Imagine a cross-section view of a cemetery – the trees, the grass, the sky, the clouds, the earth; and then beneath the earth, the dead. Not the dead silent and lifeless, though; but instead a strange community of necropolitans, in their graves, but still complaining about their everyday problems, and delivering harsh judgments on us, the living.
That was the image that came fully-fledged into the mind of Matthew Lenton, artistic director of Scotland’s internationally acclaimed Vanishing Point company almost half a decade ago; he drew a sketch of it, and knew that one day he would try to make it into a show. He had been spending a lot of time visiting a cemetery following a profound bereavement of his own; he was surprised, as a non-believer in any kind of afterlife, how much comfort he found in being there, and in the idea that a cemetery contains a kind community of the dead. And those ideas will finally reach fruition, later this month, when Vanishing Point and the thrilling Glasgow-based band A New International launch their show-with-songs The Dark Carnival, a tale of heaven, earth, and the strange limbo between them, presented as something Lenton describes as “a good night out – not a musical, but something between a theatre show and a gig, with great songs.”
The show represents a major change of tone for Lenton and Vanishing Point, although not of subject-matter. For the last decade, the company has been exploring themes of death, mortality and loss through shows ranging from their acclaimed international 2009 production Interiors – in which a dead woman looks in on a poignant and absurd Christmas gathering in a little house in some northern landscape – to Tabula Rasa, created with the Scottish Ensemble, in 2017, to explore the idea that the music of Arvo Pärt can bring particular comfort to the dying.
In The Dark Carnival, though, Lenton feels that he is moving on, at last, from what has been an intense decade of brilliant, sombre work around the most serious themes. “It not that my interests or preoccupations have changed,” says Lenton, “but it’s like a train journey. It’s always the same train; but the landscape outside changes as you move along, and I feel as if I’ve moved from a dark place to somewhere lighter, more open.” For Dark Carnival, he knew he needed to work with a band; and he knew the band had to be quite bold and absurdist, with a heightened, striking style. At first, he explored the possibility of working with Tom Waits; but then one day, driving through the Cairngorms towards Inverness, he heard the sound of A New International’s song Valentino on his car radio, and knew that he had found the “perfect match” for his show.
“The band’s leader Biff Smith and I met up in the Griffin in Glasgow, and talked about the idea,” says Lenton, “and he just went away and started to write songs – so quickly, and so many of them, that I actually began to panic slightly. So the songs were completed very early in the process; and then when I was asked to write a blurb for the show, a few months later, I found that what came out was this scene written in a kind of rhyming doggerel – clever doggerel, I hope. And now, the whole script is entirely in rhyme.”
For Smith, too, the journey to The Dark Carnival has been a long and winding one; for more than 20 years, he was part of a Glasgow band called The Starlets, which, he says, was inspired by Sixties American groups like the Shirelles, and tried to sound like a girl guitar band, or to fit in to the Glasgow indy scene.
“Then seven or eight years ago we started to go to Europe more, particularly to Holland,” says Smith. “They have a lot of house gigs there, and we began to enjoy that intimacy and immediacy, and to get into different genres – folk music, Jacques Brel, other forms. It’s all about telling stories through song; and I don’t think we should be choosy about which genre we steal from. So there was a shift of focus, and a new style developing; but it took us a long time, even to work out that A New International really sounded like our name.” The band’s acclaimed first album, Come To The Fabulon, was released in 2015; and today, the band’s style – a visionary 21st century Gothic tinged with 1930s cabaret, with Smith almost in white face – seems to have found a natural home in The Dark Carnival.
Apart from an eight-strong version of A New International, who will be on stage throughout the show, Lenton has assembled an astonishing company for The Dark Carnival, including long-time Vanishing Point artists Elicia Daly and Peter Kelly, the legendary Ann Louise Ross of Dundee Rep, and the award-winning d/deaf theatre-maker Ramesh Meyyappan. And after its initial tour to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, The Dark Carnival will be reimagined in a small-scale “unplugged” version, featuring just Smith and a single narrator, which will tour the Highlands and Islands.
“Being involved in Dark Carnival has been a great and really interesting experience for me,” says Smith, “writing in a different way, to someone else’s concept, and exploring this whole new world of theatre. And yes, we just love the dark cabaret aspect of it; above all the idea that you can go into a rehearsal room and create something new, and witty, and beautiful, at a time when outside the door, everything is going to hell.” n
The Dark Carnival at the Tramway, Glasgow, 21 February-2 March; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-9 March; and Dundee Rep, 13-16 March. The Dark Carnival (Unplugged) on tour, 13-31 May.