Friday, 1 January 2016

Cooking up a new dish with old ingredients

In his comprehensive study of pop and rock's apparent obsession with the past Retromania, Simon Reynolds sketches the present of music that is obsessed with its heritage. Aside from the inevitable problems faced by a music that is based on youth and innovation as it matures, Reynolds identifies the internet as enabling a massive archiving of previous trends and encouraging the mix and mash approach of much contemporary music. 

Theatre and performance, however, has always had a less ambiguous relationship with the past - the idea of classic rock might be a problem, and an immensely tedious cataloguing of worthy white male music, but classic theatre is far more easily assimilated into the performance process. The prevalence of Shakespeare, even Greek tragedy, or Chekov in the listings reveals that theatre's past remains part of its vitality.

With the Traverse looking back on fifty years of "new writing" by
selecting fifty contemporary playwrights and Sell A Door touring an adaptation of Orwell's 1984, artists still use the past as a foundation for experimentation. The longer time scales of theatre's history allow a company like Rapture to revive The Sash - originally written in 1973 - and point to its continued relevance, and when David Greig wanted to explore that most pressing modern anxiety, Scottish national identity, he went back to Macbeth. Theatre itself may be seen as old fashioned - certainly, both cinema and television are more immediate - but this allows it to consider the present in a wider context. 

For director Michael Emans, The Sash is as important today as it was at the time of its premiere. The story of a father and son, torn apart by the values that once brought them together - and dealing with the still intense sectarian divide in Glasgow - The Sash is sometimes mistaken for a relic of an early age. "The issues are still key today," says Emans. He regrets that  "it has been sucked into the void that is inhabited by plays like Still a Bigot that take a more politically incorrect view of these things." For while many of the plays that focus on Glasgow's religious conflicts go for the laughs and are conservative in their reading of the city's culture, The Sash is far more personal.

"It is set in 1973 at the height of the troubles in Ireland," Emans admits.  "1972 had been one of the most violent periods in Ireland: when Hector MacMillan wrote it it was immediate and raw, and that power comes across. But it is also about a family, and the Orange Order is still prolific and a lot of people are part of it."

 "It has a lot of emotional and political clout: how the family unit can be destroyed by destroyed by belief," Emans explains. Insisting that it is "a neglected contemporary classic," he points out that "it could be about any father and son who are driven apart because of entrenched beliefs - whether they are religious beliefs or not."

Emans' case for The Sash implicitly invokes the power of theatre to tell both a specific story - this one revolves around a father's traditional faith in the Orange Order against his son's more progressive - and erotic - desires - and examine its underlying metaphysics. Emans is resisting the temptation to update the script.

"It is still very glasgow," he admits. "The action is still set in the early 1970s, before punk rock and rave exposed intergenerational conflict more clearly but he is delighted that the nature of the dramatic conflict is universal. "You can connect to the politics or the intellectual idea of the play. It's a real ride of a play and we are very excited about it."

"It questions how you reconcile a tradition with the aspirations of your children," he continues. "That obsession where people hold onto things because it gives them a sense of belief and consequently alienates other people. If you are stuck you can loose the thing that you want to nurture, that you are prepared to forego a relationship with your family. " While Reynolds ponders the problems of pop's increasing obsession with the past, bemoaning, amongst other things, how the museums of rock'n'roll give more space to the 1960s and 1970s than to what is happening now, Emans has recognised that the past isn't as distant or different as it might appear.

Meanwhile, Gob Squad are bringing a different reading of past glory to the stage: Kitchen restages Andy Warhol's film as a live performance. But this version is a very long way away from the kind of reverential musical that transforms Priscilla Queen of the Desert into a star vehicle for Jason Donovan. In the spirit of Warhol's movie, there's plenty of improvisation, waiting and questioning. 

Homing in on an earlier decade than The Sash, and a more radical location in New York, Kitchen does poke at some of the same questions, mostly around the theme of change. Undoubtedly, a revolution was happening in Warhol's Factory, but its nature is not yet clear. Gob Squad have a crack at discussing those issues that are still in ferment today (feminism is a major concern for the actors in 1965 and 2013). 

Unlike The Sash, however, it has the anxiety of being hip and trying to work out what it means to be ahead of the pack. 

Kitchen takes Warhol more as a foundation than a fundamental text, and plays hard and fast with the original film, even adding in elements from his other movies and boasting "modern haircuts." There's a clear acknowledgement that this is a reinterpretation. If the 1960s produced much of the most exciting music in pop, there are broader cultural changes of the same period which are still being felt today. The rise in hipster fashions reflect Warhol's influence on art culture, and the performed amorality of Warhol himself (he remained a devout Catholic benrath his apparently superficial persona) echoes in the dry superficiality of much contemporary art - which itself might be a game or front.

The contrast between the two pieces elegantly emphasises the complexity of theatre's history. Gob Squad are themselves an avant-garde company, in the sense of using a more informal process of creation than the script, yet they find themselves casting glances back to an earlier period for clues. Warhol's films are perhaps most dated by those things, like not learning lines, that made it so now in 1965. The Sash maintains its philosophical energy through the old school techniques of script and direction.

Both The Sash and Kitchen might come under the theatre banner, and has some overlap in themes, but they are as different in genre as The Velvet Underground and Wylie: if theatre is more comfortable with its own past than popular music, it has a similar diversity of style, which is sometimes obscured by the conformity of critical approaches. In the example of the Traverse's Fifty emerging playwrights, or the various performances that visit Summerhall (from zomble infestation immersive, scientific theatre to French clown tales of Russian writers), it's possible to imagine a variety of voices that specialise as much as the independent music charts. 

But for Emans there is something that connects all great theatre. "I am interested in plays that can transform people - that an audience come out of it thinking different things -  it's almost therapeutic," he says.  "The name of my company,  Rapture means a heightened state of awareness. Spectacle  is wonderful but if the substance can move people that is more wonderful." And above all, Kitchen and The Sash are connected by their willingness to provoke both questions and this intense experience.

The Sash On tour across Scotland until June 
Gob Squad's Kitchen The Arches 3 May, 7,30pm 

No comments :

Post a Comment