In an extract from The Suspect Culture Book… Graham Eatough remembers the company’s formative influences and early creations. Dan Rebellato describes their final show, the performance piece Stage Fright.
Graham Eatough: It’s interesting to think that in the space of only a few years that drama department at Bristol produced Mark Ravenhill, Tim Crouch, Sarah Kane, David Walliams, Simon Pegg, David Young, Myfanwy Moore, Suspect Culture, us … I think it’s a strange alchemy that leads to those moments. It was a good department, the teaching was great and so on. But there was something else: it was a very politicised student body on the whole, especially around gender politics. That meant if you were making work you were forced to constantly interrogate it and have it interrogated in a pretty rigorous way – I say rigorous, we were still kids really, but we would ask questions about the politics of the work and take it seriously. And second, the department was good but it was possibly a bit conservative too, traditional. And so there was a reaction against that which meant we were very motivated. What links all of those people you mention is being very driven. An odd mixture of artistic aspiration with a kind of Eighties Thatcherite drive! We all knew what we wanted to do from very early on. In my first term at Bristol, I acted in a production of Howard Barker’s Victory alongside Sarah Kane, with David Greig, Simon Pegg and others. It was a very important moment for David and me in different ways. In some of the early Suspect Culture shows I think you could definitely see the influence of Barker, not just on the writing but on what the shows were setting out to achieve, politically and intellectually. What Barker does, whether or not the plays are successful, he scouts out the possibilities for alternative theatres. He neither points towards a mainstream theatre style but nor is he swept up in current avant-garde movements. At that time there was a slightly ludicrous division between the ‘text-based theatre’ people and the ‘physical theatre’ people. And for those who didn’t want to leave playwriting behind, Barker was a model for something that could still be radical, which I think was important for David. And it was important for me too, because it mapped out a place that a theatre company could potentially exist. We wanted to create a text-rich theatre which was also aesthetically rich; that was interested in bodies and so on and complex stage imagery but was also about great writing.
A SAVAGE REMINISCENCE
A Savage Reminiscence was the first thing we did together. We did it in the Students’ Union and then at the Hen and Chickens pub theatre in a double bill with Sarah Kane’s Comic Monologue. At that point I don’t think we thought we were forming a company, just putting on a show really – and working with a friend. And that was the ambition, ‘can we do a show that is physical in interesting ways and at the same time textually rich?’ Obviously, they’re broad aspirations but even then it was about trying to draw out things from different production elements that we weren’t seeing in mainstream or even avant-garde theatre at the time. I guess we were exploring that space between those areas. Nick Powell was studying at Bristol as well and wrote the music for all of our early shows. So he, and music as a production area, became a very important part of what we were doing from the start. I saw myself as an actor in that show. It was a collaboration but that’s really where I saw myself at that point. David was always very open; he was writer/director but the directing was partly shared. Later, when we made One Way Street it was a reaction to just having done a big show (Europe) and then trying to get back to the working methods we’d used in A Savage Reminiscence, but by that stage I had a more developed sense of what I wanted the production to do visually and physically. And I suppose by then I was beginning to be focused on things like gesture and different styles of physicality on stage. With Airport, because it was a larger ensemble, even though I was in it, I think I was more conventionally the director. Then with Timeless, because of the nature of the ideas we were working with, I wanted to step out completely and concentrate on directing.
AND THE OPERA HOUSE REMAINED UNBUILT
That was a pretty quick follow-up to A Savage Reminiscence. We’d been at the [Edinburgh] Festival with A Savage Reminiscence in 1991 and we took Opera House there in 1992, along with a whole bunch of other stuff. I was concentrating on acting but David, in collaboration with Andy Thompson, another Bristol graduate, wanted to run a venue, Theatre Zoo. And in a manic burst of energy that has never stopped (laughs), he managed to put on four shows: Opera House, The Garden, Stalinland, Life after Life, Sarah Kane did Dreams, Screams and Silence with Vince O’Connell, plus David and his partner Lucie ran the café. Lots of it went really well, Stalinland for example, got a Fringe First I think. But I suppose the undertaking of a major enterprise like running a venue sort of prepared us for thinking about running a theatre company. PHYSICAL LANGUAGE
And the other thing that happened was one of those epiphanies you can only have when you’re in your early twenties: at that second Edinburgh Festival, I saw Pina Bausch’s Café Müller which was there that year. It didn’t just blow me away as a piece of theatre, it suddenly opened up different possibilities about what bodies on stage could be and how powerful very simple gestural performance can be. Work of that kind was probably as big an influence for me as Barker was for David at that stage. And you can definitely see that influence in those early shows; One Way Street, Airport and Timeless all contain gestural motifs of reaching out, longing and so on. But because we were making narrative theatre (albeit experimentally) rather than dance theatre, our gestural work was more associated with character and had more impact on the story-telling. Also there was a theoretical framework to that physical work from people like Benjamin and Adorno (via Brecht) who talked about gesture as a kind of memory of something lost – an interruption to an idea of a continuous, homogenous present. I think that was as important to me as its aesthetic or choreographic qualities. We were asking, how do you get the most out of each production area and – if you can see the body as a production area – we thought there was so much potential there for communicating with the audience that it seemed almost neglectful not to make full use of it. In the same way that the script wouldn’t be naturalistic, we thought the bodies don’t have to be either. We started with some fairly obvious things where, say, the speech is saying one thing and the body another, so the gestures become a form of subtext. So in Timeless, for example, people are saying things very confidently but there are these interruptions that allow the body to give away a different frame of mind, an anxiety. We wanted to acknowledge the presence of the performer on stage, not just the character (Brecht was a big influence in this respect). And the body is a really clear means of introducing that complexity through non-naturalistic movement. Because immediately it’s about form and representation rather than just playing the game of pretending.
Dan Rebellato: [The] interface between theatre and the visual arts was the focus of Suspect Culture’s final show, Stage Fright. The show was a gallery show at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and brought together artists and theatre-makers – Luke Collins, Graham Eatough, David Greig, Patrick Macklin, Sharon Smith & Felicity Croydon, Nick Powell & Jonny Dawe and Dan Rebellato – to make pieces that excavated the ground between theatre and visual art. This is an area that had been explored through live and performance art but, with a sense that some of that work had already solidified into an orthodoxy, the show attempted to find new areas of overlap or productive contradiction. Powell and Dawe’s piece was a wittily austere apparatus that consisted of a door in a wall, with two cloth drops that were automated to appear to fly in an image of the same door. The permutations of the various doors created their own musical rhythms, while the eye tried to make sense of and organize the different doors in order of fakeness (of course, all the doors were equally fake and all were equally real). Graham Eatough’s installation was in two parts; the entrance to the CCA was an immersive recreation of a backstage area, complete with make-up mirrors, showers, discarded scripts, and a props table; the café area was transformed into a stage-in-waiting, pine trees suspended above the audiences heads, as if awaiting a cue to be flown in and effect a scenic transformation. The installation turned the CCA space inside out; first, the gallery became a kind of theatre; second, the audience seemed to be entering through the stage door, the environment constituting them as performers, seeing the backstage first and then entering a realm of performative potentiality, where undetermined change might take place. It was a statement of intent, insisting on the theatre’s ability to interrogate a gallery space and using the resources of a gallery space to interrogate the theatre. It was an open piece; one felt drawn to try piecing the show together from the contents of the props table, the image of the trees; it all hinted to a kind of Athenian forest of transformation, but whether this would be political or metaphysical, sexual or historical, was left tantalizingly out of grasp.
Other pieces explored the mechanics of ordinary theatrical production. For his piece, David Greig filmed himself in real time writing a short performance piece. He then had the actor Callum Cuthbertson filmed, in the same space, wearing the same clothes, performing the piece over precisely the same time. The two images were shown on screens either side of a desk, asking questions about the gaps between intention and expression, creativity and interpretation, page and voice, all imagined in the evocative space of an empty desk. In my own piece, a performer stood in a large metal cage in the middle of a gallery. They had a short (45″) text – a different text each day – to perform as soon as the gallery opened. Once they had finished they were required immediately to perform it again exactly as they had done it the last time. This would continue through the day and as small changes, accidents, and slips of the tongue took place they would become incorporated into the performance with the result that the text virally degraded through the day. The texts collectively told a multi-stranded story about a series of transformations: a brutal husband turns into a bear, a child in a crashed car is reborn repeatedly as a girl, then a boy, then a girl, and on. The piece was an attempt to capture some of the central, yet often ignored dynamics, of theatrical production: the gap between writer and performer, the mixture of liveness and repetition, the voyeurism of the audience, the power of the performer, the creativity of the actor over the course of a long run.56 The last night of Stage Fright was the last night of Suspect Culture. Its funding had been withdrawn the previous year and present and former cast members gathered in the CCA to see images from past shows, hear extracts from performances, and remember a company that had for a few years embodied a new kind of Scotland of artful, cultural hybridity, utopian leftishness, and restless artistic experiment, and represented that Scotland to the world. Its influence can be felt across Scottish theatre, from companies like Vanishing Point right up to the National Theatre of Scotland, with its international outlook and reputation, and its commitment to formal innovation. Responding to news of the company’s demise, Scottish academic Trish Reid wrote: ‘considering its track record in collaborative and interdisciplinary work, its international status, and its reputation for innovative practice […] Suspect Culture has been and remains one of our most innovative arts companies and as such it is among our most precious’.