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Suspect Culture Make An Exhibition of Themselves

When director Graham Eatough, writer David Greig and composer Nick Powell founded Suspect Culture at Bristol University in 1990, experimental theatre belonged to an older generation. The chances of seeing any international artists, meanwhile, the sort of maverick gurus young theatrephiles love to look up to, was, outside of the Edinburgh International Festival, a rare treat. Eighteen years on, and, following the withdrawal of Scottish arts Council funding, as Eatough prepares to wind down the company with whom he effectively did his creative growing up in public, and the world, let alone the theatre world, is a different place.

As anyone who has followed the company since their ideas-led dramatic lines of inquiry crossed over into the professional sphere in the mid 1990s might expect, Suspect Culture aren’t going out with either a predictable bang or a whimper. Rather, Stage Fright will take the form, not of a theatre show, but of an exhibition in which many of the company’s founders and collaborators will take part. Stage Fright won’t, however, be a sentimental retrospective of Suspect Culture’s greatest hits.

Instead, by showing brand new work by Greig, Powell’s band Oskarr and company associates Dan Rebellato and Patrick Macklin, the show will continue to pursue the company’s curiosity about form in an exploration of how theatre and visual art inter-act. In this way, Stage Fright is a continuation of Eatough’s interest in the visual arts first developed at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Killing Time. This collaboration between Suspect Culture and artist Graham Fagen re-created scenes from classic plays, into which Zelig-like actor figures stepped via film. Stage Fright is something else again.

“Working here,” Eatough says in the CCA bar, “as our relationship developed, there have been more opportunities to put work on here. That fits in with my interest in where visual art fits in with theatre. Killing Time was interesting in terms of how both I and Suspect Culture developed through it, but it also raised a lot of further questions about how the two disciplines might interact. It’s an ongoing thing for me, trying to find how theatre and the visual arts work together, and trying to find my own place within that. In some way Stage Fright resembles a group show, even though many people involved are people you would know primarily from Suspect Culture. Some of them have also got a visual arts practice as well, but they all have something to say about theatricality.”

This all sounds in keeping with a current trend of visual artists exploring performance, as well as Suspect Culture’s own roots in mixing up mediums. This has been done primarily through narrative forms rather than live art abstraction.

“I’m not sure how aware as a community theatre practitioners are of this renewed interest of visual arts in theatre,” Eatough observes. “Theatricality as a description of visual artwork is really common now. It’s gone from being a dirty word in visual art to what now looks like a trend. The big question is why that might be.”

Suspect Culture have always been about asking the big questions, and were always interested in what Eatough calls “pushing things into different areas and finding different ways of communicating.” When Suspect Culture arrived on the scene as young artists influenced more by European and North American work they’d been exposed to during the early days of Glasgow’s Tramway venue (Eatough cites The Wooster Group and Pina Bausch as his own biggest influences at that time), eighteen years of Conservative rule was about to give way to a New Labour landslide.

No theatre company captured better the sense of an entire generation of late twenty-somethings who may have grown up through Thatcherism, but no longer had anything to believe in. Suspect Culture works concentrated obliquely on a sense of rootlessness which looked to more personal things for comfort, be it the totems of friendship in the company’s Edinburgh International Festival collaboration, Timeless, one-night stands in no-man’s-land hotel bars in Mainstream, or international travel in Airport. Later, Suspect Culture investigated that restlessness through reinventions of Candide and Casanova.

Where Suspect Culture’s contemporaries explored what then looked like a post-ideological age’s quest for meaning via the extremes of what became known as in-yer-face theatre, Suspect Culture were quieter and cleverer. Their work bridged text, movement and music to become more meditations than plays, little secular rituals in search of something other.

All of Suspect Culture’s shows were in some way about attempting to recapture lost moments, be it through the compilation tapes in Static, or the shared day on the beach in Timeless. Where all about them were shoving ill-fitting but bangingly of the moment techno soundtracks to already noisy hedonistic excursions, Suspect Culture preferred the subtleties of a live string quartet.

“It feels like exactly the right time to wind the company up,” Eatough says. “For me personally, there are things I want to explore which I couldn’t do with Suspect Culture, so when the funding was withdrawn, some people might have been surprised, but I wasn’t. I think we’ve been a bit of a problem for the arts council for a while, which we exacerbated with Killing Time and by making a short film, neither of which fit neatly into the drama department. So in that way it’s a testament to the SAC that they were so supportive through all that.

“But if you look at independent companies in general, that sector has changed beyond all recognition, and I’m not sure we sit as comfortably within it as we once might have done. I think we’ve pushed very hard at what the definitions of what a theatre company could be, not just through the different art forms, but also through the relationship between the group of artists involved, bringing in new influences, which has been incredibly beneficial. While I would never under-estimate the opportunities we’ve been given, I do think now, though, it’s time to try and find a different form of expression.”

There is also, one suspects, an unspoken desire from a group of artists who started out as students, but who are all now grown-up and successful in their own right, to pursue individual ambitions beyond what may in the future be seen as formative work. Umbilical ties, however, remain, and while Suspect Culture may be closing, Eatough certainly isn’t ruling out future collaborations with key artistic members of the company. When they do happen, though, it will be without the day-to-day demands of running a full-time company. As for the legacy of a company whose intellectual curiosity sometimes had them miscast as aloof academics, Eatough’s response is perfectly in keeping with a raison d’etre which emphasised the everyday intimacies which can occur in a morass of mis-communication.

“When anything you’ve been associated with for so long comes to an end,” Eatough reflects, “there’s bound to be a certain sense of sadness. But more than that is a sense of pride and a desire to celebrate what we’ve achieved. I hope we’ve both entertained and provoked people. That was what we always set out to do. I’m not sure if we’re far away enough yet from late 1990s theatre, and what that all meant and what our place was within it, but we worked in a certain way, and I think our methodology became quite influential. Although theatre’s quite transient, there’s a body of work there, and moments we created within shows, that I hope will live in peoples’ memories and gave them food for thought, but most of all I hope they made them feel something. That’s what we always wanted, to make an emotional connection with people.”

Stage Fright, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, April 3-May 23

The Herald, March 24th 2009



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