Skip to main content

Matthew Lenton, Vanishing Point and The Destroyed Room

It's mid November, and in a cluttered upstairs rehearsal room in the Gorbals, Vanishing Point theatre company are sat around a long table talking earnestly about their forthcoming production of their new show, The Destroyed Room. The co-production with Battersea Arts Centre opens at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow at the end of February prior to dates in London and Edinburgh, but in November at the end of a week of development, what is advertised as being a show about voyeurism and witnessing things through and beyond a TV screen has yet to find out what it is.

The rehearsal room set-up itself, however, gives early hints of what The Destroyed Room may or may not end up as. As actors Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and Barnaby Power, designer Kai Fischer and four others talk, with the all-seeing eye of director Matthew Lenton at the table's head, it gradually becomes apparent that, among the flight cases and speakers that litter the floor, four video cameras mounted on tripods stand on each side of the table. These are being operated by technicians, who quietly film the proceedings, which is projected onto a screen at the table's far end. The images on the screen flit between cameras, so those watching from the sidelines can see what is being projected from all angles.

Seen close up, the effect of all this recalls After Dark, the open-ended late night round table discussion programme which ran at weekends during the early days of a then pioneering Channel 4. Unlike reality TV live feeds today, After Dark was essential viewing, with some very serious talk enlivened even more by unexpected events. These included Tory MP Teresa Gorman storming off in the face of being challenged by singer Billy Bragg, and a drunken Oliver Reed climbing on top of feminist writer Kate Millett.

As impassioned as the talk is in the Gorbals, about what does or doesn't constitute theatre, such outrages are unlikely. There is, however, an obvious creative tension at play.

“What happened that day,” says Lenton a month later, “is that we were trying to find out what it was we wanted to look at, and how we wanted to look at it, and that made for some very uncomfortable moments. Because so much of Vanishing Point's work is done instinctively, it's not always easy to know what you're doing with it, or even how I might want to direct it.

“I'd said to the actors that day that this was going to be a difficult show in terms of the things I wanted us to explore, and if they found it too difficult, then the option was there of not taking part in the show itself. But what's so wonderful about everyone involved in the development week is that, despite some of the difficulties that there was in terms of some of the material that we were looking at, they were all willing to go with it, and push themselves further than they might have been comfortable with.”

The Destroyed Room takes its title from a 1978 photograph by Canadian artist Jeff Wall. The picture, which stages the contents, walls and windows of a room ripped asunder by unknown forces, was subsequently used as a cover image for an album of B sides and rarities by American art rock pioneers, Sonic Youth. Wall's image itself references Eugene Delacroix's painting, La Mort de Sardanapale, which depicts a scene of ongoing destruction.

While such a potpourri of pop cultural detritus is not untypical as the starting point for Vanishing Point's work, little of it is likely to be identifiable in the end result. In this respect, while Vanishing Point's work begins as a theatre of ideas, in translation and execution, it becomes a theatre of poetry.

Lenton talks too about Susan Sontag's 2003 book, Regarding The Pain of Others, in which the American writer looked at the meaning and effects of war photography.

“Susan Sontag talked about how we try and empathise with people's suffering,” says Lenton, “and how whether an image can tell the whole story. There are many complex possibilities that come out of that. Sontag talked about how whether only people in the midst of suffering can do anything about it, while the rest of us are voyeurs.”

In keeping with Sontag's observations, The Destroyed Room isn't the first time Vanishing Point have looked at the world through a glass darkly. In Wonderland the company peered through the unflinching movie cameras of the porn industry. In Interiors, the everyday lives of others were seen through a window by a stranger left out in the cold.

The instinctive nature of Vanishing Point's work is apparent when Lenton talks a month after the development week for The Destroyed Room, when it feels like everything has changed. The actions by terrorist bombers in Paris and the subsequent retaliations by western forces have created a spectacle which has reverberated around the world to devastating effect. Lenton's thinking behind The Destroyed Room has not escaped the fallout.

“The Daily Mail paid for an image of a woman escaping death,” says Lenton, referring to pictures published in the wake of the terrorist massacre at the Bataclan theatre in Paris. “That made me think about how events like what happened in Paris are conveyed by and through the media, and it took me back to images of children being killed in Dunblane. Since Bataclan, our country has taken the decision to bomb Syria. Meanwhile, there was an incident on the London Underground in which someone took a knife out, but rather than intervene, most people filmed it on their phones.

“This is the territory we're exploring with the show, that comes from a perception of all these things that are happening around us. One of the things the development week did was crystallise ideas about the show, which seems to me to be about how we regard the suffering of others, and how we react to events happening in the world today. In some respects it could be seen as Vanishing Point's most directly political work to date, but it's still abstract.”

A few days later, and things have developed even more. Just a couple of weeks before rehearsals start, and Lenton has drafted a rough forty page script of The Destroyed Room for he and the actors to play with. As it stands, the show may or may not start with people sat around a table talking, but, in Lenton's words, “It will end very differently to how it begins.”

Inbetween, possibly, will be a look at notions of empathy or the lack of it in the face of global atrocities.

“It sounds like a terribly bleak show,” says Lenton, “but there's humour there too, and what it's really about reveals itself gradually. As with all Vanishing Point shows, I hope there's light, shade, humour, abstraction, and most importantly, beauty, and, I hesitate to say it, magic.”

The Destroyed Room, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, February 19-20; Tron Theatre,Glasgow, February 25-March 5; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 9-12; Battersea Arts Centre, London, April 27-May 14.
www.vanishing-point.org

The Herald, January 5th 2016

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ceildh

Tron Theatre, Glasgow Three stars
One kiss is all it takes for everyone to understand each other in Catriona Lexy Campbell and Mairi Sine Campbell’s new play. Linguistically that is, as ancient and modern are brought to rollickingly intimate life by the Gaelic-based Theatre Gu Leor (Theatre Galore) company in the Tron’s Vic Bar en route to an extensive cross-Scotland tour. The set-up is the sort of ghastly tartan-draped corporate function whose perma-grinning hostess Lisa makes bogus claims of preserving culture while blatantly intent on flogging it off to the highest bidder. Think McWetherspoon by way of Trumpageddon.
With the audience ushered into a cabaret table arrangement by Lisa’s step-daughter Eilidh and serenaded by Eddie’s oh-so-couthy accordion playing, the dirt from Harris is unearthed along with a bottle of David Beckham-branded whisky. This causes the corporate shindig to be disrupted on an epic scale by seventeenth century poet Mairi Ruadh. Which is when both the kissing an…

The Duke

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Four stars
Shon Dale-Jones seems like a very nice chap. You can tell from the way he welcomes each member of the audience into the theatre, shaking them by the hand to a soundtrack of energising 1960s feel-good soul. Such a personable approach helps create a warm and intimate atmosphere, so when he sits at a desk with only a laptop, a volume control and us for company, you can’t help but be charmed from the start of this hour-long foray, both into his own fantastical mind as well as the discursive set of first-world contradictions it lets loose into the world.
It begins with a Royal Worcester porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, which Dale-Jones’ dad bought in 1974 for £750. This would make it worth more than £8,000 in today’s money if his mum hadn’t broken it while dusting. This is just one more thing for Dale-Jones to think about as he attempts to apply a script doctor’s ruthless critique onto a film script he’s been working on for a deca…

This House

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Four stars
Five years is a long time in politics just as it is in the theatre. When James Graham’s epic reimagining of one of the most pivotal eras in late twentieth century British democracy first appeared in 2012, its depiction of the aftermath of the 1974 hung parliament in Westminster chimed with a then current coalition. Half a decade and a couple of referendums on, Graham’s dramatic whizz through to 1979’s successful vote of no confidence in the Labour government now looks like a warning.
Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s touring revival of a production first seen at the National Theatre begins with both sides of the House marching en masse in their grey suits and twin-sets down the aisles of the auditorium before cutting a well-choreographed rug in formation. As the Labour and Tory whips mark out their territory away from the chamber, this proves to be one of the few moments of unity in a breathless yarn that picks at the old-school gentleman’s agree…