by staff ranged behind counters. Here you sit at desks from which your hosts collect information and distribute room keys. The room is cool and luxurious and has an excellent view of the square.

Vaisselier Rouge by Patrick Raynaud, the Gulbenkian Museum.

Vaisselier Rouge by Patrick Raynaud, the Gulbenkian Museum.

About half a block down the street is the city tourism office, where we pick up maps, brochures and a Lisboa Card, good for free entrances and discounts. The card gets you onto the little train, which leaves from a stop on the Praça. It takes us, with audio in various languages, through the old Alfama, the Barrio Alto, and streets around town we’d not have seen on our own.

We twist around Alfama’s climbing winding narrow streets, alleys that open into squares, a working class barrio of houses topped with red tile roofs. A regular bus could not have navigated this, it takes the narrow tram.

Next, I love to see what a country’s artists are doing. I skip the chance to see yet another Picasso and instead opt for local painters. We visit the famous Gulbenkian Museum, now a center for modern Portuguese art. My favorite is a cup and saucer piece by Patrick Raynaud. Except, it turns out he is French!

At Pestana Palace.

At Pestana Palace.

That evening, to hear fado, the traditional soulful Portuguese music, we have dinner at the Adega do Ribatejo in the Barrio Alto, which a local journalist recommends. The neighborhood is a jumble of restaurants and bars that fold onto the pedestrian street. Think of it as the left bank of Paris.

This restaurant is a small unassuming place where you find seats at long tables and local people take turns singing the mournful fado, making it more genuine than the professional dinner shows. As our journalist friend advised us!

There is quite a different mood the next evening at the Pestana Palace, which once was the sumptuous 19th-century residence of the Marquis of Valle Flor. We are having dinner there, but arrive a bit early to walk through the rooms.

Pestana Palace dining room.

Pestana Palace dining room.

It is like visiting a royal palace. With painted ceilings (those ubiquitous cherubs!) and intricate chandeliers. But a living palace, with a pianist playing classical and jazz tunes in one of the room.

Then to the elegant dining room, with tables set apart for privacy. We ask Maitre d’ Carlos Eduardo Castro Lopes to bring wine pairings for our dishes, and he does it with great ability.

Swordfish at Pestana Palace.

Swordfish at Pestana Palace.

Salmon with spicy rich mango and soy goes perfectly with subtle smoky Alvarinho, which is from Minho, in the north of Portugal. A Carm Douro Reserva, a little flinty, is fine with a fish soup.

Monastery of Belem.

Monastery of Belem.

Swordfish comes with a sauce made of passion fruit! Fruit is the perfect flavor accompaniment to fish. And an Alentejo wine from the south of Portugal seems made for it. For the very nice slightly spicy veal, I like the Santos da Casa wine.

Another day we visit Belem, which is at the mouth of the River Tagus. Its Manueline architecture is connected to the 15th-century period of exploration. Manueline is Portuguese very ornamental late Gothic, influenced by the design of Indian temples brought by the explorers. The imposing Manueline monastery of Jeronimos is an easy tram ride from our hotel.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama.

Tomb of Vasco da Gama.

There’s a wonderful historic moment in the monastery when you see a tomb topped by a sculpture of Vasco da Gama, someone we all know from high school world history! He discovered a sea route to India, landing in Calcutta in 1498. The pepper, cinnamon and other spices he brought back meant riches for Portugal.

We want to see the Tower of Belem, listed to be open till 6, but when we get there at 5:05, we learn that entrances have just been stopped! But it’s charming from the outside.

And then Sintra and Cascais

We have rented a car so we can go from Sintra to Cascais the same day. It’s also easy to visit Sintra and Cascais from Lisbon by train. With a car you have to deal with parking, though pay parking is available. But there is traffic! With a train, you have to deal with schedules, though local buses take you to the major sites in Sintra from the station. Cascais, the beach resort, is small and easy to walk around. Go to Sintra and the beach on weekdays, not week-ends!

National Palace of Sintra.

National Palace of Sintra.

Sintra’s forest setting made it a favorite place for royals escaping the summer heat. The National Palace of Sintra, dates to the 13th century, then to the 14th and 15th, updated as the royals were wont to do.

The interior is Moorish and Manueline. The magpie room has magpies painted on the ceiling. The kitchen, with its huge spit, is terrific. The palace is, of course like many of the royal abodes, full of gorgeous paintings.

Azulejos in Palaceof Sintra.

Azulejos in Palace of Sintra.

My favorite room is the one with the azulejos, the blue tiles for which Portugal is famous.

From there, we drive to the Pena Palace. It was built in the 19th century by Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for his wife Queen Maria II (how tacky they were!), and he looks over it as a statue. It is filled with his collectables and became a national museum after the royals lost out in 1910.

The kitchy Pena Palace.

The kitchy Pena Palace.

The Pena Palace is said to be what inspired Disney to create the castles of his fantasy kingdom. Onion domes, crenelated towers. It certainly is kitchy!

We have time to stop at the stone remains of a 9th century Moorish castle and watch others climb the stone stairs to the top!

The beach at Cascais.

The beach at Cascais.

And then to Cascais, a beach resort for over a century and a favorite suburb and week-end place for Lisbon residents. Small, easy to handle (and park!), a beachfront, cafes, an out-door music venue with a free concert ready to play that evening. Nice, relaxing to pass by and spend an hour or so to get a sense of the place. It touches the Atlantic Ocean at near the western-most point of the continent. We toast that with some good Portuguese wine.



Pousada de Lisboa.

Pousada de Lisboa.

If you go


Pousada de Lisboa
Praça do Comércio 31-34
1149-018  Lisboa
351 218 442 001

View from the room at the Pousada de Lisboa.

View from the room at the Pousada de Lisboa.

Adega do Ribatejo
Rua do Diário de Notícias 23
351 213 468 343

Pestana Palace Lisboa
Rua Jau, 54
1300-314 Lisboa
351 210 401 712

Castle of the Moors.

Castle of the Moors at Sintra.


Monastery of the Jeronimos
Take tram 15 from Lisbon


Take train from Lisbon to last stop, Portela de Sintra.
Lots of walking and climbing on steep stony paths. Wear sneakers or thick-soled sandals or shoes. Thin sandals discouraged! Ladies’ heels, forgetaboutit!

Lisbon Tourism Office for information about Lisbon, Belem, Sintra and Cascais.
Rua do Arsenal 15
351 210 312 700

Statue of King José I in Praça do Comércio.

Statue of King José I in Praça do Comércio.

A block from Praça do Comércio, past the Pousada and across the street.


I love the Eyewitness Travel series for its detail and color maps and photos. It’s “Portugal” is no exception. All you want to know about important sites, hours and fees, background information. These books are the gold standard.

Lonely Planet‘s “Portugal” has the site information and is also very good about helping you get around, inserting where to eat and entertain yourself, including local festivals and events.

Photos by Lucy Komisar.



Discover port and learn why Portugal’s Douro Valley is on the UNESCO World Heritage list

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 7:52 pm

The oldest demarcated wine region in the world in not in France. It is in Portugal, in the Douro region near Porto, famous for port wine, and a necessary stop on any traveler’s tour of the country. Though the vineyards are an hour-and-a-half distant and more, the cellars are in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto. There, port wine companies have set up tours and tastings, and we spent a happy few hours there under the tutelage of Taylor port’s Claire Aukett.

Claire Aukett.

Claire Aukett.

In the U.S., the brand is called Taylor Fladgate, because when Taylor’s went to registered it, the name already existed.

Taylor’s has been making port since 1692. It’s a British name, became the family that owns it is of British origin. Why Brits? Claire explained, “That goes back to the days in the 18th century, when the King in France increased taxes.

The British weren’t going to buy more French wine. They were already dealing in wool with their old ally, Portugal. So, the English bought table wine from Portugal and shipped it back to England. But table wine didn’t travel well. The boat rockied, the temperature changed. Somebody thought it might be a good idea to add some brandy to see if it would make the wine last longer.

When the wine got to England, the English loved the sweeter wine, so port wine — wine from Porto — was born. That was three centuries ago.

Roots growing in rocks.

Roots growing in rocks.

The grapes need to be grown in the Douro Valley because of its micro climate, the combination of soil and climate. It gets cold at night and hot in the daytime, to over 100 degrees. It is protected by a mountain range, and there is no pollution.

The terracing, which also dates to the 18th century, is done to prevent erosion and to permit workers to walk along the paths to tend the vines. This sustainable terrace model uses rock as “the earth” for the roots, which keeps the heat in and doesn’t require irrigation.

Casks in the cave.

Casks in the cave.

The Douro Valley is Portugal’s most important wine region, for table wine and port. The deepest part of the Douro, beyond the mountains, is a UNESCO World Heritage area.

The cellars are in Vila Nova de Gaia because conditions are colder and damper, better for aging wine. As we walked through the caves, Claire showed us giant casks. The largest – the largest cask in Europe — holds 100,000 liters, that will be decanted to more than 100,000 bottles of port. Other barrels hold 600 liters.

And she discussed the different kinds of port. There is red port, white port and tawney. The best reds are vintage ports, bottled in exceptional years. Red ports LBV (late bottled vintage) were developed by Taylor’s as a less expensive option. White port, also invented by Taylors’ in 1934, is dryer than red. Tawney is sweeter.

Stompers on the grapes.

Stompers on the grapes.

In more detail: vintage red ports spend two years aging in a barrel, and the rest of their lives in the bottle. Old ports when opened will oxidize quickly and need to be drunk in a few days. The red wine in the giant barrel is full-bodied and fruity. LBV red ports spend 4 to 6 years in a bottle, and last longer than vintages when opened. The whites spend 2 to 5 years in the vat, then are bottled.

Tawney, slightly sweeter, is aged in smaller barrels, has greater contact with air and wood, absorbs more flavors from the wood, is nuttier, and of an amber hue. Tawnies are 10, 20, 30, 40-year-old blends, so a 20 will have some wine less than 20 but also some 30. The goal is a house style. But there’s also now a trend for single harvest Tawnies, from one particular year. There’s one from 1863.

Much of what Claire told us on our walk-through is on short videos set up through the caves and in an attached museum, part of a visitors’ center, including films about the harvest and the wine.

Stompers dancing on grapes.

Stompers dancing on grapes.

So we backed up to start from what happens at the quinta after the grapes are picked in the fall. Quinta means winery in Portuguese, and Taylor’s own three of them. For me, the most fascinating part of making port is the treading. Taylor’s really does start the process by having “stompers” – people who have been doing this for years – tread on the grapes. Claire explained, “They go back and forward, they do a dance. So the grapes don’t release harsh tannins, it’s still the best way.” We saw film and photos of it.

Then fermentation turns sugar to alcohol and pure grape spirit is added to fortify the wine and stop additional sugar turning to alcohol, which keeps the wine sweeter. The following spring, the wine is brought to the caves at Vila Nova de Gaia. What we and other visitors see there is a working cellar, with the clear aroma of port wine.

Finally, we saw the video of a Portuguese ritual, removing the cork by using hot tongs to break the neck of the bottle off, cleanly. No live demonstration!

Now to the tasting room!

Claire and Philip at tasting.

Claire and Philip at tasting.

Philip Brunner runs the Taylor’s tasting room. It’s an expansive space with a bar and tables that opens onto a garden where people can bring their wines and hobnob with a colorful family of peacocks and a rooster.

Philip, of Swiss-English origin, tells us about the wines before pouring them. White port, for example, is “chip dry,” an alternative to sweet port. Taylor’s white is the only port wine made only with white grape varieties, good chilled as an aperitif. Philip said it was a popular cocktail with tonic water, “Porto tonic.” It’s very popular in the UK, Spain and France, but not known that much worldwide.” In Portugal, a bottle cost €11.

I found it full and rich, but not too sweet, not sugary. It is 20% alcohol, compared to 7.8 to 14% for table wines. It has only 30 grams of sugar per liter, compared to Tawney with over 200 grams. (About sugar, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you should eat less than 200 calories (50 grams) of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 100 calories (24 grams) of added sugar a day; men, no more than 150 calories (36 grams).)

The wines we tasted.

The wines we tasted.

After the chip dry, Taylor’s invented the late bottled vintage, LBV, as something similar to vintage port. Philip explained that vintage “is produced only two or three times a decade. It’s extremely expensive, you have to wait 20 years for aging and then drink it in two or three days.”

He said, “The late bottled vintage is a way of cheating that. It’s produced every year and left longer in the barrel, making it ready to drink early, bottled and ready to drink in 4 to 6 years. We advise you to drink straightaway. It won’t improve in the bottle. As it has suffered oxidation during aging, you can keep it open for two months.”

I found the LBV full bodied, fruity, a little bit tannic. Philip explained, “It hasn’t had time to get the tannic round. After 20 years, it will be a softer port.”

Then we went to the vintage port. I think the tasting order must have been dry to sweet. Two ports are called vintage, single quintas and classic vintages, the latter very expensive. Vintages are made from a single harvesting year. Those bottled in 2014 are sold today.

I thought the second was rich and full and not too sweet. I said, “This is richer, more complex, not as tannic.” Vintage port is more intense. Philip said it spends little time in wood and will last two months.

Philip describing the wines.

Philip describing the wines.

The price difference between the vintage and LBV was €50 and €15. My companion said, “I can’t tell the €35 difference.” Philip said, “You would in 30 years’ time.” You would pay €50 now and let it sit for 30 or 40 years. He said, “People choose a year that has a meaning to them, the year they got married, when kids were born. They let it sit till an occasion.”  Old port can last 100 years lying down. Philip is a young man with a long view of the years!

He explained that Tawnies are completely different. Blends and single harvests mature all their lives in wood, for at least ten years. The single harvest port wines age in small casks. He said, “We have a 1966 single harvest that has spent 49 years in small casks. It was a classic vintage. It would have characteristics of the wood it has aged in.”

The Tawney we tried was more nutty, perfect with gorgonzola cheese. Philip said, “That comes from the wood.” They are more acid than vintage ports. He added that reds go with blue cheese.

People in tasting room.

People in tasting room.

He offered a tip, “If you find Tawney with a bar top, a short cork, it should be drunk within two years. “Take off the wrapping and pull up the cork. It will not lie down. Then you have two months to drink it. A normal cork keeps longer.”

Who drinks port? The Brits, and then after that the French, who take it as an aperitif, and the Americans. Taylor’s ports are sold in the U.S. in large cities, NY, LA, San Francisco. They are harder to find in small cities.


Taylor’s in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Taylor-Fladgate & Yeatman, Rua do Choupelo 250, Vila Nova de Gaia.

wine boats taking grapes to Vila Nova de Gaia in years past.

Wine boats taking grapes to Vila Nova de Gaia in years past.

The visitors center tour costs €12, no reservation needed. After the tour, you taste a Chip Dry – Extra Dry White and a Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). You can buy more wines, most from €3 to €7 a glass and snacks such as cheese and ham to enjoy on the terrace.
Open daily 10 to 7:30, last entry at 6pm
Audio-guided tour lasts one hour, though if people choose to watch all the videos a visit can last for 2 hours, with another 30 minutes for the tasting.

GPS Coordinates: 41.13394, -8.61435
Tel. 351 223 772 956 / 351 223 742 800
Fax. 351 223 742 899

Taylor’s Visitors Center.
Taylor Fladgate.
For private tours

Photos by Lucy Komisar

Visit Lucy’s website The Komisar Scoop.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

“Phaedra(s)” director turns Greek goddess’s love for stepson into tedious over-the-top modern sex-obsession

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:29 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Isabelle Huppert as Phaedra.

Isabelle Huppert as Phaedra.

This is one of the most interesting bad plays I’ve ever seen. The production by the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe is in French, with English surtitles. The best part was a riotously funny and clever satire of the pretentious French intellectuals who hold forth and preen on TV talk shows. Isabelle Huppert is perfect as a very self-involved novelist speaking in double-time to explain the sexual connections between gods and humans.

That comes from the part of the production based on writing by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. But most of the 3 ½-hour long (very long) evening is simply pretentious. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski, artistic director of the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, starts with the Greek myth of Phaedra, daughter of the king and queen of Crete, who, according to this telling, after Athens’ King Theseus has defeated and slaughtered her people, agrees to a marriage to Theseus.

The description of the killings, including of children, are graphic and meant to remind you of current bloodsheds. I thought, maybe this could be interesting. But politics is soon eclipsed by sex.

After marrying Theseus (Alex Descas), Phaedra (Huppert) falls in love with his son, Hyppolyte (played first by Gaël Kamilindi, then by Andrzej Chyra), 20 years her junior.

Isabelle Huppert as Aphrodite, Gael Kamilindi, as Hyppolyte, photo Pascal Victor.

Isabelle Huppert as Aphrodite, Gaël Kamilindi, as Hyppolyte, photo Pascal Victor.

In the first version, Huppert is the goddess Aphrodite. Hyppolyte (Gaël Kamilindi) thinks she is a high-end whore. But he, who for some reason, also takes the form of a dog, engages with her in vivid sex and orgasm, all projected larger than life on the backdrops. Kamilindi is terrific in the role of man/dog.

That first part also includes the most un-erotic erotic dance I’ve ever seen. It is executed by Rosalba Torres Guerrero, cast as an Arab dancer, who with admirable physical control frenetically moves and shakes and twists every part of a body enclosed in skimpy glittery g-string and bra. I assume this attempts to set the erotic scene.

Most of the play deals, also graphically, with Phaedra’s failed seductions of the young man. According to the myth, Hippolytus (Hyppolyte in French) was not interested in his stepmother. In Warlikowski’s more bizarre and saleable version, she performs oral sex on him. Seduction? At least he didn’t protest. The first section belongs to the collaboration of Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-Canadian playwright.

Then, a lot happens. She is in a silk slip, and suddenly her crotch is bleeding red. Rape? She washes herself from the shower on the wall. All is projected on the walls. For some reason she thinks she is in a 5-star hotel with Philippine maids. She is tormented about refugees and remembers the children Theseus murdered. (Yes, I was also confused.)

Andrzej Chyra as Hyppolyte, Agata Buzek as Strophe, with Janet Leigh on the Psycho video, photo Pascal Victor.

Andrzej Chyra as Hyppolyte, Agata Buzek as Strophe, with Janet Leigh on the “Psycho” video, photo Pascal Victor.

The next, dark, rich-kids’ version inspired by British writer Sarah Kane is more interesting. Hyppolyte (now the cool Andrzej Chyra) is still not interested in Phaedra. He spends desultory days in a clear white box apartment (which is pushed onto the stage), playing with remote-controlled toy cars, receiving visitors who want to sleep with him (his description is more graphic), and watching TV.

The Arab dancer appears nude (below the waist) since she has just slept with him. She pulls on a black bikini. All desultory. Passion? It doesn’t exist.

Then, for some reason, the only thing the TV shows during a long conversation between Hyppolyte and Phaedra (now dressed as a bourgeois lady) is a looped video of Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower in “Psycho.” Illicitly desired sex by bad-guys leads to murder?

There’s also a section where Phaedra discusses Hyppolyte’s condition with a shrink (Descas) who advises sagely that if he stays in bed, he will be depressed. He adds, “He is unpleasant. You will get over it.”

Andrzej Chyra as Hyppotyle 2, Alex Descas as the doctor, photo Pascal Victor.

Andrzej Chyra as Hyppotyle 2, Alex Descas as the doctor, photo Pascal Victor.

Turns out that Phaedra hasn’t seen her husband since their marriage. We will learn that he spent that night with Strophe, her daughter (tall, trendy Agata Buzek in jeans and glittery heels), who has also bedded the son. Do you need a scorecard? Is this reality TV? Did I mention the various episodes of throwing up?

At this point Huppert becomes increasingly erratic and screechy. As she is a good actress, I fault the director. Passion/emotion can be expressed without screaming. Hyppolyte is mostly bored. Finally, (again) Phaedra accuses him of rape. From there the play descends into a really bad movie. At the shower conveniently fixed to the back wall (shower as in “Psycho”?) she attaches a nylon stocking.

On her funeral pyre, Theseus, who lies atop the body and pumps it to get a last sexual kick, vows to kill his son. We hear the howls of dogs.

In a final talk with a minister (Descas again), Hyppolyte declares that he doesn’t believe in God. Which somehow leads to the minister performing fellatio on him. What, again? Can’t Warlikowski think of any other business? Does he have a secret porn addiction?

Then, another rape, another suicide. (You figure who is left in the cast to be the rapist and the victim. Hint, they are related by marriage.) As avant garde, this production descends to the ridiculous.

Isabelle Huppert as the professor, photo Stephanie Berger.

Isabelle Huppert as the professor, photo Stephanie Berger.

So, after an inexplicable film clip about lobotomies, we finally get to the very funny J.M. Coetzee-inspired Elizabeth Costello story of the novelist talking about sex between the gods and humans.

And the line of Mary, “God got me pregnant.” Followed by, “Didn’t her girlfriends ask how it was?” Of course, Costello quotes Wittgenstein in some context. De rigueur. Don’t you just love French intellectuals! This brilliant part makes it all almost worthwhile. (But not quite!)

Three and a half hours could have been cut to two, with a lot devoted to that witty last part. Isabelle Huppert is a talented actor, and so are some of the others in this production. They deserved a better play.

“Phaedra(s)”. Based on works by Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad and J.M. Coetzee; directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe at Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Bklyn. 718-636-4100. Opened Sept 13, 2016, closes Sept 18, 2016.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe: Bonita Brisker channels Billie Holiday

Filed under: Cabaret & Jazz — Lucy Komisar @ 6:23 pm

Bonita & Billie Holiday
Written and performed by Bonita Brisker; directed by Denise Dowse.

Bonita Brisker as Billie Holiday.

Bonita Brisker as Billie Holiday.

In a velvet ankle-length gown, white gloves and white fur stole, the signature gardenia over one ear, Bonita Brisker glitters like the rhinestones on her costume. “What a little moonlight will do…” she channels Billie Holiday, her songs, her life.

“Greetings FBI” to the government thugs who harassed her. She reminds the audience that she “cut a man for putting hands on me wrong.” And Count Basie fired her. And then, “Them their eyes!” It’s a masterful performance that brings Billie to life.

You feel you are in a jazz café as Brisker relates to the audience. “Good morning heartache.” “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.” And “The man I love.” Her light nasal sound — sweet, sugary, round — makes you think Billie.

But the show is also dark. Horrific photos of lynching are shown on a screen as she sings “Strange Fruit,” which she made famous and which is forever connected to her. “Billie” recalls that she couldn’t find the writer, Abel Meeropol, who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan, because he was a communist.

Billie’s own tragedy was drugs. We see her fix cocaine with a spoon and a match. Then tie a rubber band around her arm for heroin.

The famous song she co-authored, “God bless the child,” was written with Arthur Herzog, Jr. The back story is that she had lent her mother thousands of dollars to open a restaurant, and when she was in need, her mother wouldn’t help. “God bless the child that got his own” means his own cash! I knew Herzog’s son, the late writer Arthur Herzog III, and it was part of family lore.

Bonita Brisker



Edinburgh Fringe: the struggle for justice

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 5:02 pm

Of the plays I saw during six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, these plays about justice stood out:  “A Common Man: The Bridge that Tom Built,” “The Red Shed,” “Playing Maggie,” and “Undermined.”

The first play is about Thomas Paine, who fought for liberty in colonial America, was forced out for his politics, and spent time in London and also as a member of the Convention in revolutionary France, before having to flee. His story is not well enough known in America. The other three, addressing issues in the Paine tradition, deal a few centuries later with British politics and particularly the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which still reverberates in Brits’ psyches.

“A Common Man: The Bridge that Tom Built.”
Written by Dominic Allen; directed by Joe Hufton.

Perhaps it takes a Brit like Dominic Allen to turn the life of Tom Paine into a moving drama that makes an American proud to salute him as one of the nation’s founders — even if he lost out to the slaveholders, including George Washington.  On the other hand, Paine was born in England in 1727, and more than just an American, was a truly international fighter for freedom, traveling (and often in flight) between Britain, the colonies and even revolutionary France.

Dominic Allen, who wrote and stars in this solo play, is a moving Tom Paine. In a three-cornered hat, green coat, brown vest, and beige britches, he stands before a flag with 13 red and white stripes and tells a story most Americans do not know. Director Joe Hufton makes you believe this is a docudrama, a vivid reenaction.

Dominic Allen as Tom Paine.

Dominic Allen as Tom Paine.

The extraordinary Paine was a corset-maker by trade. In England, he fought for better pay and conditions for excise (tax) officers. In the colonies, he became a radical journalist, the editor of the Philadelphia magazine, “The Watchman of Liberty,” and in 1776 wrote the pamphlet, “Common Sense,” condemning old world oppression and arguing for independence and the end of slavery. Allen repeats his famous “These are the times that try men’s souls” from “The American Crisis.” He tells how Paine campaigned against corruption, against poverty and for “the rights of man.” Allen portrays figures of the time, including, Benjamin Franklin, who befriended Paine, and Washington, who didn’t.

This heroic figure’s struggle wasn’t easy. He accused the colonial government of being a lapdog of rampant capitalists who had won the day, with slavery persisting, claiming “war is profit.” He asked, “What did we fight the revolution for?” He wrote how the military corrupts commerce. He excoriated “sunshine patriots.” He was beaten by thugs.

Allen tells how Paine went back to England to join workers fighting for their rights there. But Prime Minister William Pitt called for his death, and he fled to France. There his voice and vision were so important, that he was elected to the Convention. He voted to imprison Louis XVI, not kill him! He had to escape revolutionary Paris! (Allen plays Robespierre.) Back to America, where he argued for secularism.

Paine died 1809 at 72. This important staging brings him alive. It should be performed in schools throughout the United States.

Dominic Allen “A Common Man”

“The Red Shed”
Written and performed by Mark Thomas; directed by Joe Douglas.

Mark Thomas, photo Travey Moberley.

Mark Thomas, photo Travey Moberley.

There isn’t anyone quite like Mark Thomas in America. There were race comics like Dick Gregory. And there are liberals like Jon Stewart. But no one as politically radical and important as Thomas. No one who, mixing passion and humor, speaks for a working class Left culture.

Last year in New York I saw “Cuckooed,” a solo play Thomas wrote and first performed in Edinburgh in 2014. It’s about how he ran stings that put some illegal arms traffickers out of business or in jail and how he was deceived and betrayed by a “comrade” who turned out to be a spy for BAE Systems, the UK’s largest aerospace and weapons company, a major supplier to Saudi Arabia. Thomas is good at mixing personal and political history.

“The Red Shed,” a powerful, moving production which won The Scotsman Fringe First Award and The Stage Edinburgh Awards special award this year, is a look back at the miners’ strike of 1984-5. It’s done through the device of trying to trace the children who on the day of the miners’ defeat, were taken by their teacher to a school playground on a high street and sang “Solidarity Forever” as their dads and brothers marched by, back to work. “They seem to be singing into the face of defeat, singing into the future.” Later, he would say, “That is where I get my solidarity from.”

The Red Shed is a 47 foot-long wooden, red, Socialist shed in Wakefield, Yorkshire. It opened 50 years ago and, standing today opposite the brick Tory club, is “an improbable survivor in the gale of globalization,” Thomas says .

Now, the date is April 2013. Margaret Thatcher has just died. (Cheers from the audience.) Thomas is in the Red Shed, and he recalls how he started performing there, dealing with issues such as the miners’ strike which he supported as a college student, the CND (committee for nuclear disarmament) and the movement against apartheid. He explains, “…Miners I got to know arrested on trumped up charges, found guilty in kangaroo courts and convictions reversed on appeal but still lost their pensions….”

Mark Thomas and audience volunteers.

Mark Thomas and audience volunteers.

The story, infused with his political commitment and passion, moves through his attempt to find the playground where teacher had taken the children many years before and then to trace them. Audience volunteers on stage hold masks that turn them into figures of the story.

It’s mixed in with efforts to organize workers for higher wages, meetings at the Red Shed, and “inside” British politics. Sometimes, it seems like a serial with many characters. Or a movement meeting, especially when the audience is asked to stand and sing “The Red Shed” to the tune of “The Red Flag,” the Labor Party anthem.

“Our Labor Club is our Red Shed
It keeps the rain from off our head.
So stuff your brick built Tory club
We’d rather pay our Labor subs.

So raise your glasses to the sky
We’ll drink a drop until they’re dry.
Though Tories Scoff and Liberals Sneer
We’ll keep the Red Shed standing here.”

And at the end, Thomas leads the audience in the song the children sang, “Solidarity forever, for the union together is strong.” Like most of the people there, I knew the words and joined in.

Thomas points out that Wakefield, a strong labor town, voted 66 percent to leave the European Union.

Traverse Theatre

Mark Thomas

“Playing Maggie”
Written and performed by Pip Utton; directed by Marguerite Chaigne.

“Playing Maggie” tells the miners’ story from another point of view. Pip Utton plays Margaret Thatcher in a drag you watch him apply. He does his makeup to the sounds of “Isn’t she lovely.” He pulls on a flip wig. Then in a soft breathy modulated voice, “she” recalls 11 and a half years in Downing Street. Not a triumph for the women’s liberation movement. “Maggie” comments. “The women libbers hated me, and the feeling was absolutely mutual.”

Pip Utton as Margaret Thatcher, photo Andy Doornhein.

Pip Utton as Margaret Thatcher, photo Andy Doornhein.

Most of Maggie’s “politics” turn out to be clichés. The feature of the performance is Utton’s interaction with the audience, and he is brilliant at channeling what Thatcher would have said. It’s as if she were there.

Would she indict Tony Blair for war crimes? The reply: “If you take country to war, as soon as you fire the first shot, you lose control. Tony Blair took the nation to war with no clear objective and plan to bring the troops back.”

But then we get to the theme that many Brits will never forget. An audience member asks, “Why did you declare war on the miners?”

“Maggie” takes umbrage at the question. She says it was a struggle against Arthur Scargill [the union leader], who she asserts took money from Gaddafi and the Russian government. That he wasn’t willing to compromise. That the closed mines weren’t economic.

Then, there’s a surprise. His, Utton’s, father was coal miner. He worked in the Littleton collar. Utton posits to Maggie, “Have you forgotten what you did to dad?” He lost his job. Over 1500 people lost jobs. Utton says the whole area went down, because it was dependent on mining. His father called him a traitor to his class. He went to drama school, but his father refused to see him perform.

But then, in the kind of twisted logic Maggie might have been proud of, Utton argues that it was all for the best. His father died at 84. Miners died in their 40s. He is glad that his father and other former miners didn’t have to go down hell holes. How did they make a living? “They got the dole.” Maggie’s economic plan didn’t call for establishing new industries or training miners to staff them. (My comment, not his.)

Utton’s performance is strong, if not his personal rationale. He does best being Maggie. He won two awards for that performance at the 2015 Fringe.

Pip Utton “Playing Maggie”

Danny Mellor as mineworkers' supporter.

Danny Mellor as mineworkers’ supporter.

Written and performed by Danny Mellor; directed by Ben Butcher.

The memory of those days is poignantly revived by Danny Mellor, a young man in his 30s. There are political buttons on his jeans jacket. His voice is ardent; the piece is powerful.

He is in a small mining village in Yorkshire. He remembers, “We all had a job.” But the pits were uneconomical. “We fight back with banners,” he recounts. People who weren’t miners went to picket in solidarity.

He recalls, “There’s a confrontation with police who are mounted on horseback. The police attack the rally. The BBC shows miners throwing stones, then police charging. LIES!”

coal-not-doleThe town is under siege. Workers standing, police taunting. It’s winter, and the miners sing Christmas carols.

It was the last play I saw in Edinburgh this year. A fitting combination of the pride and sadness that suffuses many Brits’ memories of the time more than 30 years ago when some of the country took workers’ sides.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe



Edinburgh Fringe: the people the system chews up

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 4:18 pm

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are three about the people the system chews up:  “Diary of a Madman,” “Trainspotting” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

 “Diary of a Madman”
Written by Al Smith; directed by Christopher Haydon.

A subtle, powerful critique of the corporate system that chews up and spits out workers is “Diary of a Madman,” which won the 2016 Stage Edinburgh Award. It is inspired by a story by Gogol about the decent into madness of a low-ranking civil servant who is criticized for not having achieved. Part of his insanity is his belief that he understands a conversation between two dogs.

Guy Clark as Matthew White and Liam Brennan as Pop Sheeran, photo Iona Firouzabadi.

Guy Clark as Matthew White and Liam Brennan as Pop Sheeran, photo Iona Firouzabadi.

Here the anti-hero is Pop Sheeran (the very fine Liam Brennan), a bridge painter whose livelihood is threatened by the invention of a paint that will last for decades, ending his job of repainting the bridge every year. It is of course a metaphor for the threat that automation poses to working people.

Pop, in his 40s, is on a ladder with a paint pail. He paints every day as his father did before him. He gets light-headed from the fumes. He is proud of his brushes, made of weasels’ hairs. He shows them to Mathew White (Guy Clark), 22, who has come from university to intern for the summer. Pop doesn’t know Clark is part of the new paint regime.

Pop seems always perturbed, dissatisfied, left behind by modern times. His great love is for the film “Braveheart,” about a Scottish warrior hero. He takes medication for depression. His sensible wife Mavra ( Deborah Arnott) is caring and despairing. Daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy) and her friend Melanie (Lois Chimimba), 17, both terrific in their roles, are consumed with rock music and have little respect for Pop.

Lois Chimimba as Mel McCloud and Louise McMenemy as Mel Sheeran, photo Oona Firouzabadi.

Lois Chimimba as Mel McCloud and Louise McMenemy as Mel Sheeran, photo Oona Firouzabadi.

Neither does the system. Mathew’s father got a knighthood for creating and selling an algorithm for painting.  And by chance the gregarious Sophie met him at a bar before realizing he would be working for her father.

Clark’s master’s thesis is to test a new paint that could last 50, maybe 75 years. You feel the tragedy coming on. Pop wonders, “If it lasts that long, what am I going to do?” More threatening, the bridge has been bought by Qatar. Pop insists, “This bridge is not for sale.” He must defend it. They’d have to sandblast off the layers of old paint Pop and his father have applied. He insists, “You scrape off the paint, you scrape off the history.” He becomes Braveheart, with a kilt and a knife, his face twisted in pain. Gogol’s fantasy of dogs becomes a fantasy of talking to Melanie’s toy rabbit.

The acting is superb, riveting. The platform set becomes red as if marked by spilled red paint. Or heart’s blood.

Traverse Theatre

Written by Harry Gibson, adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh and the film by Danny Boyle; directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Greg Esplin.

446_m2007595“Trainspotting” is an Edinburgh Fringe standard, performed in a small box theater where patrons sit on benches and hope they won’t get doused with dirty water and worse.

It’s about the detritus of society, the drug addicts and drunks who can’t get or hold jobs and don’t really want to.

Outside the small theater, walls are marked by f__k and other obscenities. At the entrance, the 100 or so audience members get red, green, purple, or blue lit bracelets, and then they are led into the dark or dimness by actors. In the center, people dancing to rock music hold colored lights. Srobe lights flicker. The audience sits on low platform risers. The actors pull some of them up to dance.

Sometimes it is hard to understand the accents, Scottish or Cockney, but the actions tell all. A guy on a couch near the door is naked. He is covered in excrement. He gets up and throws a dirty blanket on patrons. Then he throws a bag of the stuff on a table where some of the play’s characters sit. There is simulated sex. The shock tells us we are in the midst of low life, a society where men are violent against women and to each other.

516_m2007637For red-bearded Tommy (Greg Esplin), the ultimate challenge is how they deal with work. He is looking for a job. He doesn’t really want a job, but he needs to do this to get welfare.

In the small room, the audience is closer to the action that some might want to be. We are seated next to a dirty toilet. Mark (Gavin Ross) leans over it, bare-assed, and reaches in his hands to throw dirty water onto people next to us. He climbs over audience members and flips a dirty condom that lands among them. He rails against the misery of the world.

Alison’s lover kills their baby.

You are in their lives, which is shoddy, gross, crude, blown apart by heroin. It’s a long, unforgettable, sometimes appalling, always riveting one hour.

In Your Face and King’s Head Theatre

“A Streetcar Named Desire”
Written by Tennessee Williams, directed by Keti Dolidze.

Curious that a Georgian company would put on the Tennessee Williams play about a Southern woman made dysfunctional by the society she didn’t fit into. But Keti Dolidze’s strong contemporary interpretation gives us a chance to compare the “failures” of that genteel American South of the 1940s with what happened in later years.

Nineli Chankuetadte as Blanche and Imeda Arabuli as Stanley.

Nineli Chankuetadte as Blanche and Imeda Arabuli as Stanley.

The Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre of Tbilisi, which presented a stunning version of “Animal Farm” at Edinburgh in 2014, has now turned to naturalism with a jazzy melodrama that provides a gothic vision of the South. It’s in Georgian with English supertitles. But what the company does to Williams’ play is make it not seem like the American South at all. It could be located anyplace with tough working class people who take women for granted.

Blanche DuBois (the very good Nineli Chankvetadze) is a tough matronly blonde who is anything but fragile. She is not a floozy, but she drinks. In a saffron colored dress and pearls or all in white, which represents the woman she would like to be, she is never delicate.

Mitch (Temo Gvalia), the guy she wants, broods and drinks a lot. He has another girlfriend, but wants Blanche and feels betrayed by learning about the ex-school teacher’s sexual history.

The men, including the Polish Stanley (Imeda Arabuli), drink and play cards a lot. His wife Stella (Irina Giunashvili) seems without backbone or sense of self. If Blanche is destined to end up in a sanatorium, they drove her there. It could be rewritten as “Diary of a Madwoman.” Not as crude or cruel as “Trainspotting,” but in each case an economic system with few options for them drove them to their own madness.

Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre

Edinburgh Festival Fringe


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe: dance is classical, jazzy, sometimes almost like sculpture

Filed under: Dance — Lucy Komisar @ 5:40 pm

The Fringe is not only about theater. There is also dance. Here are performances I found important.

Dance Forms

Lauren Speirs Dancers, photo Anne Marie Solan.

Lauren Speirs Dancers, photo Anne Marie Solan.

The classic “Studies in Red,” 3 girls 2 boys, twists, turns, high kicks and poses in excellent form was a highlight of the Dance Forms show at Edinburgh.

This choreographers’ showcase has been presented at the Fringe for 15 years, and it’s a good chance to see an eclectic selection of creative dancers, ranging from traditional to minimal. In this case, the best were traditional! Of the dozen performances, I liked these four best.

Luisa Chaluleu, photo Mario Rivera Cabrera.

Luisa Chaluleu, photo Mario Rivera Cabrera.

Choreographer Lauren Speirs, who also danced in the piece, uses Philip Glass’ “The Hours” to set the mood, and the mode, which is on toe. The other very good performers are by Clare Bassett, Nicole Fedorov, Diamaid O’Meara, Gearoid Solan.

And the best of classics, Luisa Chaluleu of the National Ballet of Guatemala shows great technique in her modern, elegant, fluid interpretation of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Allegro Moderato. “Multidirectional Concepts” was choreographed by Susana B. Williams.

Jada Rose Cunningham and David P. France, photo John Christensen.

David P. France, and Jada Rose Cunningham, photo John Christensen.

For a change of pace, I liked “Get It While You Can,” Jada Rose Cunningham and David P. France dancing to France’s steps, music Terry Callier “Love Theme from Spartacus” and Joe Sample’s “Hippies On a Corner.”

It is jazz ballet at its best, angular, reaching, turning, they leap, arms flying to the “swing” piano.

Dancers Dana Husary, Sarah Hong, Edgar Aguirre, John Barclay.

Dancers John Barclay, Sarah Hong, Edgar Aguirre, Dana Husary, photo Skye Schmidt.

In “Bound,” by McClaine Timmerman, danced to “Twins” by Gem Club, two couples, Dana Husary, Sarah Hong, Edgar Aguirre, John Barclay, put together the classical and the jazzy in their leaps and turns. Crisp and clean and appealing.


Éowyn Emerald & Dancers

Choreography by Éowyn Emerald Barrett; concept and co-design by James Mapes; dancers Éowyn Emerald Barrett, Josh Murry, Joel Robert Walker, and Mari Kai Juras.

Eowyn Emerald dancers, photo David Krebs.

Éowyn Emerald and Josh Murry, photo David Krebs.

This is a modern troop, moving to a pulsating jazzy sound, then a French style accordion. In “Trinary,” figures seem like gnomes, escaping into the lights. Turns and leaps, then faster music.

I liked when it turned quiet, with figures seeming almost like sculpture. In this couple, a woman is slow, then aggressive.

In another piece, two women do rough twisting movement. Two men move to a slow violin, then bring in the women and seem to drop them underwater. At least that was my image, that they are all in the deep!

It’s a choreography not only of movement but of stunning visual imagery.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe: plays on the system’s corruption

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:44 pm

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are two about the system’s corruption: “The Trial” and “Enron.”

It’s quite fascinating to see surreal plays about systemic corruption a century apart. Franz Kafka was ahead of his time in describing the nature of the evil of modern society. His 1915 story “The Trial,” adapted in Edinburgh as a play, shows the evil of a government bureaucracy that grinds up a banker for no particular reason. Then look at Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” still surreal, where the bureaucrats are now corporate officials, but are still presented, like the Kafka play, as if this were a weird vaudeville.

“The Trial”
Written by Franz Kafka and published in 1925. Adapted by Matt Holt and Evelyn Roberts; directed by Craig Sanders.

Think of Kafka’s hundred-year-old story as an introduction to what occurs now more subtly.

Amy Gavin as Elsa and William J. Holstead as K, photo Shay Rowan.

Amy Gavin as Elsa and William J. Holstead as Josef K, photo Shay Rowan.

Josef K. (William J. Holstead), the chief cashier of a bank, is arrested by two bureaucrats who don’t say what he has done. The set is brightly lit, which makes you feel part of the events. Sometimes characters appear behind painting frames.

The system is flawed. At a court of law, we hear sounds of sex. Elsa (Amy Gavin), a prostitute, tells Mr. K. that no one is innocent. The system turns him violent, so that those he interacts with become his victims. They are all perpetrators and sufferers. It’s a punishment system.

He tries to stop attacks against the officers who arrested him. We see Block (Matt Holt), a cartoonish figure who is his client and is on a leash like a dog. Uncle Albert (Adrian Palmer) is a bizarre fool. An Italian gets Josef K. to slap a woman and throw her to the ground.

In the end, Mr. K. uses his knowledge of the system to defeat his attackers. But then he is murdered. The system is victorious. A metaphor, of course.

Sanders’ direction is purposefully exaggerated. William J. Holstead as Josef K. and the other actors are very good.

People Zoo Productions 

Written by Lucy Prebble, directed by John McLinden

Nearly a century later the political bureaucracy has turned corporate. Kafka might have written this story, but Lucy Prebble is just as surreal. The villains are not faceless bureaucrats, they are Enron President Jeffrey Skilling (Collin McPherson), in pin stripes, and a quirky-looking chief financial officer, Andy Fastow (David McCallum). And they are characters in a musical.

I never saw “Enron” in New York because New York Times critic Brantley savaged it so much that it closed. Brantley of course is right-wing. But it was a hit in London in 2009-10, and I was pleased to get a chance to see a community theater production in Edinburgh.

Suzie Marshall as Claudia Roe and Colin McPherson as Jeffrey Skilling, photo Richard Croasdale.

Suzie Marshall as Claudia Roe and Colin McPherson as Jeffrey Skilling, photo Richard Croasdale.

There were some good performances, especially by McPherson as the arrogant pin-striped villain, Skilling, and Derek Marshall as Enron’s white suited laid-back Ken Lay (Kenny Boy, as President George Bush would call him.) Director John McLinden handles a limited space with imagination, making musical numbers lively and expressive.

If “The Trial” is evil-doers acting on unknown motives, the Enron saga makes the details all too clear. Instead of producing energy to sell, this company would trade it. But trade the perception of energy instead of the reality. Skilling’s trick was to boost the share price by “mark to market,” to book (claim) profits it would make in the future. And to deregulate electricity to make the market boom. He was helped by Fastow, shown here as a jerk, who had no problem finessing the regulators. Who were easily finessed. Hark back to Kafka’s bureaucrats.

“Don’t we have to check with the accountants?” “Get me Arthur Anderson.” Fastow is told there’s a conflict of interest. He replies, “We can take our business elsewhere.” Anderson will approve if the lawyers approve. The lawyers say, “It’s against your code of conduct. Ask your board.” The latter arrive as blind mice.

Lehman Brothers gets into the act, wants to deal with Enron. That will be done through fake shell companies called raptors. Is this getting too dense? But this is a musical! Here come the raptors, giant lizards out of Jurassic Park, which Fastow uses as the names of offshore shell companies to carry out an Enron scam. Enron was not making money, but it didn’t want to report losses. So Fastow, promoting himself for chief financial officer, created companies to which he could push the debt. The Raptors.

David McCallum as Andy Fastow, photo Richard Croasdale.

David McCallum as Andy Fastow, photo Richard Croasdale.

All explained by the business girls, a song-and-dance and chorus line who represent the people who knew about, organized the scam. Sleight of hand? Okay by Wall Street regulators, including the Fed’s Allan Greenspan. It went on from 1991 to the final collapse 2006.

The principals are crude, though I think a sex affair between Skilling and a top female executive, Claudia Roe (a too over-the-top and too blonde Suzie Marshall in a red dress) was out of place.

Then Skilling wanted to develop stock options to enrich himself, and Andy explained that could be done through “structured finance.” Heard that one before? A nice way of saying cooking the books. Fraud.

When California deregulated its electricity market (be wary of such), there were a lot of loopholes Enron could use for “arbitrage.” (Arbitrage means gaming the system.) Like cutting off power. Enron gamed the state. California suffered rolling blackouts, the first time in 65 years. The electric power market was in chaos. Traffic lights were down, a woman was killed. Patients were airlifted out of state hospitals. California declared a state of emergency. Fastow: “You want your power back, fuckin pay.”

The production is very good at musical and satirical numbers telling a story that could make your eyes glaze over. As events unfold, people are calling Enron a black box. A Fortune Magazine reporter raises questions. John McLinden is good as a Senator who challenges the scam.

Finally, in 2001, Enron, with 20,000 employees, enters free fall. Skilling leaves with a fortune of over $100 million, but he will be sentenced to 24 years in prison. Fastow gets six, because he testifies for the prosecutors. Lay is found guilty of securities fraud, but dies in 2006 before his sentencing.

Glad I saw the show, though a community theater can’t match the production values of the West End or Broadway. And, by the way, in case you are wondering, structured finance still goes on.

Edinburgh Theatre Arts

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe: plays about war and its fallout

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 6:51 pm
Filipa Bragança as Rehana.

Filipa Bragança as Rehana.

I spent six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Out of the hundreds of plays presented, I sought out those about politics. I’ve divided the best by their themes. Here are several about war and its fallout: “Angel,” “Glasgow Girls” and “Hess.”

Written by Henry Naylor; directed by Michael Cabot.

“Angel” is the stunning final play in Henry Naylor’s trilogy about the west’s imperial wars. The first, which I saw in Edinburgh in 2014, was “The Collector,” inspired, by the U.S. prison at Abu Graib. not just about American brutality against Muslim prisoners, but about America’s flouting of its moral commitment to people who believed its stated values and risked their lives to help the American project.

The second, “Echoes,” a 2015 Fringe play I saw at 59E59 theaters, explores the imperialist mindset as it compares the experiences of two women who lived 175 years apart in Ipswich, England, and were each swept up in the murderous rampage of “godly” imperialist killers.

Filipa Bragança as Rehana, photo Steve Ullathorne.

Filipa Bragança as Rehana, photo Steve Ullathorne.

In “Angel,” Filipa Bragança, who starred in “Echoes,” gives a tour de force performance as Rehana, a real person who lived in Kobane, a Kurdish town in northern Syria. She was known as the Angel of Kobane because she took up arms to fight ISIS and is said to have killed 100 ISIS fighters. Her father had taught her to shoot to protect their farm, practicing on orangina cans.

Bragança, an exceptional actress, captures the accents of multiple characters. The play is directed with careful intensity by Michael Cabot.

Rehana is the child of farmers. She wants to go to law school. She sings Beyoncé’s “All the single ladies.” But in 2014, her family must flee, because “Daesh are coming.” “Don’t worry,” she is told. “They will look after us in Europe.” But the Turks won’t let them cross the border, a kilometer to the north. And her father stays to fight.

The drama begins when she gives up safety to return to find him. Tension rises as Bragança acts out the horrors that ensue. Her driver Sabah is killed by Kurds, because he has tattoos and is believed to be Ayzadi. Then she is captured, shackled to other women, selected for rape by a man of influence. She escapes by pretending to have her period.

A pacifist, she becomes part of a fighting unit of women whose choice is “violence which empowers you or that enslaves you.” She teaches recruits how to clean guns, to load and shoot at orangina tins. At her abandoned home, she finds her legal textbooks charred, used as fuel. Sweet, innocent, she becomes tough and battle hardened. Even in tragedy, we are uplifted by the unusual courage this “Angel” displays.

Naylor’s play won a 2016 The Scotsman Fringe First Award.

Glasgow Girls
Book by David Greig; conceived for the stage and directed by Cora Bissett.

Refugees should be the lucky ones if they get asylum. But a tough, vibrant musical about another real story, a deportation threat to a young Roma, has been a hit in the UK and at the Fringe.

Glasgow Girls in school ties and sign 'save our neighbours.'

Glasgow Girls in school ties with sign ‘save our neighbours.’

In 1999, British authorities moved asylum seekers from London to Glasgow. Aggie had been threatened with death and the family home was burned down in Kosovo, where both sides in the conflict opposed the Roma. She was put in school in Glasgow, and then in 2005 her world collapsed when the Home Office announced she would be deported. The government view was, “I think they’re over here to live for free.” But ironically, people also accused asylum seekers of taking jobs.

Her classmates unite to get Aggie back from deportation detention. They organize letters to embarrass the Home Office. They get support from members of parliament to stop the detention and removal of children. They arrange for lawyers to speak at the United Nations. When asylum seekers in the area begin disappearing at night, they go on patrol, and when vans come, they call the targets: “Tonight!”

And then they write a show about the campaign, “Glasgow Girls.” There’s a Broadway sound to this jazzy pop musical, with a mood reminiscent of “West Side Story,” though it sometimes is hard for a foreigner to understand the Scottish dialect. The direction is also Broadway style, even a dance with umbrellas for a tongue-in-cheek number about what they love about Glasgow: “It’s constantly raining.” A young violinist perched above the stage reminded me of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The young women have talent – and panache. It’s a powerful political musical about how solidarity makes people winners.

Written by Michael Burrell; directed by Kim Kinnie.

Then there is the detritus of war, what’s left behind. Michael Burrell’s unusual fictional story deals with the case of Rudolf Hess (portrayed by the excellent Derek Crawford Munn), who was Hitler’s deputy. In 1941, he flew solo to the UK and bailed out over Scotland on a peace mission to end the war. The idea, bizarre on the face, was to make a deal where Germany would be supreme in Europe and the British Empire in the rest of the world.

Instead, he was captured, condemned at Nuremberg not to death but to life in prison. To a prison that would hold only him in Spandau in the west of Berlin. This play occurs during his 40th year in confinement and was first staged in the late 1970s. He died in 1987.

Derek Crawford Munn as Rudolf Hess.

Derek Crawford Munn as Rudolf Hess.

Supposedly, he has evaded prison guards on his way to a military hospital, and in this space, he sees people, the first since his confinement in Spandau in 1947. We hear what he says to that audience about himself, about the Third Reich and current times. With deep set eyes and graying hair combed to both sides, Munn is at various times in a light tan-plaid raincoat or green bathrobe and slippers. Sometimes he feeds the birds. His voice is chirpy, but occasionally explodes into fury.

He declares that he had solutions, a dream. And he notes that the Russians were “your enemy, too.” The Germans and the West should have joined to smash them. He says Churchill was too weak, afraid of his American allies. He adds, “You too have dealt with the military on your hands.” He doesn’t explain the weird plan he wanted to propose. He calls himself “The most expensive prisoner in the world.” And he declares, “They are afraid to let me out.” He twists on the floor in anguish at history and his body, now wracked with an ulcer.

But Hess never stopped being a National Socialist. At his 9-month trial in Nuremberg, where he saw the old files of Goering and von Ribbentrop, he said he didn’t know of the camps. And he has no regrets; he would have wanted a new Reich. Still, he protests, “How can I be tried by Americans and Russians. I was out of the war before they got into it.” He was acquitted of crimes against humanity but convicted of crimes against peace. He protests that “all war is a crime.”

He sounds like a lawyer arguing for acquittal. And not very credibly. Some prominent politicians tried to get his release – the post-war German government got other Nazis out – but the Soviet Union refused. The play is a fascinating imaginary footnote to history.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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