Half Life - interview with Angus Farquhar

Angus Farquhar

Grave messages

Steve Cramer talks to Angus Farquhar of NVA about an event on an ancient rural burial site

It doesn’t take long in conversation with Angus Farquhar to realise that he’s not a great fan of Time Team. The artistic supremo of NVA has, for a good few years now, presided over a succession of multi arts projects, which might sit as comfortably under the banners of music or visual art as under theatre, exploring light, sound, history, ideology and performance in equal measure. His latest project in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, Half Life, sees the preparation of a swathe of the Scottish countryside, Kilmartin Glen, for a unique artistic event.

What attracted Farquhar to the site was its centrality to an ancient civilisation that existed between 4000 and 5000 years ago, in the middle of which is a mighty burial ground. Archaeologists have played a major role in developing the work, but not, Farquhar is at pains to stress, the kind who appear on television and project our current ideological obsessions upon the past. ‘There are these trite big shows on television, but there is a whole strand of radical thinking going on in archaeology at the moment which is every bit as interesting as what’s going on in quantum mechanics,’ Farquhar explains.

Farquhar hopes that this landscape, upon which he’ll intervene with lighting and sound design, as well as theatre, will be as instructive about all civilisations as about this particular one. ‘The belief systems were radically different from what they are today. Looking at the landscape, questioning it, might begin as a theoretical exercise, but it goes on to beginning to unpick what is valuable in our culture, as well as unmasking many beliefs that we have about things like death, just for a start, that perhaps aren’t necessarily of value to us,’ he says. ‘It’s not saying that these past people had better or worse values than us, but this was a highly sophisticated culture, which was doing what you and I do, trying to make sense of the world.’

In the theatre aspect of the event, Farquhar is working with Mark Murphy, formally of Vtol, on a drama that incorporates the multifaceted landscape. ‘The show is this very intense exploration of the character of this archaeologist who’s had an obsession with this landscape for 20 years. His partner Claire and their daughter Tessa are all on the landscape, but each sees it in a very different way. Each also deals with death and loss in their lives. We’re able to look at death now, and look as well at the landscape and how death was dealt with 5000 years ago,’ says Farquhar.

So what do we make of a project which incorporates walking in forests (one can choose as many or few of the 15 odd paths available as one wishes, in any order) with visual art, music and soundscape? ‘The good thing about NVA is that we don’t need a word like “theatre” to explain it,’ he says. ‘We use up to 20 or 30 artists from different disciplines in each project. What’s most interesting about it is people’s sense of ownership of each event – our input comes later. Listening to people describe previous projects is fascinating, because each person brings themselves to each project, making it their own show.’

Kilmartin Glen, Tue 4–Sun 16 Sep

Half Life: Journey into the Neolithic

Venture through the Scottish wilderness to 'The Valley of the Ghosts' for this major new landscape work, the first co-production between renowned innovators NVA and the National Theatre of Scotland, which follows the success of hugely acclaimed project, 'The Storr: Unfolding Landscape' which took place on Skye in 2005.

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