Friday, 14 August 2015

Dragon and Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner Revived - Edinburgh International Festival 2015

One of the many striking things about incoming Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan's inaugural programme has been its recognition that home-grown work more than deserves a place alongside names perhaps more familiar from the international festival circuit. It's not that Scottish work hasn't been seen at EIF. Far from it. It's just that much of the time the works presented thus far have been brand new, untested and, limited by short rehearsal periods, regarded by some as being not quite ready. The result of this is that an EIF commission has sometimes looked like something of a poisoned chalice.

Both Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Dragon, however, have already proved their mettle on an international stage prior to their respective EIF dates this week. The former is an ingenious construction by director and designer Stewart Laing's Untitled Projects company which on the face of it looks tied to its Glasgow roots in away that one might think wouldn't travel. The latter is a dark and near wordless piece for young people created by Vox Motus directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, and which somewhat conversely to Paul Bright looked tailor made for global success from the off.

With both shows co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland, Paul Bright was also supported by Tramway in Glasgow where it opened during its initial outing in 2013, and Summerhall in Edinburgh. On the face of it, the play is a monologue written by Pamela Carter which excavates the tale of a firebrand theatre director in unreconstructed 1980s Glasgow. George Anton's solo performance may be at the show's heart, but it is the accompanying mix of film footage and meticulously observed artefacts displayed in the show's exhibition and made by artists Robbie Thompson, Jack Wrigley and others that tap into the city's radical past so vividly.

Despite it's seeming localism, Paul Bright has played at theatre festivals in Sweden and Ireland, and now effectively comes home to the Queen's Hall, the venue where the show's eponymous subject is said to have presented his ill-fated stage version of James Hogg's iconic novel, Confessions of A Justified Sinner.

“It feels like the right place to be,” says Laing. “It was Fergus' suggestion that we do it in the Queen's Hall, and it's not going to be an easy place to do it because of all the concerts that are going to be on there in the daytime, but it's very exciting.”

Dragon, which was made with Tianjin People's Arts Theatre in China, is an equally ambitious project, a near wordless fantasia written by Oliver Emanuel in which physical theatre, puppetry and music by composer Tim Phillips combine to chart a young boy's life following the death of his mother.

“Dragon was always designed to be a touring production,” says Harrison. “We made it here in Scotland, and the thought that a play without words might travel had crossed our minds, but it wasn't the initial impetus.”

While Vox Motus are still a relatively young company, Edmunds points out that “Dragon was the biggest thing we'd done, and we're very at home with that. The piece had been developed over a long time with the NTS and our Chinese partners, and the level of care and investment put into it felt right.”

While it played successfully in Scotland with a mix of Scots and Chinese performers, it was always the plan that Dragon would be restaged in China.

“It was amazing,” says Harrison. “We made it here, but there was a whole new production made over there with a totally Chinese cast.”

While the new cast had to come to terms with what they saw as Tommy, the hero of the play, being disrespectful to his mother, the Chinese version of the play also necessitated the rebuilding of the puppets.

“We had to accept we were in a very dragon-centric culture,” says Harrison, “and that what looked sleek to us, to them looked like long maggots.”

As Edmunds puts it, “Taking a dragon to China was a bit like taking coals to Newcastle.”

Paul Bright's Confessions too has evolved the more it has travelled.

“It's been something of a slow-burner,” says Laing. “The first time we did it, in terms of ticket sales it wasn't a popular show, but people who saw it got something out of it, and there ended up being a bit of a buzz around it. Then by the time we got to Dublin there was a real buzz and it sold out. It's almost as if the show was dictating to us.

“One of the things that concerned me about doing it in Dublin was the Scottishness of it and the Protestant culture that the original novel was steeped in, but as it turned out that wasn't a problem. They absolutely got it. In Sweden they got it as well, but they got it on a different level because it's so wordy.”

The EIF dates for Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner and Dragon come at very interesting times for both Laing and Vox Motus. Creative Scotland's rejection of Untitled Projects for regular three-year funding – a decision taken after Paul Bright was already confirmed for the Queen's Hall – has effectively left the company in a limbo from which it is unclear whether it will recover.

“The company is still there as an idea,” says Laing, “but I'm not sure what's going to happen next.”

While Laing isn't short of work as a designer of note, Paul Bright's EIF run could ideally be used as a platform for more international dates.

Vox Motus, meanwhile, are currently working with unnamed commercial producers on a major project which should see the light of day in 2017, and currently don't feel it appropriate to apply for public funding at all. In terms of the future of Dragon, Edmunds and Harrison are already looking beyond EIF.

“We've already had lots of interest,” says Edmunds, “and hopefully this is just the start of Dragon having a much larger international life.”

Dragon, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Aug 14-15, 7pm, Aug 15, 2pm, Aug 16, 12 noon and 4pm. Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Queen's Hall, Aug 19-22, 8pm, Aug 22, 4pm.

The Herald, August 14th 2015


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