Graham Eatough's intelligent piece of meta-theatre, How to Act, returns to the stage this year – but in a whole new context
After its success at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, the National Theatre of Scotland's How To Act is making a rapid return to Scottish theatres. Yet in the few months since its last outing, Graham Eatough's play has experienced a transformation of sorts due to circumstances outwith the playwright's control.
Discussing its upcoming tour, Eatough explains: 'I'm not sure the text will change hugely, though there are a few approaches that we might revisit. But it is the context that has changed so much. The massive thing that has happened since the show – something profound and historical, at least in the media – is the #MeToo movement. I think we'll offer a very present frame on this tour through which people can read the show, and it wasn't that show back in August.'
How To Act's power dynamic – reflected in the double meaning of the title, which evokes the setting in a theatre workshop masterclass but also asks serious questions about human behaviour – revolves around a conflict that has a strikingly contemporary relevance. 'The older director and a younger female actor becomes a charged relationship in a way that the play was pointing towards,' Eatough explains. 'But now it is more pointed: it's prescient and an opportunity to explore this debate.'
When the older director attempts to explain his engagement with cultures beyond the west, his optimistic universalism is challenged by the performer. What begins as a discussion about theatrical technique develops into a wider argument about how dominant ideas can fail to see their own privilege. 'The play is still primarily about the potential abuse of power. It's about power relations in a creative sphere, who is in control of the story; it is about storytelling and different ideas of truth: what do stories uncover?'
Appropriately for a director who also lectures at the University of Glasgow, Eatough is never afraid of exploring big ideas on stage: 'I think the theatre is a really great place for thinking,' he says. His reading of Greek tragedy – with its commitment to the working out of conflicting ideas – inspired How To Act to address the tension between competing authorities, as the younger actor comes from a culture that the director appears to appropriate.
'I love that idea that in great tragedy, everyone is right, but the ideas are irreconcilable. How To Act is inspired and influenced by Greek tragedy,' he says, but isn't simply imitating the form. 'It's futile to try to write a contemporary tragedy: How To Act is a riff on tragedy.' The measured seriousness of the tone and the refusal to provide easy answers impressed critics and audiences during its Fringe run at Summerhall, evoking theatre's potential as a public space for the discussion of difficult issues.
Eatough's enthusiasm for theatre's relevance encourages him to see How To Act as offering an opportunity for audiences to reflect on their own values. 'Theatre opens up a space for discussion that is the precursor to developing compassion and the only reason we are interested in ethics to develop compassion, and check our compassion, and be critical of the right things,' he reflects. It is the intensity, however, of the confrontation, stripped down to a meeting between two people who represent radically different ways of thinking, that makes How To Act more than a cerebral exercise.
Unlike the director in the play, Eatough takes a tentative approach to solutions, recognising the multiplicity of perspectives and allowing both sides to defend their positions. He is suitably guarded about revealing too much of the plot, but his synopsis speaks of the play's appeal to a common, if not universal interest. 'It tries to ask a question about the tendency to try to look for a story that is relevant to everyone,' he concludes. 'That's valid, but How To Act opens up some questions around that.'
How To Act, touring Scotland from Tue 6–Fri 23 March
How to Act explores the contemporary realities of personal, cultural and economic exploitation through two individuals drawn together in the world of theatre. Both believe in truth, but each has their own version of it.