3rd March 2002

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Sketches of a timeless past

"Elephantscapes at the Galle Face", an exhibition of recent watercolours by artist Hong-Bich Huynh Vernon, will be on display from March 5-12, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo.

By Yamini Sequeira

American artist Hong Bich Huynh Vernon bursts onto Colombo's art scene once again, with the same panache that underlined her earlier solo showing. On display from March 5-12 is "Elephantscapes at the Galle Face", Hong-Bich's latest watercolours revealing her fascination for the colonial architecture of the Galle Face Hotel.

In an experimental mode, Hong-Bich uses the central theme of the giant pachyderms against the backdrop of different angles of the Galle Face Hotel itself. Inspired by the old-world charm of the hotel, which has been in existence for over a century, she embarked on sketching interesting nooks and corners of the hotel at different times of the day to study the play of light and shade. This has resulted in each frame being suffused with a different mood. No wonder, Hong-Bich reveals: "For me, art is a form of meditation, a private devotion involving deep concentration and contemplation, in order to capture the essence of the object of my attention at that point in time."

Of Vietnamese origin, Hong-Bich fled to the US in 1975, where she trained formally as an artist. She has had the opportunity to use her training in the form of art therapy for refugees, while working as a social worker with the UN. Having travelled extensively in the past, and still doing so, since her husband is employed with the UN, the artist in her reveals a deep understanding of the culture of her temporary residence, as is evident in her works.

"Elephantscapes" bring to life the Galle Face Hotel from various interesting perspectives. Surely, any resident of Colombo will feel an affinity with her works, as every frame rekindles a familiar memory. This exhibition reveals the colonial hotel in its timeless past and vibrant present, as each frame highlights an entirely fresh nuance. The North American Women's Association endorses "Elephantscapes", and part of the proceeds will go to the Association for Individuals with Learning Disabilities.

This second solo exhibition in Colombo is a poignant one for Hong-Bich, as she prepares to says goodbye to Sri Lanka and move on with her family to a new destination. For the artist's keenness and insight into the country and its people, the Colombo art scene will miss her.

Making of Thenadier

By Rochelle Jansen

Meeting Alun Armstrong for the first time, I was immediately struck by his simplicity and easy manner that belied his talent and fame. For Alun Armstrong with six Laurence Olivier award nominations, one win to his name and many, many theatre, television and film appearances is a man of achievement and fulfilled dreams.

"I never went to drama school," says Alun, who's been an actor all his life. "The school I attended had a Shakespearean production every year and that's where my training was." Leaving school he joined Cambridge Theatre as an assistant stage manager and then a repertory theatre in the province.

He then moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company and appeared in many of Shakespeare's plays including Taming of the Shrew in which he portrayed Petruchio and The Winter's Tale where he played Leontes. Roles in Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Death of a Salesman are among his favourites.

Joining the Royal Shakespeare Company was probably the best base for him to expand his talents. For he was later called upon to act in the original cast of the musical of Victor Hugo's epic Les Miserables.

Though not a trained singer, Alun however had to go through an audition before he landed the role of Thenadier. "Initially, I wasn't very convinced Les Miserables would be a success because it is different to other musicals. Different because it is a sung musical throughout and also a little operatic; I didn't think it would be very popular. I even told my agent to start looking for work for me because I didn't think it would run for even a week."

How wrong he was was soon proved. For Les Mis, which was first staged at the Barbican Theatre in London on September 30, 1985, moved to the Palace Theatre in London on December 4, 1985, opened in Broadway in 1987 and is still running in both the West End and Broadway. And it has subsequently been performed in "about 50 countries," says Alun, including Australia, Greece, Japan, almost all the European countries and Canada.

Today, it is the longest running and most performed musical the world over. And Alun Armstrong went on to play the role of Thenadier for a year.

Despite his early misgivings, he studied characters and costumes in depth to powerfully bring alive the character of Thenadier (played by Michael Holsinger in the Workshop production of Les Miserables which was directed by Jerome De Silva in Sri Lanka). For unlike most casts to follow which reproduced the original, the original cast to which Alun belonged had the freedom to bring their own individual style to the show. "Thenadier was a gruesome and comic character so I enjoyed making him look as gruesome as possible and painting my face even more to get the desired effect," Alun added.

So why did he quit the role? "It got boring," was his prompt reply. "Eight shows a week for one year became a bit tiresome. That's where singers and actors differ. Actors can't keep doing the same thing for a long time. One year was the longest I've played any character."

The London cast keeps on changing almost every year, he says. And what if a character falls ill? "If it is a main character an actor playing a minor character would step in to play his part and an understudy would play the role of the minor character. There is a sort of domino effect."

How long did he rehearse for Les Miserables? Knowing how long Jerome and the Workshoppers took to rehearse, I expected Alun's answer to be "a few months", but "six weeks" was his confident reply.

Alun also sang at the tenth anniversary celebration of Les Miserables performed at Albert Hall with an international cast in front of an audience of 6000.

Alun has moved on in his career since he played Thenadier 17 years ago, but he still feels a thrill every time he sees a photograph of Thenadier, the character he created, played by some other actor, somewhere in the world.

Movies and television appearances seem to be his passion today. Asked how many television programmes he's been in, "Oh hundreds" he replies. MacGyver, Nicholas Nickleby, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Married with Children, Our Friends in the North are some of the TV productions he's appeared in.

His musicals include The Baker's Wife where he portrayed the character of the baker and Sweeney Todd for which he won the Sir Laurence Olivier Award.

As for his film credits, he's acted alongside Mel Gibson in Braveheart in which he played the Earl of Mornay and also with Clint Eastwood in White Hunter, Black Heart. He also appeared in The Mummy Returns, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Proof of Life, The Saint, Les Miserables in Concert: The Dream Cast, Patriot Games, Billy the Kid, and Krull.

And how did it feel to be a part of Braveheart? "It was exciting. But it wasn't always a load of fun. There were two and a half thousand extras for the battle scenes (which took a long time to shoot) and for about two weeks we'd get to the location, get our make up on and then just sit in our trailers waiting to be called for our scene. So it did get a bit boring." Any particular moment he recalls from his time in making movies? "There was this one incident which stands out among the rest," he muses. "We were filming White Hunter Black Heart in Zimbabwe and one scene had to be done in a boat. All of a sudden the boat's engine stopped and we began to drift towards the Victoria Falls. It was quite a harrowing experience and in the midst of it all, Clint Eastwood turns to me and asks calmly, 'What do you fancy, the Falls or the crocodiles?' Luckily the crew on the bank realised we were in trouble and sent another boat after us," concluded Alun.

Alun Armstrong was in Sri Lanka with his wife to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. His three sons are all studying drama. But they all say they won't act because they'd never be as good as their dad. One son Tom opted to teach and chose to come to Anamaduwa, Sri Lanka. And to date he keeps coming back to Anamaduwa at regular intervals.

"We love this country,"said Alun, "and I am glad I met Jerome De Silva when he was in London and that he told me so much about Sri Lanka. We'll definitely be back."

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