The Dresser – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 47: The Dresser

Dresser 1

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

It was The Day Of The Jackal last time, following on from The Duellists. Can we make it three knock-outs in a row?

The Shortlist

It’s my choice this time around. Last time I suggested we might stick with Edward Fox for a while but, in the interests of completeness, I had a look through a few different filmographies. It’s disappointing how much crossover there is between The Day of the Jackal and Run For Your Wife. I’ve seen a little bit of Run For Your Wife. I will never watch any more of it. It really is as bad as you might think, and I don’t mind a bit of whoops-where’s-my-trousers-sorry-vicar farce.

So in the end I kept coming back to Edward Fox and a few film in particular:

The Shooting Party (1985)

I really don’t know much about this, other than James Mason, John Gielgud and Edward Fox star, and it’s set during a shooting retreat just prior to the First World War. I’m thinking a more intense Downton Abbey with all the female roles expunged.

The Jokers (1967)

This is a crime caper written by Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement, and starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed. Hugely tempting.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

It’s three hours long, so keeps being an almost-ran. One of these days…

The Dresser (1983)

Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay star as an aging actor and his dresser. Pretty much all set backstage during one production of Lear. It’s been on my must-watch list for years. So long in fact that I couldn’t help but pick it this time.

The Link

Edward Fox

It’s… Edward Fox. Do keep up. He had an incredible air of detached authority in The Day Of The Jackal, rumpled class in The Duellists, how will he be in The Dresser? I’m guessing louche, but we shall see.

The Dresser and me

Okay, this is one I really should have seen. I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, so should have been lapping up theatre-related films. In fact when I saw – and loved – Black Swan, one of the things I loved most about it was the realistically unglamourous way it portrayed the rehearsal/backstage process. So a film all about the backstage goings on? Surely my soya-meat and drink.

Plus, before The Dresser was a film it was a play. I’ve scoured plays for speeches and two-handers over the years, but somehow, despite knowing the setup of The Dresser, never read it.

And finally, it’s got Albert Bloody Finney in it. I need to see a lot more Finney. He’s an incredible actor, and I could watch him in Miller’s Crossing every day and not get bored. Here he is in all his glory (may spoil the finest scene if you’ve not seen it): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_le4xh-XV3c

IMDB says

An effeminate personal assistant of a deteriorating veteran actor struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear. 7.7 stars

I says

Dresser 2

Crown him King of Actors right bloody now

Well that was a tour-de-force from Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. My word. They both received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and I can see why. Who won? Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies. Whatever that is. Maybe we’ll tackle it soon.

Anyway, what struck me was this quote from the director Peter Yates:

“If I can make a film which will get more people to go to the theatre, I will feel I have achieved something.”

M8DDRES EC006

I can see what he means, but in a way the film had the opposite effect on me. It put me off the theatre. And that’s not because I didn’t like the film – I loved it. But the reminder of all the sweat and tears and agony that goes into putting a show on highlighted that I’m not sure it’s worth it. For the actor. And that’s probably why I’m not still acting! It’s shown as the herculean effort that it is – heightened by the particular circumstances of Albert Finney’s Sir, and bravo for shining light on the damp, cramped, fractious experience. It’d make for an interesting double bill with Black Swan – show those two to someone who you has ambitions to perform and they’ll give it all up in heartbeat.

The other film Peter Yates directed that year? Krull.

Krull

Incidentally, I was right. Edward Fox was indeed louche as Oxenby. What a cad.

The Verdict

Stunning performances and a handy reminder for me of why I shouldn’t resume life on the stage any time soon.

Coming Attractions

Well. There’s plenty more Fox in the den, so to speak. However… We’re going to see a triple bill of Paul Verhoeven films at the cinema soon – Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers in that order. And those link to each other by shared actors. It’s like they’re crying out to be included in the CRFC. If we can get to Robocop in time…

So, as it’s Tim’s choice, he’s going to have a quick shufti to see how appealing that is…

@BornToPootle

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VR and Forum Theatre

In Chekhov’s The Seagull a young, snobby playwright bemoans the old traditions of theatre. New forms, he calls out for. New forms he (spoiler) kills himself for. I think it’s time to take this naïf’s clarion cry into the videogame community.

I spoke on a previous episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast (plug cough splutter plug) about VR game The Circle and the exciting possibilities for roleplaying (in the purest sense of the genre) it presented. I’ve also written about games being more analogous to theatre than film. Now I get to combine the two topics!

I went to see a new play on Friday – Cathy, produced by Cardboard Citizens at The Pleasance (now touring). The first half of the evening was fairly standard: I sat in the audience and watched an interesting and affecting play, a sort of updated version of Cathy Come Home. It was a moving and provocative piece of work. After the interval however, there was a slightly different second half.

In fact the play had ended at the interval. The second half of the evening was thrown open to the audience to suggest different ways the main character could have behaved. This was a play about a mum and daughter (weeks away from GCSEs) being evicted and then falling through the cracks in the housing system. The challenge was thrown to the audience to try and spot the moments where Cathy could have done something different, tried another option.

Suggestions were tossed out for debate, from small delaying tactics when dealing with unruly landlords to names of charities and support groups to contact – there were a commendable number of people from said organisations in attendance. And then the extra twist. The play restarted. When an audience member had a suggestion, all they needed to do was shout ‘stop’, pop down to the stage, and take on the role of Cathy. The other actors would then react to the new direction of the scene. This isn’t something new – it’s called forum theatre – but it was my first time, despite training and working as an actor for a number of years. 

It was fascinating, and I was reminded more than once of Tim Schaeffer’s observation that writing adventure games is all about imagining the protagonist is drunk (see Shitfaced Shakespeare for a more literal translation of this on stage). Some alternatives sputtered an failed, others provided a glimmer more hope than that of the scripted drama. It was a piecemeal choose-your-own adventure. Kitchen sink drama where you could save and reload.

No one tried anything ‘dramatic’ – taking an estate agent hostage for publicity, going on a murder rampage – but that reminded me of my experience with The Circle. I was an actor playing a role. I could react how I liked and sometimes the world might react, sometimes everything would carry on just the same. Much like life.

In the brief demo of The Circle I tried at EGX I played as a trans woman recovering from a traumatic experience. I was effectively stuck in my flat in front of my computer and unable to move around. What was so exciting about that proposition wasn’t the immersive email replying, but the ability to get angry, in character, with the content of the email I was reading, and physically fling the empty bottles of beer surrounding me against the wall. In the demo that made no difference (apart from the most fundamental difference of course – my individual experience of the game), but when it’s complete it may impact on what happens later. If someone comes to check on me, the invalid, they’ll find a collection of smashed beer bottles. What will that do to their interactions with me? Or do I want to hide the evidence and collect the shards in the bin? The developer has big ideas in that direction.

So could this be a way for VR games to go? I really hope so. The games unveiled for PSVR so far all seem fairly standard. An amalgam of the usual suspects – a few Duck Hunt style target shooting titles, driving, shoot ’em up… Casual, if that’s a descriptor that suits. Isn’t this the time for role playing games to shine? True role playing, where you can try a scenario (whether it’s storming a castle or trying to claim benefits) in any way you see fit and have the immersive VR world adapt around you?

VR has yet to convert me, but if developers can harness it to bring us true roleplaying rather than a collection of reskinned novelties then maybe I’ll start to pay attention. Maybe there’ll be an upsurge in games actually about something more than instant gratification. Maybe we’ll have the new forms Konstantin raved about.

@BornToPootle 

The Punchdrunk of Videogames

Hitman Theatre

On the debut episode of the new podcast I’m co-hosting (plug plug plug) I briefly touched on how the game Hitman reminds me of immersive theatre legends Punchdrunk. I’d actually written an article about the subject a few weeks beforehand and forgotten to publish it! Have a read below, and if you haven’t played Hitman or seen it in action, have a quick look at my attempt at a one-try, limited time mission, then read on:

I had the great pleasure of seeing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man a couple of times when it was on in London. It was a revelation – truly immersive theatre. A building had been stuffed with interesting, weird, David Lynchian things going on for me (and a lot of other people) to explore as we fancied.

The first time I went, I entered through the main space, masked and anonymous of course, then found a door and started exploring. Within minutes I was lost in labyrinthine corridors, hearing snatches of conversation that piqued my interest but didn’t quite deter me from my wanderings. Then I happened upon a red-draped room with a black and white tiled floor. Some kind of party was going on. Music started to play and the whole party segued into a strange, lurching, leering dance routine. I was hooked.

When I returned for a second visit, I knew the lay of the land. I followed specific conversations at specific times. I came to understand at least some of what was going on. I knew that if I reached the feuding couple at the right time, I’d be able to witness their fight through the medium of dance. Downstairs in the orgiastic party I would see the temptations being thrust at the ‘hero’ of the piece. It all connected, but I had to pick and choose. It wasn’t possible to take it all in, to explore every option.

I’ve just experienced something very similar in a videogame. There’s a case to be made that Punchdrunk has many similarities with games anyway, from the themes of exploration and the player/visitor’s own agency within the world to the creation of a fully realised location that you can inspect from every angle. Some of the (dare I say it?) Walking Simulator games give a similar feel. Wandering around Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, tugging at threads and seeing where they lead is definitely close. But one game has come even closer to replicating that experience: Hitman.

I hadn’t played a Hitman game until a few weeks ago. I’m not really a stealth afficianado so always put the series in the ‘not my kind of thing’ category. Then, after seeing  ‘let’s play’ videos and hearing endless praise on the Idle Thumbs podcast, I decided to take the plunge and try the latest in the series for myself.

And it’s brilliant in so many ways. Unlike Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and its ilk, Hitman presents a busy, bustling alive world. That’s not a criticism of EGTTR, by the way – that game specifically presents a beautiful, heartbreaking loneliness. Rather, it’s what brings Hitman closer to Punchdrunk’s theatrical exploits.

Stroll into the Paris fashion show in the opening episode and you’re an inscrutable, blank-faced guest – much like the masks Punchdrunk guests wear. Over the buzz of conversation you might hear an interesting titbit, an argument perhaps, or furtive whispers. So you follow where the voices lead, through grand corridors and off-limits backstage areas. You see the glamour and how the glamour is created.

Of course you’re not allowed in all areas, so you must track down disguises, further anonymous masks, to avoid raising eyebrows and drawing attention. This show isn’t about you after all. This show stars Novikov and Margolis, you’re simply an anonymous onlooker tugging threads, following stories.

Live, immersive theatre has its perils. What if a member of the public dashes through the middle of a scene? It’s the same in Hitman – you can blend in perfectly, behaving just like whatever mask you’re wearing should behave before sneaking away unseen, or you can run through the middle of a crowd disrupting for just a moment the illusion of a living world. In theatre the show must go on, and so too in Hitman.

The big difference is that in Hitman you’re not there as an observer and occasional minor participant. The closest I came to being personally involved in the story at The Drowned Man was being taken to one side by a performer, led by the hand down a secret passageway and having a one-on-one interaction while my fellow visitors wondered why I’d been singled out. In Hitman, you’re there with a purpose. It’s not look-but-don’t-touch; it’s look-then-touch-swiftly-and-viciously. The show will go on if you do nothing, but you’re there expressly to stop the show. To disrupt the perfect theatrical evening. Agent 47 is a heckler. A troll.

Returning to being singled out at The Drowned Man, that came about because I knew it was coming. It was on my second visit, so I knew someone was going to get picked and inveigled my way to be in the right place at the right time. Just like how I now know how to find the Sheik at the Paris fashion show and be in the right place at the right time to infiltrate the auction of secrets. Done well, immersive theatre has immense re-visit value. That’s something games have known for a long time and brings particular depth to Hitman.

Hitman may not (so far, at any rate – we’re only a few episodes in) have the Lynchian weirdness that Punchdrunk conjured up, but I can return to it again and again, finding new secrets, different pathways and strange characters every time. And where Punchdrunk’s storytelling revolved around visceral bursts of dance, Hitman relies on swift flares of violence before a sheen of normality, however fabricated, descends again.

Films and videogames are often compared, and of course one is often remade as another (seldom well *koff* Hitman *koff*). But perhaps we’re missing a trick. What if theatre and games are closer siblings than film and games? What experiences could that lead to? It’s surely no coincidence that Hitman’s marketing revolved around an interactive theatrical experience.

So what theatrical tie-ins should we expect? And which plays are begging out for the game treatment? Why is it that games seem to be the one medium Shakespeare hasn’t yet breached? Maybe Assassin’s Creed: Dunsinane will be the next instalment in that series. Or how about Hitman: Verona?

For more on games, check out The Conversation Tree.

 

A Sketch and A Podcast

I’ve got a couple of exciting developments to report, which makes a nice change!
It’s an oft-used mantra that creativity comes from adversity. I haven’t really noticed a direct correlation in that for myself, other than a bout of songwriting while I was deeply unhappy in my late teens/early twenties. However, that’s all changed!

Like many of my friends, I’ve been bemoaning the recent political developments in the UK. So much so, that I put pen to paper and wrote a few topical/political sketches and songs. After a couple of non-starters I sent some sketches over to NewsRevue.

If you’re unfamiliar with NewsRevue, it’s a theatrical topical sketch show at the Canal Café Theatre that has been running for two decades. Every couple of months the cast and director are refreshed, and sketches are chosen on a weekly basis, or more often depending on what’s going on in the news. I even had an unsuccessful audition for their cast many moons ago! If you’re London-based I’d recommend heading down, it’s always a fun evening.

Anyway, the first bit of good news I’ve got to report is that one of my sketches was used. So now I’m a performed comedy writer, which is pretty cool. Just one sketch for now, but it’s a nice boost in what’s been a relatively unsuccessful year writing-wise.

On to the second exciting thing – I’m co-hosting a new podcast. You’ve no doubt noticed that my most recent few posts have been about videogames. Well rather than hijack my blog to be primarily about games, I’ve set up The Conversation Tree Podcast with my partner in crime Lydia Palmese.

We’re both narrative junkies and will be focussing more on analysis than reviewing per se. We’re particularly interested in how games reflect society and vice versa and will be looking at mixture of old, new, and upcoming titles. Given that we’re avid cinema-goers we’ll also be tackling films in the same vein to a degree, and even some of the odd events we pootle to around London town.

You can find the first episode of the podcast here or over on iTunes. Over the coming weeks I’ll work on getting it up in a few more places besides. You can also follow @TheConvoTree on Twitter if you’re feeling sociable (as well as my @BornToPootle account if you haven’t already). New episodes will be up every fortnight and feedback is more than welcome. We’re both new to podcasting, so tips will be gratefully received.

Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

Creative Distractions

Or, the play’s the thing. Unless the novel’s the thing.

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

I mentioned in my last post that I had, for a little while at least, stalled while redrafting the novel I’m working on. The good news is that I’m back up to speed, but this post is about something a little different. While I was stalled my brain threw up all kinds of things to distract me from the task at hand. And fortunately I’ve been in such a routine of writing that some of those distractions were creative. So over the period of a couple of days when I was supposed to redrafting I wrote a play. Don’t worry, I was as surprised as you.

Despite training and working as an actor for a few years, I’ve never really had the inclination to write a play, so I was quite surprised when an idea popped into my head almost fully formed that had a nice bow tied around it reading ‘for the stage’. Odd how ideas instinctively seem to know what medium they’re going to be in.

Well I wrote it, a nice half hour two-hander set in the cockpit of a spaceship, and then gave it a quick redraft. And then… I didn’t really know what to do with it. It feels so different to writing a novel – I’ve spent the last few years teaching myself about that process, and suddenly felt adrift.

The thing with a play is that, unless you’re going to direct and star in it as well, other people are going to get their grubby little paws all over it. Reading it after the redraft it became very apparent that I needed to hear it out loud, in other peoples’ voices, or I wouldn’t have a clue how it actually came across. Fortunately I know some awesome, super-talented actors, so I assembled my crack squad of two, both rather handily with experience in writing and workshopping material they’d created, and on Saturday I held my first workshop for something I’d written.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

The first order of business, after admiring the Jayne Cobb T-shirt and hat one of the actors arrived in (see above for my attire for the day – you may have spotted I’m a Firefly fan), was a first read of the play, sat in chairs, sipping tea. Even just that was really useful – both actors approached the roles in interesting ways, picking up on a dynamic I hadn’t thought of. And rather pleasingly I thought the writing held up pretty well when vocalised – with a few clunkers thrown in for good measure, of course. It was clear to me though that the drama was very one-sided and the denouement slightly rushed.

After a brief chat about the play and the characters in general, I got the actors to improvise around a couple of the key moments. The play opens with one of the characters wanting solitude and the other wanting interaction, so I gave the actors different levels of how much they needed that solitude/interaction and then made them raise and lower that need throughout the improvisation – it helped unlock a couple of interesting dynamics that will feed back into the script. I might leave out the dance routine though.

After three different improvisations, each looking at a different part of the drama, we went back to the script, and had a second readthrough, but this one following the few stage directions I’d written and moving around the space as and when the instinct kicked in. It all came together remarkably easily, helped by the fact that I hadn’t written much physical action, and once again really highlighted the two big weak spots in the play which, thanks to the improvisations, I’ve got some great ideas for how to fix.

So what now? Well I’ll have another re-write and then I don’t know. I’ll look up some short play festivals and see if I fit the criteria, or check out some new writing nights. Which is all-new, all-scary but also all-cool!

@BornToPootle