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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sandy Grierson interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday: 18 May 2008

IF THEATRE was a gamblers' game, you'd want to keep your money near Sandy Grierson. The Edinburgh actor has form. It isn't only that he walked away with the gong for best actor in last year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) thanks to his "shape-changing" performance in Communicado's Fergus Lamont, it's that he was subsequently in two shows that have just been nominated for this year's CATS, the winners of which will be announced on June 15.

Published today, the nominations include Vanishing Point's Subway for best use of music, and the Royal Lyceum's The Wizard Of Oz for best show for children. Grierson was in both – in one, playing a young man returning to a dystopian Leith, and in the other, a loveable Tin Man – during a year in which everything seemed to go right for him.

"It was a terrifying year simply because it was jam-packed with things I was delighted with," he says during a rare afternoon off while the lights are focused for Little Otik, his latest show with Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland. "It was a brilliant year."

His output over the past 12 months gives a clear sense of Grierson's range and level of engagement. Not only has he taken on roles as diverse as the socially climbing Fergus Lamont and a tortured Orestes in a one-man Oresteia (standing stock still with his arms in the air for a full 50 minutes), but he has made major creative contributions to the work itself. Subway, for example, began life in a less than sober improvisation involving Grierson and director Matthew Lenton, and by the time a fabulous band of Kosovan musicians had been drafted in, it had become an exuberant tale of social injustice in which Grierson and co-star Rosalind Sydney syncopated their dialogue to the rhythms of the band.

"Subway was very close to my heart," he says about the show in which he played a man searching for his father in a Leith that had been gentrified beyond recognition. "It wasn't autobiographical, but my dad's voice was very present in his wit and banter. It was a show that was close because a whole part of it did come from my and Matt's experience. The musicians were such a great bunch and to perform with them behind you was a joy every time."

Throw in a key role in a Wizard Of Oz that broke all box-office records at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum ("It was great fun," he says) and you have a run of shows that were as successful as they were varied. It's an achievement that reflects the unconventional route he took into theatre in the first place. Grierson is a child of the more exotic fringes of the Edinburgh festival, having been taken in the Nineties by his mother to see Today Is My Birthday by legendary Polish director Tadeusz Kantor and, later, a protégé of Kantor's, Zofia Kalinska, with whom he trained. While his contemporaries went off to drama school, Grierson was soaking up the techniques of Eastern European theatre, something he has continued in his work with David WW Johnstone of the experimental Lazzi Performance Lab.

The eclecticism continues this week with Little Otik, a stage adaptation of the unsettling Czech movie by the acclaimed filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Released in 2000, it's a mesmerising film, part social document, part fairytale, in which a childless woman starts to nurture a tree stump carved to look like a baby. What could have been a sad tale about infertility takes a gothic turn when the tree stump comes to life and unleashes its voracious appetite.

As the story veers into territory somewhere between black comedy and psychological horror, you understand how the surrealist Svankmajer came to be such an influence on Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

It was Vanishing Point's designer Kai Fischer who first had the notion that Little Otik could work on stage, not only because its Prague-born director trained in theatre and puppetry, but also because the film's heightened quality distinguishes it from cinema's everyday realism. What seems theatrical on film is not necessarily theatrical on stage, however, and the challenge for Vanishing Point has been to find a true equivalent in the new medium.

"The difficulty of transferring it to the stage is not the monster," says Grierson, who plays Karel, the tree stump's less-than-willing adopted father. "It's the complexities of the relationships of the other people. In a film you can take so many shortcuts. Things can be quite fleeting. In theatre everything has an entrance and an exit. You have to give characters a reason to be present but you can't overload it because the thrust of it has to be this fable."

A co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, featuring a top cast that includes Pauline Goldsmith, Louise Ludgate and Ann Scott-Jones, Little Otik has an advantage over many film adaptations in that the original is an art-house favourite and not a mainstream hit that everyone knows. Unlike the Royal Lyceum's Wizard Of Oz, which trod a careful line between the familiar and the new, Little Otik does not have to worry about upsetting the purists.

"You have got your Svankmajer fan club, but it'd be impossible to mimic the film," says Grierson. "We're trying not to let it have too much of that Eastern European aesthetic, but equally you're not going to see an entirely different story or different characters."

Like all good fairy stories, Little Otik resonates with people of all ages. Based on a traditional story collected by the 19th-century Bohemian writer and folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben, it plays on adult fears of childhood. The way Svankmajer treats the arrival of the tree stump-cum-baby recalls the nightmare birth in David Lynch's Eraserhead. As the stump grows into a monster, it is another child – a neighbour's daughter – who befriends it and aids its reign of terror. "It's about adult fantasies about childhood, whether it be a fantasy that a child of your own could change your life or that a child is complicit in a series of murders," says Grierson. "The neighbour's child herself feels a maternal instinct towards the creature. It's a fantastic modern myth."

Vanishing Point's collective way of creating theatre, in shows such as Man Cub and Lost Ones, means Grierson is comfortable with the idea that a show can change from night to night. "A lot of the work we do is in preparation for that," he says. "With every show we've done, you could do another show out of the cuts we've made. Everyone is kept on their toes and that can be hellish at times, but it's partly what keeps us going and gives the show a heartbeat."

Little Otik, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Wednesday until May 31 and on tour; Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, Òran Mór, Glasgow, June 15

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