Saturday, 30 July 2011

C25K - week 1

Part of the mission to get my life under control includes improving fitness, so I've taken the plunge and embarked on the C25K (couch to 5km) running program. It's a 9 week interval training program that is supposed to get you off the couch and running 5km (or for half an hour) by the end of it. I don't really plan to take up running as a habit -- I don't think -- but it seems like a good project for the moment. I wanted something a bit more aerobic than merely walking. And, in my current jobless state, running is free!

I figure if I mention it here I will have a greater chance of actually seeing it through. Because it's hard. I've completed the first week, which comprises three half-hour sessions in which you alternately run for 60s and walk for 90s (8 times) with warm-up and cool-down walks either side. Harder than it sounds! And it didn't get any easier throughout the week, and I don't quite know how I'm going to manage the extra challenge of week 2 . . .

There are heaps of podcasts and smartphone apps that have been created to facilitate the program. I downloaded the first week podcast from here. Basically it plays appropriate music with a voiceover that tells you when to start/stop running. I won't say it's fun, but it feels worthwhile. (Somehow I don't imagine I will become addicted to running like some people do.)

Friday, 29 July 2011

Game of Thrones

I have just finished watching the first season of Game of Thrones (a new fantasy drama series based on George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, of which the first novel is A Game of Thrones).

The things I liked most about it:
  • The amazing fantasy scenery; in fact, the realisation of the world in its entirety. The CGI/cinematography is breathtaking. The costumes and sets are amazing. It is such a wonderful example of how to bring a fantasy epic to life onto the screen. How could I not stand behind something that lavishes so much love and attention and money on my favourite genre?
  • Some of the characters. Few are all good or all bad, and they all have strong motives for their actions. Among my favourites are Tyrion Lannister the intelligent little person with a strong survival instinct born to a powerful family, and Arya Stark the child-daughter of a northern lord who takes up sword-fighting (I hope she finds her wolf in season 2).
But I expected to be more enthralled by the story, given everything I've heard about the books. Turns out it's a relatively simple tale about power and betrayal. There are lots of men and women of different houses scheming and chest-thumping and kidnapping and killing each other. There's not much love. And an awful lot of lust. The house politics seem familiar and the world is 'post-magical' medieval -- except for various references to dragons and the mysterious happenings in the north 'beyond the wall', which I sense will become more prominent as the series progresses.

It's all very graphically depicted on the screen -- including both the violence and the sex. There are probably too many  gratuitous sex scenes and nudity, and some are pretty rough. I suspect this won't be for everybody, nor the violence. I had to cover my eyes a couple of times each episode as throats were cut, or heads chopped off, or -- in one memorable scene -- a pot of molten gold tipped on someone's head. Ugh.

On the whole, though, I think the TV series has been brilliantly made. The acting is great and they have done a good job at dividing a novel into 10 episodes that work. When it comes down to it, it's probably not my favoured style of fantasy, but hey at least they're doing it. And as mentioned the realisation of the world is fabulous. It will be interesting to see how season two evolves.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A tale of two dresses (or, Dino Direct online shopping - Don't dare!)

This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of online shopping . . .

It all started so innocuously. My sister (S) ordered two identical flowergirl dresses from the Dino Direct online shopping store in Hong Kong and arranged for them to be delivered to me (the wedding is here in Melbourne, and she is in Germany). They were ordered separately to minimise postage and handling costs. And when they arrived with me on consecutive days, all seemed to have gone to plan.

At my sister's request, I opened the two packages while we were having a skype session. At first glance the two dresses appeared to be the same . . . but then a few discrepancies became obvious. The pink ribbons around the middle were different. The embroidered decorations were different. One had tulle underneath to provide body, the other didn't. One looked to be a larger size in the bodice, but was in fact a shorter style.

Bottom line: They were completely different dresses. It was a bit difficult to show to S via skype, but I grabbed mum and dad for a second opinion in daylight and we took some photos, including some with a tape measure superimposed (because there were no size labels on the dresses). Based on the size charts on the web site, neither dress was a 6 or 8 as ordered. Rather, they seemed to be about a 4 and a 10 or 12. (Are you with me so far? It's really not that complicated . . .)

The decision was made to exchange both dresses. The size 4 might have been OK, for I got S to measure the two girls, but we decided the chances of ending up with two identical dresses if we exchanged just one were negligible.

A complicating factor was that the dresses had to be returned within 30 days of receipt and S was about to embark on a family holiday to Croatia (with limited internet access) for two weeks. She decided to send an email advising Dino Direct that I would package up the dresses and return them. In exchange she wanted two replacement dresses that were identical to each other in the sizes requested. (And here she made the fatal mistake of changing the sizes she wanted . . .)

But just as I was getting ready to mail them back, I found the instructions regarding their return policy and discovered we needed to apply for a Return Merchandise Authorisation (RMA) form, which we would have to print out and include with each package when we returned them. Otherwise, the packages would likely get lost in the system and we'd end up with nothing . . .

So I logged in to the Dino Direct web site as S and set about applying for two RMAs . . . (Goodness, I need wine just thinking about what happened next!)

The Dino Direct web site is not terribly intuitive. Nor does it work very well. Instead of sending me to the RMA request section, it caused me to open a 'Case' and I entered into some private message board style dialogue with their customer service team on S's behalf. Here, I tried to explain the situation, referred to S's email, uploaded one of the photos, and requested RMAs be provided.

We parried back and forward over a few days, them telling me we had to pay for return shipping because we'd ordered the wrong sizes, me repeating myself and clearly reiterating (I must ultimately have stated it at least 5 times) that the main issue was that one of the dresses was in fact the wrong style completely and that neither was the size ordered.

They asked me if a $10 gift voucher would be appropriate. I said no.

Finally they told me that if I really wanted an RMA, I should apply for one in the RMA section. What?! I thought that was what I had been doing!

This time the RMA link sent me to the correct form and I filled it out, uploading more photos, including a copy of the receipts (which I had to PDF and then JPG from an email), and explaining the situation again. Over the next week, they then requested I upload all the information I had just uploaded, and stalled some more -- I can't remember the reasons given (probably asked me to check the sizes again) and they have now removed all record of my RMA request from S's customer account.

Meanwhile, I have been maintaining dialogue with them in the case file (really now for sport), but the whole thing is going around in circles. They alternately have a) asked for more information, b) stated that we ordered the wrong sizes and they can't help that, c) suggested I take the garments to a seamstress for adjusting, and would a $15 gift voucher compensate us for our troubles?

I wish I could copy in the full transcript of our 3-week dialogue, but they have now deleted all but the following:

  • Me Jul 27,2011
    I am sorry but I do not think you understand the problem. One of the dresses is the WRONG STYLE. And neither dress is the size I ordered. Please do not tell me again about the size charts on your web site. That is not the issue. The issue is that the dresses sent to me are NOT WHAT I ORDERED. Please issue me RMA for both orders immediately. I would like a full refund. This has been going on for nearly 3 weeks. Dino Direct has made a mistake. Not me. Please acknowledge this.
  • Me Jul 28,2011
    Why have you deleted the history of our conversation above and my RMA request? This case is not resolved.
  • Customer Service Emily, Jul 28,2011
    Thank you for your email.If you want to return it back, you have to pay the shipping fee and send it back to our China's warehouse. If you agree on that we will provide you the return information.Have a nice day!
  • Customer Service Emily, Jul 28,2011
    Thanks for your email. As you have said you were unable to apply a RMA, we advise that you should have a try latter, because you are received your order really. We are sorry to see that the style is different, you can return this item back to us, and we will resend you a new one or give you a full refund, but you a supposed to pay for the returning shipping fees.Your understanding and cooperation will be highly appreciated.

So, are you laughing?

That final comment from 'Emily' is the first acknowledgment from any of the three or four service assistants we've dealt with that one of the dresses is the wrong style. Until now, they have willfully misunderstood this key fact and focused on the size issue. (Initially I reassured them several times that we would be happy to receive the sizes 6 & 8 originally ordered (not the new sizes S requested), but after a week of this BS I decided to go for a full refund for both dresses.)

Now I contemplate what my answer to that little missive (on S's behalf) will be . . .

I should perhaps mention that we think the most likely outcome from this is that we sell the dresses on e-bay and start again. But, although it's been frustrating, I figure we have nothing to lose by seeing how far we can push. At least I haven't sworn at them yet.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Harry the very last (and tonnes of rubble)

I saw the final Harry Potter movie tonight -- it's pretty good! HP and the Deathly Hallows part 2 is action-packed with explosions, death and a cackling Voldemort. And rubble. Tonnes and tonnes of it.

There are plenty of quieter moments too, grief and revelation sandwiched between the mayhem. My first impression is that the pacing was pretty good, and the plot very close to the book.

When it was first announced that the final book would be made into two movies, I wasn't convinced it was necessary. However, I now agree with the decision, because it meant they didn't need to leave anything much out. All the other movies had great slabs of the book slashed from them, but to do that to this final movement, the culmination of a seven-book arc, would have been a crime. There are parts that are skimmed over, sure; but at least they are for the most part there. And as a dramatic climax to the series -- for that is really the role of this film -- it works really well.

If I had a complaint about this last movie, though, it's that Ron and Hermione seemed a little more peripheral than normal. In the previous movie, Hermione in particular played such a crucial role, and the tone of this last one was so completely different. I think Hermione and Ron deserved a little more prominence and stature in the end. In fact, most of the characters probably got a little short-changed. Casualties of an action film. (Whereas part 1 was all about character...)

I was also expecting that more about Dumbledore's past would be revealed. A glaring omission from the first of the Deathly Hallows movies was Harry discovering the true life of Dumbledore; the movies have sketched over this extremely briefly.

On the whole, however, I think the movie was great. I think my favourite moment was when Professor McGonnegal takes back the school and leads the resistance. And there were plenty of moments that brought a lump to my throat, especially the tragic story of Severus Snape. Not to mention dozens of cameos from various actors who have appeared in the other movies (Emma Thompson springs to mind).

But don't bother going to see it if you've not seen the previous movies. And if you haven't already, go read the books -- if for no other reason than to discover the brilliant character of Nymphadora Tonks, who was reduced in this movie to nothing more than a corpse.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A day of art in the country

There seems to be more hype than usual surrounding the presence of this year's Archibald Prize finalists in Victoria. Perhaps it's because Melbournians have to plan 'a day in the country' if they want to see the impressive collection of 40-odd portraits, which are being exhibited during July at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art near Healesville -- but I think that's the point. I understand the Tarrawarra gallery was selected in order to give the region a boost after the devastating bushfires of two and a half years ago.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to have my day in the country yesterday and saw the wonderful exhibition. Even this art-ignoramus can see why the Archibald is one of Australia's most coveted art prizes -- there's something madly compelling about faces rendered in as many different styles as paintings. Some faces are famous, some not; all are fascinating, particularly when viewed through the lens of the artist.

Aside from the sheer diversity in style and composition, I found it especially enthralling to read about the inspiration behind each painting: why the subject was chosen, what they mean to the artist, and insights into the artist's thought-processes behind whatever symbolism or techniques were used. It magnified my appreciation considerably, and highlighted some similarities between the creative arts of painting and writing. Quite inspiring really.

Pictured is DA by Amanda Marburg (Highly Commended). It's a portrait of wordsmith David Astle. The artist first modelled in clay then painted. Click here to see all the finalists' portraits.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Astor double: Water for Elephants and Never Let Me Go

The Astor Theatre in St Kilda East is a lovely old art-deco cinema house, famous for its choctop icecreams, resident lap cat, massive silver screen, uncomfortable seats and double-feature screenings. (In fact, it also offers triple-feature screenings on occasion . . . for instance LOTR movies one, two and three all in a row. An amazing experience I am somewhat tempted to repeat on Sunday 31 July . . .)

The two movies I saw last Friday were Water for Elephants and Never Let Me Go. The latter I had wanted to see on first release earlier this year but missed it; the former was recommended by a friend who had read the book.

Water for Elephants (starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson) is based on the novel by Sarah Gruen. It's essentially a love story, set amid the backdrop of a US depression-era travelling circus. Jacob, a final year veterinarian student of Polish descent, is left destitute and finds himself joining the circus (kinda a cliche when you think about it), where his vet skills are appreciated . . . most of the time. The circus owner, a charming/vicious psychopath who has his thugs throw men off trains and mistreats the animals, buys an elephant to be his new star attraction and demands Jacob get it to perform. So Jacob bonds with the elephant -- and the psychopath's beautiful wife.

The film portrays an era of history very convincingly -- the recreation of the circus is brilliant. And Rosie the elephant almost steals the show, particularly after the film's Great Coincidence is revealed (which is that Rosie happens to understand only Polish commands . . . and Jacob is Polish) and she starts performing all kinds of tricks. But, while it was an enjoyable enough film to watch, it doesn't offer a whole lot new or thought-provoking.

Never Let Me Go, on the other hand, is incredibly thought-provoking. Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, the film is a dystopian science fiction love story set between 1978 and 1995 in which human clones are bred as part of a National Donor Program.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have all been brought up at the 'special' Hailsham school for children in the program, and later as young adults find themselves out in the world (to some degree) when they live at 'The Cottages'. But their life has one purpose and that is to donate their organs one at a time until they 'complete' (die). Seeking to find purpose until her time to donate arrives, Kathy volunteers to be a 'carer', a clone who cares for other clones after they have donated.Years go past and she loses track of Ruth and Tommy until she comes across Ruth, weak and ill, having commenced her donation program. They track down Tommy and the friends reunite for a short time. A significant thread to the film is the love triangle between the three, with Tommy torn between his true love Kathy and Ruth, who came between them as his lover a long time ago.

There are many other heart-rending aspects to this story. Tommy, for instance, spends years drawing pictures, having formed the theory that the artwork they produced as children was used to look into their souls in order to prove whether they truly loved and could be awarded a deferral on their donation duties. This hope is quashed when they learn the art was to see whether they in fact had souls at all.

It's a beautiful and disturbing story, but I did have a problem with some of the logic in the way the donations were dealt with. For example, why take the organs one at a time and then stop when the clone 'completes'? Surely it would be more efficient simply to harvest the lot all at once -- it's not as though the officials seem to care too much for these poor young people. Or, at the very least, take them all when they finally complete. In the film, Ruth flatlines as they remove her liver, but what about all the other perfectly good organs still lying there on the operating table?

It's also extremely hard to reconcile the idea of an alternate world where such a thing is condoned. (We are given very little insight into the attitudes of non-clones in this film.) And the utter acceptance of their fate on the part of the clones is hard to take. Why don't they try to escape? Aside from having to pass a wrist implant over a scanner when they leave/arrive home, no-one seems to keep any tabs on them.

But if you accept the dystopia thus presented, it's an amazing story and a beautiful film. The performances by the three leads are mesmerising -- particularly Keira Knightley, who is almost unrecognisable in her mannerisms as Ruth. Carey Mulligan's role is much more understated, but her anguish and hope are just as beautifully portrayed.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Fire - a novel by Kristin Cashore

Sometimes my pile of stuff to read looks overwhelming and I despair of ever getting through it. So the other day I picked up one of the thinner tomes and determined to inhale it. This turned out to be Fire, a 380p young adult fantasy by Kristin Cashore, with a gorgeous picture of the bow-n-arrow wielding heroine on the front.

The story is set in a memorable land dominated by 'monsters', which turn out to be brightly coloured and ever-so-slightly skewed versions of real creatures -- from bugs, to mice and cats, to horses and even raptors, which provide one of the greatest natural menaces of this world. They're as a rule not scary to humans (except for the raptors and other more naturally vicious beasts), but supposedly can be mentally seductive to the weak-minded. And they rather like eating each other.

17-year old Fire is the last human 'monster'. Her incredible (and seemingly unnatural) beauty inspires great desire in weak-minded men (and some women), and she can also actively manipulate the minds of other humans. Her now-deceased father used the same attributes to control and hurt other people, seek power for himself, and generally believe himself to be superior. But, somewhat remarkably, Fire is a gentle and moral soul brought up by a regional lord; she understands and despises her power and beauty, choosing to keep her flaming red hair bound most of the time (especially when out of doors so the other monsters don't recognise her and try to eat her) and living quietly away from most other people.

While I enjoyed reading this book, it's not a classically structured story. Much of the big plot revolves around Fire being cajoled out of 'hiding' to help the royal family (a bunch of handsome young siblings) as they try to fend off civil war coming at them from two different directions. There's also a sideplot involving a renegade Graceling boy from the neighbouring kingdom, who uses his silvertongue powers to cause havoc in his quest for power. [This sideplot is a clear effort to tie in Cashore's first novel in this so-called series, Graceling. (Somewhere I read Fire is a prequel.) I found the resolution of this plotline a little distracting and not terribly cohesive. I don't think it was integrated enough with the other parts of the storyline.]

But Fire's story is a lot more personal than these. Most of her decisions are driven by the need for redemption: primarily for her notorious father's terrible actions. She also has to deal with many different facets of love -- there is of course a primary love interest in a thread that plays out gently and beautifully, but there are many other aspects of love explored in this book with its different well-drawn characters. And ultimately her story is about coming to terms with her abilities and the fact that she can use them for the power of good, and coming to love and trust herself.

I suppose one of my biggest 'reading as a writer' questions is Fire's role as protagonist -- although she transforms from a personal point of view, in terms of the overall story she remains a fairly passive character. Sure, she plays a role in uncovering a plot and she manages to extricate herself from a tight spot, but she doesn't really impact major events moving forward. And she doesn't seem to have much of an external story goal. Having said that, I was certainly engaged by the story and characters, and events pulled me through, so something must have been working.

I also thought the worldbuilding could have been taken further. Cashore spends a lot of time on a few cool aspects of this world, and leaves out the mundane stuff like how the economy works. It's an interesting example of how a world can feel real with just a few stand-out elements. But I think she could have done more with these few elements -- there seem to be a few holes . . . Probably my biggest question is why these 'monsters' are limited to this land (The Dells) and haven't managed to migrate over the mountains. And how did they come to be, anyway?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Status update: time to get moving!

Well, here we are in mid-July. Half-way through winter. Five months since I stopped working. How time has flown.

On the writing front, things have steadied. I may not be quite where I wanted to be from a career point of view, but I'm forging ahead nonetheless. Ideas are brewing (hehe). Have just finished a month-long writing challenge, where progressing a rough draft of the new project was prioritised over just about everything else. After a false start, I produced approximately 15,000 new words. (That's about 12.5% of a medium-length fantasy novel, or around 40-50 pages I think.) It's not as many words as I'd intended (considering I'm not working), but still a solid start.

But it's time to get real now. It's been fun while it lasted (especially the pub and cafe writing sessions and the sleeping in and meeting friends for lunch and generally answering to nobody), but I think the time has finally come for me to focus again on my professional career -- the one I'm actually good at and which brings in dollars so that I can live in the manner to which I've become accustomed.

I feel ready to get back into it.

So I am now going to (gulp) take another look at my resume and try to figure out what type of job I want and then try to insert myself back into the workforce. I'm going to figure out how LinkedIN works. I daresay it will take longer than I anticipate and get very frustrating as I possibly transition careers. I also want to start knocking off a whole heap of things on my original list of 'things to do while not working' -- including getting a bathroom reno going!

I will continue to write -- the last thing I want to do is lose the momentum I've established recently; I still want to write every day if I can -- but writing time windows will inevitably shrink and I'll need to start using my time a lot more efficiently.

It's time to get my body and brain moving again. Time to end the delightful holiday.

(No doubt I'll soon post something called 'the revised schedule' once I've figured it out. Hope I stick to it this time, because the one invented in February when I first stopped working never got off the ground...)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Lake of Dreams

Our July book for Page Turners was The Lake of Dreams, by Kim Edwards (who wrote the best-selling The Memory Keeper's Daughter). It's a contemporary fiction about a young woman (Lucy) who returns to her home town in upstate New York after living abroad for several years, and finds herself exposing a concealed family history linked to the suffragette movement in the early 20thC, while dealing with a host of unresolved family issues a decade old.

This is a novel firmly grounded in the past. The main storyline deals with the discovery of some old suffragette literature, letter fragments, an heirloom blanket embroidered with a distinctive motif and some stunning stained glass windows that instill in Lucy a desire to know more about how they are linked. As she researches the history of the documents and the windows, and discovers the names of family members she never knew existed, Lucy finds herself becoming more and more immersed in the unfolding story, until she becomes almost obsessed with uncovering the truth of a long-ago family scandal.

Playing at counterpoint to this, a major secondary thread explores the tensions and potential scandal within the modern branches of the same extended family. Central to this is the mysterious death of Lucy's father in a boating accident a decade before, and Lucy struggles to deal with unresolved relationships and the inevitable progression of lives and business decisions from which she has deliberately distanced herself.

On the whole, The Lake of Dreams is a pleasant enough story that has enough detail on the suffragette movement to interest and enough sense of mystery to motivate the reader to keep reading. It also explores themes of environmentalism and religious feminism.This is actually the kind of intriguing tale that I expect to like.

However, it is badly let down by two incontrovertible factors:
  • First, it is riddled with a host of minor internal inconsistencies (often to do with timing) that repeatedly pull the reader out of the story. To me these are mostly the sign of a really bad edit. 
  • Second, it is riddled with inaccuracies -- some minor and some major. Most of these relate to the use of Halley's Comet as a motif to connect events in 1910 with those in 1986. The most severe of these is the implication that the comet appeared in the night sky for just one night in each of those years. This may seem like a minor point (and it has little bearing on the story) but for me the blatant and repeated error really irked. This is a sign of poor research.

From a more subjective viewpoint, there were other things that fell short for me as well. Most of the clues rely on serendipity for their discovery, and then prove to contain exactly the right information all nicely laid out. And then I was underwhelmed by the ultimate revelations -- I had very little emotional connection. I found the main character (and narrator) Lucy a little whiny and the entire novel's almost relentless focus on the past became a little tedious, particularly when the reader is subjected to multiple scenes of Lucy in bed 'reflecting'. The novel feels padded and over-written too, with many superfluous scenes/transitional paragraphs, excessive stage-management detail, and extensive metaphorical descriptions. (Once again, many of these problems could have been overcome with a better edit.)

There are probably heaps of readers out there who would love this book for what it is, without noticing or caring about the things I'm picking on. And there are some things I liked too -- for example I found the characters to be nicely complex with interesting relationships and realistic family dynamics. But on the whole I'm disappointed. (There are some very polarised opinions on Good Reads!)


In writing this, I've realised that I haven't posted on any of the other Page Turners books we've done this year, so I thought I'd include a short wrap-up:
  • March - The Winter of our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart. I half-blogged about this here, but obviously never got around to wrapping up the book. A shame really, because it was interesting (although I didn't quite finish it).
  • April - The City and the City, by China MiĆ©ville. I had already blogged about this book here.
  • May - At home: A short history of private life, by Bill Bryson. Hmm, I didn't get past the second chapter of this one.
  • June - We have met the enemy, by Daniel Akst. I got about a third of the way through this one, and may read some more and blog on it one day . . .

Saturday, 2 July 2011

'The Gift' inspires debate

The Gift, by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, is certainly a play that gets you talking and thinking. On that level at least, I suppose you could say it works. However, I found the play to comprise two rather disjointed halves, rather than a coherent whole, and the central premise (once it was revealed in the second act) lacking in credibility.

The first act deals with two couples meeting on holiday. Ed and Sadie (Richard Piper and Heather Bolton) are childless, middle-aged, wealthy and jaded, looking for something to spice up their marriage. They actively befriend a younger couple, Martin and Chloe (Matt Dyktynski and Elizabeth Debicki ), a struggling conceptual artist and art journalist. Over the course of an evening, cleverly staged using a revolving set to suggest the progression of events, the two couples 'fall in love' with each other, vowing a relationship 'based on truth and honesty'. This is then followed by a boating expedition, during which Martin saves Ed from drowning, earning undying gratitude and the desire to bestow 'a gift' on the young couple.

The first act is pacy and dynamic, with snappy intellectual dialogue on topics such as the philosophy of art. Intermittantly throughout, Sadie (and sometimes Ed) addresses the audience directly in order to narrate sections of the story. Much of the time this worked, making the audience comfortable with their characters, but I didn't feel it was always necessary and when it came to the near-drowning incident and subsequent rescue I felt the narrative completely undermined the drama and emotional impact of the scene. Although I could feel the bond between the couples from the previous evening's drinking session, the debt of gratitude totally lacked resonance for me. A shame, really, because Act 2 relies on this heavily!

So now we come to Act 2, set a year later, after Martin and Chloe have had a year to think about what gift they'd like Sadie and Ed to bestow upon them. This is the crunch act, where we realise that Act 1 was really only a prologue. Act 2 is what the play is really all about . . .

Sadie and Ed are at home in some inner city condo apartment and we immediately see the impact of their encounter with Martin and Chloe (and the near-death experience). Their marriage is rejuvenated, they've discovered the joys of art, and they are humming along with gusto. Martin and Chloe, on the other hand, seem less impacted by the encounter, although Martin has made some progress in his career. But then they start to reveal the nature of the gift they'd like Sadie and Ed to bestow upon them . . .

To put it frankly, I found the second act in turns boring (its one single scene lacks the dynamism of the first act) and lacking in credibility. The rather shocking request is foreshadowed early, leaving Martin and Chloe floundering in repetitive rhetoric as they try to justify the unjustifiable to both themselves and their hosts. I don't think we have enough insight into their characters to empathise with their so-called predicament. Instead, they come across as totally unsympathetic, selfish and narcissistic. It made me reflect on how little these two couples actually knew of each other, after a single weekend.

However, if you think of Act 2 as black satire, where themes of parental fears/regrets, gratitude, selfishness, and changing one's mind are explored and pushed to the edge, it becomes a little more understandable -- and certainly thought-provoking. Even so, to me the second act felt like it was still in 'rough draft' form -- the dialogue wasn't nearly as tight as in the first act, and it felt really repetitive and one-dimensional.

The MTC version of this play was directed by US award-winning director Maria Aitken, and I thought the performances were fine. (I don't really feel qualified to comment on these aspects anyway!) The play script just felt undercooked to me. While the play inspired intellectual and philosophical debate, it lacked emotional resonance -- plus the imbalance in style between the two acts was jarring.

Here are two other more critical theatrical reviews: Cameron Woodhead and Theatre People.