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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Interview: Matthew Lenton

Published in the Scotsman
MATTHEW Lenton is telling me about the new Vanishing Point show, Saturday Night, when he leans over and shouts to a passing actor.

"Lara, est-ce que tu as une cigarette?" he says.

It's not the way he'd ask for a fag back home in Glasgow and, given we're sitting in an outdoor café in Porto, not the language he'd normally use to get one here in Portugal either.

But this is Lenton's pan-European world, in which a show destined for Scotland starts off with dates in Porto, Lisbon and Guimaraes. Here, it is normal for Vanishing Point collaborators such as designer Kai Fischer and actor Sandy Grierson to be joined by performers from Portugal, Belgium and France. It's only because a festival in Italy had its funding cut that Lenton is not also working in Naples this year.

As it happens, Saturday Night is entirely wordless, which means the audience need never know about the cast's multinational origins. The play is a sister piece to the company's CATS-award winning Interiors, which caused a sensation in 2009 and again in 2010. In that show, the action took place through a dining room window, with the audience peering in like voyeurs, imagining what was being said. It was as brilliantly done as it was unusual, conveying powerful emotions through gesture alone. Rather than move on, Lenton felt there was more mileage in the technique yet.

"The desire to do this came from a genuine artistic curiosity," he says. "I was in love with that world, I thought it was beautiful and I wanted to stay in it."

Thus, in Saturday Night, we find ourselves outside a modern-looking house with a voyeuristic view of the bathroom, an old woman's living room and the empty flat into which a young couple are about to move. This time, there is not even a narrator to guide us through the action; we're left to figure it out for ourselves, to guess the meaning of the apes in the garden and the spaceman through the window, to piece together the relationships of lovers, neighbours and friends, as well as of older and younger selves.

"This is much more disparate visually than Interiors," he says. "You have three rooms, there's no narrator's voice and the audience are looking in different places even more than they were in Interiors. It allows the audience to sit back a bit more."

As well as Interiors, the show makes reference to the gothic nightmare of Little Otik, a Czech film adapted by the company in 2009, creating a sense of the natural world being about to encroach on suburban normality. The result is funny, surreal and a little creepy.

To explain why he likes working in this multinational way, Lenton recalls a development week here at the Teatro Nacional São João (TNSJ) earlier in the year.

He got to the end of the week feeling their work had been chaotic and inconclusive. He had no confidence it would add up to anything. That the season posters listed his name alongside theatre gurus Pina Bausch and Peter Brook only made him feel more out of his depth.

On the plane home, he read a short story by Raymond Carver and had an instant vision about how he could adapt if for the stage. He could imagine exactly how he'd rehearse it and put it on. It was tempting to change tack and do Carver instead, but he knew it wouldn't be right. "If I knew I could do it at the beginning, I wouldn't want to do it," he says. "It's scary when you do a show at the National Theatre in Portugal, starting four weeks ago with a set of a house, an idea of what you're going to do, but no script and no structure."

But scariness is what he thrives on. It is this desire to step outside his comfort zone and to expand his horizons that explains how he is now sitting in a square beside one of Portugal's two national theatres with his name in big letters down the front. "My ambitions were always to work internationally," he says. "Part of that is to do with being curious, inquisitive and wanting to have new experiences. It's about never wanting to plateau. The day I feel I'm doing that is the day I'll become a lobster fisherman in Cornwall."

It is a sentiment echoed by Nuno Carinhas, TNSJ's artistic director, who likes to present Portuguese work in a global context. "Theatre is a universal question," he says, when we meet the next day. "It's not just a local reality. And the reaction to Saturday Night has been very positive."

Being in Portugal opens Lenton's eyes to a different way of working, but he sees the collaboration less as a chance to draw on different performing traditions and more as a way of widening the range of people he can work with.

"Actors are actors, wherever they're from," he says. "All the ones I've worked with have been able to communicate with each other as actors; they share the same work ethic and the same desire to get to the bottom of whatever they're trying to do. I haven't noticed much difference between actors from different countries, it's more what they're like as individuals. Flávia from Lisbon or Gabriel from Brussels, they just have different life experiences, just as people, and they can bring those experiences to a process. Those experiences may be more diverse and rich than if I was working with a group of actors who always worked in Scotland."

As for his developing strand of visually led storytelling, he says it chimes with the way he makes sense of the world. There are people who journey through life being guided by language, whether spoken or written, but Lenton finds his brain works differently. "If I ask someone for directions and they tell me, I won't have a clue where to go," he says.

"If they draw a map, then I'll understand it."

Saturday Night is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 8-15 October and on tour until 30 October.
© Mark Fisher 2011
 
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