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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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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grid Iron in Stavanger

This article was published in edited form in Scotland on Sunday, 26/10/08

Here's the full version:

Mary Miller used to be the Scotsman's music editor. After that she ran the Northlands Festival in Caithness, then the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. Now she's in charge of Stavanger 2008, a less boisterous companion for Liverpool as one of this year's two European Cities of Culture. It's in that capacity that she invited Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company to Norway to create Tryst, a play performed on a tiny island in the fjord that forms Stavanger's harbour.

"Last night there were real fisticuffs with people trying to get tickets," says the Wick-born director in her city centre office. "It was a very still night and you could hear the heartbeat from that old boat as it approached and there was an amazing feeling of something about to happen."

A couple of hours later, I'm standing on the waterfront at Skagenkaien, one of the world's prettiest harbours, flanked by wood-fronted restaurants and converted warehouses. Dusk is falling and a smattering of people are hanging around on the quayside, uncertain if they're in the right place.

As theatrical entrances go, I've never seen better. True to Miller's description, we hear the steady chug-chug of an unseen ferry boat and catch fragments of a mouthorgan melody carried on the evening air. At the last minute, the Hundvaag 1 swings into view, a 40-seater ferry little bigger than a tug boat. Silhouetted on deck are Grid Iron's director Ben Harrison and producer Judith Doherty. Spotting me on shore Doherty gives a naval salute.

The second great entrance of the night comes when we're on board. We're taking the brief journey over to Engoyhomen, the island home of a boat-building yard dating to the 1830s, when the sound of banging interrupts Conrad Ivitsky Molleson's mouthorgan melodies. The noise is coming from inside one of the benches and, when the passenger stands up, out comes David Ireland, playing a bushy-bearded fisherman with a tale about being left high and dry on a desert island. It's a classic Grid Iron moment when fact and fiction blur.

The third memorable entrance is our own as we disembark beneath the gaze of actor Nicola Harrison, fluttering on a rocky outcrop like a mermaid in blue, as spotlights pick out a row of sails to one side and a newly built boat on the other. On Sunday, as you read this, that pristine boat will be launched, rolled along logs to the water in the traditional manner. Tomorrow the Engoyhomen team will provide another boat-in-progress for the Grid Iron actors to perform in front of.

The boatyard is a pioneering social resource that takes on disaffected teenagers and trains them in the art of boat-building. To have Grid Iron looking at the three-storey structure with fresh eyes, rediscovering rooms that had silted up with junk, relishing the paraphernalia of fishing nets and anchors, has been an inspiration. Director Ketil Thu says he will do all he can to keep in place Becky Minto's beautiful wave installation of glittering rocks hanging from the wooden beams long after the Scottish company has left.

"Site-specific theatre is not a known thing here," says Miller. "In Stavanger, it would never have occurred to people to have something in Engoyhomen. There's an honesty and openness to Grid Iron's work, an approach to collaboration, which is not the way that art is presented here. It's that triangle between sense of place, audience and performer and when that works you have something extraordinary."

Earlier in the afternoon, director Ben Harrison, who has staged shows everywhere from the haunted Mary King's Close to Edinburgh airport, is enthusing about the boatyard's theatrical potential. "It has exceeded expectations," he says. "The more you sit in it, the more you discover. There's so much stuff in there, one of the design challenges has been to rearrange that stuff and to add just enough to make it link with the text."

Tryst is the major event of the North Sea Project. Emphasising the connections between the coastlines of Norway and the UK, this strand of the Stavanger 2008 programme has initiated exchanges between artists, poets and musicians, in many cases leading to further commissions. Still to come are Nina Næsheim and Maritha Nielsen appearing at the Scottish Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh (October 29-31) and an exhibition by Scottish and Norwegian artists opening on November 6 in Stavanger.

"There is a shared history," says Edinburgh curator Angela Wrapson. "By the 1600s, Scotland had chopped down its forests and Scottish sea captains used to sail to the northern part of the Stavanger region to buy timber. John Knox's house in Edinburgh is framed with Norwegian timber."

Back at the boat yard, the audience is following the action up narrow wooden staircases to discover the actors – three from the UK, one from the city's Rogaland Theatre – playing drinking games over a fish tank, sleeping between two sails or turning a fishing net into a wedding veil. Set to the rough acoustic textures of Molleson's score, the play tells a back-to-front story of death, adultery and the mythic power of the sea. Drawing on watery writing by Oscar Wilde, William Golding and Alexander Trocchi, Harrison's script splashes against this evocative building like the tide itself.

"Boats are in the foreground," he says. "We go to the island by boat, it's a place where boats are made and boats are hanging in the spaces. It allows us to compare the beauty of the structure of a boat with the difficult mess of human relationships. It would be lovely to bring it back to Scotland and re-imagine it, because of course Scotland lives by the sea as well."

All those great entrances deserve a great exit. Thus it is, as the applause fades, we return to the Hundvaag 1 and sail back to the certainties of dry land beneath a full Norwegian moon. Doherty salutes once more and the ferry chugs off, like a fading memory, into the dark night.

Tryst, Stavanger, until October 25; Scottish Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, October 24-Nov 2

© Mark Fisher 2008

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