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.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Liverpool Comic Bringing Japanese Humour to the World

The English port city of Liverpool is internationally famous for its music - the Beatles and Merseybeat of the 1960s - and its football, with Liverpool FC having lifted the European Cup an impressive five times. Yet the first sight that greets you as you disembark your train at Liverpool's Lime Street Station is a statue of veteran comedian Ken Dodd (1927- ), holding erect his trademark 'tickling stick'.

In the nineteenth century Liverpool absorbed waves of Irish immigrants, whose 'gift of the gab' combined with the English trait of dry irony, made for a city crackling with wit and banter as the caustic asides of John Lennon testify. Liverpool produced an impressive array of domestically popular comedians from Arthur Askey back in the 1930s and 1940s to alternative comedians of the 1980s 'new wave' such as Alexei Sayle and the current favourite John Bishop, filling vast arenas up and down the country.

Liverpudlians (or 'scousers') take their instantly recognizable drawl with them wherever they go in the world. Considering themselves something of outsiders in the UK itself, the city was notorious for urban decay and a hotbed for radical socialism in the 1980s before engineering an impressive renaissance.

Diane Orrett is one such Liverpudlian, whose dream as a child was simply to travel the world. After training as a graphic designer in the late 1980s and working in the evenings as a restaurant, she saved up enough money to head off as a globe-trotting backpacker. She fancied dropping into Japan on her travels but feared it might be prohibitively expensive. Working in a ski resort in New Zealand in 1990 however, she met someone who strongly advised her to go: 'Don't worry, the Japanese will look after you', she was told. And so she headed off on a three month trip, hitchhiking all over the country.

25 years later she is still there, based in an apartment in Osaka with her collection of 400 kimono dresses, and travels from there to every corner of the world (54 countries and counting) with her one-woman show based on a traditional form of Japanese comedy called rakugo.

Her development as a rakugo (Japanese 'sit down' as opposed to 'stand up' comedy) artist came about quite by chance. In 1995 a famous rakugo performer called Katsura Shijaku, interested in the possibility of translating the medium into English, was looking for an assistant (known as a o-chako), and asked his English teacher, a friend of Orrett, if he knew of anyone. Orrett leapt at the chance and soon mastered the form, becoming from 1998 a full-time professional rakugo-ka.

In rakugo, the performer wears traditional kimono and sits on a large cushion while recounting setpiece comic tales that often last 20 or 30 minutes. At the end of the tale there is a punchline known as an 'ochi', but it's really the brilliance with which the story is related that is key. The tale usually involves several characters and the rakugo-ka plays all the parts, skilfully adjusting eye direction and vocal tone to indicate who is speaking.

The audience's imagination plays a big part in proceedings too. If the rakugo-ka lifts up and down his or her knees, it means the character is meant to be standing up. To do so repeatedly indicates that they are walking or with greater speed, running. There are just two props - a fan and small hand towel - but these are used to indicate a huge variety of objects, from books to writing brushes to hot sweet potatoes.

Watching Orrett, who performs in both English and Japanese, is at times like watching the brilliant facial contortions and deadpan of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Her pretended munchings of hot tako-yaki (octopus dumplings, an Osaka speciality) with comically inflated cheeks is a joy to behold.

Orrett performs all over Japan, but has also taken her show across the UK, on tours of the USA, to the Baltic Republics, India and beyond. Just this year alone, she has performed in Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Turkey as well as on cruise ships operating from Taiwan and Korea. Through her shows, the world is being introduced to a hilarious aspect of Japanese culture most people never even knew existed.

Orrett's mastery of rakugo is however just one of an array of performing talents. She also doubles as a balloon artist and has recently added 'laughter yoga' (from India) to her international show. She relates how in the aftermath of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Tsunami, all the bookings in Japan for the following six months were instantly cancelled. Orrett took the opportunity to travel to the affected areas and offer her services, teaching homeless children balloon art and performing rakugo at refugee centres. She worried that comic performances might be thought inappropriate but soon realised that the victims desperately wished for an escape from their daily troubles. Laughter was always the best therapy.

In Japan, Orrett performs under the stage name Daian Kichijitsu (a pun on the name for an auspicious day in Buddhist calendar). Her shows incorporate not just a performance of traditional Japanese comedy - fascinating though that is - but the means by which someone has been able to forge her own unique life path. 'Follow your dream; don't be afraid to make mistakes; and always greet people with a smile' are just some points of her accumulated wisdom.

For Orrett herself a fascinating life odyssey is still very much unfolding.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why Sci-fi and Kabuki Offer all the Life Wisdom You Need

It's about 30 years since I first saw the classic British sci-fi series, Blake's Seven, but one scene has always stayed with me. The rebels have to get through an impassable doorway, protected by a force field. Their techno guy Vila (pictured above) gets to work, but no code will unlock it and no amount of energy can blast it open. Eventually he works it out: the barrier is absorbing all the energy applied to it and making itself ever stronger. To open it he simply has to apply such an incredibly small amount of energy the force field ceases to be functional and completely disappears.

We're very often told in life that to be successful, you always have to put all your energies into a project. That's usually true, but there are also occasions where doing the absolute minimum is the smart play. I've always found, for example, that when dealing with any kind of bureaucrat - clerks who are paid by the hour to compile files - feeding them the minimum amount of information is the best way to make them disappear. Getting riled and raising all kinds of complications merely makes the administrative force field in front of you ever more impassable.

You can sometimes gain life wisdom from a sci-fi show, but even more from watching the great plays of Kabuki. I always find it regrettable that not just the magnificent drama, but the piercing psychological insight of Kabuki is not more widely appreciated.

A play like Kanjincho (The Subscription List) is one of the greatest plays in the history of the world. It's one of the most thrilling, spectacular nights at a theatre you will ever have, but the chief reason has little to do with Japan. The play actually offers profound wisdom on how to live your life on a daily basis.

The set up is this: in the 12th century a famous general, Yoshitsune, has fallen foul of his elder brother, the new Shogun Yoritomo, and is on the run, fleeing north with a small band of loyal retainers. Yoritomo is determined to wipe out this potential threat to his power and has installed guards and barriers on the road heading north. His vassals have been warned to keep their eyes peeled for Japan's most wanted man.

Yoshitsune is a handsome youth, looked after by his chief retainer Benkei. To escape detection, Yoshitsune and his followers have disguised themselves as Buddhist priests travelling the country to raise funds for their temple, looking for donors to add to their 'subscription list'.

That in a nutshell is the plot, but the fascination of the play lies in something much more elemental: as in Blake's Seven, a group of rebels have to pass through an impenetrable barrier. How are they going to do it?

The commander of the guards at the barrier is called Togashi and he is immediately suspicious of the group of priests whom he suspects of harbouring the wanted Yoshitsune. An elaborate psychological battle then plays out between Benkei - posing as the chief priest - and Togashi. It's gripping theatre, with a steady ratcheting up of the tension. In the end, just as Yoshitsune is about to be apprehended, Benkei, in an unforgiveable transgression of the samurai code, strikes his own master on the pretext of his being a slovenly porter and urges him to move along.

The traditional analysis is that Togashi is so moved by Benkei being prepared to go to such lengths that he sympathetically allows the group to pass through the barrier.

Personally, I'd question that analysis. Is Togashi moved solely by sympathy, or is it rather that in the intense confrontation between Benkei and Togashi (pictured right), as in a chess game, one player is admiring of the brilliant tactical move of his opponent - at his ability to turn the unreal into the real?

No matter: after Benkei has got his entourage through the barrier, he is left alone on stage and what ensues is the most famous moment in the whole of Kabuki. Compromised and full of contradictory emotions - though equally elated and determined - Benkei (pictured left) strikes a torturous pose known as mie and then builds up to a charged run along the walkway (hanamichi) through the auditorium seats. Our hero has come within a whisker of defeat, but now he is ready to fight another day.

The key to understanding this amazing play is to grasp the universal insight in it.

In your everyday life, you will find yourself confronted with obstacles which can seem completely insurmountable. What Kanjincho is telling you is two things: firstly, sometimes you are going to have to do something completely unexpected - to compromise your most dearly-held principles - to get past that obstacle. Yet, you can get through...

Secondly, the obstacle in front of you is, more often than not, a human barrier. The way to get through that opposition, Kanjincho potently argues, is to psychologically disarm your opponent - make them understand your position, make them feel that it would be unworthy to maintain their resistance.

This powerful psychological insight has much bearing on our daily lives, but it also extends right up to matters of national and international politics. Supposing that you are faced with an implacable ideological opponent that you can't defeat by force? How are you going to turn them round and make them open the barrier? By making them see, Kanjincho answers, that it's their position that needs to be reconsidered.

On an almost weekly basis you can catch me in some personal crisis - be it business, bureaucracy or thorny family dilemma - thinking I've got some impossible problem, that this time they've got me for sure. But always Kanjincho advises me to think outside the box, encouraging me to psychologically prise open the human barrier in my way. Before I know it, I am there in my kitchen, face contorted into pain and ecstasy, starting a thunderous victory shimmy down the length of my kitchen units.

If you get the chance to see Kabuki, seize it. And don't get bogged down with historical detail: look for life wisdom instead.