Island Beat (July/August 2000)

Keep in touch with the islands and people on the move

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  • Kevin Spacey has his make-up touched up on the set of American Beauty. Mendes is at right. Photograph courtesy Stephen Mendes
  • Sam Mendes with actress Jane Horrocks, star of the stage version (directed by him) and film version of Little Voices. Photograph courtesy Stephen Mendes

Film:

Sam Mendes — the Oscar-Winner’s Caribbean Roots

Trinidadians in the know were backing American Beauty to sweep the Oscars last March. Not just because the movie was the favourite, with eight nominations to its credit, but because it was directed by a Trinidadian. Well, almost. Sam Mendes, the wonderboy of British theatre, was born in England, but he’s a Trinidadian by descent.

Last year the London Sunday Express made a rare reference to Mendes’s roots, describing him as having inherited “dark brooding looks from (his) Portuguese-Trinidad parentage.”

Sam Mendes’s father, Peter, is the son of the writer Alfred Mendes, author of the early West Indian novels Black Fauns and Pitch Lake, and part of the group around C. L. R. James and Albert Gomes which produced the Beacon literary magazine in Trinidad in the early 1930s.

Mendes has visited the Caribbean often. As a small boy he’d fly out with his parents to visit his grandparents, then living in Barbados, and in the past decade he’s holidayed in Trinidad several times.

“It’s strange that no one makes the connection,” said Sam’s uncle, the Trinidadian architect Stephen Mendes, “although a couple of years ago (St Lucia-born Nobel literature laureate) Derek Walcott told someone that Alfie Mendes’s grandson was doing great things in London.” Mendes also did great things at the Academy Awards ceremony: he walked away with the Oscar for Best Director. American Beauty also won awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography, and Kevin Spacev won his second Best Actor award for his portrayal of the film’s hero, Lester Burnham.

American Beauty is his first film, but success is nothing new for Mendes, who at 34 had already had a brilliant 10-year career in theatre before being invited by Steven Spielberg to direct the movie.

Mendes had been a theatre director since his days at Cambridge University, where he studied English. Then he worked with the Chichester Festival Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, before taking over the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London in 1992. All the while he’s moved steadily from triumph to triumph.

The London Guardian described Mendes, 34, as “the man who reinvented the musical Cabaret, making it a massive hit in London … and on Broadway … the man who has already, in little more than a decade, created two landmark Shakespeare productions, with his Tempest and Othello; who, before he was 24, had already achieved two popular classic hits in the West End; and who also notched up . . . a pension-earning musical, Oliver!” Mendes’s 1998 production of David Hare’s The Blue Room starred Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman (Mrs Tom Cruise), who appeared nude onstage in a performance that led one critic to label the show “pure theatrical Viagra”.

But it was the Broadway revival of Cabaret that led Spielberg to invite Mendes to direct American Beauty for his Dreamworks studio. The movie is an offbeat mix of dark comedy and serious drama about a suburban family for whom the American dream becomes a nightmare. But for Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), the horror is redeemed by the discovery of the serendipitous beauty that makes life worthwhile.

After the Oscar ceremony in March, it was back to business as usual – in theatre – for Mendes. His next project was a new Stephen Sondheim musical, Wise Guys, which opened on Broadway in April.

Mendes’s West Indian roots were showing again when he was reported to be pleased that the timing would allow him to be back in London for the start of the cricket season. He’s a keen member of playwright Harold Pinter’s celebrity team, the Gaieties, and, among his seemingly endless talents, is said to be a very fine batsman.


Gary Serrao’s Collections: Guyanese Heritage

Isn’t there always a therapeutic aspect to the act of collecting? Gary Serrao makes no bones about the reasons behind his mania for acquisition: he was collecting Guyana. He traces the origins of the obsession to one homesick day in England. “I missed home so badly and I was so desperate that I went out and bought a postcard of a coconut tree,” says Serrao, a third-generation Guyanese. That purchase sparked off a lifetime passion. “If I travelled to other parts of Britain, or wherever I went in the world, I went looking for stuff about Guyana. It helped me keep in contact with who I was.”

When Serrao returned to Guyana in 1993, it was therefore with almost three decades’ worth of Guyana-related articles in tow. For six years the collection remained more or less unpublicised, seen only by friends and occasional visitors to the property Serrao had purchased on his return, a five-storey building in the sub-district of Kastev in Met-en-Meerzorg, West Coast Demerara, which today also incorrporates a 10-room guesthouse. In September 1999 the Guyanese Heritage Museum went official. Today there’s a sign on the public road, 35 miles out of Georgetown.

The collection, housed in an airy, first-floor room with whitewashed walls, is appropriately eclectic, for Guyana’s history is colourful even by New World standards. Dutch and British colonists met a substantial indigenous population, then introduced African slave labour and indentured workers from India, Portugal and China. Guyanese “heritage” encompasses the patrimony of all these groups, and Serrao’s collection attempts to reflect diversity of that experience, if in a deeply personal way.

The centrepiece of the collection, housed in a small room off to the side, is a set of antique maps, the fanciful, distorted visions of European cartographers wielding rudimentary instruments. The oldest is 367 years old, but Serrao has no idea of, or particular interest in, their value. “I look at it from a heritage point of view,” he says. “When somebody’s addicted to something, money doesn’t come into the equation.” He does remember, however, spending a month’s salary on a single map.

The impressive assemblage of objects in the outer room fascinates for different reasons. Many of the everyday items are sure to evoke sighs of recognition from Caribbean people of a certain age, among them a Bournvita promo cup; metal bicycle licence plates; a promotional thermometer from Ferreira’s Five-Star Demerara Rum; a coal pot; a steam iron; an array of matchbooks. There are also older articles, like a porcelain Dutch foot bath; an African mortar and pestle; a ramal, the headcloth worn by East Indian women. Guyana’s natural history is also present, in the form of some forest seeds, including greenheart, and “monkey pot”. The indigenous Guyanese are represented by a Wai Wai beaded apron and some basketwork. Serrao’s collection also incorporates museum staples like paper money, coins and stamps, plus an extensive selection of books and magazines (including several Caribbean Beats!) about Guyana, and works by Guyanese writers ranging from Norman Cameron to Edgar Mittleholzer to Pauline Melville.

Tne Guyanese Heritage Museum is a living monument to Guyanese life. The space is already crammed and one wonders what will happen as the collection swells. But one suspects Serrao will work that out as it comes. “I always tell people don’t postpone your life,” he says, “Find your own little niche and try to create happiness. We don’t have a blueprint when we’re born. Because when I was a little boy in Georgetown, nobody said I’d open a museum.”

— Georgia Popplewell

Guyanese Heritage Museum, 17 Kastev, Met-en-Meerzorg, West Coast Demerara, Guyana Tel. 592 2 682408


Finance: Michael Manley’s On the Money

“On the thousand dollar bill we want Bob Marley,” sang Anthony B in his 1998 song Marley Memories, echoing the sentiments of thousands of ordinary Jamaicans. But Marley’s world-renowned countenance was not to grace the new banknote released mid- April by the Bank of Jamaica. Instead, the $1 ,000 bill carries a portrait of the late Michael Manley, one of the most popular Prime Ministers the country has seen. The design of the note also incorporates Jamaican butterflies, with a gold band of butterflies representing one of the security features on the note. There is also a new watermark instead of the traditional pineapple, showing a Swallow-tailed Hummingbird (Doctor Bird) with a flower motif.

The $1 ,000 bill replaces the $500 bill, informally known as a “Nanny” (after the portrait of Nanny of the Maroons which graces this banknote), as the highest denomination in circulation. Critics say that the issuing of the $1 ,000 dollar bill does not reflect well on the health of the Jamaican economy and represents the erosion of the value of the Jamaican dollar which began under the Manley government of the seventies. Wilmot Perkins, one of Jamaica’s most popular talk show hosts, asserts that, under the circumstances, it is only appropriate that the visage of the late Michael Manley should adorn the new note.

— Annie Paul