Joyce McMillan: the relationship between music and theatre comes under the microscope in this year’s Mayfesto

Off Kilter
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In tough political times, it seems that we often turn to music to point a way forward. From the tremendous black music tradition that helped shape the civil rights movement in America, to Rock Against Racism in the 1970s and 80s, music can often seem like the voice of the future, at a time when ordinary political language seems to fail us; so it’s perhaps not surprising that this year, the Tron Theatre’s annual mini-festival of radical and provocative new work is all about exploring the relationship between music and theatre, and showing how – in an age of ever-expanding technical possibilities – each art form can drive the other forward.

“It’s true that in the past, Mayfesto has sometimes tackled explicit political themes,” says the Tron’s artistic director Andy Arnold, whose 2016 festival focussed on the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. “But at heart, it’s always been about exciting new work, whatever the subject. So one year, we staged a festival of work by women, at a time when they were badly under-represented in Scottish theatre; and this year’s theme has been very much driven by some of the young companies the Tron has been working with recently.

“So for example, we’ve got the great young Glasgow group Blood Of The Young, who have been working for a while on a show about the pioneering electronic composer Daphne Oram, who was one of the co-founders of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, back in 1958. Then I’ve been working with the performer and theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyapan – who is himself profoundly deaf – on Off Kilter, a very physical and comedic show about wellbeing, identity, and getting through your day despite feeling a little bit out of tune with the world. The show will open in Singapore before Mayfesto, and it’s been fascinating working with Singaporean composer Joel Nah on creating a show that uses sound and music, but draws on the experience of someone with very limited hearing.”

The third major new show in Mayfesto 2017 is Music Is Torture, featuring A Band Called Quinn and their brilliant lead performer Louise Quinn, who has already explored the interface between theatre and music in her own mind-blowing show Biding Time (remix). This latest show is inspired by the work of Quinn’s cousin, the academic and human rights campaigner Dr Morag J Grant, who has studied the use of music as a means of torture in political conflict; and it uses the limbo-like setting of a recording studio to explore the impact on a musician of knowing that his work has been abused in this way.

“I just became increasingly fascinated by the idea of the overlap between Morag’s work and mine,” explains Quinn. “Biding Time (remix) was about the relationship between musicians and the music industry, the commercial exploitation of their work; and this show is about an extreme example of the exploitation of music for negative purposes. In our work, both I and my husband (Bal Cooke, drummer, producer, and Band Called Quinn co-founder) use music very extensively in positive ways, working with Sense Scotland and with the Scottish Association for Mental Health, and I was intrigued by the whole concept of music being used so differently, in a much darker way.

“So we have the actor Andy Clark playing the musician at the centre of the story, in the control room, and Harry Ward playing this friend, Nick, who haunts him; then we are the band, behind glass in the studio, acting as his conscience, and providing some kind of narrative. And although the show has a lot of spoken dialogue, I’m also trying to immerse the music into the narrative more deeply than I ever have before.”

And it’s exactly that kind of exploration of the deep interaction between music and theatre that Andy Arnold wants to encourage; he believes the role of music in theatre has changed beyond all recognition since he started to direct in the 1970s, and that it’s now almost impossible to imagine staging a major production without a composer/sound designer in the creative team. And he’s also happy that he has been able to use this year’s Festival – among other initiatives – to help fill the gap that’s recently become evident in Scotland’s new playwriting scene, between short-format, bite-sized shows and readings on one hand, and main stage productions in larger theatres like the Lyceum and the Citizens’.

“It’s great to see a show like Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World Of Sound not only coming through to full production at the Tron, but also going on tour, a first for that company,” he says. “We’re now working with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Traverse to commission a series of new full-length plays, one of them – by Martin McCormick – possibly for next year’s Mayfesto. And of course there’s a whole series of readings and scratch performances at Mayfesto, involving writers like Martin O’Connor and Alan McKendrick, that we hope will emerge as full-scale productions soon.

“In many ways, these are not easy times in Scottish theatre, and there is a constant pressure on funding,” adds Arnold, who remains saddened by the sudden loss two years ago of the Arches, the venue he founded and ran for almost 20 years with huge success. “But for us at the Tron, it’s all about nurturing new creative talent in any way we can; and whatever the problems, that’s what we’ll be doing, at Mayfesto, and all year round.” ■

Mayfesto 2017 is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 9-31 May. Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World Of Sound is also on tour across Scotland until 2 June. Music Is Torture is also at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-27 May, and Eden Court, Inverness, 1 June.