Scotland's leading site-specific theatre company is tackling body fascism in a brave new show
WE'RE in an upstairs room of the Informatics Forum, the open-plan tower block that sits at the heart of the University of Edinburgh. Rolled out on the floor is a large poster featuring a portrait of two impossibly blonde girls. The words above them read, "Fitter, better, more productive". It's a phrase with the plausibility of an election campaign slogan; you can almost hear David Cameron saying it with that sincere look in his eye.
It also has the grim overtones of eugenicist propaganda, the kind of supremacist catchphrase that would have appealed to Joseph Goebbels.
In fact, it is neither of these things, although the resonances are deliberate. Rather, it is a stage prop for a show by site-specific theatre cuckoos Grid Iron, working for the first time in collaboration with Lung Ha's, a company dedicated to actors with learning disabilities. The poster, not so different from images of perfection you can see in any magazine, shows an idealised vision of humanity, one that in these technologically changing times is less and less the stuff of science fiction and ever more a possibility.
It is one of the images that will confront us in Huxley's Lab, a dystopian drama inspired by Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. Writing in 1932, Huxley had a chilling premonition of a society in which test-tube babies have replaced natural reproduction and lab operatives determine each person's status before birth. There is nothing ethically dubious going on in the award-winning Informatics Forum, which opened in 2008, but nonetheless the building felt like a perfect fit.
"It's the atmosphere of the building," says Grid Iron director Ben Harrison, who is trying to create the sense of a sealed world in which the family has been superseded by atomised individuals and childbirth is considered disgusting. "The space supports the reality of the story. If it was done somewhere else, people could dismiss it as science fiction, but there's something about the modernity of this building … its sophistication helps."
From our vantage point, we look down on the central lobby with its spiral staircase that reminds Harrison of a double helix of DNA. Through the many windows, you can see the university staff at work on their computers, catch glimpses of white boards covered with formulae and spot the odd lab coat hanging up. This is a working building and it will remain at work while performances of Huxley's Lab are under way. Today, we are prevented from going in one room because a retirement party is in full swing. For Harrison, who has staged shows in Edinburgh airport and an after-hours branch of Debenhams, it's a minor inconvenience.
In this show, the audience will be given the role of job applicants hoping to be recruited by a futuristic hi-tech company. They will snatch glimpses of a top-secret eugenics lab, before taking the lift to the meeting rooms, at one point dividing into two groups to watch scenes played out in parallel. Eventually they will escape to the rooftop garden, home of the "naturals", poor creatures bred by nature, the old-fashioned way.
"The naturals are naturally born and want to stay natural," says Harrison, secretly hoping for rain to add to the drama. "They are exiles, forced to live on the roof, but we were keen not to make them victims. In fact, they pity us."
At the centre of the performance, which is being presented by the Edinburgh International Science Festival, are four actors from each company, all of whom bring distinct qualities. "There are many things the Lung Ha's actors can do that the Grid Iron actors can't," says Harrison. "There's one actor, Mark Howie, who's so 'in the moment', he's just completely 'on' the whole time he's on stage, it's a complete presence. If you give him a task he does it with a fullness of commitment that is beyond any actor I've come across."
The irony of a play about eugenics being presented by actors with disabilities will not go unnoticed. Co-director Maria Oller expected some members of Lung Ha's would be uncomfortable dealing with such sensitive material. Not only was she proved wrong, but the actors found a new sense of liberation as they took on board the contentious material about the absurd race to find perfection.
"You can feel the freedom for them to be able to say, 'F*** off' to the perfectionism," she says.
"The naturals have mad costuming and more lumps and bumps than they do naturally, so it's very extreme, joyous and carnivalesque," says Harrison.
"And that then made our company members really enjoy having a disability," says Oller. "By making it extra-big, they have the freedom of playing that isn't limited to their physical limitations. It's so powerful."
For Oller's company to engage in site-specific theatre for the first time is less a stretch, she says, than a widening. "I think it is really good for them to experience that theatre can be anywhere," she says. "I was surprised how well they took to the space. They are very excited about it. It's widening our possibilities of ways to work. And for the four core actors working alongside the four Grid Iron actors to be valued as professional actors has helped them take a huge step forward."
Harrison, too, is learning. It's the first time he has worked with actors with disabilities and it's a rare opportunity for him to make use of a large chorus. There are 30 actors, more even than his hit London production of Peter Pan. "I was nervous because I have no training in directing people with disabilities," he says. "But Maria was really helpful. She said, 'Just do theatre with them'. And, of course, she's right. It's like anything; you just get used to people's different strengths and energies."
The play, written by Harrison after a couple of development weeks last year, is not an adaptation of Brave New World, but it takes a similar approach to the scientific knowledge of today. Our pursuit of bodily perfection, combined with the increase in technological know-how, throws up troubling questions. The two directors are prepared for controversy.
"What Huxley calls the 'pneumatic' body is very contemporary," says Harrison. "It's the pornographic body, if you like, inflated, Pamela Anderson-style. The taut body is held up as the ideal. There's no-one in the company who looks like that, but, through brainwashing and repetition, it's what we're all striving for, if you take enough drugs, do the right exercises and repeat the mantra that it's what we will magically become one day.
"It isn't only to do with eugenics; it's to do with perfecting the female and male body more generally, the gym culture. If you're a man you need a ripped stomach, if you're a woman you need to be tall, muscular and filled, which Huxley predicted."
The power of the performance, says Oller, will come in the truthfulness of the message: "We got a lot of information from company members about how it is to be disabled and they have a huge urge to tell."
• Huxley's Lab, Informatics Forum, Edinburgh University, tomorrow until 8 April, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. www.sciencefestival.co.uk
© Mark Fisher 2010
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