Mark Shenton meets Lumiere and Son, Fringe favourites returning to Scotland.
Scotland might be thought to be immune to the claims of experimental theatre companies that they‘re providing something new, since claims to this effect are made annually by companies on the Edinburgh Fringe, who surface brieﬂy for three weeks and are then never heard of again. But Lumiere & Son have survived where others have sunk. and for thirteen years now have been challenging audiences with a remarkably varied output: from circus and pantomime to opera. and everything in between. each
show has been different from the last.
The latest manifestation oftheir work is called PANIC, which arrives in Glasgow at the beginning of March as part of a tour culminating in a visit to Scandinavia. It is the 37th show to be directed by Hilary Westlake, who, after graduating from East 15 drama school and working with various experimental groups in the late Sixties and early Seventies, co-founded the company in 1973 with David Gale, the latter writing most ofthe shows for the next decade. Since 1984, however, Hilary has devised as well as directed the shows, with David continuing to work for the company by providing the dialogue as required within frameworks she establishes, but meanwhile set free to pursue freelance interests.
The full-time company comprises the director, an administrator, and a technical manager. Actors and other personnel are employed on a project to project basis, so the identity ofthe company is very much that of the director. The name Lumiere & Son therefore effectively represents the body of work the company has done, characterised as it is by her directorial imagination. the skills of the performers she draws upon, and increasingly. the technical back-up now so essential to their multi-media work. They are not, however, based at a theatre, but have a rehearsal room and office in a converted British Rail warehouse in South London, which is where I met Hilary and Adrian Evans (currently project
producer, explanation to follow, and previously administrator to the company).
Though in recent years most of the companies ofthe fellow experimentalists of her generation have collapsed, with only the People‘s Show still soldiering on from the early Seventies, Hilary explained that with many ofthe other groups being co-operatively run, there were more people‘s development to consider. But with Lumiere & Son, there’s always been the director to continue the company; and though she has been able to work with very good performers, again and again, to their mutual advantage, she has not been dependent on particular performers. And though in the past they have been instrumental in shaping the show, with the particular skills of the actors being maximized, this is less the case now. As Hilary has become more and more interested in the technical aspects oftheatre, the creative contributions of the deviser-director, writer, composer, designer and technical design personnel have become additional to those of the actors, who she would like to see as just one of a number of elements.
The work of Lumiere & Son can now be characterised as striving to successfully mix a number of different elements in performance. In Brightside, their last big touring show (seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985). movement was mixed with song, music, text and a strong design element. Panic, likewise, will draw on different theatrical sources: it has, according to Hilary, ‘Music,
choreography, language. slides and a rhythmic structure that informs all of them.‘ As a presentation or evocation ofcontemporary urban panic it is, she says. the starkest. most formal show they‘ve ever done, and it marks a break with the narrative-based past into more spectacle-orientated work. The slides, for example, provide a strong dramatic force, not merely in their representations (it was
photographed on location in London and the Scottish Highlands by Simon Corder who, since 1982, has provided all the company‘s projection designs) but also by the fact that most ofthe lighting for the .show comes from them.
But Hilary is increasingly concerned with the fear of overloading a theatre audience. because though she wants to be able to use as many different theatrical forms as she possibly can that she has ideas for, in multi-media presentations they have to be guided through it. The theatre is good for exploring detail; but audiences expect to have the selection ofwhat’ they need to absorb made for them. It is this preconception. a limitation of the theatre not ofequipment but rather in the expectations of an audience when they come to a theatre building. that has led her outdoors. where with projects such as Deadw00d(performed in Kew Gardens in 1986) she is able to theatricalize an environment. Here, the performer is no longer king or
.queen, but just one ofthe elements
in a greater scheme, in which the audience will necessarily have to make choices rather than be guided. Two to three such projects are planned for the summer. with more to follow; it seems that this will increasingly be the direction of the work of Lumiere & Son. and particularly Adrian Evans as the projects producer.
Hilary Westlake is motivated by a restlessness and desire to try new things. ‘The face oftheatre is changing,‘ she says. ‘and I‘m looking for more extraordinary situations of doing theatre.‘ This admirable sense of ambition means that. unlike so much experimental theatre, the work does not stagnate. It is difficult to describe. but impossible to label and categorize. To do so is in any case merely a matter ofconvenience; it is no substitute for seeing them. Merely to implore you to go is not sufficient; but it must suffice. Lumiere and Son are a! the Tron Theatre, Glasgow from 3 March.
The List 20 Feb _ 5 March 7