Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Up Close and Personal - 50 Years of The Close Theatre

As the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow celebrates its seventieth year of theatrical excess with a welter of
activity that includes several high-profile shows and a BBC TV documentary, Blood and Glitter, set to be screened this week, a much less lauded but equally key influence on the Citz style and way of doing things is also being

It was fifty years ago that that The Close, a 150-seat studio space in a former gambling club adjoining the Citz, opened its doors to a new world of experimental theatre. In the club-based theatre's short but colourful life between 1965 and 1973, The Close played host to some of the more outré
contributions to the European art house canon in a uniquely underground environment which managed to circumnavigate the censorship imposed on live performance by the Lord Chamberlain up until 1968 when his role was abolished.

In its eight year existence, The Close may have began with productions of rarely seen curtain-raisers by Shaw, but there was also a controversial mask-based take on Faustus by American director Charles Marowitz and early sightings of work by Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras. Later there were
double bills of Pinter, productions of Jack Gelber's drug-based play, The Connection, Heathcote Williams' counter-cultural classic, AC/DC, and a legendary all-male look at Genet's The Maids. The latter, directed by mime auteur Lindsay Kemp, featured a young Tim Curry sporting a corset he took with him when he played Frank N Furter in the original London production of The Rocky Horror

The Close's club status also allowed the theatre's management to keep the bar open later than any Glasgow city centre pubs, thus providing a natural and necessary home for some of the Citz alumni's more flamboyant after hours excesses. If an anything goes attitude prevailed both onstage and off in the hothouse laboratory of The Close, once it burnt down, the same libertine spirit was taken onto the Citz's main stage which it would end up defining.

It is with this spirit  that the Citz has programmed The Close Anniversary Season, a series of three shows performed in the theatre's now rarely used Circle Studio space, and which aim to recapture The Close's sense of daring and redefine it for a twenty-first century where safety all too often in art comes

“It was illicit,” current Citz artistic director Dominic Hill says of
The Close, “and it felt like Glasgow's only gay club at the time. It was
inspired by the Traverse, which had opened in Edinburgh two years before, and
the desire to get something that was the equivalent of the Traverse on the west
coast. At the time it existed it was vital in a lot of ways because there was
nowhere else that was really like it.

“The Close had an underground subversive feel to it, which is something that's hard to find these days. There was a feeling that anyone could do anything, which was inspiring, and which
eventually led to the founding of The Tron to fill the space that the Close left
when it had gone. There's a line of theatrical legacy there that goes from the
Traverse to the Close to the Tron and then later to everything that the Arches

“Once we realised it was the anniversary of The Close,  we wanted to
celebrate that and the influence it had on the Citz itself. We also wanted to do
something in the Circle Studio, which we don't use much, but which isn't going
to be around long, and to work with young directors who we already have a
relationship with.”

For the latter, Hill has drafted in Debbie Hannan, who
directed a remarkable staging of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, Matthew
Lenton of Vanishing Point, who are now cultural tenants at the Citz, and Gareth
Nicholls, , who as the Citizens Main Stage Director in Residence oversaw a
revival of Robert David MacDonald's adaptation of Gitta Sereny's book, Into That

The Close anniversary season begins with Hannan's production of
English iconoclast Howard Barker's biblically inspired look at the last days of
Sodom, Lot and His God. This is followed by Lenton's look at Striptease and Out
At Sea,  a double bill of plays from the early 1960s by Polish absurdist
Slavomir Mrozek. Completing the season will be Vanya, a contemporary response to
Chekhov by Sam Holcroft as directed by Nicholls.

While the choice of plays were left to each director, Hill set down some parameters for each to work

“I said that they should either draw on the fact that the theatre was
influenced by the classical repertoire,” says Hill, “that they should reflect
the European nature of the repertoire, or that the work was very different or
experimental in a way that you wouldn't necessarily put it onto a big stage, and
I think we've covered all three of those bases.

“We also don't  have a lot of money to do this, so while the actors and the directors are being paid,
anything else they want has to be found from within the building. The important
thing is to get the work on and for people to see it. That applies both to the
Studio and to the main stage.”

This consciously Poor Theatre approach itself harks back to a can-do era of creativity which studio-based fringe theatre was  sired on. As Hill and the Citz embrace a new era of DIY, he acknowledges too how
much starved resources have changed things.

“We're living in an age now where there are hardly any studio theatres anymore,” he says. “There was a time in the 1970s when, not just fringe theatre, but studio theatres and regional theatres
were a crucial part of the theatrical lifeblood of what was going on. A lot of
that has gone now, and a theatre having a regular second space is not deemed to
be as important as it once was. That has an effect on new work, and theatres
without those spaces aren't able to stage work that's as experimental as they
might like. When I think about studio theatres in Scotland, there’s really just
the Traverse and ours, which we hardly ever use.”

Since arriving at the Citz, Hill's raison d'etre has been one of putting big plays onto the main stage,
including works that might normally be seen in smaller spaces. While he admits
to an ambivalence towards studio spaces in this way, he recognises the value
they can bring to the development of new and experimental work.

With this in mind, while the Citz's Circle Studio will soon be demolished as a part of the
theatre's ongoing multi-media development, it looks set to be replaced in the
new building by a purpose-built 170 seat studio theatre. It's name, for the time
being while in the planing stages, at least, is The Close.

“The legacy of The Close is the legacy of the Citz,” says Hill. “It's part of the creative thing
that goes on here. All that energy that was channelled into the Citz after the
Close's demise was so fruitful in everything that followed on the main stage,
and that energy has permeated down into everything that's happened in the Citz
over the last forty years and hopefully beyond.”

The Close Theatre
Anniversary season runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, from October
3-November 7. Lot and His God, October 3-10; Slavomir Mrozek double bill –
Striptease and Out At Sea, October 17-24; Vanya, October 31-November

The Herald, September 29th 2015


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