Test Dept Productions has turned into the NVA Organisation to present an unclassifiable multi-media extravaganza. Mark Fisher talks to director Angus Farquhar about his body of work.
eople like me aren‘t meant to like
people like Angus Farquhar.
People like Angus Farquhar muck
things up. Journalists want
pigeon-holes. categories and
labels. but our friend Farquhar's not for filing.
Take the Beltane Fire. Every spring for the past five years. Angus Farquhar and his cronies have revived this ancient pagan ritual on top of Edinburgh‘s Calton Hill. At midnight on the last day of winter. a platoon of drummers strikes up a compulsive. intuitive rhythm. a pulsating beat to set off the nerve ends. leading a procession clockwise round the footpaths and follies where semi-naked sprites. painted from head to toe in lurid colours. dance lewdly in the torch-light. At the head of the crowd - a crowd that has grown considerably each year - is a May Queen. dressed in white like a vestal virgin. arms extended in a trance-like dance that pulls us round to the unlit bonfire on top of the hill. Once you would have made a sacrifice of her. now you make do with the allure of the ﬂames until it‘s time to rub your face in the dew on Arthur‘s Seat.
Every year this happens and every year we here at List Mansions puzzle about how to categorise it. For me the magic spell of wind, fire and human noise is an annual theatrical highlight. but it‘s not what many people would call theatre. There are drums and bagpipes. but it is no rock gig.
This is why people like me are not supposed to like people like Angus Farquhar. They make things so awkward. Especially when they make things so irresistible. Things like The Second Coming. a show by Test Dept Productions in 1990 that took over the St Rollox Locomotive Works at much the same time as Bill Bryden commandeered the Harland & Wolff warehouse for The Ship. But where Bryden used his huge budget to camouﬂage a slab of run—of-the-mill drama. Farquhar brought true theatrical flair to his industrial environment: while spanners beat a mesmeric rhythm on fire extinguishers in the foreground. in the far distance welders‘ sparks ﬂew. an army of stick men went on the march and blood-red flags formed huge crucifixes. Using film. music and words by journalist Neil Ascherson, The Second Coming was about as far from the well-made play as you‘re likely to get. As far, that is. until Farquhar dreamed up Sabotage.
For the sake of argument we will say that Sabotage is theatre, because it takes place at Tramway and at two points during its 90- minute duration there are sequences that seem like scripts, with actors saying lines and, well, kind of acting. To use any more
‘ We seem to spend our lives creating constructs of comforts around a reality that is ultimately a venture into the unknown every minute that we live.’
precise a definition would be foolhardy — even the normally catch-all word ‘show‘ is rather too specific. Perhaps we‘ll make do with ‘event‘. And what happens at this event is that the audiences turn up in groups of 40 at twenty-minute intervals and promenade through a series of installations which subject them to heart-beats, sex scenes, brain—scans. disabled robots, the paintings of Ken Currie and the overblown corpse of Elvis Presley. They squeeze through doorways. get squashed into small rooms and force their way along wind tunnels. They are amused. bombarded, disorientated and then some.
By most people‘s standards, this is not normal. And neither is it normal to use architects instead of designers to turn portraits into cartoons or to get a disco lighting specialist to create a lift—shaft with a life of its own. Angus Farquhar‘s advantage is that he doesn‘t know what normal is. What he knows is ten years‘ worth of radical rock noise-making with Test Dept (everything from an album with the South Wales Striking Miners‘ Choir to a GLC benefit in a British Rail engine-shed, said to be an early inspiration for the rave scene) or turning a disused church into a venue for a show about the history of religion, orjoining forces with Brith Gof to spray the audience with water in The Gododdin. or going pagan on the top of Calton Hill.
‘After The Soul Maehine,‘ says Farquhar, sitting in a West End bar remembering his last admittedly less-than-successful theatrical venture. ‘l was getting advice from certain quarters saying, “Look, you‘re obviously really talented and you‘ve got a lot of imagination. but you really don‘t know the ropes my son. why don‘t you think of doing an Assistant Director‘sjob with a company for a while. just to see the way things work?“ I was at a vulnerable stage and l was thinking maybe they‘re right. But after a month and a half, Ijust thought no way. that‘s not what I‘m about. What I need to do is go back to my instincts and go back to the reasons that have driven me to create
The audience squeeze through doorways, get squashed into small rooms and force their way along wind tunnels. They are amused, bombarded, disorientated and then some.
the kind of work that I‘ve been involved in since the age of nineteen.‘
Farquhar‘s instinct was to dismantle Test Department Productions (its musical sibling still rattles at the metal-work in England) and set up the NVA Organisation in order, he explains, ‘to leave behind the practices of the past that were holding me back and to pick up on the beliefl have in drawing large bodies of people together towards a common vision.‘ The danger is that common vision can amount to general confusion. and it‘s Farquhar‘s task to draw out the best from his collaborators. while making some kind of overall sense of their contributions. ‘Sabotage is part geographical exploration of the body, and part chronological journey towards death.‘ he explains. ‘but the way it has become that is out of real responses to the questions I have asked. It‘s growing from firm foundations rather than having an overview and trying to get the foundations to fit. A lot of the images that were half decent in The Soul Machine only occurred within the last three days. In that case it didn‘t come off in the way we wanted, in other cases we have had very powerful experiences. I wanted to rid myself of that way of working and come back down to instinct and solid ideas and build the show out of that.‘
Certainly the ideas in Sabotage are solid enough and Farquhar can talk at length about sexuality, physical awareness, the process of ageing and so on, but the way the show will work is on a more subconscious. less articulate plane. The event has been meticulously planned, but there‘s little that resembles a script and you‘re more likely to leave with a headful of questions than answers. ‘What we are given as passive receivers is so constructed that it can limit your experience,‘ says Farquhar. “The type of performance I‘m trying to create is engaging; you have to make choices, you are put into vulnerable positions, you have to engage with something that is right there in front of you that demands you to walk on or to stay and watch it. There is an obsession with narrative, in television. film and theatre; an obsession with having very clear-cut. rational reasons, but they often follow very neat patterns which don‘t reﬂect real life.
We seem to spend our lives creating constructs of comforts around a reality that is ultimately a venture into the unknown every minute that we live. My premise is to create a type of work which is as bewildering as life itself.‘
Sabotage, Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 30 Apr—Fri 7 May.
Beltane Fire, Calton Hill. Edinburgh. Fri 30 Apr.
The List 23 April—6 May I993 9