The audience. The host. The guest. The band. The ants. That’s the National Theatre of Scotland’s one-line introduction to director Stewart Laing’s latest show Them!, which opens at the Tramway in Glasgow later this month; and although it seems enigmatic, in fact it reveals a great deal about the remarkable theatrical world of one of Scotland’s most inventive and acclaimed directors and designers, currently an NTS associate artist, and boss of his own project-based company, Untitled Projects.
First, there’s the hint that the first part of the show will take the form of a chat-show, with an audience, a host and a guest, signalling Laing’s fearless use of other art forms – notably film and television – to illuminate and transform his stage productions; those who saw his remarkable staging of Strindberg’s Creditors at the Lyceum in Edinburgh a year ago will not have forgotten how he mixed live action and live video to give us a strange, voyeur-like perspective on the inner domestic life of the couple at the heart of the story. Then there’s the use of music; in whatever form, music and sound are always essential to Laing’s brand of total theatre.
And finally, out of left field, come the ants – an entire colony of leaf-eaters who will be installed in the Tramway space for the duration. Their presence both acknowledges one of the show’s inspirations – in the shape of 1954 American science-fiction film Them!, a tale of giant mutant ants who try to take over the world – and reflects another recurring aspect of Laing’s work, a fascination with apocalyptic human futures on a changing planet that has been obvious ever since he first staged his remarkable JG Ballard trilogy Myths Of The Near Future at the Tramway in 2000.
“My first experience of theatre was of being brought to the Citizens’ on school trips in the mid-1970s,” says Laing, who grew up in East Kilbride. “So right from the start, watching shows there by Philip Prowse, I was used to the idea that directing and designing were very closely related, part of an art form that brings all these strands together. I was completely blown away by it, and when I left school I worked at the Citizens’ for a few years in their design department before I went to London to study at the Central School of Art and Design.
“Then I came back to Glasgow in the late 1980s, first as head of design at the Citizens’, then as a freelance, increasingly interested in directing as well as designing; and so my other main influences, so far as making theatre were concerned, were all to do with Glasgow 1990, with the wonderful international theatre that appeared in the city around that time, and with the kind of visionary work that was appearing in the National Review of Live Art [festival].”
It’s a style – or a range of complex and sometimes baffling theatrical possibilities – that has been reflected in a remarkable series of Stewart Laing productions over the last 20 years, ranging from Myths Of The Near Future to many brilliant collaborations with the writer Pamela Carter, notably on their breathtaking 2006 Tramway production of Slope – about the tormented love affair between French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud – and on the remarkable 2013 show Paul Bright’s Confessions of A Justified Sinner, a deconstructed and multi-layered meditation on the great James Hogg novel and the evolution of Scottish culture. And now, Laing and Pamela Carter are working together again, on Them!
“Pamela and I began talking about this project three or four years ago,” says Laing, “and the idea is to create a show about the possibility of personal change, about whether one can really change the narrative of one’s own life, and about the hostility and ‘othering’ that can explode when real change happens, and confronts people who are not prepared for it.
“It’s also partly a response to Tramway, this crazy huge theatre space; the show comes in three very different parts, and we’re going to use every part of the Tramway space – the auditorium, the stage, and the backstage areas – during the show. One thing I love in theatre is the sense of surprise, of seeing something that you just never imagined before; and I hope this show will offer that experience to audiences.”
Although the NTS website announces a cast for Them! of only four performers – a spectacularly diverse group led by Kiruna Stamell as The Host, and also featuring dancer-choreographer Rosina Bonsu and young trans actor Zachary Hing – in fact the show also features a live band, dancers, a group of child performers and film sequences, and is one of the most complex Laing has ever staged. It’s certainly more complex than his 2018 Edinburgh International Festival hit The End Of Eddy, based on the book by Edouard Louis, which picked up the Best Technical Presentation Award at last weekend’s Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland for its inspired use of simple-looking free-standing television screens to conjure up a cast of dozens, using just two performers.
“I don’t think this is going to be a show that provides anyone with any solutions,” says Laing. “What we hope, though, it that it raises some questions that are really increasingly urgent for our time, about how we identify ourselves and our ‘enemies’, about who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, and how that can change. It’s also about how a society that is so focussed on personal change can switch its focus to create wider social change. We will be holding post-show discussions after every performance; because this is a show about encouraging a conversation, and not about trying to offer simplistic answers to some of the toughest questions we face.”