There are various arguments over what exactly constitutes “site-specific” theatre. The broadest definition is that of a move outside the traditional black box: sufficient if a chaste character has to swing a stockinged leg over a pew/rafter/hydraulic turbine to effect a dignified exit, or a chorus have to mass ranks on a plank the size of a shrew’s ossicle. Others are more stringent. Is a play staged inside a Sony television genuinely site-specific if it can be staged equally well in a Samsung? Where might one authentically stage sci-fi opera? Or a Theatre of the Soul? In the most thunderingly anal of conversations site specificity is retroactively applied. Athens Georgia just won’t do for Timon. Troilus ought to fume away under 17 stratified layers of sedimentary Anatolian hillside. Every actor in the Tempest must be half-drowned by the interval, or this thing isn’t going to float. Portia absolutely has to have family in Belmont. No matter if it never even existed.
All of which makes for a critical bikini-waxing session, undertaken by grey normative judges – not so much a debate about art as flower-arranging in the wind. Yet there is a definition that affords some respite. “Site-responsive” theatre still links site with text and staging – a play about haddock in a haddock factory, a play about God in a cryogenics unit, a play about boredom and depression in the Garrick, and so on – but does so in a manner which takes into account what the relationship between site and production might actually say. How the contours of each might relate to producing meaning, rather than rendering some baneful notion of accuracy. If specificity is the pub bore, then responsiveness is the imaginative listener. If one gaze is levelled at the navel and the denuded brush of hairs below, the other is attuned to the horizon.
Glorious‘s glance is more elevated still. A touring musical of sorts, it takes the stories of local residents, and the interpretations of local musicians, and sets them against a framework devised by Rajni Shah and her composer collaborators Ben and Max Ringham (previously Olivier nominated for their work on Piaf). The intention is to draw the concerns and experiences of the particular city and its people, and hold that in tension with experiences of the country at large, and beyond that the globe. To inhale the black cloud of austerity, climate change, globalisation and late-modern pathology, and attempt to respire stars. Shah’s definition of responsiveness is poetic and vaporously expansive. Disregarding “site” and the refracting institution entirely, she has the black box play host to close internal visions, emotional tumult, registers of cultural experience, fragments of city stories, ultimately arriving at the concern of place itself. In short, and for those who like their gardens tidy, Shah operates with what might be called “place-responsiveness”.
And for the most part, this spare and elegant piece achieves what it sets out to do. Shah’s singing, a plosive hum somewhere between Laurie Anderson and Leonard Cohen, carries a dark husky magnetism. The testimonies of the speakers, repeated and edited, become small surface hymns – London neighbourhoods, migrant lives, cook-ups, lost loves, human rights – all make for a collegial blend. The music is ably and at times subtly navigated by the Guildhall student musicians, with a sparseness and dark attention to mood. As the careful action unfolds around her, Shah remains centre-stage – static, monumental, providing the gravity of the extended place. Her costume designed by Lucille Acevedo-Jones is architecturally astonishing. Beginning the show as a sort of slate grey chimney pot from which Shah protrudes like some ethereal Cassandra of the city, her stark shaven head and train in a perfect lily circle, complimentary and strange. The ensemble is gradually added-to, taking on a Chthonic form, with terraced mountainside, a lavalike interior, wire frame cities that spring up around it, and finally a eschatological tidal wave of transparent green.
And if Shah’s centrality here runs the risk of being grandiose or remote, through some sure alchemical touch it manages the precise opposite, securing and dignifying the other contributions. Let’s make no bones about it; this piece could’ve been a disaster. The whole premise invites amateurism. Its triumph is how it not only to accommodates but transforms untrained ordinariness. Collecting not entirely remarkable stories together and framing them in such a way that they become – or more accurately are allowed to be – personal and significant. Disparate lives become part of a momentary unity, in a manner that is touching and true. The sense that we are being treated to these people’s lives is underlined, as they sit and stand to deliver solemn testament, offer flowers and then collect them back up at the end. In this way, along with Shah’s breathy fricative introductions which narrate and modify our expectations of what a night at the theatre might entail, we no longer feel like an audience who is sovereign, whose job it is to sit back and expect entertainment from a piece which must satisfy our expectations. Not altogether comfortably we are asked to become some other species, part guest, part observer, part accidental visitor.
Some of this shades into hokeyness. Lines such as “we heard you might be coming” and learning that they’ve collected some flowers “in case you want to stay” made me long to be that kingly audience member again; kicking a couple of jesters, ordering-in some gold, not putting up with trite blandishments. Fortunately the piece is intelligent enough to get away with its sly repositioning. From the small free programme clasped with a flowered sticker, to the final distribution of daffodils to the audience at the end, the DIY measured intimacies succeed. And any bum notes are easily forgiven in view of the sheer reach and magnitude of Glorious’s definitions.
Read Rajni Shah’s account of making Glorious here on Exeunt.