strange_complex: (Vampira)
This I saw on Friday, in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. It takes its cue from the 1922 film Nosferatu, but it certainly isn't a straightforward adaptation of it. Rather, it is set entirely on board the ship carrying Count Orlok from Varna to Whitby, and follows the experiences of three surviving ship-mates (one fervently religious, one superstitious, one harshly rationalistic) as they are driven to terrible thoughts and deeds by their dread cargo in a single dark hour before the coming of the dawn.

Those ship-board scenes, of course, are also in Stoker's novel, not to mention many other versions of Dracula. Indeed, this stage play began with the captain scribbling furiously in his log, narrating entries in a broadly Stokerish style (and a beautiful Irish accent, no less!) as he brought it up to date. But what ties it specifically to Nosferatu (1922) is the visual style - partly the set and props, but above all Count Orlok himself. This is in spite of the fact that we never actually see him. Rather, the story is driven by his terrible presence down below in the hold, and after the captain of the ship finally climbs down to investigate what is there, and we hear a scream and see the slap of a single bloody hand on the (translucent) cabin door, he begins to take on the mannerisms and clothing of the count. Even then, it's slightly too simple to say that he becomes possessed by Orlok's evil. There is something much more complex going on about the effects of fear and isolation on the human mind. But his hands increasingly become Orlok's clawed hands, and he abandons the long duster-coat he had been wearing to reveal that Orlok's buttoned jacket had been there all along, just underneath.

This is a perfectly solid set-up, and there are plenty of things about the play I enjoyed. I particularly liked the lady who sat throughout the performance on one side of the stage with a cello and a microphone, providing siren-like singing and eerie music when required. There was also some clever trickery which allowed ship-mates who had just died to be discovered already wrapped up inside tarpaulin body-bags that had been lying on the side of the stage since the story began. But fundamentally, this was the kind of play in which people move around in slow-motion through a series of mannered poses, and one character will say something portentous and rather meaningless like "time is an ocean", after which the other characters pick up and echo the same refrain: "time..." "time is an ocean". I'm afraid I am instantly turned off by that. It is just too difficult to pull it off without sounding like a parody of utterly pretentious avant-garde theatre. In this case, they also made it worse by frequently shifting into song as well - and not always very melodically, or even entirely in tune.

So although I really liked the idea of the absent-yet-present Count, driving everyone mad without ever needing to appear in person, in the end this play was just trying rather too hard for my taste. I don't actually regret the evening spent watching it, but I won't be rushing to see another play by this theatre company again.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I went to see this ten days ago with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton. Thinking back, I believe it is the fourth stage adaptation of Dracula which I have seen in my lifetime, with the previous three being as follows:
This was a different adaptation again - this one by John Godber and Jane Thornton, to be precise - and it was by far the truest to Stoker's novel which I have ever seen in any medium. Most of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, with the only real deviations occurring where actions and speech which are reported 'off-stage' (as it were) in the novel were translated into direct speech and action on the stage. Even then, the epistolary format of the original was preserved where possible, for example by showing people receiving and reading out letters from one another.

Obviously, a 1.5-hour stage adaptation couldn't hope to convey the entirety of the novel, though. Quincey Morris was omitted, as he often is, and so were Renfield and two of Draculas' three brides, while Dracula's journey on the Demeter was reported only from the point of view of Whitby residents after he had arrived. But other than that, both the language and the spirit of the novel were really well preserved, mainly thanks to a clever impressionistic approach used for some of the wider sweeps of the narrative. For example, the opening scenes in which Jonathan Harker travels to Dracula's castle were not played out in full, but instead conveyed by a sort of montage of key words and phrases spoken by cast members standing in a line on the stage - "Welcome to Transylvania"; "Please - for your mother's sake"; "For the dead travel fast"; and so on. All instantly recognisable and highly evocative, yet sketched out lightly and efficiently so that we could get on to the more detailed scenes set in the castle. On the whole, I think you would struggle to find a better translation of novel to stage than this one, although I had one small regret about it, which was that some of Mina's stronger scenes (e.g. where she takes the lead in gathering and sorting through all the records for the group of vampire-hunters) had dropped out, so that she lost some of her agency as a result.

The production itself was an amateur one, and we saw it on its opening night, but it was pretty good when judged on those terms. We were particularly impressed by the people playing Dr. Seward and the sole vampire bride (who also doubled-up as the maid who removes the garlic flowers from Lucy's room, thus creating nice extra layers to the narrative, since of course the maid would be helping Dracula if she is also his consort in disguise!). The rest of the cast were all perfectly solid, though we weren't so convinced by the decision to cast the same person as both Jonathan Harker and Arthur Holmwood, since it meant he was both Mina's husband and Lucy's fiancé, which had unintended resonances, and besides his chemistry as Arthur with Lucy was completely non-existent, so that when Van Helsing instructed him to kiss her it seemed more like a reluctant school-boy kissing his aunt than the impassioned kiss of a concerned lover. As for Dracula - well, it's a difficult role to play without slipping into pantomime, especially on stage where you cannot be as subtle as on film; he could have been better served by both the costume and the make-up departments; and we weren't sure the decision to have him speaking in a mock-Eastern European accent, or laughing maniacally from time to time was well-advised. But at least it looked like he was enjoying his evil machinations, and he definitely came across well when he got the chance to confront the band of vampire-hunters directly, and hurl some proper scorn and disdain in their general direction.

I think [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was probably right to observe that £10 is a bit steep for amateur theatre, even in this inflated day and age, and on such a hot summer night I could have done with an interval and a long cool drink half-way through. But then again, they pulled in a good audience, filling about 80% of the seats I think, so I guess they had judged their price point about right. Anyway, a good bit of Draculising is always worth leaving the house for, and I would definitely show up for a performance of this particular adaptation again.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekend )

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photos )

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to life )

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
Here's another thing I saw recently with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy: a theatrical production of Bram Stoker's Dracula put on by these people in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. It was a blissful summer's day at the height of the heatwave, and the show was staged in what must once have been the abbey cloisters, but is now a large square enclosure carpeted with grass and overlooked by ruined towers and flocks of birds. We took picnics and folding chairs, and settled down in the early evening sunshine, while members of the cast circulated doing a little in-character banter:

2013-07-18 18.53.29

The set-up was that they were the staff of an undertakers' company: Drakesmith and Graveston, services to the dead since 1822. They had been charged with conducting Jonathan Harker's funeral service, and were circulating around the mourners to enquire how we were connected with the deceased and sell us the following order of service for two florins:

Order of service

Two pounds were agreed to be an acceptable exchange rate for the florins, and of course the order of service was also the programme for the show. As the performance began, the undertakers explained that as part of the funeral service they would be reading out extracts from Jonathan Harker's diary at his family's request, and as they did so they switched into the roles of the characters from the story, acting it out pretty much as it unfolds within the book. The letters, telegrams, diary entries and newspaper articles written by other characters were explained as having been pasted into Harker's diary as a complete record of his experiences. And although I was a little unsure about the use of the undertakers as a sort of framing device for the main story, in fact it worked pretty well. In between scenes, they discussed the strange events which they had been reading about with one another, wondering what might come next and how they might feel in the same situation - basically acting much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy to help bridge the gap between the real life of the audience and the fantastical world of the story.

You can't, of course, have very much in the way of complicated stage machinery or even exits and entrances when you are staging an outdoor show, so the performance relied very much on simple devices and the use of the audience's imagination. Coffins doubled as beds, steps, benches on the cliff at Whitby and seats in a railway carriage, while their lids served as castle doors when required, and the performers swiftly cast aside the cloak of one character or donned the skirts of another as they changed roles. But it all worked very effectively to sweep the imagination from craggy Transylvania one moment to bustling Victorian London the next. Indeed, the cast consisted of only five actors, with most of them doubling up not only as undertakers, but also as at least two characters each within the story. But again, the constraints proved a virtue, adding extra layers to the story. I especially liked the casting of the same actor as both Van Helsing and Dracula, which of course prevented the two from ever meeting of course but did position them very nicely as matched adversaries who have more in common than they would like to admit.

I was busy eating my picnic and then sipping the summery rose cocktail which I had prepared for the first hour or so of the show, but after that I realised that an outdoor performance in the sunshine meant that I could easily take photos without disturbing anybody. So I got to work, tweeting the results and prompting a lot of people to tweet back in response saying how cool it looked and they wished that they were there. You'll have to imagine the scene which took place at Castle Dracula, in Whitby and on the good ship Demeter in the first half of the story while I was eating and drinking, but these are the high points of the rest of the show )

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Things unblogged

Friday, 19 May 2006 11:33
strange_complex: (Darth blogging)
Gosh. I would appear to have some free time. Nominally, I'm at Warwick doing essay returns. But since I only have 11 people to see today, as opposed to the fearsome 35 I got through yesterday, there are a lot of gaps in the day when I can do other things. And I've actually run out of minor administrative tasks to perform, so that means I can write on LJ - yay!

What I'm going to do here is give quick accounts of some of the things I would have blogged over the last couple of months, if I'd had the time to do so. They probably won't get the same level of detail as they'd have had if I'd written them up at the time. But at least this way they won't be completely forgotten.

18th March - celebratory meal at Gee's )

30th March - Robin Blaze at the Wigmore Hall )

1st April - 'Springtime Baroque' concert at the Sheldonian )

24th April - QI recording )

8th May - Rik Mayall in 'The New Statesman' )

Well, that was a great relief! I feel a lot less weighed down by a back-log now, and more able to get on with posting about things day to day. There are still some Big Posts I need to make about things like my new job, and my book and so on. But this has definitely been a good start.
strange_complex: (Apollo Belvedere)
The 2005 Oxford Greek Play is nigh. Details, as copied from an email I received about it, are as follows:

Euripides' Orestes, 12th-15th October )

[livejournal.com profile] swisstone has already expressed interest, and I'm certainly keen to go. Previous experience suggests it's likely to be pretty damned impressive. Is anyone else interested, and if so, which dates would be best for you?

In conversation about it, [livejournal.com profile] swisstone and I were gravitating towards Saturday 15th, which could of course mean either the matinee or the evening performance. I've already promised [livejournal.com profile] swisstone (and K if she'd like to come too?) my sofa-bed if required, I'm afraid, but then again if we went to the afternoon performance, it could be slotted fairly easily into a day-trip from almost anywhere in England anyway.

Let me know if you're interested! I'm quite happy to handle ticket-booking, etc.

Dracula

Sunday, 29 May 2005 02:22
strange_complex: (Vampira)
Tonight a huge gang of us went out to see Dracula at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.

Theatrical opulence )

The play: modernistic yet true to the book )

Colin Baker fandom )

Colin Baker and Richard Bremmer autographs )

Finally, it was back in three car-loads to my place, to see this evening's Doctor Who and generally hoot loudly with laughter, do Dalek impressions and throw Creme Eggs on the floor (lordy, I do hope my landlords don't read this journal!).

Le weekend

Monday, 25 April 2005 09:14
strange_complex: (Apollo Belvedere)
Doctor Who

It actually just gets better and better, doesn't it? I mean: the little pile of M&Ms by the red telephone, the many alternative Tardises and, best of all, the Massive Weapons of Destruction. Did the old Who ever boast such delightful symbolism or topical resonance? I propose from this day forth always to say 'Massive Weapons of Destruction' in everyday conversation rather than 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' in tribute to this weekend's episode.

And if that all weren't enough, we have the Daleks to look forward to next Saturday night. * faints from excitement *

Lysistrata at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

I went to see this on Saturday evening with my colleague, John Curran, our three MA students and one of their boyfriends. It was OK, but I think I've been rather spoiled by the stunning tragedies put on by the Actors of Dionysus, not to mention a bright and breezy student adaptation of the Birds which I saw while at Oxford, and which had translated all the references to contemporary Athens into references to modern-day Oxford instead. While AoD's tragedies are innovative, fresh adaptations, which offer profound contemporary relevance and stunning choreography and manage to strike at the very core of one's emotional being, and the Oxford Birds at least drew on the real experiences of its cast and crew, Saturday's Lysistrata was merely... average.

A pity, because Aristophanes' writing at the time was incredibly bold and topical, and of course there is plenty of local significance that could have been drawn out of a play between two warring communities whose women decide to draw the conflict to an end themselves by holding a sex strike. But the attempts made to do so were half-hearted, the translation sounded suspiciously to me like what I remember of the Penguin one, and many of the lines came across as simply being spoken: not meant. This will probably sound like the most snobbish thing I've ever said, but it felt... provincial.

Still, it was nice to go out with our students, and I'm sure we did much to promote intra-departmental bonding in the process. And I enjoyed some very nice pan-fried duck with a summer fruits sauce in a bistro where we ate before the performance. So by no means a wasted evening.

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