the influences, inspirations and insane noise-pop songs that brought it all together
It is no secret that when writing something, anything, be it play, movie, book, song, short story, spoken word performance or manifesto, you, as a writer, feed in a huge amount of existing creative material into your work. It might be the old surf rock music you re-discovered while clearing out your iTunes library, or the book you’ve just finished that you wish could have gone in a slightly different direction, and you use whatever impression it left on you and turn it into something that is wholly your own, although would not exist without that stimulus. I think, when all is said and done, it’s important to go back and see where you found that inspiration, and maybe see what your work would have been like without it.
It is with this in mind that I would like to now break down for you the books, films and music that influenced and inspired the writing of Battalia Royale, the latest insane theatrical experience from the Philippines’ most exciting and, well, insane fringe theatre group, Sipat Lawin Ensemble. During the six weeks that me and my fellow writers Jordan Prosser, David Finnigan and Georgie McAuley were shacked up in a room in Manila (and from time to time a coffee shop) writing the 177-page monster that all 40+ young actors performed on the promenade of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines the other night, we shared a great deal of music, films and books, and these have since become intrinsically linked to the play we helped create. Well, at least in our minds anyway.
(It’s worth quickly pointing out that if you are one of the 1600+ people that saw the play at the CCP last week, I have not (although I will be in town for the second version in March!), and this list is based off the script that we completed back in December, rather than the finished product. It’s quite possible that there have been some significant changes since then!)
Book written by Koushun Takami (1999)
Seems a little obvious, I know, but what better way to find inspiration for the adapted piece you’re writing than the piece you are adapting it from! I read this book for the first time last year on the recommendation of David Finnigan and Sipat director JK Anicoche. The book itself is 616 pages of teenage angst, deeply personal confessions of ‘crushes’ and, of course, brutal killing. It’s certainly not the most well written book ever produced (although it’s fair to say reading an English translation doesn’t necessarily do it justice), but the technique that it employs, jumping wildly between forty different characters and starting each chapter with a counter of how many students remain alive, is pretty damn engaging.
We took the basic outline from this and filled it in ourselves. That means that some characters and stories remain pretty similar, and some are now completely different. We found four main storylines and split them up between us, rejigging and completely fucking changing where we saw fit. In the end, a decent chunk of what’s in the book remains in the play. Except it’s now in the Philippines instead of Japan. Oh, and the ending. That is completely different. Because we can’t abide happy endings.
Film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, written by Kenta Fukasaku (2000)
Obvious again. Whilst the book was popular in Japan, it was the film that showed the world this story, and we owe it to these 114 minutes of bloodshed that there was an audience that understood what our play was all about. We didn’t watch the film until after we’d read the book, and I have to say that we were distinctly unimpressed. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very cool film. It is very Japanese (note the cute Japanese schoolgirl that explains the rules of the game in a brightly-coloured promotional video) and has some absolutely badass action scenes, but coming from the book, which spent as much time getting to know these characters as it did killing them off, seeing some of our favourite characters die within minutes of being introduced was a little frustrating. That said, this film proved to us that this story could be told in under two hours, which was a great boost to our confidence.
Album by Sleigh Bells (2010)
It was a good three months before we went to the Philippines to actually write the script that David Finnigan linked us to the YouTube video for Infinity Guitars. For some reason it had just screamed out Battalia Royale to him. And it’s not hard to see why. It seems Sleigh Bells were created to somehow tap into that violent teenager in all of us, who cares just as much about getting As and what your boyfriend thinks about your braces as they do about cutting up bitches in the bathroom and generally fucking things up. And when it comes down to it, that is kinda what Battalia Royale is about too. More or less.
This album (and particularly Infinity Guitars and Rill Rill) became so much a part of this project that lyrics from the songs were written into the script, and not just the dialogue, but the stage directions too. Scene 24 where the Lighthouse story concludes is called Infinity Guitars. And I can no longer hear Rill Rill without picturing Bodjie Pascua holding up the hand of one blood-covered, tiara-wearing, horrified female student as her classmates lie slaughtered around her. It’s as though it was made specifically for this play.
Infinity Guitars is where it all began, Rill Rill is the perfect song for a ‘happy’ ending and Kids, whilst not being involved in the production at all, is hard to go past. You know, because it’s called Kids.
Have a heart. Get this album. You will not regret it.
(On a sidenote, Sleigh Bells second album Reign Of Terror was released on the 21st of February, which just so happens to be the opening night of Battalia Royale. Coincidence? I think not.)
Song by The Stepkids from the album The Stepkids (2011)
So after Finnigan had posted Infinity Guitars, Jordan was quick to post his own piece of music he thought fit the story (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s The Likes Of You – also get this song, it’s great). This put the pressure on me to find a piece of music that somehow had some relevance to the story of the Kiriyama Family – the story arc I was responsible for. It was hard to match something as funky and hectic as Infinity Guitars, but one day listening to the radio in the car, it came to me. It was irresistibly cool and laid back, and had a light-heartedness to it that I knew would seem all the more fucked up when paired with a teenager ruthlessly murdering his friends. It was Suburban Dream by Connecticut psychedelic soul band The Stepkids.
Not only did the song fit perfectly with the mood I was going for with my story arc, it actually helped inform the lead character, and the way he conducted himself. Originally, in my mind, Sebastian was an over-compensating bully, someone who deep down really just wanted some people to care about him, but upon hearing this song, he became something entirely different. I realised it was more enjoyable to have him as a laid back party dude, who just so happened to really enjoy killing people. He went from being a classic ‘bully’ character to being the coolest character in the play. If I may so myself.
And it was pretty much because of this song.
Song by Justin Bieber, Raekwon and Kanye West (2010)
So Battalia Royale is about teenagers. The problem is, even the youngest of our writing group, Georgie, was a fifteen year-old 6 years ago, when Justin Timberlake was still a musician. Meaning that no matter how hard we tried, we were always going to be slightly out of the loop. Thankfully, the blow being slightly softened by the presence of Raekwon and Kanye West, we were introduced to Justin Bieber, every fifteen-year-old girl’s pop music crush. The song is a remix of his hit Runaway Love and it whilst it features Beeb’s vocals for most of the song, it is mixed with the beat from Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing To Fuck Wit and an incredible new verse from Raekwon (featuring our favourite line “You got stacks like the International House of Pancakes”) and some solid rhymes from Kanye himself.
It’s punchy, poppy, catchy and weirdly appropriate. It has the youthful innocence of JB mixed with a dangerous beat and some ‘gangsta’ verses from Kanye and Raekwon, which leaves you feeling like your childhood just became irrevocably corrupted.
(For those of us that grew up listening to Wu-Tang Clan, it makes your childhood feel irrevocably corrupted, but in quite a different way…)
It would be pointless not to mention Quentin Tarantino here. He is nowadays so often quoted as an influence for new works I had concerns that this would seem extremely uncool, but his importance to this project can not be underrated. For starters, very few people in the Western world would know about Battle Royale if it wasn’t for QT – he rates the film as the best made in the last twenty years and constantly promotes it. He also took the actress who played Takako Chigusa (who eventually became Rhae Isidora del Prado in our version) from the film and put her in his own Kill Bill Vol. 1.
The Kill Bill films also served as great inspiration to us, especially when putting together Jordan’s story arc, the Nemeses story. Kill Bill is all about a ‘honourable rampage’, and that is exactly what Victor is up to in Battalia. Of course this is hardly a new thing (Tarantino happily admits his films are just continuing a genre that had been prevalent in Asian film for a long time), but it’s undeniable that Kill Bill had a special impact on this project.
Also worth mentioning is Reservoir Dogs, if for nothing more than the dialogue. People having conversations during an extremely dangerous and intense situation is kind of a big part of Battalia, and Dogs is the best example I can think of.
Other songs worth checking out that in some part played a part in us writing this include:
Reverence – a song by The Jesus & Mary Chain (the lyrics ‘I wanna die’ are appropriate)
I Heard It Through The Grapevine – a song by The Slits (scary girl band version – orginally to play during the torture of the space warrior)
After Light – a song by Rustie (a hard dance track for the Lighthouse girls to let their hair down to)
What Is It… – a song by DJ Krush (the perfect woozy pole-dancing massacre song)
Check out the complete playlist of the Battalia Royale Playwrights here.
Last week, the excited young boys and girls of Our Lady of Guadalupe High School in Manila dolled up and rolled up for their annual prom. The longing glances, sideways looks, exposed calves, thick mascara and hip flasks you could use to identify high school proms the world over were all evident, and the night no doubt de-evolved in to rambling flirtatiousness and salacious encounters between many a jock, geek, rock chick and baseball star. And the whole thing was broadcast, in near-real-time, on Facebook, through the 40 hyper-active accounts of these tech-savvy, motor-mouthed teens. Through their Facebook pages and status updates, we may also find out about the broad range of interests the students of Class Hope have, their love/hate relationship with their class advisor, Fraser Salamon, we may know who is sexing who, who you go to for drugs, who throws the best parties. We get the lyrics of new songs they’ve written, sketches they’ve done of their class crushes, commentary on sports games, updates from every single waking moment of their angst-ridden, thoroughly pedestrian, adolescent lives.
The only thing that sets the 40 children of Our Lady of Guadalupe High School’s Class Hope apart from any other bunch of high school kids in any other country in the world is that none of them are real.
Each and every teenager is an elaborate, extended workshopping tool devised in collaboration by that student’s performer and the team of Australian writers for Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s world premiere of Battalia Royale. The names Fraser Salamon, Victor Vicente, Sophia Villafuerte and Rhae Isidora del Prado? Mash-ups of existing Filipinos’ Facebook friends and the names of convicts on most-wanted posters spotted in the Mindanao islands. The prom, their house parties, gym training sessions and rock band rehearsals? All completely fictional, acted out in the past-tense by Facebook status updates and enhanced by a choice, staged photograph here or there. Our Lady of Guadalupe High School is entirely make-believe.
And yet, for the last 6 weeks, since haplessly deciding to allow our workshop actors to interact with each other as their assigned characters on Facebook, to develop their relationships further outside of rehearsal time, any person with the mixed curse/blessing of having befriended all 40 students on Facebook, as well as their teacher, as well as the school itself, will have been witness to a never-ending stream of the character’s interactions, hearing all about their prom and, in a most bittersweet turn, their discussions on the upcoming “class excursion” to Mount Pinatubo. The permission slip, sent “home” to their “parents” is available on the Battalia Royale blog, along with a comprehensive chronicle of every character’s personality, relationships, and strengths and weakness (not only as human beings, but as contestants in the deadly government program to which they will soon be subjected). I would read up and get to know them while you can. They haven’t got much time.
What this means is that Sipat Lawin’s scheduled performances have become tangible, meaningful dates in the lives of over 40 people; 40 people who, up until that opening night, will be chatting amongst themselves, flirting with and cyber-bullying one another, wholly unaware that two months ago a script for a play was written which dictated the terms, time and location of their brutal deaths. They don’t even know that they’re characters in a play, and there’s no point warning them, because they are actively being kept ignorant by their puppet-master performers to the coming events in their lives. What better device in the history of mankind to separate actor from character than a username and password? In an age where our real-world identities are becoming further embedded in a virtual abstraction of ourselves, it would appear the inverse is also becoming increasingly possible; that fictional characters, if given such freedom, can develop an online persona (which in turn infers an organic existence), which may well match or even surpass those of their real-world counterparts. Catherine “Kakai” Gail Bantagan, the angel-faced whore with a switchblade in her panties is just as real, if not more to me now, than the friend of the friend I went to high school with who I now never see any more. The only difference is, in a matter of days Kakai will be kidnapped and sentenced to a death-grudge-match against 39 of her other classmates, and will try to smile, slice, and fuck her way out of it any way possible. Whereas that friend of a friend of mine will simply continue to post pictures of their average-looking boyfriend, and complain about peak hour traffic. Who is more worthy of your time? What is the more worthwhile use of such social-cum-storytelling platforms as Facebook? Though it begs the question – how will Facebook react to an email from Sipat Lawin Ensemble, informing them of the deaths of over 40 users, and requesting their accounts be archived? Will 40 death certificates require forging? Or will the electronic ghosts of Our Lady of Guadalupe High’s Class Hope live on, online, long after the final machete has been swung and the last explosive round set off in a classmate’s brain? We may never truly know, in an online community of static images and doctored samples of inner monologue, who is real and who is fiction. Watch on, watch on, watch on.
Game begins tomorrow.
February 21, 22, 23.
Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/263719753697143/