Towering Babel

Graham McLaren’s THEATRE BABEL has enjoyed nothing but acclaim over the past year. On the eve of its latest production, we ask if success means a new approach to the classics.

Words: Steve Cramer

ow. I'm not going to spin

you some ‘classics are the

new rock ‘n‘ roll‘ story. btit there can be little dotibt that the number of revivals or revised versions of classic plays has increased. Modern Scottish writers are producing new versions of Pirandello. Buclmer. even the ancients. at a greater rate than they were five years ago. (‘asting the net further afield than the traditional Scottish McMoliere. and writing for younger audiences than we see in our rep houses. young Scottish companies are showing a renaissance of interest in. well. the renaissance.

A big part of this revival has been spearheaded and encouraged by Theatre Babel. a company of some six years standing that. for a long time produced revivals of Shakespeare. and others. to good audiences and friendly. if occasionally patronising. critical response. It often didn‘t occur to people that these older texts aren‘t things to go and see because we ought to. btit rather because they often speak very directly to us in our own age.

Things have changed dramatically in part because of Theatre Babel’s heady successes over the past year.

‘Who wants to be called trendy? Look what happened to flares.’

lts production of l.i/. Lochhead’s version of Mei/m. now slated for a British Council tour. netted enormous acclaim both before and during the lidinburgh Fringe. A Fringe First for Iain Heggie‘s version of (iogol‘s Diary ()fA Mat/mun and a prominent best actor nomination for Molly lnnes for her role in Tom McUrath‘s Iz'lt'r'lru have followed. as well as a very well received version of Peter Pan at Christmas. It seems that Babel. after years of relative obscurity. are suddenly the cutting edge of Scottish theatre.

The acclaim has not affected Babel‘s artistic director Graham McLaren one jot. I asked him what it‘s like to suddenly become so trendy. and got a characteristic reply: ‘Trendy'.’ I‘d hate to be called trendy. We don‘t compete on the level of "most trendy company". Who wants to be called trendy'.’ Look what happened to tlares.‘

Asked whether the recent tendency of other companies to revive classics is threatening. he‘s equally down-to-earth. ‘lt’s good to see other

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Francis Thorburn, as Annabella, wears her heart on her sleeve, and in various other places

companies doing classics now. It’s not a competition. you know.~

Babel‘s latest offering is a revival of John l‘ord‘s tragedy in which the incestuous love between

Giovanni and his sister Annabella is banned by their

establishment world. with violent. indeed gory consequences. McLaren stresses the dark psychological subtext of the play. which has been shortened and amended to stress its contemporaneity: ‘People compare it to Romeo And Juliet. but in (iiovanni you see more of Jeffrey Dahmer than a star- crossed lover. There are clear parallels between him and a serial killer. He lost his mother at a young age. and he makes tip his own values. his own religion as a consequence of his troubles. He's into dismemberment. he's like one of those psychopaths who believes that by boiling down the bones and preserving the skeletons of his victims. he can preserve love.‘

.\lcl.aren points out that the theatrical traditions of

this play are quite different from the big-scale theatre of a Shakespeare or Jonson. making it more playable in a smaller. studio theatre. ‘The theatre he wrote this for was the Phoenix. a smaller scale theatre. of maybe 4()() seats. Its relationship with the audience was

much more intimate. You get a kind of quality of

close-up with it: its much more psychologised in that way.‘

The shock-qualities of Ford‘s play are well known. but seen in this way. its capacity to chill within the scale of a characteristic Scottish touring venue is full of theatrical promise.

‘fis Pity She’s A Whore, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 19—Sat 28 Apr, then touring.


Stage whispers

Talk of the green room

AS SCOTLAND MOVES steadily towards the creation of its National Theatre. 3 discussion document has been circulated after the release of the findings of the National Theatre working group. The Scottish Executive has furnished this group of the great and good with a specific remit, largely favouring the Federation of Scottish Theatre model proposed in July.

Among the conditions set down by the Scottish Executive is one specifying that ‘the executive will not support the building or development of any new theatrical venue or space in association with this purpose‘. Whispers would be happier if we could have this in blood, and guaranteed as the situation absolutely permanently, but still . . .

The working group's findings have been phrased as sensibly as possible. given the demonstrable silliness of the whole project and. if the Executive chooses to adhere to the proposal closely, it might minimise possible future damage to the Scottish theatre. The general model proposes four medium-scale, possibly touring, productions and one larger-scale production. This latter is proposed as a possible international tour.

But more significant than the artistic structure is the proposal that local authorities should not be asked to contribute directly to the tours. This is important, since it at least gives authorities little excuse to relinquish their responsibility to local theatre. The working group has not suggested a location for the National Theatre. Might we suggest the moon?

Giles Havergal: a supporter of the National Theatre