Joyce McMillan: Is it healthy for artists to make shows about making art?

Paul Bright's  Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a triumph
Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a triumph
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At the Tramway in Glasgow this evening, a last lucky audience will have a chance to see the final performance of Paul Bright’s Confessions of A Justified Sinner, the latest show directed by Scotland’s most playful and inventive theatre genius, Stewart Laing.

Laing is a Lanarkshire man who emerged from the Citizens’ Theatre in the 1980s, first as a designer, then as a director; his recent work includes the 2011 Salon Project, which had a whole audience of 60 people dressed up in elaborate period costume to attend a strange, timeless party at civilisation’s end.

In Paul Bright’s Confessions, though, he is dealing even more directly with questions of performance and illusion; in that he has created the most elaborate reconstruction – involving a magnificently detailed archive exhibition, as well as a 90-minute monologue by the actor George Anton, and superb sequences of film, sound and graphic imagery – of an alleged attempt back in the late 1980s, by a now-forgotten young Scottish director called Paul Bright, to create a six-part site-specific adaptation of James Hogg’s great 1824 novel, The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner.

The show, in other words, involves an extended, brilliantly realised in-joke about the state of Scottish theatre then and now, complete with spoof interviews with luminaries like Giles Havergal and Annie Griffin; and Laing is far from alone in his drive to make theatre about the creative process itself.

Last weekend, the Edinburgh International Film Festival screened the 50-minute film based on The Making Of Us, a 2012 Tramway show by artist Graham Fagen and theatre director Graham Eatough, in which the live audience was invited onto a film set, to watch the story-within-a-story of a young man – one of us, the audience – who is gradually ensnared by the dangerous compromises of autonomy involved in becoming a successful film actor. And if you open this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, you will find plays on every page about actors, directors and playwrights wrestling with inner demons, and introspecting about the world they inhabit.

So is this increasing self-absorption in the world of the arts a healthy development? Of course not; the audiences for shows like these are composed to a frightening extent of other arts professionals, and some of the work seems to have no ambition to communicate beyond that narrow group.

At best, this strand of work simply reflects a society in which all professional groups remain increasingly within their silos, and social mobility seems to have slowed to a snail’s pace, silencing conversation between classes and groups. And at worst, it is a monument to a generation brought up with the infinitely destructive post-structuralist idea that art should always be interrogating itself, rather than confronting the wider world of human experience; although art that interrogates itself in a political and social vacuum is likely to come up with blindingly silly answers.

And yet, just at the moment when it’s tempting to condemn the whole genre of art-about-art, theatre conspires to prove again that in this art-form at least, there are no rules. For all its introspection, The Making Of Us captures something vital about the way all of us, in a world obsessed with celebrity and mediation, surrender elements of privacy and control to systems we barely understand, simply in order to be seen and heard.

And amid all the fun and self-mockery, Paul Bright’s Confessions is also a dazzlingly brilliant theatrical response to James Hogg’s great novel, notoriously difficult to adapt; a show about men driven by demons then and now, and about a blazing radical impulse in Scotland, fading to oblivion.

It should be silly, self-absorbed, unbearable. Yet in the end, as in all the best theatre, the sheer brilliance of the work transcends the genre; to make something rich and strange, and undeniably new.