Dark Magic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

No jingling sleigh bells or yells of “he’s behind you” at Northern Stage this Christmas. Dark Woods, Deep Snow, the theatre’s main stage Yuletide show, is certainly festive, but perhaps not in ways that theatregoers have come to anticipate at this time of year. Think less Santa, more magic. “It’s not what an audience will expect coming into a Christmas show,” admits director Lorne Campbell, “but also it’s got all the things that an audience can and should expect coming into a Christmas show; they’re just a little bit in disguise.”

Dark Woods, Deep Snow is Campbell’s first main stage production at the helm at Northern Stage, testing the new artistic director’s commitment to staging work that is large scale, exciting and powerfully local. While his debut might be a family Christmas show, typically seen as a low risk staple of the yearly programme, for Campbell this is the perfect challenge to create a theatre that is at once “populist and sophisticated”.

“We’ve tried to do something really ambitious,” he tells me. “The production is massive, it’s non-naturalistic, it’s visually – I think – absolutely stunning.” For the show, Campbell has brought together a group of artists, including writer Chris Thorpe, designer Garance Marneur and choreographers and performers RashDash, whose “spirit of experimentation” he wanted to free from studio theatres and unleash on a bigger stage. The hope was to retain the mischief and ingenuity, but expand the scale.

This marriage of experiment and scale, tradition and reinvention, is immediately evident at the level of the show’s plot. Charged with creating a narrative that was rooted in this time of year without conforming slavishly to Christmas show conventions, Thorpe was immediately drawn to the idea of stories. He was intrigued by “why there’s this urge in us to get together at this time of year, when the nights are the darkest, and try and turn things around and tell each other stories”.

Captivated by the image of tales shared at the fireside, and drawing inspiration from the story gathering project undertaken by the Brothers Grimm, Thorpe dreamed up a group of characters who live at the edges of the human world, in the “infinitely large forests outside of the human reality, where the stories go after we’ve told them to each other”. Here, they collect the narrative refuse of human society, piecing together the once upon a times and happily ever afters.

“The idea is that there’s a group of characters who have been engaging with these stories for as long as humanity has been telling them,” Thorpe explains, “almost behind the scenes of our reality, and they have observed the way that we tell them, but they themselves aren’t necessarily human. I think that’s a really interesting perspective to have on it.”

As an audience joins this group of characters at the start of the show, human stories are under threat from an external force that wants to rob these narratives from our universe, setting up a classic scenario of conflict and peril. Campbell describes it as a “big, exciting, what’s-going-to-happen-next adventure”, with a “big heart of narrative underneath it”.

While driven by a strong central narrative, however, the show simultaneously operates on a number of levels. As Thorpe explains, his invention has allowed him to incorporate both the familiar and the surprising, as fragments of well known stories meet the strange world of the characters he has created. “And also, because you’re not just retelling old stories in a show like this, it allows you to bring a whole bunch of people into the theatre and ask the questions that theatre is really about,” he goes on. “It’s really focused on everyone coming to the theatre and having a brilliant time, but it’s nice that it also links into what the theatre is there for year round; this place where we can all come and we can all share an experience that isn’t replicable in any other medium and we can all ask questions.”

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These subtle layers equally apply to Marneur’s set design, which couples the recognisable, magical aesthetic of the forest with other unexpected, dazzling and occasionally dark elements. “Our styles are all quite dark,” Marneur says of the creative team. “They appear very beautiful at first, but once you dig a little bit deeper there’s always a second layer, a third layer that gets you to ask questions and provokes you. So the forest is the magical forest of a Christmas show, but it’s also diving into one’s subconscious. And of course that’s a beautiful place to be, but it’s also a very scary place to be. As a festive performance, one might not want to go into those dark places. So keeping the high vibe of the Christmas show with such heavy content and such existential questions being asked was my biggest challenge.”

This begs the question of what a Christmas show really needs. When I put this to Campbell, he pauses for a moment. “Joy, scale, chaos, irreverence,” he eventually answers. Thorpe also points to the spirit of Christmas theatre rather than its explicit themes or imagery, referring to a “feeling of coming together at this time of year to do something celebratory and exciting”. While insisting that he’s not trying to “de-Christmasify” the Christmas show, he adds that “it’s not necessarily about saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’, because the entire world is saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’ at this time of year”.

Getting away from the iconography of Christmas might not have been difficult for Thorpe and his fellow theatremakers, but creating a theatrical language that speaks to both old and young has proved to be more of a challenge. Thorpe, who is more accustomed to writing for adult audiences, is adamant that it is not about adjusting down to the children in the audience – “there isn’t a down, there isn’t a hierarchy”. It is instead about “simply and honestly just saying what you think” and finding common ground.

One way to do this is to recapture the thrill and imagination of childhood for all members of the audience, an aim that was essential to Marneur’s design. She describes her set, an otherworldly maze of towering white trees, as a “flexible playground” for the performers to explore. It is also a playground that can be transformed through the art of projection, allowing Marneur to “play with the audience’s perception of the forest” and conjure some of the magic of the fairytale – a form that translates across all ages, just as the show hopes to.

“It’s hopefully a very accessible family show,” Campbell stresses, “but simultaneously it’s a very sophisticated bit of theatre that’s taking its aspiration very seriously, while being irreverent and ridiculous and funny and fantastical and all of those things at once.” None of this, he adds, is specific to Christmas; as always, they are “just trying to make a really great, exciting bit of theatre”.

There is, however, a certain responsibility that the creative team acknowledge towards audiences who might only attend one show a year at Christmas. Realising that this is the first contact many children have with theatre, Thorpe emphasises that “you’ve got to make that count for them”. He and his collaborators also recognise the unique opportunity they have to attract and engage new audiences by demonstrating that theatre is something they can enjoy all year round. Convince them at Christmas, and they might keep coming back.

“It’s for life,” says Thorpe, “it’s not just for Christmas.”

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Lorne Campbell

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As I talk to Lorne Campbell about Northern Stage and this year’s programme at the Edinburgh Fringe, one word keeps stubbornly recurring: “conversation”. The theatre’s new artistic director, still only five weeks into the job, shows a profound understanding of the role of organisations such as Northern Stage in the many current dialogues around theatremaking – dialogues about funding, about politics, about artistic practice. As a key regional producing theatre, Campbell believes that Northern Stage has a responsibility to engage in, respond to and act as a catalyst for those conversations.

“The theatre is a regional theatre,” he says, “and for me that’s about connecting to all of that region. The theatre’s identity is a conversation with all of those multi-faceted communities and identities, rather than a clear thing that you can point a finger at.” When I ask about the importance of a theatre like Northern Stage reflecting its locality, Campbell pauses. “I think that’s quite a complicated question,” he eventually answers. “I think if a theatre like this isn’t local in profound and complicated ways then it’s completely irrelevant, so we have to find a way that our work is of the city and is of the region.”

At the point at which Campbell is taking the reins at Northern Stage, this conversation and these understandings of regional identity are particularly urgent. As he explains, “everything’s on slightly shifting sands”; the organisation is currently coping with cutbacks from the city council and Arts Council England, at the same time as bracing itself for further slashes to its funding. “In the face of all of that, it’s about trying to find the most dynamic and optimistic model you can, but it’s quite difficult to plan into the medium term,” Campbell admits.

While the necessity of protecting the theatre in the short term makes longer term visions difficult at this stage, Campbell makes it clear that Northern Stage’s community of artists is a key priority. “I’ve arrived at a very interesting moment where there is a hugely exciting cohort of artists and companies and writers and actors all coming through in the North East,” he explains, “so a big challenge for us is how we not only protect that generation of artists, but continue their momentum.” He describes the present as a “really potential-filled, optimistic moment”, but he’s under no illusions about how easily that potential could be wasted if the theatre is not able to continue supporting the development of those artists.

Another repeated word in Campbell’s vocabulary, despite the difficult times that Northern Stage and other organisations currently face, is “optimism”. He remains hopeful about the theatre’s ability to harness its resources in support of the artists it has discovered and nurtured over the years, as well as about the potential of the main stage. “We need to make more work on it,” he states, firmly and unequivocally. “More of our own work and work which tells exciting, contemporary stories about not only the present of the North East, but also the future.” He imagines this stage as “a political space, sort of inspired by Joan Littlewood and John McGrath”.

“So much of it is about exercising community,” Campbell explains as he outlines his approach. He smoothly segues into talking about St Stephen’s, the Edinburgh Fringe venue that Northern Stage first occupied last year under previous artistic director Erica Whyman, and the range of different communities surrounding that project. Linking together artists from across the North of England in an ambitious curated programme, St Stephen’s offers an overlap between different areas, companies and artistic practices, as well as opening a dialogue with other venues and with the communities of both Edinburgh and the Fringe.

Stressing the importance of engaging with the people of Edinburgh as much as with the festival as a separate entity, Campbell insists that this balance is “absolutely vital”. “I think it’s one of the great ignored truths of the Fringe,” he says. “The majority of tickets are sold to Scots who come to the festival; the tourist ticket buyers are still in the minority. So if you don’t connect to a local audience, you’re going to have a very hard time.” Having been brought up in the city and worked at the Traverse Theatre earlier in his career, Campbell has an obvious advantage here. “It feels like an old biorhythm waking up,” he laughs, adding, “it’s going to be lovely to be embedded in it”.

One way in which Campbell is facilitating this dialogue with the local area at St Stephen’s is through The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. The driving impulse behind this project, he explains, was born out of what he felt was a divide between English and Scottish artists. “I was really struck last year by the real functioning sense of community within the artists at St Stephen’s, but I was also aware that there wasn’t a huge amount of conversation with a very similar group of Scottish artists who were also in the city.”

“I wanted to try and find a project that brought those communities into contact with each other,” Campbell continues, “to talk about something in the political zeitgeist, but also to exchange practice and to be in the same room together.” His unique artistic solution was inspired by border ballads, “a narrative folk tradition that belongs as much to Northumbria as it does to the Scottish lowlands and the borders”. Campbell has commissioned six artists to write their own versions of what a border ballad might look like today, while throughout the festival another epic ballad will be composed by a range of guest artists contributing a new verse each night.

“That ballad begins with a foundling babe being discovered in a Moses basket floating down the River Tweed on the night of the dissolution of the act of parliaments between England and Scotland,” Campbell tells me, “and then the poem will tell the next 95 years of that child’s life and the next 95 years of an imagined non-United Kingdom.” Incorporating a diverse mix of artists with a range of different political views, Campbell hopes to open a lively debate about Scottish independence, which he suggests is “much more than a question about whether Scotland should be an independent country or not”. As he continues, “it’s a question about how optimistic or pessimistic we feel about the potential of our political future”.

The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project is not alone in addressing such meaty questions. Elsewhere in the programme – which Campbell explains was mostly put together by creative associate Mark Calvert before his arrival – a certain shared political impetus animates a wide and varied range of work, from Hannah Nicklin’s very personal meditations on protest to Daniel Bye’s more openly provocative How to Occupy an Oil Rig. “It feels like there’s much more of a zeitgeist running through the project this year,” Campbell notes. “You can see lots of conversations about dissent, about forms and modes of protest, about how you question where you are as an individual in relation to a system. I think it will be very exciting to see how all those bits talk to each other.”

Another strand to this dialogue within the programme is Make. Do. And Mend, a one day event that aims to gather a wide range of voices in theatre to discuss problems and implement solutions. Feeling the need to create an event that acted as well as just talking, Campbell and the team at Northern Stage “wondered what would happen if we tried to create an event which actually resulted in immediate action that day”. Campbell is determined that “you can’t just repeat” and hopes that this gathering will prevent the talking in circles that we are all too good at.

This particular event is being organised in partnership with Forest Fringe, who are back in Edinburgh this year in a new venue on the same side of the city as St Stephen’s. This in itself shifts the context in which Northern Stage’s project sits, providing yet another overlapping community. Campbell is positive about this development, saying that “the geography and gravity of having more on that side of town is great”. He also comments on the growth of curated programmes this year in resistance to the commercial drives elsewhere, stating his belief that that work “doesn’t go away, it just moves, it finds another space on the fringe of the Fringe”. If nothing else, the presence of another artistically driven venue in Edinburgh this year adds another voice to the dialogue. “It’s all part of the conversation.”

Photo: Topher McGrillis.

Tenet, Gate Theatre

Originally written for Spoonfed.

Greyscale’s latest work, the first in the Gate’s ‘Resist!’ season, comes with a tongue-twisting disclaimer. This is, as we are told upon entering the auditorium, “a very true story about the revolutionary politics of telling the truth about truth as edited by someone who is not Julian Assange in any literal sense”. If that’s a mouthful, then what we are fed after we take our seats is even harder to digest.

Intertwining the lives of Wikileaks founder Assange and revolutionary nineteenth-century mathematician Evariste Galois, Tenet plays with truth, mathematics, radicalism, power, metaphor, roots and polynomial equations. Keeping up?

At the centre of the piece is the concept of mathematical logic as a radical way of seeing the world. Performers Lucy Ellinson and Jon Foster begin with a familiar mathematical question – how do you find x? – and use this as the basis for questioning our understanding of truth and of the world around us. Like radical genius Galois, we are prodded into finding a new way of thinking. In maths, as arguably in life, the radical simplifies a complex equation; radical thinking, therefore, is demanded if we are to understand and challenge the complicated nature of the status quo. Behind this there is also the issue of Assange’s role as the “editor” of Galois’ life and work, questioning the power and reliability of those who hold the book of facts.

There is a lot going on here, sometimes too much. Despite running at a swift sixty minutes, this is full to the brim with ideas, and difficult ideas at that. As our heads swim with numbers and concepts, it can feel like we, along with the tragically short-lived Galois, are running out of time to work it all out. Fortunately, creators Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson never make this feel too much like the classroom; as Ellinson knowingly comments, you can’t make the audience work that hard.

Despite the demanding subject matter, the piece that Campbell and Grierson have assembled is also very funny, and when it gets too hard there are always tea and biscuits helpfully on hand. Maths and theatre, meanwhile, make unlikely but surprisingly comfortable bedfellows. After all, the metaphor that we willingly immerse ourselves in when we watch a performance is just another kind of equation – one thing always stands for another.

The conventions of theatre are also up for analysis in a performance that is sardonically served with a “soupçon of post-modern deconstruction”; we are presented with a set within a set within a set, the performers interrupt the narrative to contradict one another, an explicitly mentioned fourth wall is conjured up and smashed down.

Upon exiting Greyscale’s world, there is a desire to echo Galois’ call for more time and rewind this tightly packed performance in order to mull it over again in all its intricate complexity. Maths may be a straightforward case of black and white, but this intriguing, challenging night of theatre treads the same area of grey occupied by the company responsible for creating it.

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Some further thoughts on Tenet

Never does the vicious word count seem more cruel than when attempting to crystallize a piece such as Tenet. During the hour-long performance, I scribbled possibly the most notes I have ever made at the theatre, all the while trying to keep my eyes ahead so as not to miss one minute of the ever-shifting performance. I feel as though I really needed two viewings to fully process everything that was going on – one to take notes and one to simply absorb. Away from the rush and heat of the performance space, my initial impressions have cooled, but there are still a good few more words to peel away from my frazzled brain.

Firstly, I want to write more about Julian Assange’s role as the “editor” of the piece. If we’re getting critical, this is slightly underexplored, but that is perhaps because there is simply so much else going on. Since formulating my own thoughts above, I’ve read other reviews of the play, some of which see Assange as an outlying narrator whose relevance is crowbarred in. While Assange may be less of a central figure than Galois, this was not how I saw it at all. If anything, he functions as an essential conduit for Galois’ story; we see only what he chooses to select from his “book of facts”, further illustrating the reiterated point that knowledge is power. As an individual who demonstrated to the extremes just how powerful knowledge can be and whose actions prompt troubling questions about what knowledge should and should not be released, Assange’s inclusion is anything but arbitrary.

Lucy Ellinson’s Assange protests early on “I am not involvable”, before proceeding to involve himself again and again in the process of storytelling. The two performers frequently interrupt and contradict one another, their voices competing for our attention, Assange overwriting Galois’ own story. It is a potent demonstration before our eyes of the immense influence held by the gatekeepers of history. Who are we meant to believe? What can we trust? For me, Tenet was not only deliciously perplexing because of the complexities of advanced algebra (and maths was never my strong point); Greyscale invite complexity and ambiguity from all angles, a risky but laudable choice. This is theatre which demands engagement from its audience.

Which conveniently brings me onto the second point I wanted to explore further: audience interaction. This has to be possibly the gentlest brand of interactivity to be found on London’s stages – one game audience member was even offered an encouraging hug on press night. With the help of some tea and biscuits, Greyscale seem to have perfected the delicate balance of involving their audience without scaring them off. Yet while the level of performance asked of the audience is relatively minimal, its use prompts intriguing questions about the performer/spectator relationship, the audience dynamic and the wider issue of public protest.

At one point, Jon Foster’s frantic Galois raises us all to our feet, gets us to hold hands and has us collectively, if a little awkwardly, humming “La Marseillaise”. It is a vivid illustration of the power inherent in harnessing an audience. But a moment later we are back in our seats and the balance has shifted back once again to where it was, demonstrating that the wall can be smashed through but it will always quietly reform – a fact that resonates with politics as much as with theatre. As Galois observes, a situation can change, but it can also change back. In another interesting choice, Ellinson and Foster also openly discuss the deliberate choice of the Gate and its typical audience demographic, which opens up a whole other debate about the importance of the type of audience (and their political leanings) to a piece of theatre.

Without seeing this piece all over again, which I’m sorely tempted to do, it is impossible to fully investigate Greyscale’s creation to the level it deserves. Part of my brain is still trying to catch up. Perhaps the best sort of metaphor for Tenet is not an algebraic one but, inspired by the emergency biscuits, a dessert related one. Because really Greyscale’s play is a lot like brain freeze; it makes the head hurt, but it’s more than worth the pain.