The families in plays together … why the theatre at Edinburgh is all relative


“I hate feeling emotional on stage,” admits 76-year-old Les Johnstone, as he describes his role in Old Boy, an exploration of the love shared between grandfathers and their grandsons. Les is not an actor and his role is to play himself: the production is built around the real relationships of men and boys living in and around Glasgow.

He agreed to take part, he explains, “really, just to back up my grandson” – 12-year-old Kai, who had been encouraged to get involved by his drama teacher. The pair are one of a clutch of real-life relatives appearing together on stage at the Edinburgh fringe next month, in a variety of combinations and artistic contexts. The warm and witty onstage conversation between Les and Kai takes on a poignancy as Les unfolds his family’s history: his mother’s harsh upbringing; his troubled childhood, eased by the love of a caring aunt; raising his sons alone after his wife died, 40 years ago.

“Kai lived with me for a while after his parents split,” explains Les. “He once said to me: ‘You’ll always be there, Papa.’ That’s what I learned myself, growing up – how important it was that you knew you were loved and needed.”

“I’ve learned a lot about my Papa,” says Kai, “like he was in the Merchant Navy.”

Old Boy was first performed in 2017 but Kai says he still gets nervous before the show begins. “After I’m on it’s OK, and it’s easier because I’m with my Papa. Our bit takes 20 minutes. It goes quite quickly.”

Old Boy is co-produced by Platform arts centre in Glasgow and theatre company Glas(s) Performance, which specialises in autobiographical theatre. Co-artistic director Tashi Gore wanted to make a piece about male family relationships. “We’ve always been interested in how voices are heard in Scottish theatre and what happens when you hear voices that aren’t usually heard. Looking at male relationships and the stories we tell about men, they are not always the most emotional or gentle ones.”

Gore tries to encapsulate what happens when a story is told by the person who has lived it: “There’s a rawness and depth, and a quality that changes every night because its a real relationship, so whatever is happening within that relationship impacts [the show].”



‘You can’t escape the relationship’ … Josie Dale-Jones and her mother, Stefanie Mueller, in Unconditional. Photograph: Lidia Crisafulli

The same could be said of all the partnerships between relatives appearing at the fringe this summer, including the adult siblings in Katie and Pip, and a mother and her 15-year-old son who are both obsessed with Sia, in the dance piece The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and His Narcissistic Mother. Of course, the non-professionals in Old Boy bring a different quality to the stage than actors who have made the creative decision to work together. But whether these related professionals are exploring a question in their own relationship or using their connection to illuminate something more universal, their everyday intimacy can’t help but impact their performance.

“We were clear that it was not a therapy room!” insists Stefanie Mueller, who appears with her daughter Josie Dale-Jones in Unconditional. “I wasn’t interested in digging around in our own relationship.” Instead, the pair play a parade of different characters grasping their way towards an equal future against a contemporary backdrop of growing intolerance. But, as Josie says: “It’s not an exploration of mothers and daughters, and it’s not autobiographical, but you can’t escape the relationship.”

She goes on: “The world is in turmoil, and there are growing concerns from both generations, mine and my mum’s. We wonder what a world might look like that a mother would be happy to set her daughter off into.”

Mueller co-founded the company Hoipolloi, which co-produces Unconditional, with Josie’s father, Shon Dale-Jones. Working with her daughter is, says Mueller, “a different thing. So we did some early scratch performances together to see if we could put ourselves on stage and enjoy it. You have to meet fully as equals. You can’t be mother and daughter, otherwise nothing will happen.”

Josie reports minimal clashes in the rehearsal room: “Our disagreements were very small and, perhaps because I grew up around her work, we do have similar tastes. We’re not the kind of family that has big arguments, so it was relatively pain-free.”

Josie says that a family collaboration was something that had always been discussed, but Stephanie says the time had to be right for her daughter, who is 26 and living away from home. “Now she is out of the house and it feels like this has to be respected, that she is her own person. When she was younger she wasn’t ready to work with her mother, it was still embarrassing and not cool to be seen with me. Now she knows who she is and what she wants, and I have to redefine myself outside of being a mother.”

Alex and Kate Donnachie, creators of of 3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle.



‘We’ve laughed a lot – and there were tears’ … Alex and Kate Donnachie, creators of of 3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

For sisters Alexandra and Kate Donnachie, working together on stage has given them a language with which to talk about a painful time in their relationship, when elder sister Alex was diagnosed with anorexia at 19.

Nearly a decade later, 27-year-old Alex is a working actor, while Kate, 24, is finishing her studies at drama school. Their show 3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle has emerged in response to a lack of sibling perspectives on eating disorders. “I came into it thinking, ‘I can’t remember it,’” says Kate, “but when you start talking about it you realise that you did feel those things, and sometimes it does get a bit raw. We have laughed so much but there have been tears.”

It’s imperative that the show remains as playful as their own relationship, Alex insists: “It takes this line of ‘I’ve made a show and Kate, come on, you’re doing this, stand there’ and we want it to keep that rough edge.” The inevitable intimacy of the sisters is kept on stage. “We’re aware of the audience all the way through and are as intimate with them as we are with each other. We hope to meet people with similar stories, because [an eating disorder] isn’t just about that person who is ill.”

At the time when she was ill, “it was like the elephant in the room,” says Alex. “There were no big arguments. If anything we ignored it. We’ve learned a lot about how each of us felt at the time from making the show and maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t found this language to have that conversation in.”



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY