Monday, 25 March 2013

Sex and God (Again) Nicholas Bone and Linda McLean

It's pretty clear that Magnetic North, despite having been lauded for the hilarious David Shrigley opera Pass the Spoon, have big ambitions to be championed by The Vile Blog. Calling a play God and Sex attracted my attention like a bee to a rose. I have always been fond of the company, due to their constantly shifting styles, attention to detail, support for other artists (expressed through their "Rough Mix" residencies) and collaborations with interesting writers - Pamela Carter, Shrigley and now Linda McLean.  Since they are rehearsing up at Platform, I couldn't wait to invite them onto the radio show. Before that, I managed to bother both MacLean and director Nicholas Bone for a quick chat about the work.

Sex and God is touring as part of The Scottish Mental Health Film and Art Festival - another project that I can't support enough - and looks at the lives of four women, connecting their experiences through time and places.

Gareth K Vile: I inevitably got excited by the title, but wonder whether God is quite as fascinating to most people as it is to me. I was actually surprised to see the word in the title... so, can I expect much theology in the work?
Linda McLean: There are two answers to this, inevitably...
The first is that you can expect a lot about God and you'll hear it in the voices and changing experiences of the women; and the second is, you'll have to do the theology work for yourself.  It's in there but I would never belabor it.

GKV: I rather like the idea of weaving four lives together across time, and focussing on a particular strand of experience... Hmmm. Sorry, that's an ugly way of saying - I wonder why you decided to make it four women as the focus of the play?
 LML: Two answers again: stories were passed through my family by the women; the history was kept by them and although that only makes up a part of the research it was a strong influence. And many of the stories they told were about their men.  There is no absence of men in these stories of sex and god.

GKV: Sometimes I whine on about scripts being so old fashioned, but I am interested in what encourages you to believe in the script as the foundation of theatre... and how has the nature of script writing responded to the growth of devised and physical theatre?
 LML: I don't believe in the script as the only foundation of theatre.  I believe theurgy and hermeticism is the foundation of theatre and they were an alliance of theism, science and alchemy.

Script writing has always depended upon transformers: writers, actors and directors are artists who come together with other theatre artists to make a live event.  I have little talent for anything other than script writing (oh, maybe except crochet) and I have always relied on the talents of others.

GKV: After doing an opera, what made you go for a play again?
Nicholas Bone:  For me, the idea is the thing that you start with, and then you have to find the approach (a style or scale) to suit that - for Walden, the answer was intimate and direct, for Pass the Spoon it was big and brash. There is also a question of forward planning around these choices: after doing Walden, there was a certain expectation that we'd do another small and perfectly formed show but I liked the idea of doing something very different, to surprise myself and the audience. 

I had planned for a long time that we would do an opera at some point and after doing a show with one prop for an audience no larger than 40, it seemed like a good moment to stretch ourselves in the opposite direction. Now, having done a big show with puppets, singers, a dancing turd and a live band to audiences of up to 900 people at a time, it is hugely refreshing creatively to do a show for 4 actors speaking on a simple stage with no props.  In all cases the focus is on how you communicate with an audience, the difference is how you decide to approach that.

GKV: How does this piece fit in with the vision of Magnetic North's commitment to experimental theatre?
NB: Magnetic North's commitment isn't so much to experimental theatre as to experimentation, to asking the question 'What happens if...?'  That's why our creative development programme Rough Mix (in which we put artists from different practices together) is such an important part of how we work.  Rough Mix explores the practice of creativity, and what happens during those workshops feeds into everything else we do as a company.
This play started with Linda McLean and I trying to find an idea that would interest us enough to spend quite a long time exploring it and making it happen.  The idea that gradually evolved was of portraying suspended time - the immediate inspiration was Cornelia Parker's installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View - and then we had to find what the story was.  
We started off looking at a particular story, only a minute fraction of which remains in the final play, but somehow it didn't work.  As so often happens, we both went away and did other stuff and then the answer appeared. Linda went back to some research she'd done previously on the lives of working women in Glasgow.  We'd both been working on Rough Mix and Linda said "I know what the play is" and then wrote a first draft incredibly quickly.  It was the most extraordinary first draft I'd ever read - it seemed to have flowed out fully formed. The idea of suspended time, of a fractured, impressionistic narrative fitted the stories perfectly.

There's a certain truth in the idea that all artists spend their life repeating the same idea, but the really interesting ones keep finding new ways to answer the question.  There are themes that run through all of Linda's work, but she's constantly looked for new ways to explore them - there are strong connections between her first play One Good Beating and Sex and God, but stylistically they are completely different.  Sex and God is impressionistic, built up from shards of stories and it asks the audience to really pay attention.

GKV: And finally - how does this work with the general themes of the SMHFAF?
There are four characters in the play, each from a different time in the 20th century. One of the characters - Lizzie - ends up in a psychiatric hospital and her journey is about accepting the events that led to her confinement.  She grows up between the two world wars and lives on the edge of calamity.  She raises a family, including a girl with Down's syndrome, with no money and constantly on the run from the bailiffs. 

Her grip on reality is sometimes tenuous, but there is a romantic, almost visionary aspect to her and she seems to experience things differently to the other women. Her wastrel husband introduces her to drugs, and when the little girl dies in a domestic accident, she falls over the edge she has balanced on for so long. The portrayal of her and her situation is sympathetic; although she lives in a period where mental health issues were buried away, Lizzie seems almost to revel and celebrate the way that she perceives things differently to other people.

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