It was 1990 and I was in Glasgow as they were celebrating their year as European City of Culture. I was lucky enough to be working there for TAG Theatre Company and we were working away on a large scale community production called ‘City’ by the late, great Tom McGrath. 1990 was a seminal year for me in that it introduced me to the work of Peter Brook, Lev Dodin, Robert Lepage and many others and gave me the direction I was to follow for the next 25 years.
But surprisingly the one piece that was to make the most impact on me was in a homeless hostel in Edinburgh. One night I ventured out to The Edinburgh Festival Fringe to see a new theatre project by an organisation called The Grassmarket Project, named after the local Mission Hall.
Written by Jeremy Weller in collaboration with the cast and directed by Jeremy Weller, ‘Glad’ was the very first Grassmarket Project production. In the company’s own words ‘Glad’ presented “an uncompromising description of homelessness”. Based on the experiences of selective members of Edinburgh’s homeless community, the production involved twelve homeless men from the Grassmarket area of the city, who alongside two support actors confronted their audience with personal experiences of boredom, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and social exclusion.
With a real homeless hostel as the venue, ‘Glad’ did not require much of a set. Separated by a wide central isle, two rows of five beds were placed as close to the front row of the audience as possible. The production itself consisted of a combination of two plots: one told the story of a theatre director entering the world of the homeless with the intention of developing a piece of theatre based upon the experiences of and involving these people. Interwoven with this self-reflective aspect of the production was a collage of scenes set outside workshop hours focussing on the relationship between one of the homeless men and his girlfriend, discussions between the director and the hostel warden and everyday scenes inside the dormitory walls.
The audience was seated as close to the stage area as possible and on one level with it
I remember the production most because of a speech from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard the Second’ that one of the alcoholic residents, Terry, recited. It was the most beautiful, touching and powerful rendition of Shakespeare I had ever heard and still is in my memory bank to this day.
‘Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings ….’
Every time I see a production of ‘Richard the Second’ I am transported back to that moment of seeing the man in the picture above speaking those lines. Terence Francis Rigby was a philosopher.
The piece was so successful it went on to play in Islington Union Chapel Hall, London; December 1990, Volksbühne; Berlin; January 1991, The Arches, Glasgow Mayfest; May 1991, Grassmarket Mission Hall, returning to Edinburgh Festival Fringe; August 1991, Schauspiel, Bonn; Bienale Festival of European Theatre; September 1992, City Centre Theatre, Dublin; Theatre Festival; October 1991, Centre Pompidou, Paris; January 1992.
Jeremy Weller went on to make many theatre pieces for The Grassmarket Project. I came across him again when we were both working for The Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen. Always controversial he was making a piece about young people, now living in Denmark, from Palestine and Israel. The young cast acted out the conflict in their country in a very personal way – the anger, frustration and prejudice was so tangible in the auditorium from the stage.
Jeremy has worked around the world. Quoting from the Grassmarket web site:
‘ “Jeremy Weller’s interest in theatre began with his admiration for the work of the Polish writer / director; Tadeusz Kantor. In 1987, while a student at university studying fine Art and philosophy, Jeremy used the excuse of a study tour of Poland to meet his mentor, who made the unprecedented offer of a year’s scholarship. As Jeremy explains: “That year changed my direction irrevocably. In Poland, theatre was a fundamental part of the culture rather than an elitist art form. Poland at this time was under communist rule. Censorship was everywhere, because of this theatre was forced to evolve into a new form in order to defy the censors. The theatre then became a source of hope for the public, because it was a last voice of freedom. Here was the last place that the public could see and hear the truth of their reality. In this, for me, Theatre found it’s role. It was impossible to return to painting after this experience. Painting felt too removed from life. I wanted to take art away from the specialist and give it back to people by producing work based on people’s experiences “.
In 1989 he moved to Edinburgh to concentrate on writing and directing theatre.
“I wanted to make a theatre not tied to politics or art. I wanted to celebrate lives. A lot of art has isolated itself and become too rarefied, so that people have lost interest in it. George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Albert Camus, Vittorio Da Sica, and Roberto Rossellini all use their writings and films to comment on society. I believe in the role of the artist a social commentator. My work is the view from below, rather than a socialist theorist view from above. Everybody can understand art when it is based on human emotions and the conditions in which we live.”
“I want the audience to be moved and believe totally in what is taking place before them, unlike traditional theatre where they are asked to suspend their disbelief. These are real people up there on the stage, telling us stories from their lives. I want my plays to demonstrate that there is creative potential in everyone, but more importantly, I want to engage those who do not normally have access to the Arts. I am not against professional actors as such, but I only use professionals who are able to share their experiences with non-actors. So called ‘ordinary’ people live such amazing lives that is what I want to show on my stage. I also want to use the theatre to explode the myths that surround certain groups in society. Terms such as ‘young offenders’, ‘street kid’, deny the individual totally.”
“Individuals are what they are because of a multitude of cultural, social and family influences. We need to focus on the individual, rather than the social preconceptions we may have about their circumstances. Our work is multi-cultural and universal. It is the spiritual and emotional base of each person, which separates them from, whilst also connects them to, other people. It is this aspect that the work highlights” ‘
Further details of The Grassmarket Project HERE