Theatre: Director Graham Eatough on Tramway’s new show that was four years in the making

Art project Normanslanding is coming to Glasgow's Tramway, having already  appeared in Australia and Germany. Photo by Rainer Schlautmann
Art project Normanslanding is coming to Glasgow's Tramway, having already appeared in Australia and Germany. Photo by Rainer Schlautmann
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Blurring the lines between theatre, art and performance, Normanslanding at Tramway is an evolving project, says director Graham Eatough

In the huge main theatre space at Glasgow’s Tramway, something strange is taking shape this week. It’s a giant sphere or dome, which opens up to allow audiences to take a half-hour journey inside it; and it’s the result of a four-year collaboration involving artists from Australia, the Netherlands and the UK, first conceived as a centenary commemoration of the First World War, but now steadily evolving as it moves from Sydney and Germany’s Ruhr region to its final showing in Glasgow.

The UK artist helping to shape the project is the Scottish-based theatre director Graham Eatough, once artistic director of Suspect Culture, now an international freelance director working on projects like the huge 2015 Edinburgh Festival staging of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. And he explains that in its first two incarnations, in Australia and Germany, the work – called Nomanslanding – was conceived as a piece of water art, a giant floating installation that would capture the idea of people embarking, as so many First World War soldiers did, on a voyage to an unknown destination.

Nomanslanding has been very much re-worked for this appearance in Glasgow, though,” says Eatough. “It’s being presented in association both with the Merchant City Festival, which co-commissioned it, and with Refugee Festival Scotland; and the whole soundscape is being remade to include text developed through the Share My Table project at the Tramway, which involves people of different cultures in Glasgow meeting and sharing their stories of how they arrived there. Audiences will be led through the dome by two wonderful Glasgow-based singers, Judith Williams and Nerea Bello; and we love the sense that the meaning of this thing we began to create four years ago is changing and adapting to a world in which so many people are being forced to make a different journey into an unknown future.”

So is Nomanslanding a piece of theatre, or a giant art work and installation? The obvious answer is that it’s a bit of both; and in that sense, it reflects a major trend in Graham Eatough’s work since he and David Greig – with other company members – decided to wind up their hugely successful Suspect Culture company in 2009. To mark that event, Eatough created not a show, but an exhibition called Stage Fright at the CCA in Glasgow; even before that, he had worked on a ground-breaking Dundee Contemporary Arts show called Killing Time, which explored the interface between installations and theatre. And since then, Eatough’s work has included powerful, fascinating installation-shows like The Making Of Us, shown at the Tramway in 2012 as part of the Glasgow International art festival.

“What I feel,” says Eatough, “is that I’ve been responding to something that’s been happening in the visual arts world, this past decade. It may be something to do with the quest for authenticity, which then leads to an interest in art forms that consciously deal in fiction and performance as a means of reaching the truth; or it might be related to shifts in the culture which mean that people are much more aware of the role of performance and image-making in their own lives. Whatever the reason, though, this powerful interest in performance is there; and it’s increasingly reflected back by theatre-makers.”

Eatough has written a book on the subject of interdisciplinary art and performance, which will appear later this year; but before that, he and Glasgow-based artist Stephen Sutcliffe are looking forward to the Manchester International Festival opening of their Whitworth Gallery show No End To Enderby, a tribute to the great Manchester-born novelist Anthony Burgess, in the form of two short films based on the first and last sections of his semi-autobiographical Enderby novels. The films feature actors John Bett and James Anthony Pearson, among others; and Eatough, who comes from nearby Blackburn, describes the whole project as “a bit of a love song to Manchester”, and of course to Burgess.

“The first film,” he explains, “is about a school trip of kids from the future going back in time to visit the famous author Enderby in his squalid 1960s bedsit – and we’ve really enjoyed using locations around Manchester, like the Royal Exchange Theatre, to bring that story to life. In fact, the Royal Exchange was one of the first school trips I did as a kid from Blackburn. So for me, this is like coming full circle; and it’s been a very satisfying project.”

And then after Manchester, Eatough will be back in Scotland, working with the National Theatre of Scotland on a more conventional theatre project for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, a two-handed play called How To Act – written and directed by Eatough – about a distinguished international director’s encounter with a young female performer who challenges his most profound assumptions about himself and his art.

“I suppose it is another project that reflects on aspects of art and performance,” says Eatough, “although this time I’m doing it through fairly straight drama. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure that the confrontation works as a metaphor for, or a way into, much wider questions about power, and who has it, and who gets to define our world, or see their vision of it as “universal”. I hope so, anyway.

“And do I ever yearn to go back to running my own company, or to apply for one of the big theatrical jobs that come up? No, to be honest, not really. I feel I’m very lucky to be so well supported by so many organisations in doing work that I want to do, without actually having to run an organisation myself. That’s a privilege; and for the moment, it’s not one I want to give up.”

Nomanslanding is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 22 June until 2 July. No End To Enderby is at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, from 30 June until 16 July. How To Act is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, from 2-27 August.