Brian Logan Review

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/edinburgh2003/

Richard Wilson loves to work with a script. So what happened when he directed a group famed for making things up?

Brian Logan
Wednesday August 13, 2003
The Guardian

Publicity Image from

'One Foot in the Grave'

  Richard Wilson.

As an associate director of the Royal Court, Richard Wilson spends a lot of his time bringing new plays to life. His approach is sensitive, psychological and very concerned with things like character - in other words, nothing like that of Told By an Idiot. Specialising in devised theatre, Told By an Idiot rarely uses scripts, creating its playful, highly visual productions from scratch. "We just jump right in at the deep end and make loads of stuff up," says Hayley Carmichael, one-third of the group, "even if it isn't right."

You would have thought the two camps couldn't come together without trading blows. And yet here they are, collaborating on a production of Playing the Victim at the Traverse. Adding to the fun, Playing the Victim is written by the Presnyakov brothers - a Russian duo who need a translator to communicate in English.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all parties are making positive noises at their first meetings in May - although Carmichael and fellow Idiot Paul Hunter are forced to admit that they don't have a good history of working with text. The last time they worked with a script, on Biyi Bandele's Happy Birthday, Mr Deka D, "we got a nasty letter", says Carmichael, "from a guy who said we'd made a very bad choice, that we'd been badly let down, and that these were the most uncharismatic, uninteresting performances Paul and I had ever given". It's an inauspicious precedent; even so, the duo are looking forward to being challenged and surprised.

The Presnyakovs are considerably more gnomic - but no less upbeat. Their play features a hero whose job it is to star in reconstructions of lurid crimes. At the first read-through, it's accomplished, laugh-out-loud funny - and suits Told By an Idiot's taste for high theatricality. The brothers, who speak with one voice through their translator, Sasha Dugdale, see theirs as the perfect play to unify Wilson and his physical-theatre cohorts: "We were acting it as we wrote it, so we don't see any opposition between the words and the performance."

That's easy for Oleg and Vladimir to say - they're off back to Russia and won't be attending rehearsals. Ten weeks later, however, it's clear that tensions are emerging. Hunter and Carmichael are far from their comfort zone. "We wondered to ourselves last week why we were feeling really anxious," says Carmichael. "When we're devising, we know we're in the shit. But having a script makes you feel as if it should be plain sailing. And for some reason, I find that unnerving."

Wilson's approach has been a shock. "Doing any Told By an Idiot show," says Hunter, "we spend the first week not using words at all. But, with Richard, we spent the whole first week looking at the text. We found ourselves with lots of energy left at the end of the day." To Wilson's mind, a play is a prescription for what must happen on stage - and that, say Told by an Idiot, takes some getting used to. "You've got this thing already," says Carmichael. "That's what I find odd. We know that a certain scene is set in a swimming pool, so we can't go, 'Let's all be monkeys and you ride that bicycle.' The challenge becomes about keeping your options as huge as they normally are within what appears to be a narrower structure."

Clearly, Told By an Idiot have had to do a lot of adapting to their new environment. But what about Wilson? Halfway through rehearsals, he admits that he hasn't really changed his habits to suit his collaborators. "Because it remains a very heavily texted play," he says blithely, "I've really just been doing my thing."

That said, he hasn't been completely unreceptive. At Hunter and Carmichael's behest, he has been taking part in daily physical warm-ups - a very droll image. Does he usually do warm-ups? "I don't," he replies. "I usually throw a beanbag around or something like that." But he has come to appreciate the sessions - having dodged the last two, he admits: "I'll be getting stiff if I don't get back in there." He finds the warm-ups beneficial in other ways: "They help body language, and they're a very good bonding exercise."

Throughout, the Presnyakovs have proved disarmingly immune to their director's fraught experiences. It has been a huge relief to Told By an Idiot that the duo aren't at all precious about their script, happily cutting the play to suit the performers. This comes down to the brothers' peculiar belief that they are "just playing at writers - we're not real writers".

Perhaps unexpectedly, the Presnyakovs and Told By an Idiot have bonded over a lack of reverence for plays. When Hunter says, "However brilliant a script is, that script is not the play. The play only exists when we get up and do something with it", the Russian brothers couldn't agree more. "There is literature and there is theatre," say the duo, "and the two are quite separate." They're so taken with Hunter and Carmichael's way of working, that they have taken to calling themselves "the Told by an Idiots of Russia".

No one is yet sure how what Hunter calls "the Told By an Idiot-ness of Playing the Victim" - the company's spontaneity, eccentric theatricality and unexpected ways of opposing language and image - will make itself manifest at the Traverse. Indefinable magic is this company's stock in trade - and for that, you have to wait.

Wilson is keeping the faith. "This will be much more off-the-wall than any of my own productions," he says, "and it'll be very different visually." Told By an Idiot have their fingers crossed. "The great thing about Richard is that it feels incredibly open," says Hunter. "It all still feels as if anything could happen."

Playing the Victim is at the Traverse Theatre until August 23. Box office: 0131-228 1404.



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