The Salon Project, Traverse, Edinburgh, review
By Mark Brown
Deep in the bowels of the Traverse Theatre, leading Scottish theatre designer and deviser Stewart Laing is orchestrating a quite extraordinary theatrical experiment. In The Salon Project, we, the audience (who have provided our body measurements to Laing’s company, Untitled Projects, in advance), are greeted by a small army of dressers and make-up artists who transform us into the participants of a late 19th-century Paris salon (a startling array of evening dresses for the ladies, tails for the gents). The salon itself – a simple white, wooden box in a theatre basement – is made resplendent by brightly lit, frosted windows and spectacular period lighting (including two immense chandeliers).
The genius of Laing’s concept is that it consciously collides the heyday of the Parisian intelligentsia with the modern day. As we are prepared to enter the room, we are reassured that we remain in the present and encouraged to “be ourselves”. Mobile phones and cameras are permitted. When a lady, wearing a black, lace veil across her eyes, plays records on three magnificent gramophones, it is introduced, by a stiff butler, as “the DJ set”.
So begins an evening of (contemporary visual and performance) art installations (including a “tableau vivant” of static, young adults, naked save for an electronic gadget), musical recitals and guest speakers (on Wednesday evening, fascinating provocations from Doctors Norman Gray and Susan Stuart, both of Glasgow University, speaking on, respectively ‘Nuclear Power: The Numbers Matter’ and ‘Enkinaesthesia and our Ethiosphere’).
Intriguingly, despite its French origins, Laing’s superb salon feels, somehow, Scottish. A consequence, perhaps, of Scotland’s leading role in The Enlightenment; indeed, it is not long before someone (Dr Stuart, to be precise) invokes the great Scots philosopher David Hume.
Reassuringly – given the latter day Cassandras and their talk of “the death of the art of conversation” – the artistic and intellectual fare on offer stimulates fascinating conversation; for instance, a brief discussion between Laing and an actress friend (both using microphones, for the benefit of the audience) sets us off on the subject of the historical performance one would most have liked to witness. As the wine flows, lubricating the social discourse, only the early exit (the audience begins leaving the salon around 9.30pm) and the costumes (which, participants seem to agree, have a remarkable effect on our behaviour) remind us that this is, in fact, a theatre production.
This review was originally published by the Daily Telegraph on October 13, 2011
© Mark Brown