Keith Bruce describes a real wild card opening tomorrow at the Citizens' Theatre and speaks to the woman behind the production
PHOEBE von Held is the sort of thing that no-one would have predicted happening at Glasgow's Citizens'. Which makes her Stalls Studio production of Denis Diderot's Rameau's Nephew the most intriguing of this week's openings for the theatre's new season.
In the more predictable company of Giles Havergal's revival of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep and Jon Pope's latest tilt at the Gothic, his adaptation of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Rameau's Nephew is a real wild card, and would be so in any theatre. Its presence in the programme is an indication both of the openness of a house that is often seen as wilfully self-contained, if not insular, as well as further evidence of the egalitarian nature of an organisation that makes little fuss when household names chose to work there.
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Ms von Held is a graduate student at London's Slade art college, where one of her tutors is the Citz's Philip Prowse. This production is, in effect, part of her course work towards her PhD, the first time anyone is aware of the Gorbals theatre filling such a role. It also arrives as an entirely self-made conception by von Held and her metropolitan peer group.
While quite undramatic - and dauntingly academic - about her task, von Held clearly appreciates the opportunity. She came to London from her native Germany to attend the London Contemporary Dance School and later transferred to the Slade.
Her MA was originally on alienation in the theatre of Brecht but, as her studies progressed, she uncovered earlier influences and in particular the theories of eighteenth-century French philosopher Denis Diderot. Diderot was part of a pan-European coterie of philosophers that included Scotland's David Hume at a time (which we Scots usually refer to as the Enlightenment) when a major shift in human thought was being documented in correspondence across the Continent. A playwright and the author of a seminal work of dramatic theory, The Paradox of Acting, Diderot's Rameau's Nephew was neither intended for the stage, nor for wide circulation. Although familiar to Schiller and translated by Goethe into German, it subsequently disappeared, before being found again at the end of the nineteenth century, 100 years after Diderot's death.
The philosopher had worked on the text for 10 years after his actual meeting with Rameau's nephew and it takes the form of a conversation between ''The Philosopher'' and the nephew, a dialogue that explores many of the ideas in the air at the time and was in some measure a response to a contemporary satire on the role of philosophers, Les Philosophes.
''There are no dramatic situations, but the nephew performs his stories in a gesture towards theatricality,'' says von Held. ''He is a performer, a failed musician, who has never created anything original and acknowledges his mediocrity. He tells stories that come to no point.''
The dynamic is one of an old head confronted by the negativity of a teenager. A reflection of the attempt by Enlightenment philosophers to create a system of ethics that was both atheist and lacked the supremacy of a monarch, it is at least debatable whether the ''dialogue'' is not simply a reflection of a dichotomy in Diderot's own thinking.
References to role-playing and masks link the piece with Diderot's writing on the nature of theatre and von Held has added her own layer of construct to that by casting women in both roles: Alexandra Belcourt, who graduated last year from the Drama Centre in London, and Candida Benson, whom she saw at a Rada graduate showcase. With her partner in the translation of the piece being Slade colleague Nina Pearlman and lighting by Zerlina Hughes, von Held's is an entirely female company.
''You could do the piece as well with men but definitely not one of each,'' she says. ''In the stories that the nephew tells he keeps impersonating femininity, and the question arises: 'What does it mean to be a woman'?''
A workshop production of the first third of the text impressed Prowse sufficiently for him to offer von Held the Citizens' slot. At the time he would have been working on last season's staging - in the same space - of Dans la Solitude by Koltes, a piece with some shared characteristics. Whatever this show turns out like, Rameau's Nephew is certainly an intriguing prospect and a timely reminder that the Citz retains its risk-taking experimental edge.
n Rameau's Nephew opens tomorrow, with a free preview tonight.