Thinking Japanese: Carrie Cracknell on bringing a Takeshi Kitano film to a Scottish stage
THE TWO dancers are tied together at the waist by a red rope. Its length defines the circles in which they move, making them fight its restrictions. But it also enables a new range of movements not possible before.
The red rope binding a man and woman is one of the most striking images of Takeshi Kitano's cult movie from 2002, Dolls. The lover, doomed to wander the earth tied to his wounded beloved, is one of three stories of love and loss that interweave in the film.
But what I'm watching is not a Japanese movie, it's a piece of Scottish theatre. Director Carrie Cracknell is developing a stage adaptation of Dolls under the auspices of the National Theatre of Scotland's Workshop programme, which supports emerging artists.
Cracknell, 28, trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and has been running her own company, Hush Productions, since she was 19. As a student and young graduate, she created successful shows such as Broken Road and A Mobile Thriller, staged in a sports car as part of the Traverse's Fringe in 2004. She is now co-artistic director of the Gate Theatre in London.
Dolls, a collaboration between actors, dancers and musicians, is her biggest show to date. She saw Kitano's film in 2003 at Glasgow Film Theatre and "filed it in the 'filed shows' section of my brain", taking the idea to the NTS's Vicky Featherstone in 2006. She was struck by its innate theatricality – it was inspired by the stories in Japanese bunraku puppetry – but aimed to do more than a simple stage adaptation.
"I'm not trying to repeat or replicate the film," she says. "I hope the show will feel like a departure. I'm using the stories in the way one might convert a short story or a novel into a play, as a narrative for a piece which has a different life."
She is aware that, unlike a film director, she cannot edit her material, seamlessly add flashbacks, capture panoramic landscapes or change locations on a whim. "But we are trying to find a live language, live forms, things which were specifically theatrical that will bring a quality you can't get in cinema."
One of these is contemporary dance, which Cracknell has been using to great effect in shows at the Gate. Her production I Am Falling transferred to Sadler's Wells and was nominated for a South Bank Show Award. By using dancers to portray the bound lovers, she opens up new possibilities in theatrical language.
"Dance doesn't answer, it just poses questions," she says. "It asks the audience to fill in the gaps and be expressive and imaginative as they observe. They are just given a picture, not driven through a narrative trajectory."
And they have all the space of Tramway 1 in which to work. "It's fantastic for me to move into a bigger scale," says Cracknell. "I've been working in the Gate. We did a dance show there last year, and Ben (Duke, who is also the choreographer on Dolls) could reach out and touch the walls on both sides with his fingertips. Suddenly I'm working in macro."
But even a stage the size of Tramway's isn't going to recreate Kitano's majestic Japanese landscapes, luxuriously painting the seasons his characters move through. "We have looked a lot at how to conjure the seasons. Partly, it is about the physical freedom that dancers bring to a performance. When they're walking up and down the stage, you start to imagine the landscape around them."
A further challenge is to reinterpret in a Scottish context the intrinsically Japanese aspects of the film, both in a literal sense – finding an equivalent for the obsessive fan culture around Japanese pop stars, or the Yakuza, the intensely territorial Japanese mafia – and in more subtle ways. The film has a lingering sense of stillness that verges on Zen.
"What's amazing about the film is the confidence to be slow," says Cracknell. "That's quite hard to take into British culture where we're used to MTV, to really rich narrative in theatre and films where the editing is incredibly pacy. There is a stillness in the film that is intrinsically Japanese, which comes from their acting culture.
"The stories use images to express the emotion – a lady sitting on a bench, or the lovers who are bound together. It is a different way of expressing emotion, whereas in British drama you might expect to see the character going through these emotions on stage."
She feels that the stillness of the film will be conveyed on stage through a sparseness of dialogue and by the atmospheric music that underscores the show. Dolls is the latest in a line of Scottish theatre productions, from Vanishing Point's Fringe First winning Subway to David Greig's "indie musical" Midsummer, which makes creative use of live music. Dolls will have a soundtrack jointly composed by David Paul Jones and Glasgow indie band Zoey Van Goey. Both will perform live.
Zoey Van Goey were invited to collaborate on the show after an initial meeting with band member Michael John McCarthy in November. McCarthy has already written music for theatre, and the band's cheerful melodies of doomed love struck a certain chord with Kitano's stories. After a busy summer on the festival circuit, Zoey Van Goey have completed their first album, The Cage Was Unlocked All Along, for release in May.
Everyone on the team – dancers, actors and musicians – was invited to play an equal part in development of Dolls. McCarthy particularly remembers a week spent together in a mansion house in Fife. "We had two actors in the drawing room, another two in the sitting room, the dancers in the dining room, and then we'd all come together and say what we'd been doing, like show-and-tell," he says. "A little hive of creativity. The smoking room became the hit factory for the week."
One day he, bandmate Matt Brennan and David Paul Jones were consigned to the smoking room and asked to "write a Top 10 pop song" for starlet Mimi (Zoey's Kim Moore) to sing. "It was quite a challenge, it took a while," he says. "The point was made that if we knew how to write a Top 10 pop song, we might not be here at all!
"What it seems you're trying to do with a pop song is to create something which has some universal appeal. The melody is very simple a lot of the time, but it's a sound that sticks in someone's head after just one play. It strikes me you need to be very clever to write something that dumb!
"It was undeniably fun, and opened up a whole new area for us – though possibly not one we're going to continue in Zoey Van Goey!"
Meanwhile, Kim Moore is preparing for her acting debut. "I've learned a lot, I'm still learning," she says. "I like working as part of a group, I don't really see myself as a soloist – or as a pop star! When we play as Zoey Van Goey, I'm not a big performer, the three of us are all equal. In this show I have to dance while I sing, I've never done that before, but I'm really enjoying it now."
Less than a week before curtain-up, there's a sense in the rehearsal room that all is still to play for. Cracknell says that the final week is crucial, a weaving together of all the threads that have come from the collaborative development.
"The last stage is the knitting stage," she says. "The proof is really in that. The success of the show is in the knitting."
&149 Dolls is at Tramway, Glasgow, tonight until 31 January.
TAKESHI KITANO'S first taste of fame was as "Beat" Takeshi, half of a comic duo who were huge on Japanese television in the 1980s. He quickly moved on to acting, mostly in thrillers and gangster movies, and directed his first film, Violent Cop, in 1990.
Hitting his stride as a director, he went on to make both action films and more contemplative art-house movies, to great acclaim. Hana-bi (1997) won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion award and was named Best Non-European Film by the European Film Academy.
However, Dolls is perhaps his most unusual work. It is self-consciously artistic. Kitano once said: "You could frame virtually any shot." The costumes were the work of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.
It entwines three stories of love and obsession: a young man who tries to atone for his unfaithfulness by binding himself to his wounded lover; a woman who waits on the same park bench every Saturday for the man who left her 40 years before; and a pop starlet, disfigured in a car accident, who finds out the lengths to which one obsessive fan will go to visit her.
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