Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Originally Printed in The Skinny: Slope as an action based on Grotowski

'From this radically slanted perspective, they look down on the actors as if watching animals in a ring, or like medical students watching an operation ((also, this detached, downward viewing gives the action a sense of moral transgression)'

Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre

Now I know where Stewart Laing got the idea to have Slope performed in a little box above which we watched...

If Rimbaud were alive today, he'd be throwing televisions out of hotel windows.

Director and designer Stewart Laing has been working on projects at Tramway for nearly ten years, and his latest work, 'Slope', a dramatisation of the love affair between the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, is the finale of the summer programme. Beginning with Rimbaud's dramatic arrival in 1870s Paris, and ending with Verlaine's shooting of his lover in Brussels, the play explores the tension and passions of two men in revolt from society, exploring the extremities of sexual, political and literary experience.

Coming from an art school background, and known for his work in opera, Stewart Laing is enthusiastic both about the intimacy of this production and Tramway's approach to theatre. As we sit in the Hidden Gardens at the rear of the building, he explains to me the attraction of Rimbaud's approach to life, the contemporary relevance of the story and the challenges of exploring history on stage.

"Slope is about the four or five years that Rimbaud was involved with Verlaine," he begins. "He arrived in Paris when he was so young, and he had to have certain experiences to make his work. He deliberately pushed to the extremes: alcohol abuse, drug abuse and tortuous relationships fuelled the work."

It seems that poetry is not associated with wild behaviour these days. In what ways does Rimbaud speak to a modern audience?

"Pete Doherty identifies himself as a poet," says Laing by way of example. "He came to prominence as a teenage poet. He went on tour with the British Council to Russia, promoting him as an example of the best of British.

"In terms of rock music, Patti Smith was obsessed with Rimbaud. Jim Morrison from the Doors, David Bowie and indeed Pete all quote Rimbaud as a champion - not only in terms of the work but the rock and roll lifestyle. If he were alive today, he'd be throwing televisions out of hotel windows."

Tramway is promoting 'Slope' as adult entertainment. At the heart of the play is a homosexual relationship which would be controversial even today: "When he met Rimbaud, Verlaine was married and his wife was pregnant. Then these two men started having an affair and ran away to London, exploring the seamier side of life. Even now people would sit up and listen.

"They lived together as a married couple. They shared one room. They were incredibly forward thinking, in terms of modern gay life. But they were always worried about what people in Paris thought about them. Verlaine would write letters to his wife, saying 'we are just studying here'. Then you read the poems and they are all about men's arseholes and cocks.

"But they were not 'gay men'. If any modern label could be fitted to them they were both bisexual: they were seeing women at the same time that they were lovers. You can't contextualise them as 'out and proud' in terms of Victorian society."

Is it possible to understand a nineteenth century love affair in terms of modern attitudes?

"Well, we are not trying to do something historically accurate - the language isn't," says Laing. "This isn't 'authentic' in that sense, but adapted to be interesting to people today: rather it is suggestive. There is a Victorian framework.

"Homosexuality was still a medical condition. The word 'homosexual' was a medical description of a disorder. They were interested in everything that life had to offer, anything subversive: politically, artistically, lifestyle and sexuality. It is difficult to think how radical two men living together would be in that time."

The social pressures on the couple eventually led to their break-up. Laing explains that "Rimbaud is doing it as an experiment: what is outside this box that we call society. He was academically very gifted. For Verlaine, Rimbaud represented anarchy, his wife comfort. He could never embrace the anarchy alone. Whether it was through alcoholic delusion or not, his idea was that the three of them could live together and bring up his kid. That was his fantasy.

"Both Rimbaud and Verlaine's wife told him that he was insane. They were in something that they couldn't get out of."

Laing has a very clear vision of his protagonist's passions and addictive behaviours. 'Slope' looks at the chaos that Rimbaud caused, in a period of rapid social change. It is both a domestic drama - about a love triangle and the pull of different desires - and a meditation on the process of artistic creation.

1 comment :

  1. stewart laing here - interesting that you are picking up on slope again as we are planning on doing a new production of pamela's play later on this year. and to say the grotowski production of the constant prince was a very clear reference point for us as to the original staging of slope at tramway in 2006.