STEWART Laing is sitting at the long table that fills the room where his company, Untitled Projects, is based. It’s the former design studio of Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre and one of the brightest office spaces in the building.
In theory, this is a rehearsal break for him and he should be able to relax, but there’s no escaping his work. From an adjacent room comes the distinctive riff of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. Then it comes again. And again.
It’s the sound of Laing’s actors trying to master rock guitar. With help from guitar tutor Scott Paterson, formerly of Sons and Daughters, they are also getting their fingers round Metallica’s One and the Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs. The reason is typically unexpected. Laing is staging Jean Genet’s The Maids, a cross-dressed tale of power, role-playing and identity, and he reckons it has an untapped rock’n’roll energy just waiting to get out.
“There are lots of connections between Jean Genet and rock music,” he says. “He was so influential in the 1950s with the whole idea of an underground culture being more interesting than the main culture.”
The 1946 play pre-dates the rock era, but it has impeccable rock credentials. Proto-punk singer Patti Smith has taken to staging gigs on Genet’s birthday because she doesn’t believe the writer and political activist was sufficiently recognised in his lifetime.
“In the 1950s it was said that those who aspired to be Beat read Kerouac, but that the real Beats read Genet,” she wrote in Details magazine. On one occasion, she was joined by REM’s Michael Stipe who performed an acoustic version of David Bowie’s Jean Genie, the title a pun on Genet’s name. Bowie, meanwhile, learned his androgynous Ziggy Stardust moves from choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, who himself directed The Maids at the Citizens’ Close Theatre in 1971.
It’s something of this iconoclastic spirit Laing hopes to capture now. “Genet didn’t like a pure psychological reading of his plays,” he says. “And he didn’t like pure political readings either. He thought something magical happened in theatre when it was good. A lot of actors expect the entire conversation to be about psychology, but I think it’s more interesting to add other stuff in there. Having guitars in the show has got nothing to do with psychology.”
Working with three young actors who are students or recent graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he is following Genet’s wishes by casting men in the female roles. The play is loosely based on the 1933 case of servants Christine and Léa Papin who murdered their mistress and her daughter. In Genet’s hands, it becomes a strange story of class warfare and sadomasochistic power games, made more ambiguous by the cross-dressing.
“Genet grew up in all-male environments,” says Laing. “He was in orphanages and then he was in borstals and then prisons. The female figures in his life were people pretending to be women, like the feminine figures in prison who are fulfilling the role of the female. The play was written in the middle of the Second World War when those ideas of masculine and feminine were much more clearly defined than they are now. I was interested in looking at it in the early 21st century where there’s a much more fluid crossover between masculine and feminine behaviour.”
Rock music adds its own gender associations: “As well as a Bowie song, they also play a Metallica song, which is completely testosterone-fuelled. I’m wondering what the association is if you put those two things together.”
It’s a surprise it has taken this long for Laing to get round to Genet. A designer turned director, he has been steadily working his way through a long list of French writers including Rimbaud, Cocteau, Proust, Marivaux, Foucault and Guibert. Where this Francophile fascination comes from, he finds it hard to say; his mastery of the language means he can get by in a restaurant, but no more than that, yet he is repeatedly drawn back to this countercultural work. “I’d really love to do Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Marie Koltès at some point.”
His most audacious show to date also took influence from France. First seen at Edinburgh’s Traverse in 2011, The Salon Project was a remarkable performance in which the audience was professionally fitted out in the clothes of a 19th-century Parisian salon before partaking in a series of talks and performances. The stiff formality of the clothes seemed to change the audience’s attitude, as if we really had stepped back to a more sober, intellectually probing time. It was a complex, labour-intensive event to stage, and the great news is it’s coming back. As well as dates at London’s Barbican, it will have an eight-day run at the Citizens’ in March.
“Even though I was in there throughout every performance, it often wasn’t until afterwards that somebody would say, ‘This amazing conversation happened over in the corner, were you aware of that?’ – and I was completely unaware of many things that were going on. It’s exciting thinking we’ve got another 18 performances and every one of them is going to be very different.”
Both The Salon Project and The Maids are examples of the way Laing likes to push at the definition of what theatre can be. Fifteen years ago, in Myths of the Near Future, he staged three stories by JG Ballard in unusual spaces, including a disused swimming pool in Govan. More recently, in Pamela Carter’s Slope, he positioned the audience above the actors, who performed in a fully plumbed Victorian bathroom below. It’s an approach that means every production is an experiment – a big “what if?” – and he hopes the audience will approach it in the same spirit of adventure.
“I’m unsure what the outcome is, but I would hope that if the audience have had an interesting experience, they’re not going to be dissatisfied,” he says. “Douglas Gordon says the reason to make art is to have a conversation and I profoundly believe that.”
• The Maids is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, today until 2 February. The Salon Project is at the same venue, 15–23 March. www.citz.co.uk