The Salon Project
Traverse, Edinburgh, until October 22
Seen at Tramway, Glasgow; touring until October 30
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The Salon Project – the latest piece from deviser, designer and, it seems clear, Francophile Stewart Laing – is the kind of conceptual theatre which draws attention to itself purely by dint of its novelty. Laing (who once transformed part of Glasgow’s Tramway venue into a bird’s eye view of the interwoven lives of the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine) invites us to a 21st-century, Scottish incarnation of the Parisian salons of the 19th-century.
When we arrive at the Traverse (having already furnished Laing’s company, Untitled Projects, with our vital statistics), we are taken into the basement, where a legion of young dressers and make-up artists has us out of our dreary, contemporary garb and into the splendour of period evening wear (courtesy of the costume departments of an array of Scottish theatre and opera companies). When we enter the salon – to find a piano and three splendid gramophone players beneath grand chandeliers – impeccably attired waiters offer us glasses of sparkling wine.
How quickly, in such circumstances, a contemporary Scottish theatre audience adopts the signs of refinement. Acts of gallantry abound (a fellow theatre critic offers a woman his chair), and I, for one, do not utter a single oath all evening (not, my friends will vouch, typical behaviour on my part).
The company’s insistence that we both “remain ourselves” and stay in the 21st-century sits uncomfortably with the costume and setting. Laing knows this, of course. It’s part of his game. However, although, one does, inevitably, adopt something of a role, it is only a tweaking of one’s public self; a fascinating reminder that we all act different roles in different contexts every day.
The gentle subversion of the 19th-century salon extends to the visual art (installations of naked bodies and film) and the subjects raised by the guest speakers (on Wednesday evening, for instance, Dr Norman Gray spoke on the numerology of nuclear power). A conversation between Laing and an actress prompts a series of discussions throughout the room of the historical performance one would most like to have seen.
Whatever one wears, and whatever one discusses, The Salon Project is an undeniable success. It’s great fun, of course, but also – in the ease with which it achieves intellectual discourse and general civility – a powerful counter-weight to the more bovine aspects of our popular culture.
If Laing’s work is a triumph of devised theatre, Saturday Night (a co-production between Scottish theatre company Vanishing Point, Tramway and a trio of Portuguese theatres), sadly, is not. Described, by Vanishing Point, as “the darker, dreamier and more surreal companion piece” to Interiors (their acclaimed, but, to my mind, somewhat over-rated take on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play), the piece has many of the typical shortcomings of devised theatre, and precious few of its advantages.
We watch a young couple move into the ground floor flat of a building which, in Kai Fischer’s startling design, has a glass fourth wall through which (as in Interiors) the audience sees the characters, hears the soundtrack to their daily lives, but cannot hear their voices. The Chaplinesque physical comedy which this enables is charming, and the performances (not least from the ever-excellent Sandy Grierson) are uniformly superb.
However, as metaphorical external forces invade (an astronaut in the living room of an infirm old woman on the first floor; gorillas and a phantom midwife in the young couple’s flat), the piece loses its shape. Not for the first time in recent years is director Matthew Lenton left with a theatre production which looks fabulous, whilst failing either to intrigue or to evoke.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 16, 2011
© Mark Brown