This year, Clod Ensemble celebrate their 20th anniversary. Across the company’s history, their work has been known to encompass music, movement, poetry, science and visual art, but has consistently been difficult to categorise. More than that, as Paul Clark – co-artistic director of Clod Ensemble – says, “From piece to piece we do something that is nothing like the last piece we did.”
Their latest piece, The Red Chair, is no exception. As I sit down with him and Suzy Willson in the studio theatre at Stratford Circus to talk about the process and inspiration for their latest production, it becomes clear that this constant evolution is a theme not only of their approach to the work, but also of the work itself. Ideas unpack like Russian dolls until we feel as if we’re composing a thesis on body language and genetics, and I’m given much more to think about than just their forthcoming production.
The Red Chair is written and performed by Sarah Cameron, who is a long term associate of the company. She has worked with them since 1999, on both the international tour of Greed in 2003 and more recently, Zero at Sadler’s Wells. The piece is an adaptation of her own novel into what Suzy and Paul describe as an “epic kind of ballad” and an “archetypal fairytale”, and is the first time that they have worked with a text that they have not originated. It is a one woman show that incorporates everything from music, to movement, to Scots dialect and whisky drinking.
True to the company’s nature, its genre is difficult to pin down. Sarah embodies each of the characters to tell the story of a father who gorges on the food that his wife cooks for him until he transforms into the chair he is sitting in, while his neglected daughter looks on. So, could it be classed as storytelling? Suzy decides that it is not – “Genre is weird, isn’t it, because different genres can be very obstructive to different audiences, and I think we’ve found that when we’ve worked with dance we’ve had, “Is this a dance-driven thing? Or is it music? Or is it story?” and with a lot of companies now – Clod is certainly one of them – this kind of inter-disciplinary shape-shifting is hopefully something that lots of different kinds of audiences will enjoy.”
While they are taking off on tour to venues as diverse as village halls and art galleries, it is clear that they are not shy of variety and versatility. I suggest that connecting with such a varied audience will be a challenge for Sarah, but they simply say that the piece will mean different things to different people, with themes that are universally recognised. The piece speaks of family, of reconnecting and disconnecting with the past, of indulgence, complacency, and change. But, it is in the communication of these themes that the magic – quite literally – happens.
Most magical of all is the transformation of the father into the chair, and this theme of metamorphosis is, Suzy says, a common thread through all of their work. It is what drew her to the book in the first place, along with the language that Sarah uses which she describes as “carnivalesque”. For Paul, most delightfully, the story was just far more enjoyable than the rest of the novels from the contemporary canon that he was reading at the time. Their choice to turn it into a piece of theatre was unanimous.
But how have this company whose work has been predominantly in music and movement suddenly found themselves grounded in text? Whereas before, the musical score has been the skeleton upon which to hang the body of their work, for Paul as the composer, this has meant taking a step back from the process. How did he respond to this? How did he feel about handing the structural reigns over to Sarah and Suzy, to taking a more improvisational, supporting role? “It’s completely, really refreshing.”
This is just another example of the metamorphic nature of this company. You get the sense, while talking with these open, insightful people that they are very gracious, and when they approach their work there is no ego involved. When they thought about producing The Red Chair, Suzy says that it wasn’t a case of, “Oh we want to make this story”, it was just, “Oh, wow, Sarah’s written a brilliant book, let’s tell the story because it’s something that we’d like to watch.” They speak from the perspective of the audience, morphing again, this time between spectator and creator.
For Suzy, while she has been working with dancers for the past five years, she says it has been refreshing to return to her roots in Jacques Lecoq – a grounding that her and Sarah share. It is due to this training that they are driven by the idea that everything moves, and language has its own movement dynamic. As Suzy describes of Sarah’s own practice, “It’s unusual that writers have got such a physical vocabulary, or a kind of three dimensional, visceral embodied sense of the world. Because she understands movement so well, and form in space, the way she uses language feels like it’s full of movement, and there’s something three dimensional about it, so we think of it as a sculpture in words.” Trying to describe the movement of language in words is complex, if not simply ironic, and takes me back to the image of Russian dolls. They explain that it has to be seen.
The novel, which will be published by Methuen in time for the show, includes illustrations drawn by Sarah’s own hand. So how does she portray these in the performance? “She’s kind of telling the story, but she also illustrates the story. But she doesn’t draw them on stage, she is the illustrations, if you like.” herein lies another layer of genre – is it the embodiment of a novel? Is it illustration in physical form? This is precisely why Clod Ensemble’s work is so exciting, and why – I feel – they must continue to defy being pigeon-holed.
Suzy shows me a couple of illustrations from the book and they are incredibly unique and beautiful. One of them is of the red chair, whose legs are carved into the shape of a phoenix. Paul tells me that this is a significant motif, and it is clear that it is, on more than one level: not only does the story confront the daughter’s journey to reconcile herself and rise from the ashes of a troublesome upbringing, but it also represents a question about how things are made. We laugh about the habits and quirks we inherit from our parents, genetically or otherwise, and Suzy admits, “I think this as I’m getting older – how much I resemble my parents. And I think in this, even though Queenie is somehow rejecting something about her parents, she also carries them with her, forever, whether they’re alive or dead.”
In terms of Sarah’s own process, she describes the story as a romantic remembrance of her upbringing in Scotland. There is a certain perspective that distance from your childhood home affords, and that undoubtedly most of us can relate to, and it is in capturing that essence of Scotland that Paul’s music is a defining element. But most significantly, she wrote the novel while she was pregnant with her first child. To become a mother is a metamorphosis all of its own, at which point the inevitability of turning into your own mother surely becomes all the more prevalent. And indeed, Paul says, “You can’t run away from these things you inherit.” As much as we want change, and the characters want change, there are certain mainstays that become part of the furniture, as it were. Although you may rise from the ashes, you will only rise as another phoenix.
The Red Chair may not be defined as storytelling per se, but there is no doubt that it is the telling of a story, in the most timeless sense. It is in this vein that the piece will strike at feeling both contemporary and ancient all at once, and Suzy and Paul are confident that the story needs nothing except Sarah in a space for the piece to exist. The experience, as Suzy imagines it, is of the audience sitting around a fire together. “It feels that somehow, hopefully, by the end of it, we are all in an imaginary world and actually most of the theatricality of this piece has disappeared.”
When you put it like that, it’s easy to see how Clod Ensemble can dare to avoid putting a label on their work. “Imagining it as a piece became like – is it a one-woman show? A play? A storytelling thing?” What we decide, in the end, is that it is simply the presence of a compelling performer, and that’s enough of a definition. Nonetheless, Paul says, “But I’m quite happy to not know.”
You and me both, Paul. You and me both.
The Red Chair, written and performed by Sarah Cameron, and produced in association with Fuel is on a national tour from 19th February – 25th April and at Soho Theatre, London, 24th – 28th February 2015