"Two days ago," begins Koji Suzuki, "I arrive in Scotland for very first time. When I arrive, I drink... scotchwhisky. Yesterday, I drink... scotchwhisky. This evening, I will probably drink... scotchwhisky. And tomorrow, I will drink... scotchwhisky. I like... drinking... scotchwhisky."
It's possibly not the way you'd expect the man they call the Japanese Stephen King to introduce himself at the Book Festival, but it certainly gets the audience on his side from the start. However, it does point up that English isn't his first language, which is a bit of a handicap at a literary event like this one. The hour is roughly split between Suzuki addressing the crowd in halting English, and working via an interpreter - and it's not entirely clear what her first language is, as she seems to have equal difficulty translating the terms 'quantum theory' and 'manga'.
Get past the language barrier, and Suzuki has some interesting things to say about the business of writing horror fiction. He's perfectly happy with the idea of being better known for movie adaptations of his books than the books themselves (Ring and Dark Water have been made into both Japanese and American films). Interestingly, although he berates American horror cinema for concentrating too much on using blood and gore to shock people, he prefers the Hollywood films of his stories to the Japanese ones. He's also got some useful tips on how to write scary stories: the trick is to clearly establish the relationships between your characters at the start, so that when the events of the story start to attack those relationships, it means something. He's also very keen on ensuring that his plots are driven by logic and science, which is what he feels makes him more internationally acceptable than other Japanese writers in the genre. His next novel is the reason why the phrase 'quantum theory' came up in conversation; Suzuki thinks that the sheer "strangeness" (pun intended?) of the quantum world could make for some creepy moments.
As far as creepy moments go in the talk itself, there's a lovely one worth mentioning. Suzuki plans to sail the Pacific single-handed soon, as it's been a long-time ambition of his. He describes an earlier voyage when he was suddenly caught in the middle of a typhoon... and at that precise moment, a huge gust of Edinburgh wind rattles the Book Festival tent alarmingly. A chill runs down the spine of every person in the audience. Mainly because those Book Festival tents are rubbish at keeping draughts out, but hey, it's still a result.
Suzuki comes across as a very affable bloke, and it's tempting to hang around for his signing session afterwards. Instead, we nip over to HMV just in time to see the various Serenity bods taking their places for a signing of the DVD of the original TV show. This pleases The Belated Birthday Girl no end: myself, I'm worried that tomorrow will be the first day in ages for her that won't have any Joss Whedon in it, and I'm not sure how she'll cope.
Director Guy Masterson has his formula down pat now. Take a modern classic play, schedule it for mid-afternoon when most stand-up comics are waiting for their evening shows to kick off, cast those comics in the play, and watch the punters scramble for tickets. It worked for him with 12 Angry Men in 2003 and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 2004, though the introduction of Christian Slater's ego into the mix notoriously sent Masterson mental. He's better now, and it's telling that his production of The Odd Couple doesn't have a Hollywood star to bulk up the cast.
Neil Simon's play should be familiar to most people of a certain age, either through its movie version or the subsequent TV spinoff series. (Aside from this revival, it's also returning to Broadway very soon, with Producers dream team Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the leads.) The premise is perfect for sitcom - there are two mismatched friends, the slovenly divorcee Oscar (Bill Bailey) and the finnicky Felix (Alan Davies). When Felix's wife throws him out, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him and share his apartment. Comedy ensues.
And because this was written by Neil Simon at his peak, that comedy is consistently hilarious, with funny lines fighting for position throughout. But what people want to know is, how do the stand-ups' performances stand up? The general critical consensus is that Bailey is terrific and Davies is rubbish, and to be honest that's a little harsh on Davies. His accent is all over the place, true - in a curious programme note, Davies tells us to blame it on dialect coach William Conniker, a joke that would only be funny if his accent was any good, and just seems mean-spirited here. But there are odd flourishes in his performance - the odd look here, the precise pitching of a line there - which show that with a bit more time, he could actually make something great out of it.
Nevertheless, that's the problem - Davies' performance has moments of greatness, but is held together with large long sections where he's just being his usual self. Bailey, on the other hand, has put together a character that's consistent from start to end, and is hugely watchable as a result. Bailey's actually being a comic actor here, while Davies is a bloke off building society adverts trying to do comic acting, and that's the fundamental difference. Still, Masterson backs them both up with an array of entertaining supporting performances, from what now appears to be a regular repertory company drawn from the comedy circuit. Owen O'Neill is particularly impressive, given that his stand-up show (reviewed here yesterday) finishes about half an hour before the curtain goes up on The Odd Couple.
Film buffs are always suckers for a good story about a movie whose production has gone hideously wrong, and Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist has one of the best ones of recent years. Director Paul Schrader is giving a talk tomorrow which will doubtless cover the story in detail, but here are the bare bones for you. Schrader was commissioned by production company Morgan's Creek to make a movie from a script they'd been developing for several years, documenting the early life of Father Merrin, the old priest played by Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. Schrader was attracted to the script because it didn't rely on shocks and gore to make its point, and he shot and edited the film accordingly. In post-production, the producers decided that what they really wanted were shocks and gore, and fired Schrader from the project. What initially started as a couple of weeks of reshooting by substitute director Renny Harlin turned into something much more bizarre - he made an entirely different film, which was eventually released in 2004 while Schrader's version stayed on the shelf. It's now getting a brief festival run prior to a DVD release.
It's fascinating to see a film that appalled its producers so much that they were prepared to write off its $40 million cost. It's nothing like as bad as that suggests, but even Schrader admits the script has a fundamental problem. The classic horror structure, he contends, is the torture of an innocent person against a ticking clock - precisely the structure that made The Exorcist such a global hit. In this prequel, we see Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) encounter another case of demonic possession during an African archeological dig in 1947 - a crippled boy whose infirmity is actually cured by the possession. As Schrader wryly points out in the post-film Q&A, a film where Satan is partly a force for good wasn't really what the franchise required.
But to be honest, the problems with Dominion run deeper than that. It's good that, as with the original film, Schrader takes the battle between good and evil seriously - but eventually, it's got to boil down to a monster with red eyes and a growly voice, and everything just becomes too silly for words. Still, there are some pleasures in the film - notably Vittorio Storaro's unnaturally sharp photography, and a reliably solid performance by Skarsgard in the lead - that make you grateful that it's been rescued from the shelf. They're not quite enough, though.
At this point, The Belated Birthday Girl and I briefly part company - we still have our original tickets for the overflow screening of Serenity, and she fancies seeing it a second time. I give her my ticket to pass on to a grateful fan (share the lurve), and go off in search of alternative thrills. I find them in a late night show by Richard Herring that only appeared on the programme a day or two ago. I should be writing about his normal stand-up show, Someone Likes Yoghurt, in a couple of days: but for now be aware that he normally climaxes his set with the shaggy dog story that gives the show its title. When a Sainsbury's checkout girl sees the nine yoghurts in Herring's shopping basket and remarks "hmmm, someone likes yoghurt," it's the trigger for Herring to fly off on an extended rant about how he doesn't really like it all that much, in the process illustrating a terrifying obsession with the foodstuff. Part of the fun of the routine is seeing just how far he can drag the rant out - this series of late night shows, entitled Just The Yoghurt, are his attempt at extending this single routine to a full hour.
On the night, in front of an audience of 25 or so, he manages just over three quarters of an hour before grinding to a halt. Part of the problem, he admits at the end, is that it's a routine that feeds off the hatred of an audience - if there are people who are visibly not enjoying hearing someone go on and on about yoghurt, he'll focus on them to annoy them even more. The audience for this particular show will naturally be skewed towards people who'd like that sort of thing anyway. Despite that, it's a fun experiment, as Herring wanders down all sorts of yoghurt-related byways - from the various ways in which his nine yoghurts could be split between their 18 day shelf life, to musing on the unique texture of pubic hair mixed with yoghurt. There are additional performances of Just The Yoghurt on Thursday 25th and Saturday 27th August, so tell your friends - or, as Herring cunningly suggests, tell your enemies, they'll help him make it even longer.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Lee - Young Jiang falls hopelessly in love with her neighbour Xu, a famous novelist and playboy. When they meet after several years, he not only fails to recognise her, he fails to appreciate her unwavering devotion. Beautifully shot, the film Letter From An Unknown Woman is a poignant story of unrequited love. A feast for the eyes as well as the heart.
Diane - As a professional London guide I felt I had to have a busman's holiday and see Pete Reder's show Guided Tour at the McEwan Hall. I realised that it would not be a tour in the conventional sense. According to the blurb it was intended to 'draw the audience into a shared contemplation of the nature of architectural spaces and the memories and feelings they invoke.'
It started conventionally enough, with Reder taking us into the magnificent late Victorian hall, paid for by beer magnate McEwan, and used for lectures and examinations by Edinburgh Uni. It was worth the ticket price for this peep at an ornate late Victorian interior which is normally closed to the public. We then descended into the underground passages, where Reder showed us a variety of objects. At first we took these at face value - a photo of the architect, another photo of the artist who painted the wall panels. However, as Reder gave us his ideas about the nature of 'heritage', memory, history etc, we realised that all was not necessarily as it seemed. When history is interpreted certain facts can be changed. Did it matter to us if we saw a painting which was a copy rather than an original? If we see items in a historic house which are 'of the right period' rather than the real thing, does this change our experience?
Reder shows us slides from the 1960s of family groups. He tells us these could be pictures of himself with his mother and brothers - or are they? He is in his forties, so they could be the right period, but we are not sure. All these ideas and notions were interesting, but I was expecting some sort of grand conclusion, and it didn't come. The conclusion was a rather surreal home movie of an elderly lady pushing a shopping trolley, and a cute London suburb. It was all a bit of an anticlimax! At the end I couldn't resist giving Mr Reder my cardand inviting him on a 'real tour' of London. It won't be a 'post modern' experience billed as art, so it might not be his sort of thing, but the buildings may inspire him with ideas for a London based site specific show!
Lee - A word of warning, start queuing early! The length of the queue when I arrived twenty minutes before the performance of The Odd Couple was positively alarming. But it is worth the wait - very funny and very enjoyable. Bill Bailey was excellent as the slob driven mad by his cleaning obsessed friend. A classic Neil Simon comedy about two friends trying to live together after one of them is kicked out of the marital home.
Old Lag - Frankie is a low budget French film directed by Fabienne Berthend and starring Diane Kruger. It takes on a world typically regarded as fabulously glamorous, and a world that is down and out and rarely portrayed on film. The first world is that of the international model working in Paris; the second world, that of the mentally ill living in an asylum in rural France. Frankie (Kruger) falls from one to the other. At the age of 26 she is becoming too old for the business she inhabits. In reality she lives a lonely life of hotel rooms and models' hostels, her only company her driver. Her loss of enthusiasm and vitality comes through in numerous ways, not least lacking the spark for photo shoots. The price is withdrawal into mental illness. Frankie is treated in a theraputic mental hospital where her co-patients and doctors are real members of such a community. It is a realistic take on a model's life that is less than glamorous. A rare film portrait of mental illness, and as such an interesting and sympathetic film. Very French and a little slow in places - a very enjoyable view.
Nick - I think it was Lee who overheard a guy discussing his booking policy for the Fringe; 'I never book Shakespeare or high school productions.' Thus missing a gem of a production like Rave Euripides, boldly reinterpreted. A Marilyn Manson-like figure mesmerises the Goths of the Bacchae in pursuit of pleasure. The girls appear in eye-popping costumes. The drama is unleashed when an Eminem-like character, Pentheus, loses his girlfriend to the pleasures of the Bacchae and seeks revenge. This is the sort of production that would draw youngsters to the theatre. But like the guy Lee overheard, that key will probably not be used to unlock the door to Greek drama.
Lee - I spent a most enjoyable hour listening to a wide range of songs by Naked Voices, a 16 strong acapella group. A 16th century madrigal, a Beatles medley, a Hindu chant and a medley of TV themes to name a few. Highly recommended.
Diane - If actor Roger Allam was appearing at the Festival reading the telephone directory, I would have gone to see him. Allam is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and because his fame is on stage rather than on screen many people will not be aware of this man's talents. He can play anything from Javert in Les Miserables and Abanazer in Aladdin to Willy Brandt in Democracy and leading Shakespearean roles. In Blackbird by David Harrower, Mr Allam has the difficult job of interpreting the character of Ray, a man in his mid 50s who, 15 years ago, had a relationship with a 12 year old girl. Ray has served a six year prison sentence and, on release, reinvented himself as Peter, middle manager in a firm making dental equipment. His new life is shattered when 27 year old Una, the girl he had sexual relations with, tracks him down for a confrontation in the scruffy office canteen.
Author David Harrower is obviously influenced by David Mamet's play Oleanna. The style is very similar - a young woman who initially appears weak gets the upper hand over a man who she sees as a sexual predator. However, as the play progresses, we realise that the younger Una had a strong crush on Ray and clearly wanted their relationship to develop. Ray, a weak character, fell for her charms and let Una persuade him to run away with her. At the point where Ray should have pulled back, he seems to have forgotten all conventional morality a succumbed to unconventional sexual desires. Ray has served a prison sentence, but Una has also been serving a sentence - the fact that she can't forget this momentous episode in her life has left her a prisoner of Ray. Una is trapped by her obsession with him.
David Harrower is a wonderful writer (I have seen his plays in Edinburgh before) and he highlights a number of issues - forbidden love, paedophilia, obsession, memory etc. Roger Allam and Jodhi May as Ray and Una are excellent. Allam conveys the character of a man who has been broken by past experience in spite of his self re-invention. May is wonderful at playing distraught, tortured characters and she does this to perfection. The play runs two hours without an interval, and you felt that the audience in the none too intimate King's Theatre were on the edge of their seats. (I would love to have experienced this play in the more intimate Traverse.) We wanted to know what was to become of these two tortured souls. David Harrower left an open ending for the audience to decide, but director Peter Stein was not content with this. In a coup de theatre to conclude the play, the scene transforms to an underground carpark, where Ray and Una fight out their frustrations in a stunning piece of physical theatre. Will they destroy one another? I will leave it to you to find out. A riveting evening.
Lee - Antonio Forcione has been hailed as 'the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar,' and who am I to argue. Performing with double bass, cello, accordion and a bewildering number of percussion instruments (including a bucket of water and drainpipes played with flipflops - yes really!), Forcione and friends play vibrant and evocative music, drawing on musical influences from all over the world. Wonderful.
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