Saturday, 25 May 2019


The Old Market, Hove, Thurs 23rd May
Part of the Brighton Festival

This 1923 film was based on Oscar Wilde’s play and styled after Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for it. And, as with other films of its era, its theatrical in a positive way. Not just uninterested in affecting naturalism, it positively revels in artificiality and the opportunities that creates. Notably, the film never leaves Herod’s palace, which is treated as a castle in the sky. (Well, a mountaintop, but it comes to the same thing.)

Particularly with its close-ups, film inevitably throws the artificiality into sharper relief than stage. It’s not just that the bizarre wigs and costumes are highlighted (though it’s partly that), it’s the way objects (keys, royal rings) can be enlarged on the screen to the point they become fetishised. And, though described in the Festival guide as a “cornerstone of camp”, it doesn’t have the self-parodying humour of camp. It uses film to stage psychoscapes.

I’ve not read Wilde’s play if I’m honest, but the consensus seems to be his achievement was bending the original Bible story until Salome (previously un-named) emerged as the protagonist. (Herod effectively becomes the lonely businessman emptying his wallet in a lapdancing club.) Interestingly, the actor who played Salome, Alla Nazimova, also produced the film.

Which plays up an interesting tension. Sexuality is here all about dressing up and performance, perhaps most obviously in her dance of the seven veils. Yet in this version her desire for John The Baptist is real. The film takes this as a given. But, with his plain loincloth against all this luxuriousness, this could be taken as her yearning for the real. He’s the one exception to the decadent rule of Herod’s palace, a gender-inverted virtuous maiden who refuses her kisses.

The fact of which is to make the tragedy hers. In seizing on him as a means to escape her world’s addiction to sensory gratification she subjects him to her sensory gratification. In other words, reduces him back into a prisoner of the palace. She’s effectively a prisoner of it herself, even if her cage is more gilded. Title cards were removed from this showing, but one states “She kills the thing she loves; she loves the thing she kills.”

Hayley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux provides the live soundtrack. The Festival programme played up her baritone vocals, which are rich. But the soundtrack is uneven, and sometimes feels unfocused. At times it’s almost clumsy, transitions in the music not matched by anything on the screen. The electronic sections seemed to be for when the film focused on characters, like personalised mood music, but often felt meandering.

But the circular, sonorous motifs of the violin and double bass provided an earthiness to counterpoint the pie-in-the-sky proceedings. And the instrumentation could be boldly pared down, so each instrument got it’s (in cinema terms) close-up. The drums in particular were held back, then came in with a harsh rattle for the deathly finale, a funereal full stop to proceedings.

Films of this antirealist aesthetic seem most suited to the live soundtrack treatment. As a result, they often get it. And the truth is I’ve heard it all done better. For example Partial Facsimile’s live score for ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ was much more successful, despite arriving without any Festival fanfare. However the weaknesses here could still be worked out. It has the makings of a decent soundtrack, but needs finalising.

None of the soundtrack seems to be on-line, but the film’s public domain so can be seen here.

The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 11th May

Lau-related proceedings so far… After having first seen Martin Green perform his solo project Flit, and then the full folk trio in action in Shoreham last Winter, this was my chance to catch frontman Kris Drever.

The tour was pre-announced with the notice “he will be performing traditional songs and previously unreleased material from one off projects, as well as music from his award winning back catalogue.” And he performed few Lau songs (if, in a welcome unsurprise, finishing with ’Ghosts’), and had only solo CDs on his merch stall.

However, they were similar enough to confirm my working hypothesis that the band start off with Drever’s songs, then subject them to elaborate and inventive arrangements. Certainly Drever’s solo songs seem quite different to Green’s.

He played solo and often quite simply, attaching a capo to his guitar for several numbers. And I found that, as a general rule, the simpler the accompaniment, the less his hands moved on the frets, the better the song seemed to work. Drever’s songwriting seems remarkably akin to his personality, understated yet beguiling and resonant. (Though he had pedals at his feet, so like so often the apparent simplicity may have actually been hard work to convey.)

He keeps his subject matter similarly close, ranging from life on Orkney (where he lived) to life on Shetland (where he lives now), occasionally breaking out as far as Dundee. He joked about “going for the big universal themes”. Yet of course folk is all about finding the universal in the particular. Songs stretch back into ancient history, and up to the present day.

From Cork…


Dome Theatre, Brighton, Sat 18th May
Part of The Brighton Festival

I confess to mildly mixed feelings on Malian singer Rokia Traore becoming guest director of this year’s Brighton Festival. Not because I don’t like African music, I like a lot of what little I know. But because I’m somewhat cynical about the generic applause it generates from the hands of white Western audiences. Applause which simultaneously exoticises black music while awarding yourself politically correct points.

Initially, Traore is one in a chorus of five singers who take turns to sing the lead. Assuming this was the pattern for the proceedings, I figured we were in for a night which was merely okay-ish. I’m somewhat skeptical of the everyone-gets-a-go format, which normally ends up with no-one getting enough time to get a real go.

Traore then spoke of the irony that some of the worst places to hear African music or see African art can be in Africa itself, due to the lack of entertainment infrastructure, and the foundation that had been devised to counter that.

From then on, she sang lead - and the night was much better for it. In fact my personal highlight was the very next number. It was the only song in English, and she seemed to adjust her vocal style to suit the language - a kind of calm, measured anger. Following her talk it seemed concerned with the situation in Africa today, so perhaps coining a new genre - the State of the Continent song.

And my second favourite, ending the main set, was the only choral number. Traore explained it was a “classical’ (presumably traditional), which became a hit record a while ago. The combination of which seems to sum up her attitude to music.

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