Little Otik - Sandy Grierson
Little Otik is the darkest, most surreal piece of theatre you’ll see this year. Kirstin Innes talks to actor Sandy Grierson about parenthood and flesh-eating trees
‘It’s a bit of wood!’ ‘That’s my baby!’ ‘It’s a bit of wood!’ ‘My BABY!’ The air in the Citizens’ Theatre is thick with the smell of peat, spread all over the stage where actors Sandy Grierson and Louisa Ludgate are rehearsing what, taken out of context, must seem like a very strange argument. Things are going to get even stranger too: the bit of wood in question is about to come to life and polish off the postman. With eerie prescience, given that the dark secrets parents hide in their cellars are all too uncomfortably topical, Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland have chosen to adapt idiosyncratic Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s grim Eastern European fairytale Little Otik, about an infertile couple, Karl and Bosanna, whose obsessive desire for a baby transmogrifies a tree stump into a flesh-eating monster. Still with us? Good. Because, like the murky, nightmarish stories of the Brothers Grimm, Little Otik has its roots (sorry) in very real, very human hopes and fears.
‘It’s a modern myth, really. Despite the fact that the baby’s made of wood, the story probably traces quite closely the emotional, psychological impact of actually being a parent,’ says Grierson, who also co-adapted the script with Vanishing Point’s director, Matthew Lenton. ‘I’ve never been a dad, but I can understand Karl’s growing realisation that this creature he’s spawned is gradually monopolising his wife’s affections and attention, but also his income and his energy, as he tries to keep this insatiable appetite content. Barring the wooden baby, I don’t really see that the journey of the characters themselves is all that different from the darkest dark dreams of a parent!’
That dread that you’ll wake up one day and scream ‘oh my god, I’ve raised a monster’?
Actually raising that monster, though, seems to have been the least of the challenges for the company.
‘We’re working with Ewan Hunter, who designed and animated the wolves in (early NTS production) The Wolves in the Walls, and – well, he wouldn’t thank me for calling him a puppeteer. Ewan comes from a fine art background, and he’s been collecting roots and branches and brush, and using the natural movement of those elements – tree residue, I suppose! I’ve always thought that Otik could and will come to life brilliantly on stage. We spent a lot of time together trying to work out where the flaws lay in translating the film to the stage.’
It’s certainly not the easiest of transitions. Svankmajer’s original film mixes live action with the auteur’s signature animation, the psychological parables of the narrative conveyed in sequences where Bosanna sees babies being netted in the sea and sold wrapped in newspaper, or where paedophiliac desire is signified by a groping arm growing telescopically from a trouser fly. ‘We’ve started out by creating our own, very different, very strong visual element,’ says Grierson, ‘and the performances, the tone of the whole piece, are settling around that. Matthew likes Svankmajer, but he’s not an aficionado. We’re not doing Little Otik as Svankmajer fans; we’re doing it because of the challenge of telling this complex, brilliant story in a theatrical way.’
Little Otik, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 23–Thu 31 May (previews Wed 21 & Thu 22 May), then touring.