Dressed to thrill
Grid Iron artistic director Ben Harrison talks to Steve Cramer about clothes, politics and drama with regard to The Emperor’s New Clothes
‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’ Mark Twain’s wit might make a mockery of a favourite truism, but there’s much to be gleaned from the sentiment he satirises. From Macbeth’s alarmed cry to the witches, ‘Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?’ on to King Lear’s removal of his robes of state on the heath, Western drama has always emphasised the importance of costume, because ours has always been a culture that emphasises that clothing is power. And ours, in fact, is not the only culture to do so.
Grid Iron seem very aware of this. The multiple award-winning company’s latest site specific piece, Yarn, takes place against the backdrop of an abandoned Dundee jute mill, with a sensual and intellectual experience of clothes. ‘I’d always wanted to do a show about clothes, the emotions and the politics associated with them,’ explains director Ben Harrison. ‘A wardrobe could be the record of a life – the clothes we discard could be even more of a record of a life than photography. You leave the imprint of your body on your clothes; it’s a very tangible imprint of a life.’
As ever with Grid Iron, the piece promises some expert weaving, this time of multiple narratives about clothing, from personal stories to bigger political texts. Meanwhile, imagery inspired by Louise Bourgeois’ 30ft spider – which, as Harrison assures me, bears a striking resemblance to an old-style weaving machine – acts as a recurring motif. The wider symbolic significance of certain kinds of clothing will be explored throughout.
‘There are personal stories, but then there are more political texts about the burqa,’ Harrison explains. ‘There are certain items of clothing which are iconic. If an actor walks on the stage in a bikini, or with a wedding dress on, or a burqa, something is already occurring. With things like the burqa we in the West see it simply as a symbol of gender oppression. In a society like Saudi Arabia, where women have to wear them, it is, but in a society like Lebanon, where some women choose to wear them, it isn’t obligatory, it becomes something about how much you choose to show. Now there’s that old erotic convention about what you don’t show being sexy – what you forbid can be revealing.’
The politics of the piece move from the globalised market all the way back to Dundee. ‘We have a seven-year-old boy who’s played by a puppet,’ says Harrison. ‘He makes clothes for other little people here – the kind you get from H&M for £3.90. He has a speech where he talks about his little hands making clothes for people in the west. Of course, this modern kind of exploitation is not a new thing; small children were employed to clean out the machines in the old Dundee industry, because their little hands would fit into them.’
Harrison has worked on the project for some time, exploring ideas from as far back as Grid Iron’s production of Roam a couple of years back. ‘In Roam we improvised the idea of making a burqa from a British flag, and these ideas have stayed with us as a company. But as well as this, there’s everything that you might expect: The Emperor’s New Clothes, Adam and Eve, and so on.’ Dress for the occasion.
Verdant Works, Dundee, Sat 19 Apr–Sat 3 May.