It may be entirely wordless, but Vanishing Point’s latest drama still has plenty to say about decline, decay and the shaky foundations underpinning our crumbling western civilisation
TRAMWAY, GLASGOW ****
THE SALON PROJECT
TRAVERSE, EDINBURGH ****
TALL TALES FOR SMALL PEOPLE
TRON, GLASGOW ****
AT THE height of their power and pomp, civilisations often indulge in a brief age of denial about the inevitability of change, decay and death. Over the last 30 years, though, among thinking people, that arrogance has melted away from our once-proud western civilisation, with its unshakeable belief in progress through reason and science; and we have begun to confront all sorts of unpalatable truths, both about the fragility of the world we have made for ourselves, and about the inevitability of our own personal extinction.
And it’s hard not to feel that this awareness of our own mortality and fragility reaches a kind of poetic climax in Vanishing Point’s beautiful new show Saturday Night, a companion piece to, and substantial development of, their exquisite 2009 hit Interiors. Like Interiors, Saturday Night has been created by director Matthew Lenton and writer Pamela Carter with an international cast; and in the same way, it uses a technique of wordless naturalistic drama, seen but not heard, to overcome the language barriers involved in creating and performing drama at an international level.
Where Interiors dealt with a single, poignant social event, though, Saturday Night ranges more widely, and digs even more deeply into our sense of transience. On stage, there is a whole house, seen as through a glass wall, with three rooms clearly visible. In the flat below, a young couple are moving in, settling down, dealing with an eccentic removal-man and a needy neighbour, looking forward to the birth of their first child; upstairs, in a small bedroom, an old woman in an armchair is lost in dreams, often featuring spacemen from the moon-landing pictures that flicker and crackle on the young couple’s widescreen television.
Over an eloquent 80 minutes – driven mainly by Mark Melville’s eloquent and musical score, both original and poignantly allusive, like an early-21st-century playlist –Lenton develops this scene into an exquisite and powerful stage poem about the nature of time, memory and forgetting, as events begin to lurch and slip, ordinary reality melts and blurs, and we gradually realise that there is a deep and tragic connection between the still figure in the chairs upstairs, and the rich, disturbed sequence of life-events we see below.
The show has perhaps one ending too many, and risks a final moment of over-emphasis. It draws some magnificent performances, though, from a six-strong cast led by Lara Hubinont and Sandy Grierson as the young couple; and its tremendous grasp of stage poetry, combining light, music, live action and stunning visuals, is often enough to take the breath away.
Stewart Laing’s astonishing Salon Project, at the Traverse, is also much concerned with decline and decay; but as one of the most complete immersive theatre experiences ever conceived, it compels us – the audience – to think about these themes from a completely new angle, by making each of us take the time and the risk involved in dressing in full period costume – gorgeous Victorian, Edwardian or 1920s ball dresses for the women, smart tailcoats or military uniforms for the men.
Once we are ready – and it takes a large wardrobe team a full half hour, including make-up and jewellery – we are escorted through high double doors into a large, fragile white drawing-room with chandeliers, like a deliberately provisional version of an 18th-century salon; here, we drift around and sip champagne, listen to music on piano and wind-up gramophone, and hear provocative thoughts about life, dress, and the future, not bound to any period, but ranging across the centuries.
The effect of this experience is astonishingly complex and rich. At first, we only exclaim and point; then we walk differently, feel differently, marvel at the extraordinary richness of centuries when each aristocratic dress was a small work of art in itself. We feel, in the end, like the privileged guests at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, or like the Russian royal family, a few months before the revolution; or like characters in an Oscar Wilde play, a shade too smart and witty, courting some unnamed disaster. Before we leave, Laing and his amazing team make us watch that disaster on screen, a wrecked 21st-century vision of the room we stand in. Yet the Salon Project invites us to consider the future before us, as well as the past we have lost; to recall how much of the history of our civilisation was really the story of a tiny, aristocratic few, dressed and tended to by unsung millions; and as the finest theatre always does, it changes us a little, for good.
When a civilisation weakens, though, one group of people always emerge from the dust and ruin, marching on, singing their old songs, telling the old stories; they are the travelling folk, always on the edge, always close to extinction, yet strangely resilient, and rich in the skills of survival. Gerry Mulgrew’s Tall Tales For Small People – adapted from the stories of Duncan Williamson – first hit the road a decade ago, as a Communicado show dedicated to offering a glimpse of the rich traveller storytelling tradition to children across Scotland. Now, it’s revived in a co-production with the National Theatre Of Scotland, and tours this autumn alongside the show for grown-ups, Calum’s Road. And it offers, in its very form, a powerful image of just how much a small group of people can achieve and create, when they give their imaginations free rein. There are just five actors and a musician here, and a small cart with two large wheels; but together, they can create worlds, even if they have to move on, and start again from scratch.
• Saturday Night is at the Tramway, Glasgow, until 15 October, the MacRobert, Stirling on 19 October, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, from 26-27 October, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 29-30 October. The Salon Project is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 22 October. Tall Tales for Small People is on tour until 26 November.