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Dolls - Hush Productions Breathe Life Into A Japanese Romance

On a Friday afternoon in Tramway’s main performance space, a Zen-like calm holds sway. It’s the week before Christmas, and for the last week, Hush Productions, under the auspices of the National Theatre of Scotland Workshop, have been pulling together different elements of their creative pool, and gradually turning it into a long-nurtured production called Dolls.

In one corner of the room, members of Glasgow band Zoey Van Goey and composer David Paul Jones strum a guitar and tinkle out a melancholy piano melody. On the main stage area, a male and female dancer eke out physical patterns which slowly but surely begins to gel with the music. In the opposite corner, over by the door, actor Tam Dean Burn squats in a huddle with writer Jenny Worton around a lap-top, going over speeches, tweaking them into shape. Overseeing it all, director Carrie Cracknell wafts serenely between each space, stamping an unspoken authority on proceedings. By the time Dolls opens for just four performances next week, all these elements should combine to create a full theatrical interpretation of one of the most heartbreaking evocations of lost love to have emerged this century.

Dolls is ostensibly an adaptation of the film of the same name made by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano in 2002, himself an auteur of distinction whose career has mixed up art-forms from stand-up comedy to poetry. Dolls combines three stories. The first finds a couple tied together with a red cord wandering through life in search of something they’ve lost. The second sees an ageing gangster returning to the park bench which his former lover has visited every day in wait for him. The final tale features a disfigured rock star striking up an alliance with her number one fan. All of which, on film at least, makes for a hauntingly poetic insight into the aftermath of these three fractured love stories.

“They’re all about sacrifices and mistakes,” says a heavily pregnant Cracknell on her lunch break, “and the enormous repercussions of those sacrifices and mistakes. In the film these are these vast images that represent those repercussions, which to me are very theatrical physical pictures about human relationships and human sacrifice. The first time I saw the film in Glasgow in 2003 I thought there was something inherently theatrical about the way he’s telling stories. And what’s interesting is that the narratives inside the film, although they’re all his own, they’re all based on Japanese
Bunraku puppet plays from the 16th and 17th century. So they’ve got a theatrical history, and the Bunraku theme is something he explores in the film and which he uses as a framework.”

While Cracknell hasn’t opted for a literal interpretation, she has opted to extend and reinvent Dolls’ theatricality by melding together contemporary forms to create a piece of total theatre.

“We needed to convert the things that are beautiful in the film into a theatrical language, rather than be derivative of the movie,” is how Cracknell sees it. “Because we can’t edit, we can’t change locations and we don’t have this incredibly beautiful Japanese landscape to walk through. We had to find things that we can do.”

With this in mind, Cracknell introduced both choreography and live music into the mix.

“Over the last couple of years,” she says, “I’ve been working increasingly with contemporary dance, and I’m fascinated by what dance can say that text can’t. I think when you watch dance as an audience member there’s more of a demand on you to be interpretive and to fill gaps and fill space. That makes for an active audience member, which Hush have always been interested in addressing in different ways. That’s been quite a compelling and difficult journey over the last year and a half making different shows, starting to bring dance through. Sometimes I feel that if you create a narrative structure for an audience, they can watch dance through a set of goggles with that narrative, and start to make their own interpretations of different visual ideas. As a maker that’s quite interesting, because to an extent you’re in control of that, but it’s also something that’s out of your control, because they bring their own baggage and emotional history, and they see what they want to see.”

Cracknell cites the story of the couple tied together with red rope as a metaphor that wouldn’t translate directly.

“In the film,” she observes, “that starts off naturalistic, but becomes increasingly epic and cinematic. So it felt really natural to express that in dance, which adds a dynamic we can’t recreate in terms of filming a landscape.”

For any film geeks looking for some kind of copycat re-telling of the story, Cracknell states quite clearly that “They won’t see the movie, and that will become clear very quickly, so hopefully no-one will be playing spot the difference.”

By using live music too, Cracknell is extending the creative boundaries of Kitano’s original. Cracknell describes music in the context of Dolls as “a third language,” and has gone as far as casting Zoey Van Goey singer Kim Moore in an acting role, albeit playing a pop star.

“I’ve never worked with live music before,” Cracknell admits, “so for me that’s a massive leap. I hope that elements of the show will feel like a gig, and that you can get that sort of emotional resonance that’s live and pumping.”

As a company, and as with rehearsals, Hush Productions move at their own pace. Founded by Cracknell with producer James Erskine at Nottingham University, they first made waves with A Mobile Thriller, the Herald Angel winning Edinburgh Festival Fringe show which played to audiences of just four as they were driven round town in the back of a flash car. A work-in-progress of a new one-man play, Stacey, appeared at The Tron a couple of years later.

Since then, Cracknell has become co artistic director (with Natalie Abrahami) of the west London based Gate Theatre. This has allowed her the scope to work within the confines of an established if bijou building as well as develop work for Hush. As a marker of how Dolls may turn out, one might look to I Am Falling, a show Cracknell directed for The Gate. Such was the show’s success that it not only transferred to Sadlers Wells, but is currently nominated for a South Bank Show award, due to be announced next week.

Significantly, many of the team from I Am Falling have been brought on board for Dolls. Choreographer Ben Duke, writer/dramaturg Jenny Worton and lighting designer Katherine Williams are all part of the new show’s creative team.

Somewhat tellingly, Cracknell frequently refers to herself as a ‘maker’ rather than a theatre director. This is in keeping with her generation of theatre artists, where strict demarcation lines of more orthodox work are more in tune with contemporary culture.

“There’s an increasing interest in cross-artform work,” she says, “and a lot of that work has been really seminal in my practice. What we’ve found with Dolls is that the more integrated those art-forma are, the more satisfying it is for all of us. It’s quite an organic process, but my ambition is for it to be both heartbreaking and really joyful.”

Dolls, Tramway, Glasgow, January 28-31

The Herald, January 20th 2009



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