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Grid Iron - Spinning A Yarn

The tour guide at Verdant Works is doing the rounds. The weather outside Dundee’s old jute mill turned heritage centre may be inclement, but, immaculately turned out in top hat, tails and elegantly groomed silver moustache, he looks ready for anything. Leading his party Pied Piper-like through the museum’s tea and gift shop, the guide’s outfit lends him the authoritative air of a nineteenth century industrialist. The show-room dummies posed in various shades of grey who line his route concur. Inside Verdant Works itself, makeshift catwalks are being contrived among equally off-limits looms that once span with life, but which are now educational ornaments to remind visitors of their former function.

Across in the court-yard, with the Sun shining down past where the roof used to be, Grid Iron theatre company are rehearsing Yarn, their latest site-specific show. Music is playing, and, as the six actors gingerly parade their way around the space, navigating the puddles as they go, a low-key carnival atmosphere ensues. Dressed down as they are in baggy pants and t-shirts, each performer seems to be showing off wares as if in the glare of some baying paparazzi. As it is, with the odour of passing pigeons hanging heavy in the air, only director Ben Harrison, assistant director Cora Bissett and Scottish Dance Theatre chorographer Janet Smith are in attendance, with a small army of technical crew bringing up the rear.

As if on cue, a Verdant Works attendant in a uniform red jacket appears, attracted by the noise. Can he take a photograph, he wonders. Not for publication, he says. It’s just his hobby. But this particular catwalk spectacle is still under wraps, and, while no-one’s being at all diva-ish about things, pictures are strictly off limits.

Yarn is a show about clothes. Not just the drop, hang and fit of a garment, but what clothes mean, either to their wearers or to those who’ve inherited hand-me-downs that become totems of past lives. It’s about how clothes work socially and emotionally.

“Old clothes become important,” according to Harrison, who’s woven (of course) a narrative compendium of sorts taken from visual material inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois as well as the words of Henry James and Thomas Carlyle. “Each item of clothes has a greater significance than just being something you’d wear. Just putting someone in a wedding dress or a burqua onstage is an act of theatre.”

Yarn is a co-production with Dundee Rep, and incorporates three members of its regular acting ensemble into Grid Iron’s team. Bissett has worked as a performer with both companies, and her presence effectively knits them together on a show that looks and sounds like classic Grid Iron material that’s in the spirit of their food-based shows, Gargantua and The Devil’s Larder. Both their initial inspirations may have been external literary sources, but which when made flesh proved to be irresistibly physical mythologies. Like them, whatever Yarn’s surface subject matter, it is also about the body, and how it functions in relation to the senses. This tallies with iconic designer Vivienne Westwood’s declaration that what was interesting about clothes was the push and pull of their relationship with the body.

As with its predecessors and pretty much all Grid Iron shows, sex is never very far from Yarn. It was Westwood again who observed that fashion is all about sex.

“There’s a wedding night scene set in the Rennaissance,” says Harrison, “when they wore so many layers of clothes that it was really complicated to get undressed. It’s easy for us with our zippers and our Velcro, but with them, there are so many things to be undone in such a complicated fashion that they eventually give up.”

Back in Dundee Rep’s rehearsal room, Harrison is getting down to his pants. Getting changed out of day-wear and into tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt is a daily ritual he’s developed to ease himself into work mode. He can’t concentrate otherwise. It was the same with a costume designer he worked with on a previous Grid Iron show. “In the mornings she’d be dressed down, ready to get her hands dirty,” says Harrison. “Then after lunch she’d appear immaculate, ready for business meetings.”

This afternoon Harrison is rehearsing his cast through a series of scenes developed from new material. Like three graces of the dressing-up box, actresses Alia Alzougbi, Itxaso Moreno and Hannah Donaldson, the last two of whom wear matching red and black, wield tape measure, scissors and weights. Which is just as well, because outwith the scene actor Martin McCormick needs the label of his black t-shirt cut off.

McCormick and fellow actors Kevin Lennon and Robert Paterson sit on a sofa in the corner, waiting their turn onstage, maybe trying on a hat for size. In their listlessness the mens demeanour resembles the classic male experience of waiting outside changing rooms.

Behind the makeshift set, a costume rail sports a disparate array of multi-coloured creations. As other scenes are played out, assorted items are incorporated; a scarf or a fur coat here, an ill-fitting Burqa there. Donaldson squats in the corner, wrapping a shawl around her. It’s interesting to note too that, while the women go about their business in an assortment of mismatched stripy socks, the men keep their shoes on at all times. Moreno’s t-shirt is emblazoned with a slogan, which, when translated from the Spanish, reads ‘I’ll Do It when I Feel Like It. I’m A Bad Woman.’

At various points in the afternoon, actors nip in and out of view as they go off for fittings for the numerous outfits they’re being asked to wear. Set and costume designer Georgia McGuinness is more conscious of clothes than most. Having worked in the fashion industry and seen the backstage frenzy of models literally tearing off expensively coutured designer dresses to throw on another equally priceless but ultimately disposable little number.

“There are so many costume changes in Yarn,” says McGuinness, “that to be honest it doesn’t feel that different. I quite often refer to costume as clothes, anyway, because I want them to feel real. I want them to feel wearable and be something that might have a history, whereas if you talk about costume, you think of something that’s inherently theatrical.”

Which, given the context in which she’s working, is pretty much unavoidable. Even so, the experience has heightened McGuinnesss’ awareness of where clothes come from even more.

“One thing that’s really been heightened by doing this show,” she says, “is that for our generation, most people have lost the need or the desire for making clothes, and everything that means with it. You can buy clothes so cheaply now that you can have hundreds of garments. But the journey just one of those has made, from cutting and sewing and everything else besides, it’s had this incredible lifespan which we tend to take for granted.”

Another costume fitting down, meanwhile over at the Verdant Works, the top-hatted Guide continues his rounds. Leading his latest batch of charges out past the tea shop once more, he squints up at the sky and pulls his coat close, all dressed up and somewhere very definitely to go.

Yarn, Verdant Works, West Henderson’s Wynd, Dundee, 19 April-3 May, 7pm and 9.15pm. Box office, Dundee Rep, 01382 223530, Limited capacity.

The Herald, April 15th 2008



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