Monday, 17 November 2014

Bondagers interview revisited

Having seen Bondagers at the weekend - and caught between my enjoyment of the show and the mysterious claims for its 'relevance' that turned up in the reviews, I decided to revisit the interview with Lu Kemp that I edited for The List...

Bondagers is a play that is frequently cited as an example of the growth of a political Scottish playwriting tradition: and it seems to sit on a line between a politics of national identity and feminism. How have you approached the script, and what reading have you given it?

Bondagers arrived in the early 90s as part of a vibrant surge in Scottish playwriting, with Scottish playwrights wrestling (as playwrights have always done) with big political questions. It embraces the rich, oral storytelling tradition and poetic language of Scots, and celebrates a lost moment of Scottish history. 

But the Bondaging system was not exclusive to Scotland – it stretched across the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. To my mind Bondagers is not so much a play about national identity as about our relationship to the land we stand upon, and the tension between bondage and freedom, which is true of humans everywhere no matter what their nationality. 

The play articulates a forgotten moment of female working history and gives strong voice to six women. But is, arguably, a powerful play about humans, who happen to be women. The reason we label it feminist is because a play with six women on stage, or, indeed, which places women as the heroes of the piece, is still, even now, unusual. The question this immediately proposes is: are we content with the status quo?

The status quo here seems to be the status quo of theatre, and the lack of plays with a variety of good roles for women. Now - that's another problem caused by the amount of Shakespeare that gets produced: most twentieth century writers, after Beckett, weren't shy of a good female character... and Kemp isn't obsessing over the gender politics but noting it as part of a humanist reading. 

What is it like, as a director, to take on a play with a reputation like this - a contemporary classic isn't an unfair description?
An accurate description I think. It’s a testimony to the play that it is
as precise and relevant today, twenty-five years after it was written, as when it was first produced. It endures.

It’s no exaggeration to say the original production was a huge success, and beautifully directed. But the script shifts in relation to the world it sits within, so we're not working on the same script, we're working on that text now responding to our times - we're not taking on a classic, we are having a conversation with this audience. 

Aha! Relevance rears its head. Kemp doesn't define what she means by this, but merely says that it has retained its relevance from the first production... her comments on the play as a'classic' are far more illuminating. And she goes on to tell me even more interesting things...

And the obvious question: what attracted you to it?
Obvious answer: it’s a brilliant piece of storytelling. The characters are beautifully drawn. It gives lots of room to the creatives. It is a play which allows me to cast six women in leading roles, and we have a force of female acting talent in Scotland.

Would you locate it in any particular tradition of theatre?
One of the remarkable things about Sue’s script is how open it is.
Drew Farrell
She is very clear that it is not a historical document, it is a living, breathing, theatrical proposition. It embraces a panoply of styles seemingly referencing Greek theatre, abstract theatre, modern dance. It’s a very generous piece of work. 

Yes! That's what makes it worth doing - and the way Glover shifts between genre is subtle, giving the script a fiery pace and allowing on of the most organic plot developments that I have seen. It's far from naturalism - the women dance and sing, do physical sequences representing their work in the fields - but the way the drama emerges from their daily life is cunning. 

You have worked in radio as well as for the stage. Is there much cross-over between the two media in terms of direction?
There’s always cross over. In essence you are finding a way to work with a group of people to bring a story to life with clarity and force. But the way you direct for radio and for theatre is very different. A writer once referred to radio direction as a benign autocracy, whereas theatre (or what makes good theatre to my mind) is a deeply collaborative process. If one person in the room was changed for someone else, the outcome would be different.

What makes the Lyceum the right place for this production?
Drew Farrell

The Lyceum has fantastic depth as a space, and most of the time we don't get to see that – sets bring the actors downstage and towards the audience. This play is set in a world where you walk outside and see for miles. It’s about women who, by hand, turned over field upon field of earth. It’s about the horizon being way ahead in the distance and the land stretching back behind you. We can play that in any space, but the Lyceum gives us the depth of image to work on.

What is it about theatre and live performance that draws you back to it?

There’s a power to the exchange between performer and audience that can change us. I think we feel it in the body, that connection. And for me, asking us the audience to engage physically, instinctively, rather than respond intellectually, is a very powerful way to engage. It’s a brilliant medium to open up new conversations and to challenge the dominant narrative.

And can I ask quickly - how does your approach as a director differ from your approach as a dramaturg?

When I work as a dramaturg, I am not the lead artist. I am there to facilitate the clearest lines of communication between the idea, the artist(s) and the audience. As a dramaturg I can happily work with artists I admire, but whose taste I do not necessarily share.

As a director, I think my job is to articulate the direction of travel, and to enable everyone in the room to be creative and collaborative within those parameters. Ultimately, what I put on stage as a director, will expand upon an idea and a vision of the world that I, and the company, would like to propose to an audience.

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