Burn baby burn! Kyoto inferno! First port of call today, in a day that's more notable for the shows I didn't see than the shows I did, is Kon Ichikawa's 1958 film Conflagration. Ichikawa isn't as widely known to the general public as other Japanese directors like Kurosawa and Ozu, but to those in the know he's just as great. Conflagration is generally regarded as his masterpiece, as was pointed out by Film Festival boss Shane Danielsen in his heartfelt introduction. Based on true events, its main character is Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa), a young man whose nervousness (physically manifested in his stammer) slowly detaches him from the rest of society: a general problem with Japanese youth after the war. A priest's son, he moves into a temple in Kyoto, and its Golden Pavilion becomes a symbol to him of all that is good and pure in a corrupt world. Eventually his obsession with the Golden Pavilion is itself corrupted to a degree that's hinted at by the title. (It's also hinted at by the picture of a bloody great burning pavilion at the top of this page.)
I once got into an argument with someone over Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures, another true story about young people driven to an apparently inexplicable act of violence. The argument was that the film was a failure because in the end it didn't tell you why the girls did what they did. I disagreed: certainly the film didn't give you a handy 25 words or less description of their reasons, but instead over two hours it showed you the cumulative events that made their violence inevitable, if not necessarily justified. The same applies to Conflagration, which is adapted from a novel by Yukio Mishima. If you've seen Paul Schrader's biopic Mishima, then you've seen this story, albeit in a brutally cut down form that more or less summarises the plot as "oh, what a lovely temple / it's too beautiful, I must destroy it / I'm not gay, you know". In its full length form, the genius of Ichikawa's film is to show us bit by bit how arson was the only option open to the young man.
The Ichikawa season continues here for the duration of the Festival, and is also playing at London's National Film Theatre throughout August and September: and based on this movie, I really do need to catch more of the man's work. Danielsen's introduction noted that Ichikawa did a lot of adaptations of Japanese literature, leading some critics to accuse him of being a mere illustrator rather than a filmmaker in his own right. But that's a wholly undeserved accusation on this evidence. He gets terrific performances out of his cast, notably the carefully observed body language of Raizo Ichikawa in the lead role. There's also an enjoyable supporting turn from Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai, as Mizoguchi's crippled friend who introduces him to a more cynical view of the world. And there are all manner of subtle visual devices to help us through the complex flashback structure, enhanced by some beautiful high-contrast black and white Cinemascope photography. (Except for the second reel of the print on display here, which is more dark grey and grey.)
It's quite uncertain for a while what the second event of the day's going to be, and that uncertainty's not helped by a 24-carat bastard of a cold that I suspect I picked up during Sunday's rain. Typically, my Edinburgh booking pattern involves getting lots of stuff pre-booked early in the week, and then scrabbling around towards the end of the week to find additional shows to plug the gaps. This year it seems to be more the other way round: both yesterday and today involve large amounts of running around box offices, finding out shows are unavailable on that day, and then booking them for later in the week. So Thursday and Friday are now pretty much booked up for The Belated Birthday Girl and me, while today we're desperately trying to find shows to see.
Our first idea is absolutely brilliant in every way apart from being wholly unworkable. The Garage is showing a play in the afternoons called The Golden Pavilion - you've guessed it, it's a stage adaptation of the same Mishima novel that inspired the film Conflagration. And an adaptation that fuses elements of "Noh drama, western theatre and jazz dance", if you believe the Fringe programme. So what could be more fascinating than seeing the film and the play on the same afternoon? Sadly, the Garage doesn't agree, as today is the one day this week when the play's not being performed. Maybe the cast were in the audience watching the movie with us: we'll never know.
So our next plan - and it's always a useful panic strategy - is to track down the show with the silliest title we can see. Well, in fact, second silliest: we've already got the silliest one booked for Saturday. But 24 Unsuccessful Norwegians By Four Of Them: Part 1 does have a certain ring to it, so we head off to the Gilded Balloon Teviot to see how unsuccessful they really are. The answer is, so unsuccessful that the entire run of their show has been cancelled.
Regrouping and replanning in the Greyfriars Bobby, we finally settle on The Al-Hamlet Summit as our selection, and a great one it is too. Wild adaptations of Shakespeare always go down well on the Fringe, as they're easy to sell: everyone knows the plot, it's just a question of giving it a sufficiently unique spin to get the punters in. So... Hamlet relocated to the contemporary Middle East, anyone?
Zaoum Theatre (no other names available, I'm afraid, but you may find out more on their website) have taken spectacular liberties with Shakespeare, but to stunning effect. Their version opens up as a summit meeting, with six characters from the play - you don't really need all the rest, it seems - taking up a desk each and discussing events in the wake of the King's death. Hamlet's attempts to change the balance of power are denounced as terrorism, and he's exiled to London ("the European liberals will love me there"). Meanwhile, a mysterious arms dealer is playing both sides off against each other, and the scene is set for a climax that features somewhat more suicide bombing than the original.
There isn't a single word of Shakespeare's in the text performed here: instead, there's a beautifully written script that carefully veers from the pragmatic to the poetic while keeping the key plot points of the original. The references to present day events aren't overdone, and add a whole new level of meaning to the conflicts depicted. Terrifically acted, with some great live Arabic music and clever use of video: we saw this more or less by accident, but the rest of you should make the effort to catch it deliberately.
"Is the sound always this crap in here?" asks The Belated Birthday Girl halfway through Elvis Costello's gig at the Corn Exchange.
Oops. I'd actually forgotten about that. Twelve months ago I saw Supergrass here, and my main problem with the gig was a hamfisted sound mix that almost lost the guitars completely. This time round, it seems like every instrument on stage has been cranked up to the max, leaving no room for any light and shade. This is OK for the more rockin' numbers from Elvis' back catalogue: but the more quietly menacing tunes from the new When I Was Cruel album come crashing out at the same high level, and are utterly wrecked as a result. In particular, Spooky Girlfriend and When I Was Cruel itself lose virtually everything that makes them interesting on record.
Which is a shame, because Elvis himself appears to be on fine form. Backed by his new band The Impostors - in fact, it's just The Attractions with a new bass player - he performs a carefully selected mix of the old favourites and tracks from the new album. Happily, the new songs sound just as good. Although it's curious to note that Elvis' choice of oldies stops dead around the Blood And Chocolate period, and he doesn't play anything at all from the late eighties or the nineties.
Still, that's a fine old back catalogue to draw on, and the sound does improve a bit as the evening wears on: there's almost an audible gasp from the audience when the sound mix on Shipbuilding shows signs of subtlety. From then on things get better and better, with I Want You occupying its traditional place as the last encore. (Nobody ever wants Elvis back on stage after that song, as it tells you a little too much about what the inside of his head is like on bad days.)
By now I've turned into a huge dribbly walking ball of snot from that cold I mentioned earlier, and yet it still seems like a good idea for us to go on to a midnight open-air event. The City Of The Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour apparently does exactly what it says on the tin, focussing on the true (?) story of the Mackenzie poltergeist. Sadly, the BBG and I roll up to the advertised meeting place only to find that the day's tour sold out six hours earlier. We're not bitter. Although apparently, everyone who went out on that night's tour is now mysteriously dead.
Notes From Spank's Pals
One Of The Three Muses - The American High School Theatre Festival, the organisation that brings several American high schools to Edinburgh, is a star that shines brightly in the Festival sky. After seeing a stunning performance of Comedy Of Errors last year (2001), Grease and Anything Goes (see later) were an absolute must. The first half of Grease was excellent. It captured the fifties feel superbly, the attitudes and peer group relationships came over successfully. The well known songs were delivered with energy and flair, though possibly Sandy could have been a little better projected. The second half petered out rather - due more I think to the slightly weak plotline rather than the cast's ability. It was an extremely enjoyable 90 minutes of light-hearted entertainment with a happy ending.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Back once more to my interest in things Japanese, I wanted to make sure I caught at least one in the Kon Ichikawa season while I was up here. I'm hoping to see more, but at least I've seen Conflagration now. I've recently read a few bits of interviews with Ichikawa, and it seems he's very harsh on his own work, but Conflagration is one film even he rates highly. The most visually stunning scenes are when the pavilion burns down (given the title of the film and the fact that it opens with the man in custody, accused of burning the pavilion to the ground, I don't think that counts as a spoiler) but there's more to the film than just that, with some nice effects of the background dissolving for flashbacks, and the whole pace building towards the act itself throughout. Some nice performances too, particularly from the student he attaches himself to (I don't think you'd really call it a friendship) because he has a gammy leg. A good first Ichikawa for me, I think.
Nick - Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe. As Mervyn claimed so endearingly, we were there that day Glenn Wool appeared on his show. Glenn is destined to be a huge star, a confontational comedian who has stormed the Bastille of the late night comedy shows, Late And Live. He had toned things down for Mervyn, but still scared the crap out of most of the audience. He lights up a cigarette on stage and reads the health warning on the packet. It causes death, but who cares when only 5% of the population believes there is no life after death, you are getting nearer to your maker! Not for the faint hearted.
The Belated Birthday Girl - The cast of The Al-Hamlet Summit were particularly fine, although I couldn't get away from thinking that Hamlet was being played by Angus Deayton, and Ophelia by David Mamet's missus. The staging was very interesting too, and I liked the use of film projection. The play was well written too, and kept you interested throughout, but I wasn't quite sure what the point of it all was meant to be. If there was something important being said, then it was maybe too subtle for me. Still, it was an enjoyable enough rendition of Hamlet, and worth seeing for the performances alone.
One Of The Three Muses - Anything Goes... In Outer Space was a complete joy. The imaginative setting of the show on a spaceship - with attendant Star Trek jokes - instead of a cruise liner worked very well, especially as the director chose to keep the thirties era for costume and characterisation. The set was simple but extremely effective, with silver fabric and transparent blow-up chairs, the back projections working very well to complete the spaceship setting. Inspired lighting drew the whole together beautifully. The individual performances were excellent: Moonface Martin, Reno Sweeny, Billy Crocker and Bonnie in particular captured the audience. As did the excellent and almost faultless choreography: the tap dancing sequence with over 20 performers was absolutely fantastic, an image I shall carry with me for a long time. It was a show that delivered Cole Porter's inimitable tunes and lyrics with energy and pizazz that Americans do to perfection.
The Belated Birthday Girl - It's a credit to Elvis Costello that I came away having had a good time in the end, because the sound at the Corn Exchange was appalling, and I'd have to really want to see an act very much indeed to consider going there again. But Elvis put on a good show as ever, mixing a lot of old favourites in with numbers from his current album, and gave us our money's worth with a 2hr set (including encores). If you want to go to the loo, then the Corn Exchange is a good venue - lots of toilets which have loo paper and actually flush - but if you want to listen to music, then forget it. Worst acoustics I've encountered since a recent trip to Olympia for the Great British Beer Festival, but that isn't selling itself as a music venue. Go see Elvis next time he's playing a decent venue.
Nick - Julian Fox (in Goodbye To The Seattle Coffee Company) completely confounds expectations. Is he a comic character, or an original comic interpreter, or both? What comic mesmerises with Laurie Anderson-style songs, dances and tells funny stories, from the banal to the weird? There is possibly more silence than anything sung or spoken. It is a highly stylised performance that tinkers at the edge of comedy. What links everything together is the demise of the Seattle Coffee Company, swallowed by Starbucks when they moved into the UK. Julian shows us his memorabilia from his favourite coffee company and reflects on the new upstarts that never quite match the company he loved. He puts the Costa coffee company at the bottom of the pile. Is that deliberately reverse? You never quite know with Julian. We get extracts from his diaries that segue into his songs. A subtle lighting change and he is talking about that coffee company again. Always trying to wrong-foot the audience, and mostly succeeding.
Lee - Pauline Goldsmith greeted each member of the audience for Bright Colours Only as they entered, thanked them for coming and offered them tea, sandwiches and a wee dram. There were sofas and seating available and we should make ourselves at home. It felt like I was visiting a best friend I never realised I had. Sitting conspicuously in the middle of her lounge was a coffin, and Pauline explained about choosing the right size of coffin, the varieties of finish, the clothes, the makeup and of course the embalming. Highly recommended to reduce the smell and the ugly stains on the carpet. She told us about her aunty dying, about her mum getting breast cancer, about her dad dying of a heart attack, about the messy ways death enters our lives. The telling was deftly done, comic and tragic by turns. At the end we were invited to leave the theatre as part of the funeral cortege, watching the coffin being loaded into a waiting hearse and driven away. It didn't feel like a performance, it felt like someone's life, and we were lucky enough to be a part of it.
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