The result of these musings are brought together in Last Dream (On Earth), the theatre designer best known for his work with the Vanishing Point company's follow-up to Entartet, an audio installation based on transcripts that accompanied the Nazi Party's Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Using similar sound-led techniques devised with composer Matt Padden, this new co-production between Fischer, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow sees its creator come even more to the fore as a director and theatre-maker as he explores the show's twin narratives with three actors while the audience listen in on headphones.
“Gagarin's journey into space always fascinated me,” says Fischer, “and I recently came across the published transcripts of the conversations between Gagarin and Ground Control. That was with a man called Sergei Karolev, who was a guy who had been working with rockets since the 1930s before he was denounced for misappropriation of funds. He was sent to the gulags, and when he was released he went on to lead the Soviet space programme, and oversaw Gagarin's launch into space, so it was his big day, and we have this record of both men talking.
“I grew up knowing about Gagarin and his flight, but maybe now it is a story that's in danger of being forgotten. I spoke to somebody recently who thought that the first man in space was Neil Armstrong, and there are people growing up now who maybe won't understand why people like Gagarin and Karolev would have these dreams of going into space.”
The second aspect of Last Dream (On Earth) saw Fischer himself embarking on his own trip of a lifetime, to the Italian island of Lampedusa, as well as Malta and Morocco, where he interviewed refugees who had attempted to reach Europe. While some had tried and failed to make the journey, others had succeeded, only to be housed in detention centres.
“It was a very personal parallel,” says Fischer, “and even though it isn't really comparable with people in North African countries trying to get to Europe, because of my experience growing up in East Germany at the time I did, it's something I've always been interested in.
Fischer spent a week talking to people in a refugee centre.
“What was amazing was the extent they were prepared to share their stories,” he says. “Sometimes people arrived in Malta not knowing they'd done anything wrong, and then, thinking they'd arrived in Europe where freedom of expression is everything, suddenly found themselves detained and didn't know why. I might have been the first person they'd met who they could talk to about their experiences, and the way they embraced that chance to talk was an amazing experience to be around.”
Following this extensive research, Fischer developed the stories in a way that will allow audiences to eavesdrop in on Gagarin's conversations with Karolev while refugees on a beach prepare to embark on an equally perilous voyage.
“Using headphones started as a design idea,” says Fischer, “but then I realised that if I wanted the audience to experience the connection between Gagarin and Karolev, then there was nothing I could do better to get them as close as possible to that than have them actually listen in on those conversations. By doing that you're also leaving space for people to imagine their own place in what's going on.
“There are elements of the experience that are like a gig. There is Matt 's soundtrack and sound design, and the music creates a bridge between the atmosphere and the words spoken.”
Fischer left Germany to study in Glasgow in 1995, and has been a full UK resident since 1998. Since then, his large-scale designs for Vanishing Point shows such as Interiors, Saturday Night and Wonderland have been integral to the narrative of each.
With this in mind, taking the lead on shows as he has done with Entartet and Last Dream (On Earth) is something Fischer sees as complimentary to his pure design work.
“For me it's never really felt separate,” he says. “In my stage designs I always want to try new things out, and although the collaborative relationship is slightly different it's still the same thing. In whatever I do I really just want to continue exploring.”
This notion of exploration, be it simply to find our what's out there or else to try and change lives is something that feeds into Last Dream (On Earth).
“These days if you have the money you can now buy tickets for space flight,” Fischer observes. “Back then people did it because of an ideal, but now it's one more thing that's about to be commercialised, and this idea of building a better future has been lost. Like migrants trying to get to Europe, Gagarin and Karolev weren't doing it for themselves, but for something bigger that was about trying to create a better world.”
Last Dream (On Earth), Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 1-4, then on tour throughout April.
The Herald, March 31st 2015