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Audience up close for shocking aftermath of a forbidden love

When David Harrower's play Blackbird first appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, in a production by German maestro Peter Stein, it shocked audiences.

POWER STRUGGLE: Romana Abercromby and Greg Wagland in rehearsal for Firebrand Theatre Company's production of Blackbird.
POWER STRUGGLE: Romana Abercromby and Greg Wagland in rehearsal for Firebrand Theatre Company's production of Blackbird.

Harrower's play was a blistering study of a reunion between a 55-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman who had a sexual relationship 15 years before - when the woman was a girl of 12 - so the reaction was understandable.

However serious a dissection of an ambiguous liaison the play undoubtedly was, it was the production's closing scene that proved the most jaw-dropping. In contrast to the play's over-riding intimacy, Stein grafted on an unscripted five-minute finale in which the office block storeroom where the action took place was transformed into an underground car park. Here, an actual car was driven onstage as the play's two protagonists wrestled to a power ballad soundtrack, so the whole thing resembled a 1980s MTV video epic.

The venues for the Borders-based Firebrand Theatre's new production of Blackbird suggest that this experience is unlikely to be repeated. Rather, by having his actors perform the play in actual office spaces and a small studio theatre as well as the former veterinary demonstration room in Edinburgh's Summerhall venue, director Richard Baron is getting back to the claustrophobic emotional heart of the play as Harrower wrote it.

"Blackbird works for Firebrand," Baron says. "Yes, it's a two-hander, and yes, it only has one setting, but more importantly, it seems to fit in with the other work we've done. It's intimate, it's brilliantly written, and I think as a play it's probably even more contemporary now than it was when it was first done. There's stuff coming out in the press every day about various court cases, and there are people coming out of the woodwork, some honourably, others not, who are talking about issues which aren't that removed from some of the issues raised in the play.

"With all that in mind, Blackbird struck me as a strong contemporary play that could take an audience on a journey. So it's a bit of a risk in some ways, but when we did another David Harrower play, 54% Acrylic, we did it as a Play, Pie and A Pint, with the audience sitting at tables in a function room, and we realised how well that worked. I think Blackbird works in the same way, so when the violence and sex scenes happen, the audience are only five feet away, and the play really is in their face. By taking it to these private spaces as well, it feels like you're in a prison cell or a dungeon, so it becomes very much a symbolic backdrop to the play."

Blackbird perhaps isn't an obvious choice for a small, rural-based company like Firebrand, which was founded by co-artistic directors Janet Coulson and Ellie Zeegan in 2011. With Baron as director of productions and designer Edward Lipscomb an associate artist, Firebrand set out to produce contemporary theatre of a kind not often seen in areas more used to seeing more obviously commercial fare onstage.

With this in mind, the company was launched with a production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, which was followed by a revisitation of David Greig's short play Being Norwegian. David Mamet's controversial two-hander Oleanna and revivals of Rona Munro's prison-set Iron, Peter Arnott's neglected White Rose and 54% Acrylic were next.

"There is an audience in Hawick for contemporary theatre like this," Baron observes.

"We're still building that, but there are some people who've come to our shows who've never been to the theatre in their lives, and in post-show discussions, what comes across is the intelligence of the audience and a real desire for the sort of work we're putting on."

Next on the agenda for Baron and Firebrand is a new production of Greig's play Outlying Islands which Baron describes as "another intimate play that throws up all sorts of different themes that still matter. In contemporary Scottish theatre there seem to be lots of those".

"Blackbird has an emotional heart in the way a lot of American plays do," says Baron. "There's a beating heart to it, and there's blood on the carpet. These are ordinary people, who've been through these things that we've all been through, like falling in love, but this leaps a barrier. "

Blackbird, Heart of Hawick, Hawick, February 21-22; The Space, Heriot Watt/Borders College, February 24; Summerhall, Edinburgh, February 26-March 1.

www.firebrandtheatre.co.uk

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