“I believe in an independent Scotland that will liberate the artists from the mediocrity they are currently drowning in, I believe it’s time to grow up and rise up.”
James Hogg’s cult classic novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a rare treat, a fusion of rich characters, structural sophistication and narrative grace responsible for bewitching readers for generations. The tale of Calvinist Robert Wringham’s decline at the hands of devil doppelganger Gil-Martin is as an appealing depiction of religious and moral fanaticism today as it was when published anonymously in 1824. One of those susceptible to the spell of Hogg’s classic novel and responsible for dominating much of his short artistic career was Paul Bright, an angry, Edinburgh-born director, who staged episodes from the novel around Scotland in the 1980s. In Untitled Productions’ version, Bright’s life around his “Confessions” is unraveled, celebrated and archived in a presentation by George Anton – an actor from the original cast, who peels apart the complex psychological entwining of art and life before our eyes.
While there have been clumsy interpretations of Hogg’s novel, I am convinced by Bright’s claim of the novel as ‘unstageable’ – the merging of characters often falling flat, the narration seeming truer within one’s own head than ever spoken aloud. Rather than theatrical performance, the notion of experience lies at the heart of Bright’s project and it is this Untitled Projects also choose to explore to stunning effect. As director Stuart Laing rightly points out, who wants to come to the theatre to see a book when they can feel one?
Bright’s episodes were set in a variety of locations around Scotland, from declarations of love for the union which sparked a sectarian riot in a Glasgow pub, to a tennis match staged in a car park, raves in country estates and scenes enacted at dawn atop Arthurs seat. As few witnessed these happenings, the chance to see the footage of the productions is intriguing in itself, as is the respect for Bright’s skill at combining controlled spontaneity and meticulous attention to detail.
Untitled projects have archived Bright’s production, tracing the ebbs and flows of the intense relationship between director, text and actor. Bright’s intriguing happenings offered a striking punk aesthetic and humour to a city finding itself as the newly dubbed ‘European City of Culture’. This draws interesting parallels with how art is often attempted to be measured quantifiably, particularly pertinent as Glasgow again pulls up its socks for the Commonwealth games.
Bright is undoubtedly a hero of Scottish Theatre, and this production generously offers many things, from workshop to hoax, from love story to provocation. Questions constantly bubble out of this tightly structured work, shaping a wider narrative regarding how by cherishing theatre as a specific cultural event, we must also compromise on its impermanence. While at times peppered with smug asides and in-jokes, Anton’s storytelling is affectionate and gripping, with his biographical depictions of the madness of life as an actor heartfelt. The footage of those who knew Bright from Katie Mitchell to Giles Havergal also offers a welcome context, joining the dots between Bright and the Scottish Theatre tradition, while never ceasing to ask questions: Is theatre which provokes a riot ethical?
With an exhibition of the artefacts that surrounded the 1980s production, we are witnesses to an event very few experienced. Photographs, the court room sketches from one of Bright’s performances, and various pages of notes and correspondences are available in glass cabinets as museum pieces, each proving the existence of the ‘Confessions’. It is rare to see a production in all its entirety splayed out, documented almost nakedly in front of our eyes. Of particular interest are the reviews and comment pieces of the Episodes, including Bright’s performance at the International Festival’s dreaded ‘Scotland slot’, where critics applied their craft by encouraging him to stop making work, slated his reputation and enjoyed embarassingly endless puns with his name.
Unlike science, art put onstage is too often expected to be complete, rehearsed and flawlessly regurgitated rather than merely an experiment where barriers are constantly shifted and re-imagined. Bright’s work seems highly experimental, chaotic and original, not meant for the ‘lump’ of society, or indeed for ‘critics’, but for those interested in experimenting with what can happen in a space. He offers, like Untitled Projects Confessions, an experience which although one does not easily forget, they perhaps struggle to pin down, the parameters shifting in a dialogue with the you when it was experienced and the you looking back. It left questions fizzing regarding how theatre should be read and the role of the critic: if reviews are merely all that remains, floating in cyberspace once the curtains have closed, it seems vital that they pay heed to the way our engagement with a piece of theatre can shift, its context back then as well as the context now. And perhaps this is Bright’s final confession, that as he is seen disappearing in the last few photos from an instant camera, highland plaid over his shoulder fleeing his disastrous final episode, that as his art begins to crack there is really very little left of himself.