Magnetic North Blog
At the beginning of June 2013, Ian Cameron, Tristan Surtees, Charles Blanc and I sat down in a room in Edinburgh overlooking the East Coast mainline and a rather rundown velodrome to start work on a new piece that had nothing but a title. By the end of the month, we were giving the first performance of A Walk at the Edge of the World at Mull Theatre.
A little over a year later, we’re back at Mull Theatre with a revised version of the production – part of a tour that will take the company around Scotland between now and the middle of September, including three weeks at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art as part of the Edinburgh Festival fringe.
A Walk…, like a lot of the work Magnetic North makes, began as an idea that nagged away for a while. In 2001, I read W.G.Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn and it cast a strange spell on me. I’m not alone in this: many others have been similarly in thrall to it in a way that reminds me of the way people bond over cult films or bands – “You’ve read it too? But I didn’t think anyone else knew about it.” And, like an obscure 1960s Italian movie, The Rings of Saturn is also heartily disliked by those who find it dull and pointless. What entranced me about the book – and what I suspect the Sebald-haters find so irritating - was its intangibility. What is it really about? Is it true? Is the narrator Sebald himself? Did he really go on this walk? What do the pictures mean? To me, it captured the tangential nature of thinking that walking provokes, and wove together seemingly unconnected events and memories into a web of narrative that left any conclusions up to the reader. It alluded to the holocaust - one of the trickiest subjects for fiction to approach – but by stealth. Every reader of the book has their own take on it – Will Self gave a talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival three years ago in which he suggested that its central theme is the environment. To me, the most fascinating aspects of it were the use of black and white images as a counterpoint to the text, and what I saw as its central concern with the fragility of memory.
Over the twelve years that elapsed between reading the book and making A Walk at the Edge of the World, I thought a lot about walking and how it might be used as a starting point for a new project. I read many books about walking, I listened to music inspired by walking, I read poems inspired by walking and absorbed more ideas than I can remember. At Rough Mix in 2012, I made a first attempt at doing something with the ideas: I used some of the elements of the final piece – projected images, memory, direct address – but in a very different way, creating a movement piece with four performers speaking fragments of stories culled from the description of different walks. I tried to use Schubert’s Winterreise as a soundtrack, but, as Ian Spink succinctly observed after the session where I tried it out, ‘Schubert’s always going to win.’ In other words, Schubert’s romantic minimalism needed nothing more added to it and would overwhelm anything that was put near it. One lesson learned.
the performer and director Ian Cameron came to see the Rough Mix showing and told me afterwards that he had a copy of The Rings of Saturn. Later, we met to talk about the project and I asked him if he'd like to work on it with me. Although I wasn’t intending to adapt the book - like Schubert, Sebald needs nothing added – it acted as a sort of touchstone for the mood of the piece. I developed a framework to construct a narrative around that shared the central image of The Rings of Saturn – a coastal walk – but be a new piece of work. The framework was that of an illustrated talk, the audience going for a walk together, and the idea of a man who doesn’t realise that the long walks he has dedicated his life to are a means of trying to get away from something in his past that he doesn’t understand.
I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc – the environmental artists Sans façon with whom I had worked on Walden in 2008 and 2009 – if they would join me and Ian in working on it, and they said yes. So it was that the four of us came together in the strange surroundings of St Margaret’s House – a building that doesn’t hide its past as an office block, which is part of its charm – and began to try and pull together all the many threads. We had all brought with us images that intrigued us, and I had a pile of books that were connected with the idea. We created a wall full of images and ideas – far too many for us ever to include – and improvised around walks. We would set up an idea, which Ian would then try to lecture about while Tristan and Charles rummaged through images on their laptops and projected them onto the wall. Every evening, I would write up what I had taken from the day’s work and bring it back in the next day. We ended up with a series of episodes with simple titles - “Lost Ways”, “Ice Journey”, “Night Walks” - that we then built into a structure. We had to lose a lot of material which we were very attached to – I was particularly fond of a sequence about airships – as we edited the talk down and shaped the hidden story that is revealed. It was a fascinating process of creating a character about whom we knew nothing initially other than that he loved walking.
My initial idea was that the talk would be followed by a communal walk in silence. On the second day, Tristan innocently asked “Why is the walk at the end?” The answer was that it was there because that was where it had seemed obvious to me to put it. But the strength of collaboration in the creative process is that there is someone else there to ask the really obvious question that hasn’t occurred to you before. Of course the walk had to be at the beginning! What on earth had I been thinking about? From the two performances last summer – on Mull and Iona – we learned how much the performance is affected by both the walk and the character of the place where it is performed, and understood more about how audiences engage with the storytelling.
When we returned to re-rehearse it this summer, it was like meeting an old friend who has done something different to their hair. Although I had done some re-writing, the piece was fundamentally the same, but there were things none of us had seen or understood about it before. As so often happens, the piece has revealed itself to its creators gradually, as if it has a life of its own.
This year's Rough Mix will take place at Tramway as part of the Rip It Up season. The residency runs from 11th March and there'll be a public showing at 7.30 on Friday 22nd March - more info here.
The artists at this year's residency are:
- Christine Devaney (choreographer)
- Linda McLean (playwright)
- Janie Nicoll (visual artist)
- Miguel Rojo (director/theatremaker)
- Kate Temple (visual artist)
- Bill Thompson (composer)
They'll be joined by emerging artist Sarah Bradley and a group of performers. The residency is led by Nicholas Bone.
When I was 10 I spent the year in bed
One day at school, the teacher told us that a new boy would be joining our class. She explained that he was older than the rest of us and that he had been ill and that as a result of this he had spent the last year in bed. This seemed fantastically glamorous to me for two reasons: first, he was being announced in advance by the teacher, rather than just having to turn up at school on the first day like the rest of us; and secondly, he hadn’t had to get up for 12 months. No-one really knew anything about him and even once he started, he had an air of mystery about him: the only thing he ever told me was that he hadn’t had his hair cut for the entire year, which only added to his glamour in my eyes even though he now had rather neatly cut hair. What had actually been the matter with him, I never knew - and I was probably too embarrassed to ask him (the middle class fear of asking personal questions) – but I was fascinated by the idea of what it would be like to just stay in bed. This was long before I’d ever heard of Oblomov.
We're now well into Walden rehearsals - well, three days in actually - and it feels like getting to know an old friend all over again. This is now the fourth time I've rehearsed the play, but each time I discover new things. It's also interesting working with a new actor as this inevitably brings out new aspects of both the character and the text. Cameron (the new actor) has new questions, and this leads me to finding new things as well, and one of the great things about doing a one person show is that you can afford to spend more time talking - Walden is so much about ideas that you really need to thrash about a bit to get to the grist of it, and to find the charactersitics of this stage version of Thoreau. You have more time because you don't have to worry so much about the actual staging - a lot of which is, crudely speaking, avoiding actors standing in front of each other. It's more complex than that, of course, but you're usually trying to create focus on particular parts of the stage - with only one actor you don't need to worry because the audience don't have anyone else to look at instead. Having said that, as Walden is peformed in the round, the audience can look at each other, and this also presents a challenge for rehearsing with a new actor. The style of the production means that the audience are a very active part of the performance - another character in a way - which means that until you actually perform it with an audience, the actor has little ideas of how this other character is going to behave and react to him. Cameron is having to do a lot of imagining other people looking at him, making eye contact (or not), reacting to his quips with them etc, and I imagine this is probably quite hard.
It's great having the set back up again - it still has that wonderful cedar aroma after a year in storage and I love walking through the rehearsal room door in the morning and meeting the smell.
I first came across the story of Victor, the so-called Wolf Boy of Aveyron, when I saw Francois Truffaut's film L'enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) as a sixth former. The story stayed with me and a few years ago I came across a copy of Lucien Malson’s book Wolf Children in a bookshop, with a still from the film on the front. In the book, Malson documents the various cases of feral children that have been documented and discusses the Victor case in some detail. The second half of the book consists of translations of Jean Itard’s two reports on Victor. Itard was the doctor who took on the task of tying to “civilise” Victor, and the two reports follow his ultimately fruitless attempts to teach Victor to speak.
Reading the book, and in particular Itard’s reports, brought the story back to me and the idea formed to make a theatre piece based around the story. As usual with these ideas, it was necessary for me to find a team with whom to develop the idea. I had known and admired Pamela Carter’s work for some time and something made me approach her about the idea of working on the play – subconsciously, it was probably her two plays for Stewart Laing that gave me the idea: both had French sources (Slope was about the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine and An Argument about Sex was based on Marivaux’s La dispute). At the time we first spoke, An Argument… had yet to be produced, but I knew the original play and the strange connection between La Dispute and the case of Victor (La dispute imagines the results of the “forbidden experiment” long dreamed of by philosophers where a child is deprived of human contact).
It seemed natural to then ask Sans facon and Simon Wilkinson to work on the project – I had had a particularly happy experience working with Tristan and Charles (otherwise known as Sans facon) on Walden, and now doing a full-on theatre production seemed a logical extention of that relationship. I liked the work Simon had done on After Mary Rose and had just invited him to become as associate artist of the company and I felt he would work well with Tristan and Charles (who are also associate artists).
What will follow on from this posting is some of the correspondence that has flowed between us over the past few months as the project has developed.