“The story of Light Boxes is the story of a town that becomes taken over by February,” explains director and adaptor Finn den Hertog. “Both the month of February and the cult of February, I suppose. February bans flight, and we see how this one particular family from the town deals with that. They get caught up in warfare, their daughter goes missing and we see how their world crumbles around them.
“As a novel it starts off in a kind of magic realist kind of way, and it's also been described as a post-modern fairytale, which I think is quite accurate. When you read the book it starts off doing one thing, and then goes through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole as it does something else and comes out the other side. What's exciting for us is how we bring that to the stage, because there's one version of this play that is a simple telling of a fairytale, but actually the book becomes quite meta, and there's a whole other narrative about where that story comes from, and we're still finding out how to do that.”
Light Boxes was Jones' debut novel, originally published in 2010 in a limited edition of 500 before being picked up by a major publishing house. It's quirky reimagining of seasonally adjusted depression as an institutionalised pandemic
Den Hertog first encountered Jones' book after being recommended it by a friend who passed on their copy. Beyond its playful typography and stories within stories that looked to Italo Calvino and other fabulist fiction writers, Den Hertog immediately saw potential for a stage version of the book.
“The book is full of very rich imagery,” says Den Hertog, “and I very quickly saw what we could take out and use a theatrical vocabulary rather than tell the whole story. This was in my head for a while and it stayed with me, and when I was asked by Grid Iron if I had any ideas for a show, Light Boxes was the first thing I gave them. They read the book and said it felt very Grid Iron, but its very complex.”
The show was developed by Den Hertog with a group of actors over a week in Mull in an attempt to capture the essence of the book before he went away to eventually write a draft. Even a couple of weeks before opening the show, however, Den Hertog says that “rehearsing is also devising the piece. Everyone's bringing in their ideas about what the book sparks off in them.”
Den Hertog met Jones in New York, who gave him carte blanche to interpret his book as he saw fit.
“He put a lot of himself into the book,” he says. “At one point it becomes about a writer writing the book, and I think he was going through stuff when he was writing it, and when he reached an impasse he put himself in it to try and solve it, but that's not the aspect of the story I want to tell.
“I read the story as a fable about grief and loss and sadness, but the piece of theatre that we're making is about a family, because it was their grief and loss that stood out for me. That also comes out of me watching the three actors beautifully playing this family, and that's what I wanted to capture. It's about sadness versus hope.”
Light Boxes forms part of an ongoing development for Grid Iron, long regarded as pioneers of site-specific theatre before it became fashionable in East London. While producer Judith Doherty and director Ben Harrison remain at the helm as co-artistic directors, with Harrison having directed the bulk of the company's work since they formed in Edinburgh in 1995, Light Boxes follows on from last year's Letters Home and Grid Iron's 2013 Edinburgh International Festival collaboration, Leaving Planet Earth, in nurturing a new generation of artists.
Den Hertog first worked for Grid Iron as an actor in their revival of Douglas Maxwell's swing-park set saga, Decky Does A Bronco and in their production of Spring Awakening, both directed by Harrison, who he assisted on another production, The Authorised Kate Bane. All of which fits in with a tight-knit company ethos that has something of a boot-room mentality about it which has created an extended artistic family of collaborators.
Given that Den Hertog's artist brother Lewis has created the video element of Light Boxes, and that the brothers parents are actress Ann Louise Ross and Head of Production at Dundee Rep, Nils Den Hertog, notions of family clearly run deep throughout the show. Even three of the four existing songs used in Light Boxes are written by couples.
“Lewis worked on The Authorised Kate Bane as well,” says Den Hertog, “and I realised very early on in other work I've done that the family dynamic is very important to me. But Grid Iron are a family, and everyone is welcomed into that family and it becomes expanded, and once you're in, you're in, in the best possible way. We've got Keith in Light Boxes, who was in the original production of Decky Does A Bronco, and Melody was one of the voices in Leaving Planet Earth, so there's definitely a continuum.
“I was obviously hugely aware of Grid Iron's work before I ever worked with them, and I knew it was the sort of work I wanted to make. So even as much as this piece has my voice, it still feels very much in the Grid Iron mould. They see something in people they want to nurture, and they take risks with them, and that's a lovely thing to be part of.”
Light Boxes, Summerhall, Aug 7-30, 7.15-9pm.
The Herald, August 19th 2015