Tuesday, 23 October 2012

When Worlds Collide - Matthew Lenton's Dream

Matthew Lenton has never directed Shakespeare before. At first glance, 
Lenton's visually rich magical-realist imaginings with his 
Glasgow-based, internationally acclaimed Vanishing Point company don't 
really fit with the bard's poetically dense flights of fancy. Peel back 
the layers, however, and the two worlds that collide in his new 
production of one of Shakespeare's most revisited rom-coms may have 
more in common with Lenton's world than you might think.

It's the Shakespeare play which as a kid I always found the most 
accessible,” Lenton says of the Dream. “I've always been interested in 
the magic and the darkness and the beauty of it, and it's nice to be 
able to spend time in such a different place. I've always had a 
difficult relationship with Shakespeare. It was certainly not something 
I loved as a kid, and not something I found easy. It's still not 
something I find easy to watch on a stage, and not something I find 
easy to understand on a stage. So I think for those reasons I found it 
a challenge for me to see what I could do with a Shakespeare, but also 
to learn about it as well.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream can be many things, embracing a 
discombobulating spectrum of light and shade at the whim of whoever is 
tossing their individual brand of fairy dust on the play. For every 
1960s inspired lysergic trip into the underground, there is the frothy, 
strawberries and cream approach redolent of the lushly mown landscapes 
that cut off English country piles from the twenty-first century 
mechanicals beyond.

Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that Lenton's take on 
the play will be as instinctively individualistic as all his work thus 
far. The fact that he's setting it in a blizzard-strewn winter speaks 
volumes. TV talent shows, glamour-chasing Mechanicals and celebrity 
swimming pools are also mentioned. Lenton isn't being wilfully voguish 
here. Rather, he's applying a Vanishing Point aesthetic to a play which 
perhaps more than any other invites reinvention.

I think I've got a good idea and a good feeling for the kind of 
production I want it to be,” Lenton says. “One of the things is trying 
to find an additional human connection with it. When I knew I was going 
to be directing it, I just read the play a lot, trying not to think 
about it analytically, but just letting it wash over me and make an 
impression on me. It just kept coming to me, this thing that Bottom 
should be the centre of it, and that there's an emotional resonance 
about how he's not just this fool, but is someone who is trying to 
survive.

People maybe don't necessarily associate my work or Vanishing Point's 
work with social issues, but for me there is always something social at 
the absolute centre of it. What I like to do is leave that root under 
the ground, then let the foliage come on top of it. The audience may 
not necessarily see it explicitly, but for me it's all in there. People 
who are prepared to read things as metaphor or in a non-linear, non 
literal way will find things that they won't if they are just waiting 
to be given argument or message. So there's this root than I've 
planted, but you've got to delve around in the foliage to find what's 
there.”

The last time Lenton's work was seen at the Royal Lyceum was this 
August past with Wonderland. This major co-production between Vanishing 
Point, Fondazione Campania dei Festival, Napoli Teatro Festival Italia 
and Tramway, Glasgow in association with Eden Court in Inverness, was 
Vanishing Point's first ever appearance at Edinburgh International 
Festival. Taking its cue from Lewis Carroll, Wonderland took an 
unflinchingly dark leap down the rabbit-hole of internet porn, where 
performer, maker and user become complicit in seeing how far they can 
go.

Prior to this, in 2009,Vanishing Point and the Lyceum joined forces for 
a radical reimagining of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Rather than 
apply eighteenth century bawdiness to this tale of two cities literally 
existing on top of each other, Lenton put Glasgow avant-indie group A 
Band Called Quinn at the heart of a strip-cartoon cyber-punk landscape 
writ large.

Before and between the two came Interiors and Saturday Night, two near 
wordless peeks into private worlds performed with bi-lingual casts from 
Italy, Portugal, Belgium, France, Croatia and Scotland behind big glass 
windows. Even earlier than this, ever since he co-founded Vanishing 
Point at Glasgow University in 1999, Lenton has explored a succession 
of inner landscapes. This has been the case from the company's Maurice 
Maeterlinck adaptation, The Sightless, which was performed in total 
darkness, through to the junk-shop nightmare scenario of Vanishing 
Point's breakthrough show, Lost Ones, taking in Jan Svankmajer's Little 
Otik and Subway's vision of a dystopian Leith pulsed by a Kosovan band 
before arriving in Wonderland.

If all that sounds like quite a trip, Lenton has taken a coterie of 
regular collaborators along with him for the ride. Many of them have 
joined him for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Costume designer Becky Minto, 
composer Mark Melville and designer Kai Fischer are all crucial to 
Lenton's work as a director. In the cast, Flávia Gusmão, who plays 
Titania and Hippolyta, has become part of what is effectively a 
Vanishing Point international ensemble since the company forged links 
with companies and festivals in Italy and Portugal. Miles Yekinni, who 
plays Demetrius, worked with Lenton at the Unicorn Theatre in London on 
children's show, the Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth, while Cath 
Whitefield, who plays Puck, dates all the way back to Lost Ones. With 
such parallel universes seemingly co-existing at all levels of Lenton's 
work, the duality contained in A Midsummer Night's Dream looks very 
much like a logically ordained next step.

I guess I'm just interested in getting below the surface of things,” 
he says. “I always like what David Lynch says about film-making, and 
that it's like catching fish. He says you can sit there fishing, and on 
the surface, there are lots of fish, and you see them swarming about. 
They're very small fish, and you can catch them quite easily and take 
them out of the water and make those fish into something really 
interesting. But, right down at the very bottom of the lake, lurching 
slowly through the mud, there are much bigger fish, but they're much 
harder to recognise. you can't see them, and it's hard to know actually 
what they are. Sometimes they're feelings and intuitions which are 
something more than the small fish, which are ideas, and I really 
relate to that.

I'm interested in things lurking in all of us that aren't rational or 
intellectual, but which are something you have to trust your intuition 
on. I'm interested in what this world would be like if it wasn't this 
world, what it would be like if we went through a little portal into a 
parallel world. Probably at the bottom of all that is an interest in 
fantasy, and being told those kind of stories as a child by my dad and 
imagining there are other worlds out there.

I've always been interested in mysterious places and strange places 
rather than the things that are physically around us on the surface; 
what we don't understand, the things we don't know are in us, what we 
don't understand is in us. For me they're just what it's all about, and 
if I can't find that in a play then I tend to be less interested in it. 
I'd find it really hard to direct a play based solely on an 
intellectual idea. It's good to have ideas, of course, but I'm much 
more interested in what comes out from beneath.”

Commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh as programme notes 
for the company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which ran 
October 19th-November 17th 2012. Written October 2012.

ends

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