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.
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere. We might have enjoyed it even more had we not been expecting a talk about coastal walks!