Sunday, 23 June 2013

Unspoiled: a fresh take on Hannibal the Cannibal

There’s been a lot of talk in Australia recently about adaptations of old plays into “new works”. And there’s a constant refrain that Hollywood has lost all imagination, which is why mainstream fare is so often based on something with brand recognition – a comic book, a superhero, a television series, a remake. And it’s easy to bemoan remakes and reboots, prequels and sequels – especially if you have a fondness for the original movie. Or TV series. Or comic book. Or theme park ride.

Mads Mikkelsen, delicious as Hannibal
in Hannibal (2013)
Bryan Fuller’s new TV series, Hannibal, is based on the characters that first appeared in Thomas Harris’ book, "Red Dragon" – first published in 1981. That book has already been made into a film twice: Manhunter, a lean thriller from Michael Mann in 1986; Red Dragon, by director Brett Ratner in 2002.

The character of Hannibal Lecter first appears in "Red Dragon", but he’s most famous for appearing in Thomas Harris’ sequel, "The Silence of the Lambs" (1988) – and the film of the same name (1991). The popularity of the character in the film, where he is played by Anthony Hopkins (who won an Oscar in the role), led to both a sequel – "Hannibal" (novel 1991, film 2001) and a prequel – "Hannibal Rising" (novel 2006, film 2007).

Dr Hannibal Lecter is imprisoned by the time of "Red Dragon" and its sequels, but his back story is alluded to in the original novel – he’s a psychiatrist who is also a serial killer and cannibal.

Will Graham, an FBI profiler, is the lead character in "Red Dragon" and functions much like Clarice Starling does in "Lambs" – he is trying to track down a serial killer and must use Lecter to help him catch the killer. Unlike Clarice Starling, who is fresh out of the Academy, Will Graham has a history of tracking down serial killers – including the Minnesota Shrike, as well as the Chesapeake Ripper, who turns out to be Hannibal Lecter.

Anthony Hopkins, chewing the scenery
in Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The tension between fresh-faced Clarice and Lecter is based mostly on her naivete; can a brand new agent really deal with the psychological warfare that Lecter will wage against her? With Will, it’s about the two characters’ history together; Will put Lecter in jail. Lecter almost killed Will in the process.

Hannibal, the television series, is a prequel to those events. And creator Bryan Fuller has fleshed out the lightly disseminated back story from Red Dragon into a first season of tense, intriguing and mesmerising television. Harris sketched the background of these characters in only a few pages in his original novel; Fuller uses the knowledge we have from the books and previously-made films to play with our expectations and flesh out a part of the story we’ve never seen.

Prequels often come with a lot of baggage. We already know what’s coming. Our instinct is usually to know what happens next, not what came before. But in this case, the series also feels like a remake and a reboot all at once. Fuller isn’t telling the backstory of Anthony Hopkins’ version of the character or Brian Cox’s version of the character. He’s recreating Harris’ characters for the modern day, which planning on retelling the entire Hannibal saga over seven seasons.

In many ways, because this is a reinvention of the story of Will and Hannibal and Jack Crawford, the show can both play toward and against expectations. We know where the story is headed, but we don’t know how we’re going to get there. We know Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper and we know the delicious meals he serves are helpings of people, but the other characters don’t know that and don’t suspect him.

And we know Will Graham is the genius who finally and eventually puts Hannibal behind bars, but he doesn’t have enough information yet – though throughout the first season, he starts to put the pieces together. The stag that he sees in visions during season one clearly represents Lecter, without the character himself actually being able to put the pieces together.

Silence of the Lambs is one of my favourite films and Harris’ first two Lecter novels are great page-turner thrillers. The franchise gets problematic after that, both on the page and on film, but the characters of Lecter, Will and Clarice are some of my favourite fictional characters. The notion of this series sort of puzzled me, but Fuller and his crew have pulled it off brilliantly.

In "Red Dragon", we know that Will investigated the case of the Minnesota Shrike and after that he was institutionalised. The first season deals very much with that part of Will’s backstory. We may wander down paths that Harris never intended, but we still keep merging with the story that we already know; Will must eventually put Lecter behind bars.

The show also alludes to how Will might eventually put the pieces together, foreshadows Lecter gutting Will with a knife, re-uses the famous line of dialogue - “having an old friend for dinner” - and gives a wink to the character of Clarice Starling but putting a proto-Clarice character into Jack’s past in the guise of Miriam Lass. If Fuller gets to make all seven seasons of his show, these pieces will more neatly fall into place.

In this age of spoilers, propagated so quickly by social media and message boards and blogs, Hannibal is almost spoiler proof. The twists and turns from several seasons hence are already known to most of the audience. You can spoil yourself now by reading "Red Dragon" or watching Silence of the Lambs. But until we get to those points in the series, Bryan Fuller has a lot of breathing room – and lot of distance where he might flex his creative muscles.

He also has the impetus to smooth out problems he has with the narrative as it has already been re-written. Fuller has already said he’s not a big fan of the novel/film "Hannibal Rising" – and does not like the conclusion to the novel, "Hannibal". (For me, the film improves on the ending of the book, but overall the story is convoluted and the characters of Hannibal and Clarice are far less interesting in both. I can’t wait to see what the show does.)

The opening scene of the television series quickly puts us inside Will Graham’s head and we are treated to a visual representation of the “pendulum” he must quieten in his mind, an image straight from Harris’ novel. The final scene of the first season inverts a very famous image from the film Silence of the Lambs (scored by music from Ridley Scott’s Hannibal); a remix of ideas from several incarnations of the characters of Hannibal and Will. And the television series is richer for it.

Brian Cox, enjoying the meaty role
in Manhunter (1986)
Adaptations, prequels, sequels and reboots are a risky business because people have strong emotional investments in stories from their past. Those films being remade have brand recognition for a reason; people already love them. Hannibal uses the affection we have, if the word affection can really be ascribed to a serial killer who is a cannibal, for a character and a collection of stories that we’ve already seen play out once. The show takes us back to the beginning and we get to see a fresh cut of the meat of these characters and this world.

*


Fuller’s plan for the show is to remake Red Dragon as Season Four, Silence of the Lambs as Season Five, Hannibal as Season Six and have a seventh season to wrap everything up. He will be putting some characters from "Hannibal" into Season Two. And he is negotiating with MGM for the rights to Clarice Starling and Jame Gumb, so let’s hope that will happen.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

By Their Own Hands - MTC's Neon Festival of Independent Theatre


This year, the most brave and challenging theatre I’ve been witness to has been on the stages of the Melbourne Theatre Company – as part of the Neon Festival of Independent Theatre. Five of Melbourne’s best known independent theatre companies have been invited into the Lawler Theatre and given carte blanche to create new works. The results, so far, have been incredible.

Last night, I was witness to the Hayloft Project’s By Their Own Hands, co-written, co-directed and co-starring Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie. Ever since I saw Hayloft’s production of Thyestes, I have always felt less an audience member and more of a witness to their work – later reporting on their brutal (Thyestes), thought-provoking (The Nest), darkly humorous (Delectable Shelter) and enigmatic (The Seizure) creations.

By Their Own Hands continues the evolution of a company that has made their mark on Melbourne theatre and will survive because each of their shows both compliments what has come before and extends the reach of their vision. Notably, I think, Hayloft always chooses the perfect spaces for their works. Thyestes developed for the Tower. The Nest, a perfect fit for the Northcote Town Hall. Delectable Shelter, a light in the dark of the cavernous Theatreworks.

Given the invitation to MTC’s Lawler Theatre, Sarks and Hardie have again used the space in an interesting way – by leaving all the lights on and inviting the audience to join them on the stage for Act One. In a Q&A after the show, Hardie explained that one of the thoughts behind the show was to create something that audiences wouldn’t expect to see on an MTC stage.

And this is true of the Neon Festival in general. What audiences have been privileged to see over the past few weeks and three shows is brave, exciting and fresh new work from three companies whose command of theatrical language is second-to-none. I have heard criticisms of the shows – and none have been particularly well embraced by critics at The Age or the Herald-Sun. But what excites me about all of these shows – and the Festival overall – is that these creatives have been allowed to try something new.

Sure, all of them seem to be adaptations of some kind – though Menagerie is clearly inspired by Tennessee William’s life, not-so-much The Glass Menagerie; On the Bodily Education of Girls is only inspired by a novella – Adena Jacobs and Fraught Outfit developed something that seemed as much in conversation with the original story or in reaction to it, rather than trying to theatricalise it.

Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, By Their Own Hands
By Their Own Hands is a retelling of the Oedipus myth. One of the absolute highlights of Melbourne theatre last year was the Malthouse production, On the Misconception of Oedipus. But there is a reason why theatre returns the myth and the play by Sophocles; it’s internal and primal and can be told in lengthy, languid ways or it short, sharp bursts of energy.

Act One, as I mentioned, has the audience invited onto the stage. Benedict and Anne-Louise tell the story of Oedipus – casting different audience members as the key characters in the tragedy. They improvise a little, reacting to the audience reactions – describing the characters as looking a little like the audience members they pick for each role. We gather around. We can wander. We can take in this tale from different perspectives. But in the end, we are drawn in because we are there. Even if we are not in the main cast, we are the tableau of townspeople – even if at some point we die.

Act Two is a purely visual feast that is both inviting, delicate and brutal. We already know the story because Act One has outlined it so well. Recreating the visceral moments of the text; Oedipus’ birth, his copulating with Jocasta and her hanging, is a punch to the gut. Even though the entire show is particularly Brechtian; we watch the actors change costume, set up props and set. We can see the wires very deliberately, but Jocasta’s death is still very, very shocking.

Act Three is improvised. The action is modern day. These characters are us. We recognise their conversations. But where in the story are we. Who are we watching flirt with each other? Is it Jocasta and Oedipus’ father? No, it’s Jocasta and Oedipus himself. And the tragedy is in the mundane. And the ending is flawless and affecting.

All three shows have engendered much discussion post-show and, in the case of the first two, the weeks after. None of them were easy for me to digest, which is what has made them so exciting. I’m still thinking about Daniel Schlusser’s ode to one of the great writers of the twentieth century. I’m still stuck watching those young girls dancing in my mind, as part of Adena Jacobs’ ode to the education of young girls.

And, as I expect from Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks and Hayloft, I will be thinking about By Their Own Hands for a long time to come. Enthralling.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Edinburgh #5: We need your help


Our premiere date at Edinburgh Fringe is only two months away - and we need your help to make this show the best it can be.

We're raising a bit more money to cover costumes, publicity and to knock a little bit off venue hire.

Rewards on offer include: free tickets to the show (if you're in Edinburgh), 2-for-1 tickets when we tour near you (possibly London, definitely Melbourne next year), and other bits and pieces like postcards, posters and an annotated copy of the script.

Any contribution is greatly appreciated. The more money we can raise now, the better the show will be in Edinburgh - and the more likely we'll be able to tour this show far and wide.


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Edinburgh #4: And then Matt Smith left “Doctor Who”...

Matt Smith as the Doctor (2010-2013)

Over the last 48 hours, I might have given the impression that my Edinburgh Fringe show, “Who Are You Supposed To Be” is all about Doctor Who. It isn’t.

It’s a romantic comedy about fans, fandom, obsession, pop culture trivia, anxiety and "Doctor Who". It just happens the hook at the start is an amusing discussion between a woman and a man at a science fiction convention about whether or not a woman could or should play the role of The Doctor.

As I’ve learned over the past two days, the discussion of a woman playing the role of a thousand-year-old alien with two hearts who travels across time and space reaches back about thirty years to when Tom Baker left the role. He wished luck to whichever man or woman took over.

I’m not really sure how seriously that comment was taken at the time. Personally, I’m a pretty late bloomer when it comes to “Doctor Who”, but the notion of the character changing genders is fascinating to me. Even though, really, since he changes his entire form every few years – soon for the 12th time in 50 years – it’s not that he’s really changing who he is any more than he has before. We just perceive it that way. Us humans, we’re so limited.

I remember the rabid and constant discussions of who should take the role when David Tennant announced he was leaving. I’m not sure I took the idea of a woman in the role that seriously, mostly because I didn’t expect it would ever happen. I’m still pretty much unconvinced it will happen now.

The strongest discussions I remember from the last regeneration speculation was whether the BBC would try something new and cast a Person of Colour. Whether it be a black man or someone from East Asia or South Asia. Fans discussed whether the show would go against type and cast a non-white man.

Equally, people argued that maybe they should cast older, since everyone felt like Tennant was too young, even though Peter Davison was younger when he was in the role – after taking over from Tom Baker. In the end, Matt Smith became the youngest of them all. So even if the BBC stay conservative and cast a twelfth white guy, if he’s over 50, it’ll be almost daring.

Almost.

Some of my play is about gender identity – what we expect from men and women and the roles they play. Ash, the main female character, is dressed as the Doctor. She loves dressing up as fictional men and women, but she’s the Doctor when she meets Gene. Gene doesn’t know what to do. He jokes with her a little – why isn’t she dressed as a female character from the show? Doesn’t she know, the Doctor isn’t a woman?

Inadvertently, “Who Are You Supposed To Be?” became a comedy about meeting people with similar interests who approach that same object of affection from an opposite point-of-view – and a play about casting the role with a female actor.

Then Matt Smith announced he was leaving the show. By the end of the year.

My first thought was, “Yay, lots more interest in the show! And about casting! And about casting a woman!”

And my second thought was, “What if they casting a woman? What if the BBC destroys the entire premise of my show?”

My Sunday afternoon planning a simple marketing campaign that rode the coattails of the 50th Anniversary celebrations became something more like a battle plan. What if? Can we? How about if we? Jesus, do I have to re-write the whole thing?

In the end, I figured out an angle to take – and I sent out a bunch of press releases tying the show directly into the speculation about who would be cast. But the frenzy over a woman in the role took off without anyone needing to say anything. The mere suggestion lit up the forums. And Twitter. And Facebook. And...

The play was more relevant than ever. Some fans have vowed never to watch the show again if a woman plays the role. Some are highly skeptical. Some would give her a chance, but... Some worried about confusing the children. Some wanted to defend tradition. Some wanted to defend men.

Some of the posters at Gallifrey Base almost word-for-word quoted the character of Gene from “Who Are You Supposed To Be?” Because I’ve heard all the arguments before. And they are all happening again.

I’ve written about writing for women before. I’ve written about why sometimes it’s better for a character to be a woman. How it can make a dramatic situation more dramatic. Or more interesting. And I love the idea of gender-blind casting new scripts and old characters.

But the reason I love the idea of the Doctor as a woman is because... why not? The character changes all the time anyway. Some of his changes in personality over the years have been vastly different from one incarnation to the next. Sometimes changing the gender of the character makes a story vastly different. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing the pronouns.

Men and women aren’t that different, I don’t think. And a thousand-year-old alien with two hearts who travels across time and space is about as different from you and me as you can get, but we can still empathise with him. Are we that worried that if he was a she that we might not empathise with the Doctor in the same way?

And isn’t that reason enough to give the whole notion of a female Doctor a try? To see what new things the character can explore within herself and within us, as well?

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“Who Are You Supposed To Be?” runs from August 14 to August 26, 2013 at C Venues as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Tickets on sale now.