Magnetic North Blog
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.
We have one more day in the rehearsal room and then we move on to the stage and start to work with the full set for the first time. Sound is an integral part of the show and sound designer Kim Moore has been in rehearsals a lot to try out things - the soundtrack is a fifth voice, supporting and counterpointing the 4 human voices. We're at the stage of running the play every day now, with one more rehearsal room run to go before we go on stage. Simon Wilkinson, the lighting designer, watched the run on Thursday before finalising his lighting plan and we're all excited to see how all the design elements will come together at the technical rehearsals next week.
Because of the form of the play - 4 characters telling 4 separate, fragmented stories simultaneously - working out how to rehearse the production was a challenge. Linda McLean's script is not divided into scenes, but is punctuated in two places by the instruction BOOOOOM (if you come to see the production you'll be able to see how we have interpreted this). In preparation for rehearsals I split the text into 8 sections, which was amended to 9 during rehearsals. This division was made by following the 4 characters stories to find where there were events (points where something significant happens that completes a strand). As I did this I discovered that there were points where all four stories had simultaneous events, suggesting a break in the overall narrative. In order to visualise this, I made a 'score' consisting of 4 tracks (one for each character) running left to right, divided top to bottom by dotted lines for page breaks and more substantial lines (like bar lines on a stave) for section breaks. This long piece of paper (made from 7 A3 sheets) is stuck on the rehearsal room wall and was a regular reference point during the first week of rehearsals when we were getting to know the text. When you look at the score, the play progresses from left to right like a playhead running over a multitrack recording, with vertical lines marking the section breaks.
The rehearsal process has been a mix of table work (reading and discussing the script sitting at the rehearsal room table), practical preparation (voice work with Ros Steen and Viewpoints with me) and staging work (exploring the physical life of the script). Both the Viewpoints and the voice work are practical means of unpicking the play; this practical work complements the more cerebral process of discussing the play and its characters at the table. We developed a technique of working the sections with each character in a separate lane (like runners in a race) before improvising the action on the set. Through this process we have gradually built up the life of the play, adding details (or sometimes simplifying) and refining the work each time. Linda has been in the room with us for almost the whole month, listening and watching carefully, occasionally making a cut or change, sometimes clarifying a detail.
Moments in the play are quite intense and there have been moments in the rehearsal room when we have all felt the emotions of the play very strongly (we've also laughed a lot, I should add). Our work over the final few days is to try and transfer the spirit of the rehearsal room onto the stage.
Linda and I first worked together 9 years ago on Magnetic North's second-ever production, a beautiful play about language and identity called Word for Word. Afterwards, we started talking about what to do next. We talked over lots of ideas, and the central image of what was then called The Big Bang (also known as The Big Bag after a finger-slip at the Scottish Arts Council logged its funding under that name) was Cornelia Parker's installation Cold Dark Matter (in the Tate's collection) and the idea of a moment (or series of moments) frozen in time.
In 2010, after she had taken part in our multi-artform creative development programme Rough Mix, Linda wrote a first draft very quickly. When I read the play, it seemed as if the whole thing had poured out ready-formed - I don't think I've ever read a first draft that seemed so finished was so perfectly formed or was so confident about what its form was. The finished play is different in many ways to the various ideas we discussed and experimented with, but the more work I've done in preparation for rehearsals, the more I've realised that Cold Dark Matter is at the very heart of the piece. When I was talking to the composer Kim Moore about the play, she said she hadn't found it easy to understand on the page, but as soon as I mentioned Cold Dark Matter she said "OK, I get it".
Sex and God is an extraordinary piece of writing. It crystalises something I always say to directing students, which is that a script should be thought of like a music score - something that contains the possibility of performance rather than being complete in itself like a book - but in this case, the text actually is a score. It's full of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, polyphony - sometimes atonal, sometimes gloriously tonal. One of the things I love about the script is that it contains no instructions about how it should be performed, just the lines the 4 characters speak (fragmented stories leaping over one another to be told). But the script also clearly asks the question "how can this be performed?" The setting is abstract - where would 4 women from different eras be as they each tell their stories? - but the stories and characters are concrete - real people communicating their experiences. The next stage is working out some answers...
Wildwood - A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (London, Penguin, 2008)
The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air ed. Edward Thomas (London, Jonathan Cape, 1950)
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry Garrard (London, Picador, 2001)
One Green Field by Edward Thomas (London, Penguin, 2009)
No Such Thing As Silence - John Cage's 4'33" by Kyle Gann (New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 2010)
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, trans Richard Howard (London, Flamingo, 1981)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (London, Secker and Warburg, 1958)
The Rings of Saturn by W.G.Sebald, trans Michael Hulse (London, Harvill, 1998)
Rauschenberg ed. Wingate and Florido (New York/London, Prestel, 2010)
Collins Gem Trees by Alaistair Fitter and David More (London, Collins, 1980)
Looking forward to our last session!