The Red Chair – Scotland 2017
A contemporary take on folk and fairytale storytelling traditions, The Red Chair is a surreal ballad populated with larger than life characters which draws the audience into the extraordinary world of a troubled family, living together but each trapped in their own lonely worlds. Told in a saucy Scots dialect, The Red Chair tells the darkly humorous story of a father who eats and eats until he turns into the chair he is sitting upon, the wife doomed to cook his meals and their 'inveesible' daughter.
The epic and lyrical narrative takes audiences on a journey through a landscape of twisted reason, extreme compulsion and eye watering complacency, where domestic drudgery happens on an operatic scale and a father’s dereliction of duty reaches epic proportions. At three points in the show, audiences are invited to try tasty nibbles sourced from local suppliers and a dram of whisky to oil the way.
Created in collaboration with Dundee-born Sarah Cameron and based on her original book, The Red Chair is performed with the physical vitality that has become a trademark of Clod Ensemble’s work, rooted in the training that both Sarah and director Suzy Willson received at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Woven into the production is an original sound score created by Clod Ensemble co-artistic director Paul Clark.
Director Suzy Willson said “Clod Ensemble usually works with music and is movement based work rather than being centered around text. We had worked with Sarah Cameron as a performer for many years but had no idea she could write too, so when she showed us the book she had been working on called The Red Chair, we were blown away by the quality of the language. Sarah is a virtuosic physical performer as well as a sculptor -the story felt to us like a kind of sculpture of words and we immediately wanted to hear and see her telling it.”
Writer and performer Sarah Cameron said: “A Scottish tour is a thrilling prospect as it is an opportunity to bring the work back to its natural home. The language and the dialect of conjurer’s up the wild beauty of the Scottish landscape. The text speaks of family and ancestry and in many ways is a romantic remembrance of Scotland, which is ingrained within my being and my heart.”
I'd better be careful: I might be out of my depth talking about storytelling. But reading the synopsis for The Red Chair, I am struck by the way it could go two (out of many) ways. On the one hand, it reads like a fantastic fairy tale for younger audiences; on the other, it is pretty dark and might have some mature content. Can you help me out on that?
Every piece of theatre and every film is a bit of storytelling - but I know what you mean! We tend of think of something very specific when we think of storytelling.
When I began writing the story, my idea was that it was for children. In the very best tradition of fairy tales and myth, it was always going to be dark. When you deconstruct Ashputtel (Cinderella) or Hansel & Gretel for example, the predicament of the child is pretty grim. When I got my teeth into “The Inveesible Child” a much more troubling story began to emerge. Her voice, the lemon juice cutting through the fat of the narrator’s, is very different.
Whereas the narrator is poised, barbed, flamboyant, Queanie (written in a more dynamic and guttural dialect) is mercurial, raw, visceral, elemental - the howl of a wolf. The Red Chair begins like a fairy tale - the baroque and cartoon structure of the story creates a safe space, I suppose, from which we can explore the darker aspects of the human condition.
As the story goes on the voice of narrator and the voice of Queanie merge - it becomes less like a fairy tale, and more like a poem, perhaps. The form of the story begins to unravel as the transformations occur. My children (aged 6 &10) saw it - but yes, I would say that older children (from age 12 onwards?) would get something from it - but it’s a story for all ages and all people, in the way fairy tales are intended.
I'm really interested in how you'd approach storytelling from a dramaturgical perspective. That is, you start with a book and transform it into performance. Where there any strategies that made this process easier?
Well, it was much easier because it was adapted from a story that I’d written and consequently I knew it inside out. Also, there was no rush - Clod Ensemble’s co-artistic director Suzy Willson & I took our time to adapt it from the original - over a period of about 3 years. It was vital to have Suzy’s impartial and fresh, outside eye. We had writing & editing sessions, as well as performing sessions.
Along with Paul Clark (the other artistic director of Clod) we showed scratch performances to invited guests about 5 or 6 times during those 3 years. That gave us an idea of what worked and what didn’t. It was a great privilege actually, to be able to take that amount of time and it was brilliant that Suzy & Paul chose to work this way.
In the early 90’s I was a resident company member of the Young Vic under the directorship of Tim Supple. The first show we made was the Christmas Show, an adaptation of Grimm’s Tales. Up until that period (1993/4) there wasn't very much good children’s theatre around but Grimm’s Tales turned out to be a seminal show and set the bar for a new kind of children’s theatre. During rehearsals we’d used the original tales - in their narrative form, as scripts. We improvised with them, edited and dramatised as we went along, on our feet.
Through this process we discovered what needed to stay as text, what we could do in action and when we could use both. Carol Ann Duffy poetised our dramatised version of the tales. I learned how to tell a story with simplicity & clarity.
So when it came to adapting The Red Chair I had some knowledge in my bones. It became clear to me too that verse was going to really help the telling of the tale, especially because of the language and dialect.
Suzy was brilliant in cutting out the fat and we jiggled and re-jiggled bits of text around, until it came together. It was also edited after during the run of first few shows and it really found its feet (half an hour shorter than the first ever show) at the Brighton Festival in 2014, where we won an award. It’s the putting of it on its feet that’s an essential part of the adapting process.
Because I have spent all afternoon reading about the Enlightenment (and not watching YouTube videos, not at all), I am currently obsessed with the idea that the world has become 'disenchanted': it's not really full of sprites and angels anymore, just mathematical equations and people trying to sell me stuff. But The Red Chair seems to inhabit a timeless world, where magic is still present and transformation is always possible. Do you feel a connection with a more mystical vision of the world and is that expressed through the story?
Gosh. And yes. Good question. Glad you’re not watching YouTube ;) I do think the world has become ‘disenchanted’, at least parts of it. I do find physics (not that I understand much of it) and the exploration of space extremely enchanting - so science has its own magic and wonder.
But (& I’ve become a little obsessed with this too recently) there’s something about masses of technology, closing down of pubs and gathering spaces, mass urbanisation, the speeding up of lives, the blurring of day and night, our heads in screens, living in a secular society (I’m not religious, but biblical & other religious stories are full of enchantment & strange things) and so on that’s created this age of ‘disenchantment’ perhaps?
I feel that we're losing our sense of spirit/soul, how each of us is connected to the next, and the other, and ultimately to our world, our universe. In the story, there's no technology at all and so the young hero, Queanie, has no other choice but to rely upon her imagination, and her books. It was important to create a sense of no time or all time - I feel that the story has mythical resonance. Queanie survives because of her imagination.
She’s a product of her environment certainly, in more ways than one. Queanie is an embodiment of the land about her, she’s the moor and the mist and the blizzard and the lightning strike - the fox, the wolf, the snawy owl. There’s something in that for me - our attachment to the land, our spiritual connectedness to the trees, the earth, the animals, the stars, the universe - our ancestors too. At the moment, and I don’t know why, I feel very strongly that I walk in their ancient footsteps.
I don’t know if you’ve seen images of the stencilled hands (9,000 years old) on the Cuevade Las Manos in Patagonia? I’m very inspired by this image, fixated by it somewhat - a sea of waving hands, made up of many individuals over time - open, joyful, ancient - and yet symbolising a whole community. I feel a primal rage against what’s happening/happened in our society, where so many people are isolated and alone.
George Monbiot has coined our era ‘The Age of Loneliness.’ We’re pack animals and we need each other to thrive. Perhaps as you suggest, re-discovering ‘enchantment’ can bring us together? Stories certainly can.
I do feel a mystical connection to our planet, and beyond. But you know I come from a great line of storytellers - don’t all Scots? My Gran and Dad told endless eerie stories and of course we visited haunted castles and misty moors as children. The melancholy hues of the Scottish landscape and the dark, forbidding architecture of the land is fertile breeding ground for such spooky tales, and I tramped through the Glens, the moors, the Highlands often throughout my eighteen years in Scotland.
There was never any doubt that ghosts do exist. I was told as a child that Ghosts were about us, all the time. And of course, as you get older you could choose to understand that in a different way. I do think that it’s in the Scottish DNA to believe in spirits, ghosts and such-like.
The magical transformations in the story are also metaphors for emotional and/or physical states. They can be interpreted and understood in that way too. There are transformations happening around us all the time and in their own small ways, they are miraculous. Perhaps we’ve forgotten how to acknowledge them?
So, the other thing that might make it look like I have done some reading, the use of Scots strikes me as another counterblast to the Enlightenment: this is very much locating the performance in a particular location (and I think I read something in Adorno about how capitalism aims at the universal, like how Disney flatten everything into a generic animation style to sell it more easily). What made you decide on using a language that isn't easily marketable outside of its own area (although that might be an assumption on my part - but I am hoping that there's something about the tradition of the language in there…)?
I didn’t really decide. First of all, a few smatterings of Scots arrived, imperceptibly really. A friend suggested I build on that. So I started searching for Scot’s words and I was beguiled - I felt like I’d found a box of golden treasure. The language was just so beautiful, colourful, rich, resonant, witty, chewable, sculptural. I was transported to my young years in Scotland and the liveliness of the language that had been all around me - which actually, had been forbidden to me at the time - of course that made it all the more delectable and exciting.
My mum was English and when my dad and she returned to Scotland after they'd met, he began speaking in the local dialect again much to my mum’s displeasure. So, she sent us all to elocution lessons to make sure we didn’t pick up the local lingo too. And of course living down South for so many years, I’d lost my connection to the language, I’d also suppressed it. But as I wrote The Red Chair (I read aloud as I write) I felt like I was discovering my real and true voice - and it was very Scottish! So in the process of writing The Red Chair, which is all about transformation, I myself was being transformed, in more ways than one. I do think there was some enchantment going on!
There is great liberation in performing and owning these words. And I feel very strongly that these words must survive - I think there’s a bit of a movement in Scotland now isn’t there - a reclaiming of the Scot’s?
Although the story is clearly set in Scotland, I don’t say it specifically. I say, ‘someplace in the glum north o’ the warld..’ I feel that the Scot’s dialect in the Red Chair is a poetic voice. The words have been formed over hundreds of years and are as ancient as the hills. In the same way that the story is timeless and has something of the ancient myth about it, so the dialect, for me (perhaps because I’m an outsider) is timeless; for me it’s a universal voice, in the very best sense; an ancestral, ancient, mythical voice; a potent voice full of knowledge and wit.
So yes, it might be challenging for some but no more so than going to see a Shakespeare play. After 10 minutes your ear attunes to the difference and it’s no longer an issue (I hope!). We’ve done lots of shows in England and people have often commented on the Scots and how much they love it. Whilst it’s idiosyncratic and distinctive, it’s also mercurial - it’s not academic, it’s not specific.
There’s some made up stuff and there are words from different parts of the country (the world too) - it’s by no means purist. I agree with what you say above re. Disney etc. I feel stubborn about this wonderful language (and heritage) and it can and must be heard outside of Scotland - it’s too brilliant not to be shared. There’s a strong desire to combat the machine that says we all must be alike, homogenised.
Of course there were also huge influences from Rabbie Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Billy Connolly, William Topaz McGonagall, Robert Louis Stevenson et al from when I was wee. The sculptural dynamic of the language, its toothsomeness, the way the mouth and body has to move to accommodate the words, is inspiring to me too. They resonate with my training as a sculptor, and a Lecoqian.
Lecoq is all the rage in my house. Are there any aspects of the performance that you would ascribe to the school's teaching?
All of it. And I write that with a big smile on my face.
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins | Suitable for ages 14+
Directed by Suzy Willson Written and performed by Sarah Cameron
Music by Paul Clark Lighting Design by Hansjorg Schmidt
Design by Sarah Blenkinsop Produced in association with Fuel
Clod Ensemble is one of the UK’s most prominent interdisciplinary performance companies. Music and movement is deeply embedded in all of the works in the company’s repertoire. For over 20 years the company has created an extraordinary body of work lead by Artistic Directors Suzy Willson and Paul Clark. Their work is presented across the UK and internationally, including Sadler’s Wells, Tate Modern, Public Theater New York and Serralves Museum Poto. Clod Ensemble has a repertoire of critically acclaimed work, each production with its own distinctive musical and visual identity. Recently the Company has embarked in a new music collaboration with OENM in Salzburg.
Suzy Willson graduated from Manchester University before studying with Jacques Lecoq in Paris. On her return she co-founded Clod Ensemble and has directed all of their productions to date. She teaches drama and movement to students, actors, musicians and leads the company's Performing Medicine project. She has worked as a movement director on productions at the Gate, Soho Theatre, BAC, with film director Arnaud Desplechin, performance poet Malaika B, and Jessica Ogden for London Fashion week.
Paul Clark is a leading composer on the British performance scene. His music has reached a range of international audiences and venues such as Lincoln Centre NewYork, Vienna Burgtheater, Berlin Schaubuhne and Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, through collaborations with Gare St Lazare Irelend and Director Katie Mitchell.
About Sarah Cameron
Sarah Cameron is an artist, performer and writer. Born in Dundee, she studied sculpture at the Chelsea School of Art and theatre at Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Young Vic, where she was a member of the resident company that created the legendary production of Grimm Tales. She first worked with Clod Ensemble in 1999, touring their production of Greed internationally in 2003, performing in Zero at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and most recently in a production of An Anatomie in Four Quarters at The Lowry.
The Red Chair is produced in association with Fuel. Founded in 2004, and led by Louise Blackwell and Kate McGrath, Fuel is a producing organisation working in partnership with some of the most exciting artists in the UK to develop, create and present new work for all. Fuel is currently working with artists including: Will Adamsdale, Clod Ensemble, Inua Ellams, Fevered Sleep, David Rosenberg, Sound&Fury, Uninvited Guestsand Melanie Wilson.