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Back home, straight to the bar

Amy Powell Yeates chats with Grid Iron director Ben Harrison about the homecoming without the domestication

Even the more organised of ticket-bookers may have been disappointed to find that Grid Iron’s run at this year’s Fringe is already entirely sold out. Clearly, their three year absence has created a profound hunger amongst Edinburgh audiences for ‘the kings of site-specific theatre’ to return to their throne. But why have these Festival veterans deprived their audiences of their unique work since then?

“We wanted to branch out, so we spent some time abroad, in Norway, and then worked on our first children’s production,” explains director Ben Harrison. “It’s been a really interesting period of development, but we always love being at The Fringe, and really, it’s what sustains us”.

However, a run at The Fringe is only lucrative if your performance is a success, which Grid Iron’s consistently are. And it is Harrison’s belief that Edinburgh offered them the platform to achieve the multi award-winning theatre they make today. “It has provided us with the opportunity to explore the fundamental relationship between audience and performer. The Bedlam was very important for that too, although most of the theatre we made then was rubbish!” He laughs.

It’s not an epithet I would associate with him or Grid Iron, the formation of which was sparked in 1997 at The Bedlam Theatre. “It’s so important because it’s entirely run by Edinburgh students,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for them and its spirit is much like that of The Fringe itself – there are no limits”. Here he reminisces about an early production involving a churchyard and slightly aggressive handling of the audience. “We aim more at seducing the audience into theatre now, rather than forcing them”, he diplomatically reassures me.

I wonder whether their former approach was due to an eagerness to ensure the audience have an active role. “We do think that generally, in interesting spaces, audiences are more alert”, he agrees. “But we are also interested in the notion of taking theatre into the real world, and the added dimension that reality offers.”

Some might argue that by placing theatre in its literal spatial context, the artistic challenge of having to evoke that location for your audience in a theatre is removed. Suspension of disbelief and all that. “It does remove that challenge, but it adds a new one,” Harrison argues. “What do you do to the new space that you are working in? People already have their own associations with spaces in the real world, so your interventions must be incredibly subtle. You have to accept that the site always wins because it is real”.

“We don’t battle with the site to radically change it – we host it. Take ‘subversive signage’. The sign that states ‘oncology unit’ in a hospital might read… love”, he explains hypothetically. “The aim, as with all the theatre we make, is to get people to stop and think about the situations and surroundings they encounter in everyday life, searching for the meaning in the mundane”.

Although this purpose has remained consistent, a more recent addition to their motivation has been ideological. “I was so disgusted by the binary Bush was attempting to create between the West and Middle East that I felt I had to do something.” Harrison doubts theatre’s single-handed revolutionary ability but opines, “It can definitely be an empowering tool, it can help people find a voice and it can improve communication between societies and cultures. That’s why we were in Jordan and Lebanon – to build a bridge.”

Harrison has a strong desire to go back to those places, perhaps after touring Grid Iron’s Edinburgh show, Barflies. “That was one of the attractions of the bar location, it’s so universal and the subject matter is timeless.” However, he also believes it has a particular relevance today. “It is counter-cultural in that in the current economic climate, people really are starting to question the work ethic; it wouldn’t surprise me if that is a popular subject in Edinburgh this year.” He hesitates, before adding honestly, “We actually came up with the idea when we were walking back from the pub… but it still seemed like a good idea in the morning!”

Charles Bukowski would have encouraged them to pursue their idea without confirmation of the sober morning after. “Barflies is a response to the work of Bukowski, a man who spent his life drunk. He was fascinated by the possibilities of the creative faculty under the influence of alcohol – and he wrote forty-five novels, so it must have worked! The piece is not a condemnation of alcohol though – there is no moral message in there whatsoever”.

“The play is an objective exploration of the effects of drinking alcohol, not medically, but spiritually, emotionally and erotically. It also questions why we do it, where does it take you?” That is what Grid Iron want their audiences to consider, but Harrison has his own theory: “If a grown up started acting like a child, they would seem drunk. It is an opportunity to revert back to an abandoned childhood.” I pause; underneath it all, perhaps Peter Pan is just one big piss-up?

“For Bukowski, a boring, prosaic world transforms into a poetic one when he is drinking”, Harrison continues, and relays a moment when Bukowski drops some chickens that he has bought: “He just thinks it’s beautiful.” I am reminded of the quote referenced in the synopsis of the play: ‘Some people never get crazy. What boring lives they must lead’.

There is certainly nothing boring about Grid Iron, and audiences have learnt to revel in their appetite for the absurd; this year, it won’t just be their hunger that is satiated, but their thirst.

Barflies, Grid Iron, Traverse@The Barony, dates and times vary, £16.00 (£11.00), fpp181.

published: Aug-2009

Amy Powell-Yeates