Stewart Laing: 'It feels unusual to me that the drama explores death first and consequently life; it ends in a very positive place'

Stewart Laing: 'It feels unusual to me that the drama explores death first and consequently life; it ends in a very positive place'

Stewart Laing / credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The director discusses We Are In Time, the latest collaboration between Scottish Ensemble and Untitled Projects, a thought-provoking meditation on life and death

Over the past few years, the Scottish Ensemble have developed an idiosyncratic and creative engagement with the performance of classical compositions, presenting members of the orchestra dancing with their instruments (with Andersson Dance for the Goldberg Variations); meditating on death with Vanishing Point's Matthew Lenton through Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa; and collaborating with visual artist Toby Patterson to re-imagine the concert space. Over their fifty years – beginning as an ensemble dedicated to baroque composition – the SE have evolved into cross-medium adventurers.

Their latest collaboration includes theatrical direction from Stewart Laing, a text from playwright Pamela Carter and a new composition by Valgeir Sigurðsson. 'It started with an approach from the Scottish Ensemble to make a piece of work that would celebrate the group's 50th anniversary season,' explains Laing. 'The Ensemble started out in the late 1960s presenting baroque operas and it felt right that we should create something that involved song.' Having discussed ideas with his own frequent collaborator Pamela Carter, Laing found a subject that grapples with the big themes – of life and death.

'We had both watched the TV police drama The Fall, and in the second season there were a lot of scenes in a critical care unit in a hospital: a lot of the dialogue was specialist medical language reporting the patient's condition,' he continues. 'We loved that this scientific and often opaque language had a strange poetic effect. I think that was a big influence on Pamela's text for We Are In Time.'

Stewart Laing: 'It feels unusual to me that the drama explores death first and consequently life; it ends in a very positive place'

Pamela Carter / credit: Stuart Archibald

We Are In Time is unusual both musically and theatrically, having what Laing calls 'a documentary element but also relatable human stories that involve death and family and loss, and the gift of life.' Laing observes that 'human scientific endeavour that can extend one person's life through the end of another's' provides a narrative drive. The work follows both the death of a transplant donor and the recipient's new lease of life. 'It feels unusual to me that the drama explores death first and consequently life. It ends in a very positive place,' Laing adds.

Composer Valgeir Sigurðsson is known for blending classical composition and electronica – a style that has often featured in the SE's repertoire, and juxtaposes contemporary and more traditional classical approaches. 'Valgeir Sigurðsson was onboard at an early stage,' says Laing. 'He worked with us to shape and define the project. Valgeir is an incredible composer, and he's also a high profile music producer (he's worked with Björk and Sigur Rós, and yes, he's Icelandic). We are working from very sophisticated sound files that Valgeir has produced. We have a real sense of the texture and feel of the music; and in my previous experience working on new classical music projects, this often comes very late in the process when the orchestra arrives.'

Although Laing is best known for his experimental work in Untitled Projects – he has variously taken over the Traverse Theatre and converted it into an intellectual saloon; teamed up with a live band, a diverse company of actors and leaf-cutter ants to remake a 1950s B-movie Them – he has also been a frequent director of opera, including a production of La Boheme for Scottish Opera. However, the members of the Scottish Ensemble do offer a different way of working to the more familiar format of opera.

Stewart Laing: 'It feels unusual to me that the drama explores death first and consequently life; it ends in a very positive place'

Valgeir Sigurðsson / credit: Lilja Birgisdottir

'Scottish Ensemble came to me with the most generous and inspiring invitation,' Laing says, 'to create a new staged work that would both celebrate the origins and history of the ensemble; as well as extend the possibilities of how the musicians of the Ensemble might behave onstage. It is a privilege to be working with this group of world-class musicians and collaborators.

'The Scottish Ensemble is an extraordinary group to make work with. They are virtuoso instrumentalists who have a desire to expand their performance skills in other directions; for instance, they have been exploring their movement skills in recent projects with choreographers and dancers. We are asking them to sing and this is an essential and exciting development in We Are In Time.'

With its investigation into the way that medical science can enhance and extend life at its heart, a new score and text, and, in Laing's dramaturgy, an experiment with the structure of the song-cycle, We Are In Time not only celebrates the Scottish Ensemble's fiftieth birthday but insists on their capacity to innovate and discover new ways of presenting and experiencing orchestral music.

Perth Theatre, Tue 25 & Wed 26 Feb; Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 28 & Sat 29 Feb; Traverse, Edinburgh, Tue 3 & Wed 4 Mar; Eden Court, Inverness, Fri 6 Mar.

We Are In Time

A unique theatre production about a transplanted heart. Prepare for a contemporary piece with music, words and songs.

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