The miracle workers
Renowned for pushing the barriers of theatre to their limits. Boilerhouse theatre company has teamed up with writer Alan Warner for an ambitious show No New Miracles. Neil Cooper discovers the problems involved.
Boilerhouse has never sat easily in the Scottish theatrical framework. From the company‘s early days with plays by John McKenzie and Lance Flynn. and its Berkoff—inspired leap into that testosterone- charged hybrid lazily labelled ‘physieal theatre‘. it has always seemed a little less well behaved than most —- perhaps even a tad on the dangerous side.
lts policy statement does nothing to dispel the myth. boldly proclaiming how its work will ‘stab. jab. push. cajole. seduce. confront. and invent‘. lts constant commissioning of trendy Scots novelists has angered playwrights cheesed off at what could be seen as blatant opportunism.
Director Paul Pinson has been the company's guiding light since its inception as Mandela Theatre Company at Jimmy Boyle's centre Gateway Exchange. and offers no apologies to his critics. ‘l‘m not arsed if people see it as opportunist.‘ he says. ‘lrvine Welsh got involved in Hardware after I‘d approached about five playwrights. and that was about a year before Trainspotting came out. The fact that someone might be a novelist rather than a playwright or a poet doesn't come into my head. For
The mighty mouse
Attending an Amnesty International talk on China’s human rights violations in Tibet, Noel McMonagle’s response was twolold. Moved by the dignity and courage of those detained at the Maoists’ displeasure, he also recognised the dramatic potential of one man’s resolve to be more than a number in a Little lied Book.
Lhasa schoolteacher Tanag Jigme Sangpo was imprisoned more than 40 years ago lor lailing to report a child’s anti-Chinese grallito. Alter relusing to sign a declaration accepting China’s sovereignty, his sentence was extended several times, and shortly
alter his eventual release in 1982, he was arrested once more for putting up posters in the Tibetan capital. Ollicially, he’s still in prison, but there is strong suspicion he was executed lour years ago alter an attempt to ‘ pass a message to visiting diplomats. g
In McMonagle’s Cat and Mouse, Tanag’s interrogation by a Chinese psychologist provides the vehicle lor an examination at the contrast between the spiritual world view ol . Tibetan Buddhists and the materialism . ol their oppressors.
Like many prisoners ol conscience, Tanag’s incarceration strengthened his convictions, and for McMonagle - a social worker with an insider’s knowledge at the penal system - such dedication is inspirational. ‘The whole ; them all they think is: “Well that’s a prison system is designed to take away all ability to resist, but the devotion ol the Tibetan people is unbelievable. ll someone is violent to
Miracle workers: Steve Webb (lelt), Vicki Liddelle and Peter Grimes
me it's about making connections. linking up with people in a ruecling of minds at a patticular momcnif
Boilerhouse's latest project No New .llr'r'rir'les. has been devised in only live weeks with writer Alan Warner. whose novel .llurverrr ('u/lur is about to be made into a film by the BBC. To fans and critics of the company. Nu New ,llrmt‘les should prove something of a surprise. ‘()ne of the things we wanted to talk about was spirituality. It's not very fashionable. but we felt there‘s a lot of searching going on.‘ in
Taking Georg Buchner's novella Len: as its starting point. it is a stark. simple tale of a writer trapped in a morass of mental pain. Lost in the spiritual wilderness. he stumbles upon The Colony. a Shangri la-type retreat where he embarks on a voyage through his own private hell before finding renewal and acceptance.
‘lt‘s a completer different experience for me.‘ says Warner about the production, his first theatrical venture. ‘I think it‘s great to have so much input frorr everyone. but it‘s not the easiest way to work. and froin a writer's point of view it can be a nightmare at times.‘ He sees the experience as double-edged: ‘The devising process can be used to cover tip a lack of
5 very bad karma”.’
Even less ellective than brutality is any attempt at indoctrination. ‘Being a door-to-door salesman in Lhasa would
original ideas -- in writers. I mean. In a sense what you have at the end of the process isn‘t necessarily connected with the writer anymore.‘
Pinson talks of the great beauty of No New .llr’rm'lcs. while Warner declares he‘s never written anything so ‘syrupy' before. To this end it is the least trendy of all Boilerhouse‘s productions -» much more contemplative in tone than the ‘in yer face' expletives of Hurt/slum or the stomping. pumping iron machisrno of The Drum. Some might see the production as a bit fey. but its highlighting of the need for a belief in something to fill a spiritual soul is as pertinent as it ever was.
More a poctn or a meditation than a play. it is littered with beautiful moments. \Vhen text. movement and the imaginative use of music familiar to readers of .ilorvvrn ('ul/ui'. are successfully fused. the result is theatrical magic.
Where the production is weak is in its tendency to fill up the spaces between scenes with frantic physical illustrations of what has gone before. suggesting a lack of faith in existing material. This insecurity no doubt comes from the panic that sets in w hen a piece of work is forced before an audience while still only half formed. It has had to do its growing tip in public. and by the time its run ends in Aberdeen it w ill certainly be a completely different creature.
This brave attempt by the company to move on to fresher pastures fails to top the detention centre. machine gun stomp of Lance l’lynn's l‘)‘)() play The Drum. Boilerhouse forged their reputation on its aggressive style.
Since then. projects have suffered primarily through the company‘s attempts to be different while tending to rely on familiar physical tricks. Ambition and resources have ney er quite managed to match up. Pinson should perhaps take note of something Alan Warner said two days before the opening of M) New .llr'rttr‘les in Edinburgh‘s Traverse: ‘For tne. art is order. and when there's an absence of order. an suffers immensely.‘
No New .llrnrr'les. t/rc 'Ii'umn'uy'. (i/usgmr. l’rr' 6—Star 8 ()r'l.
;. be the worst job in the world because they’re not open to words: all that moves them is what they see and leel inside,’ says the author admiringly, although this contradicts his disparagement ol the single- mindedness ol Communists, whom ‘you can’t argue with’. ‘You’ve got to work on the universals in a play, and here it’s redemption,’ he avers, but alter two years and lour dralts Tanag’s personal plight has clearly retained its centrality. ‘lle probably just died one night wondering whether anybody knew about his lile,‘ he says wistlully. Bringing to light a single act ol resistance, McMonagle’s play is both a reminder of the tragedy in Tibet and a memorial to a mouse that dared to roar at China’s paper tigers. (David Harris) Cat and Mouse, Annexe Theatre Company, Battier Theatre, Glasgow, Mon 9—Fri 13 Oct.
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