The first production of 1990 at The Tramway is an ambitious theatrical, musical and dance collaboration that slits open the belly of the Nation to let out the Devil himself. Mark Fisher speaks to Liz Lochhead and Gerry Mulgrew about Communicado’s contribution to Burns Night and beyond.
I worry about the production department at Take The High Road. Faced with the seasonal migration of its entire cast to Pantomime Land, it must be plotting some exceptionally minimalist episodes to be broadcast in the coming weeks.
A similar fate looks set to befall the Scottish theatre world until the end ofFebruary. It’s not just that Communicado is making use of some fourteen actors — not to mention a further ten musicians — in Glasgow‘s first major theatrical production of 1990, it’s also that the cast list reads like a Who‘s Who of Scotland‘s most exciting, young performers. Can there be enough actors to go round, I wonder?
Arriving towards the end of the company’s morning session in a big, wood-panelled rehearsal hall at the top of the Co-Op building in Glasgow’s Morrison Street, I sit back and star-spot while the actors huddle round in earnest debate; Stuart Hepburn, Gerda Stevenson, Frank McConnell . . . the list goes on. On the other side of the hall a small group practices some close-harmony, traditional Scottish folk singing. A door swings open to usher in the sound of live New Orleans jazz, as the band, made up of yet more luminaries- Ron Shaw, Christine Kidd and The List’s own Norman Chalmers— go through their paces in an adjoining room.
Scattered round the hall amongst stacks of chairs, are supermarket trollies, assorted bottles, piles of clothes and strips of corrugated iron;
symbols of the industrial wasteland that forms the setting for Jock Tamson ’s Baims, Communicado‘s collaborative vision ofcontemporary Scotland. From the rafters hang scarecrow-like dummies. while on the walls are larger-than-life sketches ofcompany members by Visual Director, Keith McIntyre, who has been working for a year on themes arising out of the production. His paintings will be seen both in the show itself and in a concurrent exhibition at The Tramway.
For Jock Tamson 's Bairns, Communicado is thinking big. Director Gerry Mulgrew has always had a big imagination. which has inspired several exciting, award-winning collaborations in his company’s six-year history, but this one is also big in scale and ambition. Despite a ten-week rehearsal period,
compared to the average three weeks, Mulgrew reckons they‘ve allowed themselves only a quarter of the time with which they could really do. ‘l‘ve never done anything on this scale with as many different forms.‘ he explains. ‘I’m trying to go a bit further along the road and try something different. It‘s very exciting and very frightening.‘
The danger in this kind ofthinking, especially when encouraged by healthy civic funding and a vast venue like The Tramway, is that genuine artistic ambition will degenerate into the big is best philosophy that debilitates London‘s West End. Mulgrew is well aware of the pitfalls. ‘We were getting into a
kind of mind game,’ he says, ‘where if the last group who was in there had sand and ﬂooded the place, then we’d have to go one better than that and set fire to the building and hang upside down. That‘s the wrong premise from which to start. I’m not interested in that kind ofJeux Sans Frontiers competition. I‘m excited about having all these people on stage, which is a sensual indulgence. But the set is rock simple. We decided we weren‘t going to change The Tramway into anything else but The Tramway. We‘ll put in what we need to put in, which is very simple and basic.’
Taking its inspiration from the cult ofthe Burns Supper, Jock Tamson ’s Baims is a devised piece which uses Burns‘ Tam 0' Shanter to take a subjective look at contemporary Scotland. But unlike the drunken hero of Burns‘ poem, who having interrupted the secret devilish dance still manages to escape, the similarly inebriated hero ofCommunicado’s tale is pursued and caught. What follows is a re-evaluation of an awkward past. ‘It’s a celebration of the Scottish psyche,‘ says Mulgrew. ‘We‘re not trying to be objective about it. It‘s a story about a fictitious community somewhere in Central Scotland. It is a poetic view of perhaps two minutes at a Burns Supper exploded into two hours. It‘s not a play— it has a different kind of rhythm. The entire piece is a statement, but one that is implicit rather than explicit. Just doing it throws up an emotional challenge to
the audience. But it is working on a level that is not literary.’
What is the position of the writer in a collaborative piece that gives equal billing to dancer, painter, musician, actor and director? How do you write a play that is not a play? What do you do with words in a creation that is not literary? For Liz Lochhead, poet, playwright and sometime stand-up comic, Jock Tams'on 's Bairns has brought forth new challenges. ‘You’re always part ofa team,’ she explains, ‘but you're
10 The List 12 — 25 January 1990