Joyce McMillan: Bands and performers collaborate at new Glasgow festival

Alan McKendrick's collaboration with Smack Wizards at the Take Me Somewhere festival
Alan McKendrick's collaboration with Smack Wizards at the Take Me Somewhere festival
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It’s a wet Friday night in Easterhouse in March 2017, but inside the studio theatre at the Platform arts centre it might as well be a down-at-heel part of bohemian Paris, sometime around 1910. On stage, there’s something like an installation, featuring a great hanging crumple of white-ish plastic with a throbbing light inside and a tripod-like arrangement of sticks, all within a rickety scaffolding; in the middle stands a quasi-human figure almost entirely veiled in dark auburn horse-hair, and crowned with a small ice-cream sundae.

The play in hand is Le Piège de Méduse (Medusa’s Trap), written by the composer and artistic experimentalist Erik Satie, around 1913; it’s a story of a slightly ridiculous patriarch (the giant plastic bag, with the voice of veteran actor-director Gerry Mulgrew) giving his consent to the marriage of his daughter Frisette (the horse-hair figure) to a would-be fiancé. And the play is being explored in a half-hour series of short variations, as the result of a collaboration between the experimental Glasgow band Tut Vu Vu and the artist Morven Mulgrew – a collaboration commissioned by Glasgow’s new Take Me Somewhere festival, as part of a Scratch Special evening of three new collaborations between Glasgow-based bands or musicians, and practitioners of other art-forms.

“One of the great strengths of the Arches was the combination of music programming and arts events all under one roof,” says Take Me Somewhere director Jackie Wylie, who founded the festival partly to take forward the spirit of the Arches, after its sudden closure in 2015. “So we wanted to find a way of carrying on that spirit – of art forms sparking off each other. We also wanted to create the sense of community around the experience, of audiences coming along to check out something new and exciting, regardless of definitions of the work. And the format of a Scratch night is perfect for that kind of experiment. The artists can try something out, knowing that the audiences will know that what they see is about the ideas, and the collision of the different creative elements, rather than a polished and finished piece.”

What the audience saw last week in Easterhouse included not only Le Piège de Méduse, but Cloud Mushrooms, a collaboration between musician Fritz Welch and “Ultimate Dancer” Louise Ahl, in which the two circled the room continuously for half an hour creating ever more complex vocal variations on the phrase “cut me loose and set me free,” and also a brilliant finalé by writer-director Alan McKendrick and Glasgow-based band Smack Wizards about the fantasy fate of a fictional band called Cadaver Police, who find themselves forever on the road, after their touring van is involved in a car crash. All three shows invite some meditation on what has become a key motif of the festival – the phrase from its opening show Guerrilla, by the Spanish group El Conde De Torrefiel, which suggests, with reference back to the pre-First-World-War avant-garde, that “when artists start taking the piss, there’s going to be a bloodbath.”

“Well, I hope that’s not true,” says Jamie Bolland of Tut Vu Vu. “I think performers are always taking the piss, in one way or another – the question is who are you sending up, whose absurdity are you pointing out? Obviously, if you’re just making a fool of your audience by presenting bad art, that’s taking the piss in a bad way. But I don’t think that’s what the artists at the start of the 20th century were doing, and it’s not what we’re doing now. There are themes in Le Piège de Méduse about patriarchy, and about the portrayal of a young woman as a completely blank, almost absent character, that are still with us today.”

Welch had been brooding on a piece of work like Cloud Mushroom for some time, and is hard put to say exactly how the key phrase “cut me loose and set me free” emerged from his collaboration with Ahl. Yet he recognises the need to make a radical response to “the things that are eating away at all of us”; and his and Ahl’s performance is certainly remarkable for its sense of discipline, and of the powerful, if mysterious, dynamic development, over 30 minutes.

And McKendrick believes that while theatre may struggle with definitions like “experimental” and “popular”, Glasgow’s thriving if often cash-starved grassroots music scene has a more fluid and flexible aesthetic and audience, that frees artists to create across any imagined boundaries.

“I do think too much theatre is made by people who mainly go to theatre,” says McKendrick, who has worked extensively in Germany as well as in the UK. “Whereas I find that I’m very much inspired by the landscape of Glasgow’s music scene, which has lots of people just working informally and below the radar, in warehouses and lockups, or under bridges and at parties.

“So I was delighted to have this chance to work with Smack Wizard – we’ve worked together before, on a show I did about the writer Alexander Trocchi. For a long time, I’d been brooding on the idea of a kind of absurdist heightening of the conditions musicians work in, particularly when they’re doing great artistic work that doesn’t necessarily appeal to a mass audience. Cadaver Police are a band apparently caught forever somewhere between the freedom to do what they want to do, and the commercial world which might bring them freedom in the form of money. And I think that’s the kind of story that’s important to tell just now; a story about where we are, all of us – whether we call it experimental or not.” ■