Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Hedda Gabler

#WorldTheatreDay

I haven't been to the theatre this year. In 2018 I was fortunate enough to venture out several times over the course of the year, with highlights including the Theatre Royal Plymouth's production of "49 Donkeys Hanged" by Carl Grose and the RSC production of "Miss Littlewood" by Sam Kenyon. In addition I saw Erica Whyman's production of "Romeo and Juliet", also at the RSC, which was a definite experience, but a poor adaptation.

As today is World Theatre Day I thought I'd offer a throwback to one of the best pieces of theatre I saw during the last two years; "Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove and performed at the National Theatre. It goes without saying that Ibsen's play is a masterpiece, but van Hove's modernist direction is intelligent and distinctive. It breaks from the traditional theatrical presentation favoured by many earlier directors to instead create something of a genuine audio-visual experience. It is, and remains, a perfect example of intelligent, forward-thinking theatre-making, which seeks to adapt the play into images, not words.


Hedda Gabler [National Theatre/Ivo van Hove, 2017]:

For instance, I loved how the ruined piano at the centre of the stage became a iconographic, almost conceptual representation of Hedda's own character; a once beautiful thing completely imprisoned and objectified; no longer able to find a proper use for itself; just a shadow of something once able to express and create falling further into decay. The setting, devoid of life, again shows a character held captive by her own circumstances; destroying the space and herself as the play progresses; suggesting something of an obvious symbiosis between the two. Part of what made the production such an experience was the phenomenal performances from Ruth Wilson, Rafe Spall and Chukwudi Iwuji, who each brought an intensity and sense of emotional abandon to their fraught but distinctive character arcs.

At a time when the vast majority of feature-films feel safe, stagnant and steeped in convention, van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler was an example of a work of theatre transcending the limitations of the medium and presenting something that was more immersive, affecting and visually inventive than anything currently playing at the local multiplex or streaming platform. The whole production was unforgettable.

Having always been a film buff exclusively I can't claim to be any kind of expert on theatre, however I did make something of an effort to broaden my experience and understanding of the medium after writing and directing my first play in 2015. Two more plays followed in quick succession, along with an additional directing assignment with a local theatre company in 2016 (which turned out to be a disaster). Nonetheless, this period of activity pushed me towards discovering plays by Federico García Lorca, Philip Ridley, Moira Buffini, Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney, and other writers that I was already acquainted with but wanted to discover in greater depth; Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Becket, Brendan Behan, Eugène Ionesco, Antonin Artaud. I also became especially inspired by directors like van Hove, Peter Brook, Joan Littlewood, Katie Mitchell and Robert Wilson, who each seems to have advanced the modern theatre and the attitudes towards it to the point that it now dwarfs the comparatively meager accomplishments of the modern cinema.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Micro-Criticism


As Leonard Cohen once said: Ring the bells that still can ring! After nine years of intermittently logging my excessive film viewing habits on the boutique streaming-platform MUBI, a comment I wrote last month has actually been spotlighted as a "popular review." Huzzah and indeed hurrah! The review in question refers to Gaspar Noé's most recent work, the flawed but undoubtedly visceral dance-horror-freak-out, Climax (2018).

Make no mistake, I'm not exactly bursting with pride or self-satisfaction or anything; I know these things are generally predicted by various algorithms and not much else; but as a writer with absolutely no critical credibility, platform or following, it was still nice to see.


Lights in the Dusk at MUBI:

I started using MUBI back when it was a film-related social networking site called TheAuteurs. In those halcyon days, when message board culture was still a thing, and the kind of in-depth film analysis that found a home on the so-called "blogosphere" had yet to be replaced by Twitter critics, with their hyperbolic "hot takes" (of 280-characters or less), or YouTube videos by (mostly) bearded white male millennials, begging their audiences for Patreon dollars to deliver yet another piece of warmed-over content on the problem with the modern blockbuster, it had seemed a good place to keep track of what I was watching and to connect with a likeminded userbase for discussion and recommendations.


Lights in the Dusk at MUBI: [https://mubi.com/users/224284]

The social-networking and discussion aspects of the site collapsed a long time, with MUBI currently existing as a kind of art-house rival to Netflix; however, it's still populated by many intelligent and informative cineastes that are kind enough to share their thoughts and insights on the various films seen. Like Twitter, MUBI restricts the amount of characters per-post (a more generous 420 to be precise), which rather than pose a limitation for the writer becomes a kind of challenge; an exercise in pared-down literary minimalism in which the individual must attempt to express or distil the bare impression of a film, its failure or success. I call it "micro-criticism." They're not really reviews as such, but something else.

While the blog has gone through many long periods of extended inactivity - its pages often becoming like the empty rooms of an abandoned house, where no life lives; its posts, like dusty heirlooms, there to be sold off or discarded upon their owner's death - I've always tried to maintain a semblance of activity on MUBI, as well as other sites, such as Letterboxd, and formerly the IMDb. If you would like to read more of this "micro-criticism" please feel free to follow the link to my profile, which is included above.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Through the Looking Glass


Thoughts on a film: Petria's Wreath (1980)

PART II: WINDOWS

To see the memory of a life through a window-frame is a presentation inherently cinematic. It plays into the natural association of the window as something to be looked through; a window not just looking out into the wider world from the perspective of the inhabitant within, but a window looking in on a new world from the contrasting perspective of the attentive voyeur. A private world full of characters and stories that are different but also recognisably the same.

The most obvious example of this - one that I've returned to several times in the context of the blog - is the Alfred Hitchcock directed masterpiece Rear Window (1954). Here, the central character, bound as he is by injury, finds himself cast as the aforementioned voyeur; his window-space becoming a surrogate for the cinema screen; each adjacent room and apartment presenting a new scene, story or, apropos to television, a "channel." Actuality is transformed here by the subjective gaze into a murder-mystery of the character's own conception.


Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:

However, a window, if lit correctly, can also become a mirror. It reflects the thing in front of it; giving us the image not just of the small (or great) drama occurring on the other side of the screen, but the reflected image of the observer projected upon its gleaming surface. An example of this can be found in the Fassbinder film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), where the long-suffering character Marlene watches with a resigned desperation as the object of her affection is seduced by a love that isn't her.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972]:

Here the window - which both reveals and obscures the act itself (as well as further representing the idea of objectification as a symptom of romantic desire, even obsession) - is also a reflection of everything Marlene wants but is unable to achieve. Her emptiness - or position as someone outside of the conventional parameters of an equal partnership - is represented by the imprisoning blinds and the dead space that seems to overwhelm the right-hand side of the composition, creating an even greater reflection (or projection) of the character's distance and isolation.

The fact that she, in her separation, is the one literally behind the glass, shows how Marlene herself is objectified by her own submissiveness. The window, in this presentation, is less a portal to another world than an emotional or psychological barrier; something that keeps the character from connecting to the pleasures and sensations of life itself.

The same aesthetic ideology once again refers back to Hitchcock. The scene in Vertigo (1958), in which the well meaning but painfully naive character Midge - the would-be romantic foil to the film's obsessive anti-hero Scottie Ferguson - sees herself alone and dejected following an attempt to impress her disinterested protagonist, and becomes - for only a brief moment - a sad reflection in the window pane of a studio apartment.


Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:

In this small moment, the character is finally confronted with the reality of how the protagonist sees her; effectively invisible, transparent and incomplete. Like an insect trapped behind a pane of glass in a museum - to be viewed by the curious as an example of something no longer living - this Midge (the name alone analogous to that of an actual bug; a "pest") is barely visible, opaque, indecipherable; a phantom lady hovering lonesome-like over the city. This backdrop itself mocks the character with a vision of life, vibrancy and adventure, which, given the particular context, seems forever out of reach.

These windows become mirrors to their respective characters conception of "the self"; reflecting a self-image that is all too painful to embrace. However, they also provide a mirror for the viewing audience, who project on to them, Rear Window-like, their own impressions of a story; one based on their own subjective point of view.  Do I, as the viewer, see the pain and frustration of these characters because that's what the filmmakers intended, or do I project such feelings onto the images because of my own experiences and beliefs. As ever, it's a bit of both.

The use of the window in Petria's Wreath represents a combination of the three points of view expressed herein. At the most immediate level, the window is a portal; a means of looking back on something that occurred many decades ago from the perspective of the present day. It's also a part of the self-reflexive aspect of the film; specifically in how the scene is framed by the appearance of a photographer, who captures the old woman's image and then, through old-fashioned editing techniques, transformers her into a younger self. In this sense the photographer could be seen as an on-screen avatar for Karanović himself, creating, through the portrait of Petria, the story we're about to see.

The composition of the earlier image - Petria posed for the photographer - is interesting in this respect. If we think of the presentation of the window as a frame within a frame, then it creates the impression of a kind of diptych. On one side a portrait of the photographer, camera on tripod, lining up a shot; on the other side, the photographer's subject; the young woman, solemn and composed. Playing around with the dimensions of the frame, this right-hand side - the portrait of Petria - suddenly becomes a prelude to the film in miniature.


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:


Detail - "Petria's Portrait" [edited by the author]:

While the rest of the film will soon settle into a more conventional narrative, as we follow the journey of this young woman through a series of emotional hardships - such as marriage, children, war and revolution; all seen against a backdrop of significant moments in the history of Yugoslavia during the pre and post-war periods - it is this one image that seems to evoke the very essence of what the film is about. The reflection of the past as a still vivid memory; a life recalled by a character who becomes, through the presentation of this memory, like a living embodiment or personification of the country, its struggles, histories and ideals.

In presentation, it's an act of turning the character into an icon. Something that becomes much clearer during the subsequent credit sequence, in which the image of the elderly Petria, as captured by the photographer in this first scene, is made youthful; another example of Karanović using the appearance of images to suggest a passage through time. It will also act as a self-aware acknowledgement of the filmmaker's own role in the creation of this story, as the depiction of cameras and photography become an important part of documenting the story we're about to see.

Like the emphasis on the objects and mementos that defined the elderly Petria's house in the first part of this sequences, the significance of the portrait is about memory; about how certain objects, passed down through the generations, hold stories and emotions that speak to the ghosts of the past. I'd like to talk more about the portrait and its self-reflexive role in the film at a later date, but for now let's consider this moment, viewed through the kitchen window, and how it pre-establishes a lot of these ideas relating to the window as shorthand for cinema, about the objectification of a character as personification of a particular time, place or state-of-being, and what it suggests about the relationship between the viewer and the viewed.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Piotr Szulkin


In Memoriam

The Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin passed away last year. At the time no words were shared on the pages of this blog. When the news hit I was taking a break from criticism; busy trying to write a play, which turned into a novel, which turned into nothing. I hoped others might pick up the baton and share some condolences in the name of this singular and distinctive talent, but little, if anything, was said.

Szulkin was a filmmaker I first encountered in 2012. From a UK perspective his work is incredibly obscure. None of his films, as far as I'm aware, have been made commercially available with English subtitles. Of his six feature-length films I've seen only three; but I could recognise in each of them a unique approach to visual storytelling; an unconventional appropriation of populist genre tropes (specifically science-fiction) alongside more recognisable art-house conventions; as well as a strong political subtext, which gave the work a lasting relevance. On one level Szulkin's films were essentially post-modernist B-movies preoccupied with pulp fiction-level subject-matter, such as doppelgängers, Martian hordes, interplanetary prison-ships and post-apocalyptic survival. His imagery was steeped in the neon-futurism of his most prolific decade, the 1980s, defined as it was by the film Blade Runner (1982), and finding an obvious affinity with other works from the same period, such as The Bunker of the Last Gunshots (1981), Liquid Sky (1982), The Hunger (1983), The Last Battle (also 1983), Brazil (1985) and Diesel (also 1985); that aesthetic fetish for dramatic back-lighting, smoky interiors and saturated colour. However his films were also deeply esoteric, blackly funny and charged with an atmosphere of the grotesque.


Piotr Szulkin on the set of his final film, King Ubu (2003), photographed by Rafał Guz:

The first film of Szulkin's I ever saw was also his best; O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985). At the time I wanted to include the film on my list of the year's greatest discoveries, but I couldn't find the words to express how powerful, eccentric and thought-provoking the film was without straining for the usual superlatives. I still can't. O-Bi, O-Ba is a work as strange and enigmatic as its title suggests; a stark, claustrophobic, post-apocalyptic allegory that has shades of fellow Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski's similarly blue-tinted science-fiction psychodrama On the Silver Globe (1989), but with a subterranean survival narrative that predicts later efforts, such as Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Island (2005). In many ways Terry Gilliam in particular seems a close point of reference here, with both Twelve Monkeys and the aforementioned Brazil feeling like first-cousins to Szulkin's films, with the same emphasis on characters struggling against a dystopian/Orwellian system, and the same retro-futurist aesthetic of old cars, crumbling buildings, filing cabinets and video monitors. Gilliam's more recent film, the flawed but visually interesting The Zero Theorem (2013), is especially redolent of Szulkin, with the shaven-headed Christoph Waltz bringing to mind the look of actor Marek Walczewski as he appeared in both Golem (1980) and O-Bi, O-Ba.

Following my initial viewing of O-Bi, O-Ba, I saw Szulkin's first two theatrical features, the just-mentioned Golem and The War of the Worlds: Next Century (1981). The first film uses the myth of the golem as defined by Jewish legend as a metaphor for persecution, both personal and political. The central character, Pernat, stumbles through a "Kafkaesque" nightmare of mistaken identities, police interrogations and the constant threat of suspicion. In the process, he becomes a kind of on-screen personification of individualism; struggling to maintain a sense of personal identity against an environment of conformity, suppression and assimilation. The world of the film is one of ruin and decay, poverty and desperation, where the sickly sepia-tinted photography, hypnotic tone and sleepwalking performances set a visual precedent for Lars von Trier's first theatrical feature, The Element of Crime (1984), as well as Aleksandr Sokurov's similarly allegorical The Second Circle (1990).

In his next work, Szulkin created a film that felt like a precursor to the pulp sci-fi of John Carpenter's similarly political, similarly post-modernist action movie, They Live (1988). In The War of the Worlds: Next Century, a Martian invasion occurs against an Orwellian backdrop of government control, conformity and the loss of personal freedom. The film contains a strong subtext about surveillance culture and how the television can be used as a tool for propaganda, social distraction and manipulation, which plays beautifully to the final sequences, in which the manipulation of the image, and its ability to present a false perception of events, is powerfully revealed. It's a strange and often cynical film with a message that seems to suggest that rebellion is futile; our role in life - as far as the government is able to control and distort the narrative - has already been cast.


Golem [Piotr Szulkin, 1980]


The War of the Worlds: Next Century [Piotr Szulkin, 1981]:


O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization [Piotr Szulkin, 1985]:

Screenshots courtesy of FilmGrab [https://film-grab.com/category/piotr-szulkin/]

Unfortunately I'm less familiar with the subsequent films, Ga-ga: Glory to the Heroes (1986), Femina (1991) and his final credit, King Ubu (2003). Nonetheless, on the strength and originality of the three films listed here, I think it's a shame, if not a tragedy, that the work of Piotr Szulkin isn't better known or more widely available. At a time when most films appear to have been produced by committee, modelled on a pre-existing template and manufactured to satisfy the expectations of genre classification or the USP of a respective "brand", the singularly strange and defiantly eccentric expressions of films like Golem and O-Bi, O-Ba in particular - with their stylised imagery, bizarre characters and heightened atmospherics - feel all the more remarkable.

Attempting to research more about Szulkin for the purpose of this post, I came across the following quote attributed to him on IMDb. It made me respect the filmmaker all the more. The quote states: "You can divide directors into three essential categories: Those who whisper to their actors, those who talk to them, and those who scream at them. You can tell which method a director uses from the results he gets. Those who scream should not make films, period. I'm one of those who whisper." The legacy of the Szulkin's work is just that, a whisper, but a whisper that speaks with more truth, more poetry and more personality than the loudest scream.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Sculpting in Time


Thoughts on a film: Petria's Wreath (1980)

PART I: PROLOGUE

In the first scene of the film, an elderly woman, not yet formally introduced, walks out into a small courtyard to the rear of a house and begins her daily chores. During this act, she spies the ever-present movie camera and follows it from the corner of her eye.

At first I thought this was a flaw in the acting; a non-professional, cast by the director for authenticity, and as such unable to ignore the unnatural intrusion of the camera as she enacts these small routines. However, as the woman returns to the house and makes her way through to the cluttered kitchen, her own eye once again seem to meet that of the ever-watchful apparatus; breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the unseen audience, only this time, with deliberate intent. In the next breath, the old woman speaks and begins her story; her attitude, genial but world-weary; her audience, those of us trapped behind the unconscious partition that separates the viewer from the viewed.


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:

The story is already here, all around her. It's in the house and its cluttered decor; it's in her face, lined with age; it's in her voice, worn but warming. As her ailing hands hover over mementos and reminders (a photograph, her husband's violin), every possession becomes a significant prop; a relic to her life's sad journey; to the characters that we're about to meet.

As the old woman steps out of the frame, the camera tilts up to the window space. In the foreground, slumbering cats snooze silently in the warm morning light. Outside, in the middle-distance, a photographer has set up his stills camera. Just as the old woman clears the frame, a young woman, seen outside through the adjacent window, steps before the photographer's camera and effectively takes her place...


Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:

In this small moment, director Srđan Karanović has traversed the limited boundaries between documentary (the observation of this elderly woman), fiction (the story about to be told) and fantasy (the memory of the woman made real); introducing the idea of the past as a story, to be reflected on, from a distance, and the more important "meta" role that the appearance of this photographer will eventually fulfil.

It's a moment that is easily missed, but one that resonates with the same profundity as the time travelling jump cut that transitioned Stanley Kubrick's immortal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) from the dawn of man to the infinite cosmos. The subject matter and the technical presentation might be very different to that of Kubrick, but as a gesture - as a means of transporting the story from one place to the next through the use of a very practical filmmaking technique - it functions on a similar level. It's that idea of moving between different levels of time and memory; between the physical and metaphysical, the conscious or subconscious space.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Whispering Pages

#WorldBookDay2019

Something a little different to the usual film-related observations here. Given that today is World Book Day 2019, I thought I'd take the opportunity to pull together several short-ish book reviews that I'd written for previous World Book Days stretching back over the past few years. These were mostly posted across personal social media accounts for the benefit of friends and family. As such, they're not meant to provide an in-depth professional commentary, but rather a brief overview of why I liked these particular books and why I found them to be worthy of further attention. However, in the absence of any new content specific to the blog, combined with a genuine desire to update Lights in the Dusk more frequently, I'm reposting these literary-based observations below.


Fahrenheit 451 [Ray Bradbury, 1953]:

Considered one of the classic books - and very much a part of the modern canon of dystopian fiction, alongside other titles, such as "1984", "Brave New World" and "The Handmaid's Tale" - "Fahrenheit 451" had quite the reputation to live up to. Nonetheless, it didn't disappoint! Bradbury looks at the notion of time as an endless circle, where the past is doomed to repeat itself. His vision of the future is one still coloured by the atrocities of the Second World War, where the scars of fascism remain. Here, anti-intellectualism is rampant, books are banned and burned, and reading is a crime against society. People have stopped questioning the world around them (the government, the media, religion, etc.) and instead, become addicted to prescription medications and stare into the four immersive video-walls that fill their living-rooms with the chatter of artificial 'friends' and distracting entertainments. Although published in 1953, "Fahrenheit 451" remains a scarily prescient and relevant book about the loss of basic freedoms. Written in poetic prose - which is evocative, highly visual and powerful in its social commentary - it becomes a clear warning against how easily a society starved of education, divorced from culture and satiated by sensationalism can be led, unquestioningly, towards its own oblivion.


Doctor Sleep [Stephen King, 2013]:

I was initially intrigued by the premise of this, which follows the now middle-aged Danny Torrance (the little boy from "The Shining") as he battles against the same self-destructive urges that ruined the life of his father decades before. Still-haunted, Dan has nonetheless managed to clean up his act and find a purpose in life; using his 'shining' abilities to help the elderly patients at a local hospice make peace during their final moments. Given the emphasis on Dan as the recurring character, I was expecting a much more intimate book, telling the story entirely from his own perspective, as protagonist, but it's actually a much broader story that covers several different decades, locations and a large cross-section of supporting characters. It isn't quite as vast as something like "The Stand", although it is closer to it, in spirit at least, than the more interior/psychological stories, such as "Gerald's Game" and "Misery."

Despite the expectations established by its connection to "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep" isn't really a horror story, though it does deal with the supernatural, and it does contain at least one sequence that is disturbing in its suggestion of graphic violence and terror. If anything you could call it a drama with elements of the supernatural, but also traces of action. With its themes of alcoholism, child-abuse, illness and death (and with an early event framed around the terror attacks of 9/11), it's a sad book that hit me on an emotional level.

There are a lot of similarities to other works by King, not just "The Shining." The presentation of Dan as a character with a troubling gift that places him, to some extent, outside of conventional society, recalls John Smith from "The Dead Zone." The character of Abra, a teenage girl who 'shines' brighter than any character before, has echoes of the titular character from "Carrie", once again blessed (or cursed) with a supernatural ability that's both strange and terrifying. The almost surrogate father/daughter relationship between Dan and Abra is slightly reminiscent of the central relationship in "Firestarter", while there's also a mystical cat character that recalls King's fondness for animals possessing supernatural abilities (see Clovis the battle cat in the film Sleepwalkers [1992] for the most notable example).

I'm curious to see how the book will translate into film. While I enjoyed the book a great deal, I'd imagine the prospective filmmakers could cut a lot of meat from the bone; prioritising certain characters and subplots over others, without losing the heart of the story (Dan's redemption). The intended director of Doctor Sleep is a personal favourite of mine Mike Flanagan, who previously made the sensitive supernatural films Before I Wake (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well as the excellent (IMO) adaptation of another of King's novels, the aforementioned Gerald's Game (2017).


The Haunting of Hill House [Shirley Jackson, 1959]:

Many will be familiar with its two film adaptations from 1963 and 1999 respectively, which both shorten the title to "The Haunting" and place the emphasis more on the ensemble of characters as opposed to the main protagonist, but I really wasn't prepared for just how great the writing is here, or how much depth and emotion the book has in terms of its exploration of the various themes. "The Haunting of Hill House" really is a masterwork.

While I was expecting to find little more than a conventional haunted house mystery, the book is much more of a character study, seeing the events unfold through the eyes of its protagonist, Eleanor Vance; a damaged young woman who has sacrificed much of her own life to caring for an abusive mother. The early scenes of the book - in which Eleanor is finally free from her mother's influence and takes off across small-town America for a week of supernatural investigation at the titular Hill House - expresses such an evocative feeling of freedom and liberation that it becomes as overwhelming for the reader as it is for the character herself.

Although Shirley Jackson always maintained that the book was explicitly about the supernatural, I tend to agree with the screenwriter of the 1963 film version who saw it as a book about mental illness; where the key themes of guilt and repression (including a fairly radical for the period acknowledgement of homosexuality in the implicit flirtations between Eleanor and the character Theodora) manifest themselves in the character's perceptions of events. Jackson's writing throughout is brilliant; suggestive, atmospheric, intelligent and emotionally charged.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Philip K. Dick, 1968]:

I decided to read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049 (2017) at the local cinema. In the end I never made the trip, but it didn't matter; the book turned out to be a complete masterpiece and in fact far superior, as a work of science-fiction, to even the nonetheless still-brilliant Blade Runner (1982). While Dick's writing is occasionally a bit clumsy here, his ideas are nothing less than extraordinary. The story, as its presented, is much richer than it would eventually appear in the subsequent film, dealing as it does with deeper themes of culpability, consciousness, religion, the potential extinction of all animal life, personal liberty (the human concept of free-will) and the destruction of the natural world. While the screenwriters of Blade Runner did well to distil the different concepts of the book into a clear-cut narrative arc (even improving on some of the characterisations, for instance the antagonist Roy Batty, who is far more memorable in the film) I found the book to be more emotionally compelling and engaging in its storytelling. In the book, Deckard is a far more interesting and three-dimensional protagonist, as is the character of J.R. Isadore (renamed J.F. Sebastian in the film). The female characters aren't fetishised or sexualised like they are in the film and are actually much more nuanced and intelligent; particularly Luba Luft, the opera singer (changed to an exotic dancer in the film) and Deckard's wife Iran (cut from the film completely). It's ultimately a very sad book about characters trying to find hope in a world where it no longer exist.


A Monster Calls [Patrick Ness, 2011]:

I really enjoyed this book, although it was obvious from around page six that there was no promise of a happy ending. The story of a lonely child ignored at school and adrift at home was always going to conjure up the ghosts of my own childhood, but it was Conor's closeness to his mother (and distance from his father), his fear of loss and the way the character finds a similar solace in storytelling that cut so incredibly deep. Ultimately it's a book where the monster is as much a metaphor as an actual presence; symbolising on one level the disruption and disarray that illness brings to the life of a child who is unable to make sense of such finalities, but also representing a symbol of strength and support. In the absence of a friend, the monster becomes a kind of mentor; its stories (and the role of storytelling in general) providing a way of coping with a situation by creating a necessary level of distance. By engaging with these fantastical tales, Conor is able to see himself and those closest to him removed from his own predicament; finding not only a series of valuable life lessons but an emotional release. It's a heart-breaking book where all the different elements work towards expressing the overall theme about the difficulties of letting go.


Sarah Kane Complete Plays [Sarah Kane, 2001]:

Several plays by the writer Sarah Kane, who committed suicide on February 20th 1999 when she was just 28. While her first and most famous play, "Blasted", would eventually find champions in fellow playwrights Martin Crimp and Harold Pinter, it was initially slandered by many critics as a "disgusting feast of filth" (The Daily Mail), with much criticism leveled against its depictions of rape, cannibalism, the use of racist language and a graphic recollection of war atrocity. While the text does make for disquieting reading, the most remarkable aspect of the work is Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form; the way the play begins almost naturalistically, and then, over the course of its duration, seems to splinter and fragment. The set is destroyed, language disintegrates, actions become primal. It's as if the unseen crime that occurs at the end of scene one creates such a rift between the characters that the lines of reality become blurred. All communication breaks down and a story of domestic abuse becomes interwoven with coverage of the war in Bosnia. Then it ends, quite daringly, with a series of stark ellipses and a profound act of tenderness.

However, even more remarkable is her final play, "4.48 Psychosis'" A stream of consciousness account of a mental breakdown told by one or several voices (the play doesn't assign dialog to specific characters). Reading it with the knowledge that the writer would take her own life shortly after its completion gives the play an uneasy tension, but again, it's the use of language and Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form that most impresses. If I hadn't foolishly retired from theatre directing, this is the play I'd be most keen to produce.