Most regular arts page readers will have heard of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner, James Hogg's seminal nineteenth century Scottish novel. This will be the case despite the fact that the book was initially published anonymously, and was hugely neglected during Hogg's lifetime. Only in the twentieth century was Hogg's finest work pretty much rediscovered and given the classic status it so richly deserves.
The same excavation of unknown brilliance looks set to happen to Paul Bright, who, according to director Stewart Laing and writer Pamela Carter, was an avant-garde director who in 1987 staged dramatised extracts of Hogg's novel in a set of site-specific performances at locations that included Arthur's Seat. Now, along with actor George Anton and a coterie of artists and film-makers, Laing's Untitled Projects company in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and Tramway will look at Bright's all too brief moment in the spotlight before he disappeared from view forever. Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner may take the form of a simple performance lecture, but it raises serious questions about art, authenticity and archiving.
In a rehearsal room, Anton is talking us through some grainy Super 8 film footage of one of the performances in which a group of men in period costume are playing tennis. There is no soundtrack, and as some kind of argument breaks out, it isn't clear what it's about. Whatever it is, there's a guerilla style feel to both the performance and the footage that resembles some of the early work of Derek Jarman. At one point, the main protagonist stares straight at the camera, full of grim determination to make his point. This is the Paul Bright Laing and Carter want to capture.
“We've been talking about adapting Justified Sinner for years,” says Carter, “and I met George Anton by chance in a pub in London. He spotted that I was reading Confessions of A Justified Sinner at the time, and started talking to me about it. He was the one who connected us to Paul Bright.”
Laing had been half aware that some radical site-specific work was being made during his own time directing at the Citizens theatre, which coincided with Anton's time at the Citz.
“There was something about the Citz in the late 80s that was like a ring-fenced community,” Laing remembers. “We were all sitting down in the Gorbals thinking that we were the only thing in Scottish theatre, and it was only when George started talking about this production that I realised that I wasn't at the centre of the world in the late 80s, and that the centre of the world was somewhere else.”
Laing, Carter and Anton pursued various forms of research, which, given that their subject was around in a pre-digital age, wasn't easy. This raised issues of how theatre is archived compared to the visual art world.
“I have a real interest in the issue of archiving live performance,” says Laing. “I spent some time looking through The Wooster Group's archive, and (Wooster group artistic director) Liz LeCompte is obsessed with archiving, because I think she has a sense of herself as a great American artist, and I would agree with her on that. But it's about how you maintain that once you're gone. Andy Warhol is a great American artist, and there is this body of work, so I think that Liz is very deliberately creating a legacy. When they did Brace Up, they recorded every single rehearsal. There are three shelves of tapes recorded on a camcorder, so if you're interested, you can go in and watch, from the first day they sat down and talked about it, to every single performance they ever did.”
There is no such archive for Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner, nor any of Bright's work. According to Laing, Bright dropped out of view shortly after the production, and as far as he is aware, never made theatre again.
Laing and Carter's piece is not just a homage to Bright. Their subject becomes a symbol of how easy it is for radical artists unwilling or unable to play industry games to drop out of view. Laing cites Buzz Goodbody, the female theatre director who blazed a trail through the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1970s, but is now barely known. Instrumental in developing the RSC's The Other Place studio theatre, Goodbody committed suicide in 1975 aged twenty-eight.
“Apparently, she did this amazing version of Hamlet that just blew the play apart,” says Laing, “but she was a heroin addict, and she died a few months after she'd done it. For me, Buzz Goodbody is as interesting a part of British theatre history as Stephen Daldry. Lindsay Kemp is someone else who people tend not to have heard of. Some people vaguely know him as a choreographer, and people tend to say, oh, is he still alive? Actually, he is, and is living in Italy, and a lot of people don't know that he started off as a theatre director, and did all this amazing work.”
Carter goes even further, and points to a far bigger cultural shift.
In terms of British theatre in the mid to late 1980s,” she says, “there were all this experimental performance work that seems to have drifted out of our general consciousness. There were groups like Impact and Pip Simmons, that were part of my theatre history, but don't seem to be part of a younger generation of theatre makers. So this show is very much a part of trying to reclaim some of that and remind people why it was important.”
Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner, Tramway, Glasgow, June 14th-29th
Untitled Projects – A history
Founded by Stewart Laing in 1998, Untitled Projects aimed from the start to channel Laing's very personal theatrical vision with an assortment of collaborators.
1998-2000 – Myths of the Near Future – Adaptations of three short stories by JG Ballard performed in locations ranging from a suburban house to a disused swimming pool.
2006 – Slope – Laing's fascination with French literature resulted in this look at poets Verlaine and Rimbaud via a script by Pamela Carter and played in a sunken performance space with the audience looking down on the action.
2009 – An Argument About Sex – A response to Marivaux's play, La Dispute, Pamela Carter again scripted this work about a scientific experiment in which teenagers are isolated in an attempt to highlight the inherent differences between the sexes.
2012 – The Salon Project – This recreation of a nineteenth century salon had the audience wearing full period costume while they were regaled by the finest minds of their generation.
The Herald, June 13th 2013