The Edinburgh-based theatre company Grid Iron has perhaps won more critical and audience acclaim, in its 25 year history, than any other group in contemporary Scottish theatre. Founded in Edinburgh in 1995, by producer Jude Doherty and director Ben Harrison, the company soon found itself leading the movement towards site-specific theatre in Britain, exploring the possibilities of theatre staged in unconventional spaces for some years before the arrival of high profile London exponents such as Punch Drunk.
In the late 1990s, they made a stunning site-specific debut with their show The Bloody Chamber, based on an Angela Carter story, and staged in Mary King’s Close, below Edinburgh City Chambers; and they went on to become the first company to open up the space in the Cowgate which they named The Underbelly, with their Rabelais-based 1998 show Gargantua.
They have played in school playgrounds, in empty New Town mansions, at Edinburgh Airport, in a textile museum in Dundee, at the Briggait in Glasgow, and at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena in Ratho; they have toured internationally to venues including an island off Stavanger in Norway, a hospital in Jordan, and an old mortuary in Cork. They have won Fringe Firsts and CATS Awards galore; and the Guardian declared them “not just a Scottish national treasure, but one of the companies that has shaped British theatre over the last 20 years.”
So it’s perhaps not surprising that when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the Grid Iron team - with their vast experience of working in every kind of physical circumstance - were the first Scottish-based professional company to begin to plan a live performance in front of an audience. The company had been working on a new play, Doppler, adapted by Ben Harrison from a satirical novel by Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, about a man who decides to leave his family and move to a forest outside Oslo, to pursue a life close to nature. The company had intended to open their production of Doppler at the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe; but instead, as restrictions eased over the summer, they hatched a plan to perform it in late August at an outdoor venue on the edge of the city, playing to small, socially-distanced audience groups.
In the end, the logistics of preparing the space to the right safety standard, in the time-frame available, defeated even the Grid Iron team. The company are certain, though, that the current crisis has only made the show’s themes of survivalism and self-sufficiency, in the face of an urban civilisation on the verge of crisis, even more timely. They have made a film of Doppler for release later this year, and hope to present the full live production in 2021.
In this short scene from the play, we see Doppler - played by Grid Iron and Outlander star Keith Fleming - negotiating a new relationship with a local man, played by Sean Hay, who can supply him with skimmed milk. Both are wary of the other, and at least one of them is wary of the whole idea of returning to a society based on barter. Yet their brief encounter offers an insight in to the kinds of conversations we would all find ourselves conducting, within days of any real collapse of the supply-lines and systems we so often take for granted, and without which we have never yet had to survive.
Find out more about Grid Iron and Doppler at http://www.gridiron.org.uk
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