It's mid November, and in a cluttered upstairs rehearsal room in the Gorbals, Vanishing Point theatre company are sat around a long table talking earnestly about their forthcoming production of their new show, The Destroyed Room. The co-production with Battersea Arts Centre opens at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow at the end of February prior to dates in London and Edinburgh, but in November at the end of a week of development, what is advertised as being a show about voyeurism and witnessing things through and beyond a TV screen has yet to find out what it is.
The rehearsal room set-up itself, however, gives early hints of what The Destroyed Room may or may not end up as. As actors Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and Barnaby Power, designer Kai Fischer and four others talk, with the all-seeing eye of director Matthew Lenton at the table's head, it gradually becomes apparent that, among the flight cases and speakers that litter the floor, four video cameras mounted on tripods stand on each side of the table. These are being operated by technicians, who quietly film the proceedings, which is projected onto a screen at the table's far end. The images on the screen flit between cameras, so those watching from the sidelines can see what is being projected from all angles.
Seen close up, the effect of all this recalls After Dark, the open-ended late night round table discussion programme which ran at weekends during the early days of a then pioneering Channel 4. Unlike reality TV live feeds today, After Dark was essential viewing, with some very serious talk enlivened even more by unexpected events. These included Tory MP Teresa Gorman storming off in the face of being challenged by singer Billy Bragg, and a drunken Oliver Reed climbing on top of feminist writer Kate Millett.
Loading article content
As impassioned as the talk is in the Gorbals, about what does or doesn't constitute theatre, such outrages are unlikely. There is, however, an obvious creative tension at play.
“What happened that day,” says Lenton a month later, “is that we were trying to find out what it was we wanted to look at, and how we wanted to look at it, and that made for some very uncomfortable moments. Because so much of Vanishing Point's work is done instinctively, it's not always easy to know what you're doing with it, or even how I might want to direct it.
“I'd said to the actors that day that this was going to be a difficult show in terms of the things I wanted us to explore, and if they found it too difficult, then the option was there of not taking part in the show itself. But what's so wonderful about everyone involved in the development week is that, despite some of the difficulties that there was in terms of some of the material that we were looking at, they were all willing to go with it, and push themselves further than they might have been comfortable with.”
The Destroyed Room takes its title from a 1978 photograph by Canadian artist Jeff Wall. The picture, which stages the contents, walls and windows of a room ripped asunder by unknown forces, was subsequently used as a cover image for an album of B sides and rarities by American art rock pioneers, Sonic Youth. Wall's image itself references Eugene Delacroix's painting, La Mort de Sardanapale, which depicts a scene of ongoing destruction.
While such a potpourri of pop cultural detritus is not untypical as the starting point for Vanishing Point's work, little of it is likely to be identifiable in the end result. In this respect, while Vanishing Point's work begins as a theatre of ideas, in translation and execution, it becomes a theatre of poetry.
Lenton talks too about Susan Sontag's 2003 book, Regarding The Pain of Others, in which the American writer looked at the meaning and effects of war photography.
“Susan Sontag talked about how we try and empathise with people's suffering,” says Lenton, “and how whether an image can tell the whole story. There are many complex possibilities that come out of that. Sontag, about how whether only people in the midst of suffering can do anything about it,while the rest of us are voyeurs.”
In keeping with Sontag's observations, The Destroyed Room isn't the first time Vanishing Point have looked at the world through a glass darkly. In Wonderland the company peered through the unflinching movie cameras of the porn industry. In Interiors, the everyday lives of others were seen through a window by a stranger left out in the cold.
The instinctive nature of Vanishing Point's work is apparent when Lenton talks a month after the development week for The Destroyed Room, when it feels like everything has changed. The actions by terrorist bombers in Paris and the subsequent retaliations by western forces have created a spectacle which has reverberated around the world to devastating effect. Lenton's thinking behind The Destroyed Room has not escaped the fallout.
“The Daily Mail paid for an image of a woman escaping death,” says Lenton, referring to pictures published in the wake of the terrorist massacre at the Bataclan theatre in Paris. “That made me think about how events like what happened in Paris are conveyed by and through the media, and it took me back to images of children being killed in Dunblane. Since Bataclan, our country has taken the decision to bomb Syria. Meanwhile, there was an incident on the London Underground in which someone took a knife out, but rather than intervene, most people filmed it on their phones.
“This is the territory we're exploring with the show, that comes from a perception of all these things that are happening around us. One of the things the development week did was crystallise ideas about the show, which seems to me to be about how we regard the suffering of others, and how we react to events happening in the world today. In some respects it could be seen as Vanishing Point's most directly political work to date, but it's still abstract.”
A few days later, and things have developed even more. Just a couple of weeks before rehearsals start, and Lenton has drafted a rough forty page script of The Destroyed Room for he and the actors to play with. As it stands, the show may or may not start with people sat around a table talking, but, in Lenton's words, “It will end very differently to how it begins.”
Inbetween, possibly, will be a look at notions of empathy or the lack of it in the face of global atrocities.
“It sounds like a terribly bleak show,” says Lenton, “but there's humour there too, and what it's really about reveals itself gradually. As with all Vanishing Point shows, I hope there's light, shade, humour, abstraction, and most importantly, beauty, and, I hesitate to say it, magic.”
The Destroyed Room, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, February 19-20; Tron Theatre,Glasgow, February 25-March 5; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 9-12; Battersea Arts Centre, London, April 27-May 14.