Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sex, Nightmares and Charlotte Rampling

Yesterday I visited for the first time HOME, Manchester's new £25 million arts venue on the last day of the city's International Festival. It's a pleasing addition to the already vibrant arts scene in Manchester, offering under one roof art-house cinemas, theatre and art installations as well as fine dining, cafe and bookshop (where I very nearly succumbed to buying 8 books on East Asian cinema).

The installations space included an interesting short film 'Mishima in Mexico' (2012), a 14 minute piece based on Mishima's novel 'Thirst for Love' in which director Wu Tsang and writer Alex Segade self-reflexively talk about how to make a film about the book and variously swap the roles of Etsuko and Saburo (see still from film below). In the 1950 novel Etsuko is a young, frustrated widow who conceives a jealous passion for manly gardener Saburo before finally murdering him. Albeit that the novel is supposed to be describing heterosexual passion, it was written inbetween Mishima publishing his iconic works of 'gay literature' ('Confessions of a Mask', 'Forbidden Colours') and he later remarked that he conceived Etsuko as a man. In Tsang and Segade's take on it, boundaries of gender, sexuality and dominance are appropriately blurred and transformed. (Mishima incidentally did actually visit Mexico - making me think that this was probably what the film would be about. But I guess there's another fascinating film to be made about that as well.)

My main objective in being at HOME was to watch the new play 'Neck of the Woods', a re-working of the Little Red Riding Hood fable (see image by Walter Crane below) which is virtually a solo performance by veteran actress Charlotte Rampling. The piece was created specially for the Manchester International Festival by Turner Prize-winning director/ designer Douglas Gordon and writer Veronica Gonzalez Pena. I didn't learn until later that the piece has been unfairly savaged by the critics as being insubstantial and untheatrical. Poor Charlotte Rampling has also come in for abuse for seeming to not know her lines on opening night.

It's pretty odd however that nearly all of the reviews don't actually comment on what the piece is actually about. This is a rather disturbing and thoughtful transformation of the fable of Little Red Riding Hood into the realm of paedophilic abuse. In this telling, the wolf is a voracious sexual predator, holed up with his whisky and cigars, looking to 'debauch' himself by consuming young children. Salvation would appear to arrive in the form of 'The Hunter', Little Red Riding Hood's own father, who rescues her from the bowels of the wolf. But soon we realise that the voice of the father and the voice of the wolf are one and the same...

What follows is hard to reduce to a simple analysis. At age seven, the child is abandoned by the father who disappears to the snow drifts of the north, but the child longs for him and sleeps with the body of the wolf in her bed. The father terrifies the imagination with tales of the creatures in the wood that might attack her if she makes a noise. Is this a parental abuser forcing a child into silence to cover up his crimes? Or is it also a father suppressing his daughter's sexuality? Are the two connected?

We are wandering in a dark, menacing forest of the sexual subconscious. The piece opens with the theatre plunged for several minutes into total darkness as we listen to the panting chops of a woodcutter's axe onto a tree. There is something disturbing about what is being done in the name of patriarchal order in this forest. By the end of the piece, the darkness and panting thrusts of the axe return and we are left in no doubt that this is a sexual metaphor reaching its climax with the mushroom cloud of devastation wreaked when the tree falls and slams against the forest floor.

The whole piece is accompanied by the beautiful, gently sinister piano playing of pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Brahms and many others by Helene Grimaud. It's true perhaps that the piece is not overly theatrical and could probably work as well as a radio play. But part of reason for this is the mesmeric intonation of Charlotte Rampling which just makes you want to close your eyes and savour every word, despite the fact that Rampling herself (pictured below, image Georges Biard) looks remarkably unchanged from her Night Porter heyday.

It's probably true too that this piece is as much an art installation as a piece of theatre (the same is also true for nearly all of Beckett's plays), but for me that's exactly what a venue like HOME should be doing, bravely breaking down the boundaries between art forms. This was a really interesting collaboration between stellar art, music, writing and acting talents. Thanks to the Manchester International Festival for having the courage for putting it on and I really hope to see more of it in the future.

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