Down by the shore, Grid Iron theatre company are setting sail. St Thomas’s church hall in Leith, where Scotland’s premiere site-specific auteurs are rehearsing, is built squarely on terra firma. With its wood-panelled walls and floorboard interior, however, the small room at the bottom of the building doubles up as a surprisingly authentic looking boat. Whether it will resemble the real thing once the company venture to Stavanger in Norway with their new show, Tryst, remains to be seen.
While composer Conrad Ivitsky Molleson plays harmonica at the side of the room, actor David Ireland looks every inch the salty old sea dog as he prowls the centre of the floor surrounded by an arrangement of chairs and benches. The chronicle of a death foretold he holds court with is Tryst’s opening scene, which will be performed on a 1940s ferry boat that will transport the show’s audience to Engøyholmen, a small island close to Stavanger Harbour. Once disembarked, the rest of the show will promenade inside Engøyholmen Kystkultersenter, a working boatshed where a team of boat-builders impart their trade to local young people.
The first time Grid Iron director Ben Harrison and his team of designers and technicians visited Engøyholmen on a site visit with only a few ideas and their imaginations to play with, a brand new vessel was in the early stages of being built. When the company returns next month with Tryst, like the show, the boat itself should be just about ready to be launched.
“Because it’s happening abroad,” says Harrison en route to a production meeting, “we’re developing a lot of it away from the site. Although we do know the site quite well, because we’ve been over there five or six times now, so we know where we can fit all the scenes in. But we’ve got a pretty quick tech set up when we get there, so we really have to know what we’re doing.”
Rather than Grid Iron’s usual multiple character affairs, Tryst follows a more conventional narrative arc via the intertwining lives of two couples based around the boat-yard. Through them is laid bare a bleak and often insular landscape, where the stresses of solitude spill over into conflict, and where both craftsmanship and companionship are fragile enough to be shattered. While the story looks to literary sources, from William Golding’s novel, Pincher Martin and Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, The Fisherman And His Soul to Glasgow-born Beat writer and author of Young Adam, Alexander Trocchi, Harrison has brought a more fully scripted piece to the rehearsal room than in previous Grid Iron outings.
“It feels more like a play,” Harrison readily admits. “That’s partly to do with not having much development time, but to be honest it’s an idea that’s been around for quite a long time, and at one point looked like it might end up being done in some form beside the Water of Leith. As it is, we’ve set the piece in an imaginary northern place which depends on the sea, and really the piece is a consideration of what the family is and how vulnerable that structure is, certainly to the death of a child. My daughter is the same age as the child in the play, and my greatest fear is of my children drowning. So it’s about how the family is under assault, by social mobility and other things. It looks at what fidelity is and what the family unit means, and how there’s almost a pressure there to have an affair.”
Tryst is one of the key events of The North Sea Project, itself initiated as a flagship of Stavanger’s year as 2008’s European Capital of Culture. Rather than look inwards, Stavanger2008 artistic director Mary Miller decided to open things out to explore some of the cultural links between Norway and Scotland. The result, part of what was broadly dubbed Open Port, was a programme curated by Edinburgh-based Angela Wrapson, which over the year has included a series of exchange visits and residencies involving both Norwegian and Scottish visual artists, the launch of a collection by Norwegian writers at Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a brand new score for a silent film composed by harpist Catriona McKay.
McKay was one of the musicians involved in The Devil’s Larder, Grid Iron’s compendium of food and sex based short stories which the company adapted for a previous European Capital of Culture commission for Cork 2005. It was after seeing The Devil’s Larder, which later transferred to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that Miller knew she wanted Grid Iron involved in Stavanger 2008.
“We showed them the water,” Miller wrote recently, “the old wooden boatyards, the harbour, the vibrant, twinkling city...and they were off, away into a world of words and songs and dreams.”
If history had taken a different turn, Grid Iron itself might have ended up as a company called Tryst.
“Years ago,” says Harrison, “we liked the idea of the word conjuring up an illicit meeting place between actor and audience. Before the company was even founded, we had all these very early discussions about whether we would let the audience know by secret messages where the performance was going to be. Funnily enough there’s quite a few companies doing that sort of thing now, but it was just this idea of a secret encounter. I really love the word. It’s an old Scots word, which has a sense of mystery and a sense of travelling to a place together to meet somebody else.”
As a word that gave Grid Iron it’s entire ethos beyond aesthetics, how Tryst was cast was equally important, and, in keeping with the Open Port philosophy, the company has reached beyond its own immediate talent pool. While Ireland appeared in the original production of the Douglas Maxwell scripted swing-park set hit, Decky Does A Bronco, and Nicola Harrison in the more recent Once Upon A Dragon, Iain Parker and Kjersti Botn are newcomers to the Grid Iron experience. Not that either performer is shy of adventure.
Parker has recently returned to acting after training as a boat-builder, while Ivitsky Parker meanwhile is possibly the most appropriately cast of all, having only just returned to acting having himself trained as a boat-builder, while Ivitsky Molleson has toured Norway extensively with bands such as Shooglenifty. As the only Norwegian in the cast, Botn was undaunted by decamping to Scotland for rehearsals having not long returned from an extended period travelling in Kabul.
“It seems a banal thing to say that she’s a Grid Iron style actor,” Harrison admits, “because I don’t quite know what that means. I guess it’s someone who fits in with this kind of bizarre, dysfunctional, familiar culture that we have. There’s a trust and an openness there.”
Back in St Thomas’s, the make-shift boat-deck has been re-arranged into a long table at which all four actors are seated. Passing a large bottle of Aquavit between them, their characters play an increasingly frenetic drinking game in which the stakes will become ever higher. As the talk grows darker, some familiar Grid Iron preoccupations linger.
“The sex is still there,” Harrison observes. “We’ve done sex and food and sex and clothes. Now we’re onto sex and water. Sex and death. We’re getting through them all eventually.”
Tryst, 13-25 October 2008 (except 19 Oct), 7.30pm. The Ferry, Hundvaag 1, Stavanger, will leave from Skagenkaien at 7.30pm returning by 10pm.
The Herald, September 30th 2008