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In previous years, Scottish theatre has been represented at the Edinburgh International Festival mostly in premieres of new work. Such support is vital, but programming untested homegrown productions alongside acclaimed foreign ones has sometimes put them at a disadvantage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality has been patchy.
This year, however, EIF director Fergus Linehan, in his second festival, presents a “tried and tested” Scottish play alongside the new ones. Interiors, by Glasgow-based devised theatre company Vanishing Point, was first seen in Edinburgh in 2009, where it received rave reviews before touring widely.
Set in an unnamed northern country, the play takes place over the course of a dinner party on the longest night of the year. Our hosts are Peter (Peter Kelly), a widower, and his granddaughter, Ruby (Ruby Richardson). Mismatched chairs are set round a table laid for eight. Ruby checks her make-up, hitches up her strapless dress, straightens the cutlery, and hitches up her dress again. The guests begin to arrive, greeting each other warmly or warily, the atmosphere shifting with each new addition.
We see all this, but hear none of it. Kai Fischer’s set design is part dollhouse, part fish tank: the action takes place behind soundproof glass. What we hear is a dry commentary from a narrator (Elicia Daly) offstage. Sometimes — at choice moments — we’re told what a character is saying. Sometimes we’re told what they’re thinking, but mostly we go by expressions, gestures and poses.
“Look at them,” says the narrator, “they’re all trying so hard.” It could sound like a criticism, but it’s spoken with tenderness. Matthew Lenton’s production was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1895 play Intérieur, in which a stranger and an old man observe a family gathering from outside the house; here, when the ghostly narrator appears on stage to gaze through the window at the people at the party, we learn that she was once one of them.
We’re not so different, either. When we laugh — at one character, for instance, who tries surreptitiously to sniff his own armpits — we laugh at ourselves, too. We’ve all been there: trying to make small talk, to seem relaxed, to impress. That we can’t hear the characters somehow renders them universal, without reducing them to types. In this dark comedy, the specifics of their conversations don’t matter — it’s their feelings and how they reveal them that make it so compelling.
Interiors is presented alongside a more recent piece by Vanishing Point, The Destroyed Room, seen in London earlier this year. The two plays, the programme points out, are linked by the theme of voyeurism. But it’s a superficial comparison.
The starting point for the show, and its namesake, is photographer Jeff Wall’s “The Destroyed Room” from 1978, which depicts an upturned room, its contents slashed and broken, itself inspired by Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”. What will follow, we’re told at the start, is a “discussion of some of the themes arising from that image”.
What we get is three people in a television studio talking current affairs — mostly terrorism and the refugee crisis — rehashing and regurgitating arguments familiar to the chattering classes. That’s the point, of course: for a middle-class audience to see its prejudices and faulty reasoning reflected back. In each performance one of the actors poses a different question, unknown to the others, to kick-start the discussion. It’s to some degree improvised, and there are quick-fire exchanges between the cast (Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith, Barnaby Power). But in the performance I saw they circled round interesting issues — the aesthetic appeal of destruction, as in Jeff Wall, for instance — without really pursuing them.
The discussion is filmed live and relayed to a large screen, providing revealing close-ups. Things get interesting when the speakers veer into personal territory: the cameras move in closer and the floor pools with water until, finally, they can’t walk without splashing. The ending — in which we see real footage of the things they’ve been discussing — has a visual, visceral power that is lacking elsewhere. But it’s too little, too late.
Both to August 8, eif.co.uk