IS STEWART Laing monkeying around? Two of Scotland's most important theatre venues, the Tramway and the Traverse, have entrusted the director with their biggest performance spaces. There's much excitement about what he'll do. And what has he filled these big spaces with? A lawn. That's it. It's not even a very nice lawn; it's a cheap-looking plastic thing with a few plastic chairs on it.
Let's not worry yet though. Instead, let's go back to 2006, when Laing and playwright Pamela Carter put on a show at Tramway called Slope. Given the venue's hangar-like main exhibition space to play with, Laing built… a big slope. And a small bathroom. And only let 30 audience members in each night.
It seemed, as the Scotsman's theatre critic noted, "like a hugely overblown project, a theatrical fantasy that ought not to work". But it did. Laing and Carter delivered a marvel, intimate but epic. Perched at the top of the slope, the small audience looked down on the bathroom from above, like gods or ghosts, as Carter told a heartbreaking, traumatic story about the passionate but messy love affair between two damaged poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The symbolism was obvious – these were men on a slippery slope, whose relationship could never live up to the intense moment when they fell for each other. Somehow, the audacity of building such a giant set for such a small story made that sense of loss and disappointment even harder to take. The show, too, felt like a rare and precious thing, soon to be lost.
Three years on, Laing and Carter are reunited for An Argument About Sex (the show with the lawn), and Tramway and the Traverse are clearly hoping they'll repeat the trick. "I feel really blessed by the support of the two venues," says Laing, who fully appreciates what a gamble it is. "I think in general audiences now want something different from just going to a theatre and the lights going out and something happening in front of them."
An Argument About Sex is certainly intriguing. It's being billed as "a response to" Pierre de Marivaux's 1744 comedy The Dispute, in which two aristocrats set up a bizarre, fantastical experiment to determine whether men or women are more unfaithful in love. For the past 19 years, two boys and two girls have been raised in complete isolation from society. Now the aristocrats can settle a nature vs nurture argument about the differences between men and women, by observing a situation where nurture's influence has been removed.
In Laing and Carter's update, the aristocratic characters instead work for a hedge fund in the city, and the children are a kind of reality TV experiment. "When Pamela was looking at differences between genders, the place where it seemed most extreme is in the finance industry, which is really dominated by men," says Laing. "Hedge funding is almost completely a man's world – that sort of high risk, they think now, is a lot to do with testosterone." The play is set on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse, in September 2008, and begins in an office before moving to the garden where the experiment's guinea pigs have been raised.
If Marivaux's set-up had echoes of the Garden of Eden, Laing and Carter's show is very much shaped by Charles Darwin and DNA (Laing's companion in our photo is Lucy, Darwin's orangutan). "Nature vs nurture arguments were big in the 18th century," says the director. "Since the advent of DNA, scientists have much more evidence to look at the differences between men and women and how sexual selection operates."
And yet, he says, Marivaux's pre-DNA observations were quite astute. "The classical view of men and women when it comes to sex and fidelity is that men are very brash and try to f*** as many women as possible so they can have as many kids as possible, and that women pair-bond with one person for the rest of their life. When they started DNA testing they realised a lot of men were bringing up kids who weren't theirs, because women are unfaithful, they're just much quieter about it. Now they reckon women want someone to help them bring up their kids but they also want the best sperm – and sometimes they don't get those things from the same person.
"Marivaux concluded something similar, that monogamy is not an instinct, it's not who we are. But he was just looking at human nature. Scientists now say they can prove it – men and women are both unfaithful for genetic reasons."
If this appeals, book early. An Argument About Sex may have big ideas and a big set, but there aren't many tickets – just 90 per show. The few who got to see Slope are probably snapping them up already. v
An Argument About Sex is at Tramway, Glasgow, Thusday until 17 October and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 October to 7 November. www.tramway.org